The Apocalypse, and the Wisdom that Comes from Trauma
On the strength of anecdotal evidence, I’m convinced people are now especially interested in apocalyptic themes. Social unrest, fires, climate change, a global pandemic—all of these evoke themes found in apocalyptic texts from numerous traditions. Christianity has its own narrative of what will happen at the end of all things. The variety of interpretations that are offered, though, leaves us to wonder whether people are satisfied with what they find when they look to these texts. The idea of apocalypse intrigues us, but the question of how to draw sustenance from it remains.
If we look at Mark 13, for example, we are stunned by images that would portend disaster, should they actually occur. I propose that one helpful way to look at this chapter is to understand its images as portrayals of the kinds of trauma that sometimes occur at the extreme edges of our existence, and to understand its admonitions as pertinent to moments in which trauma separates us from our usual sources of assurance.
The first image (Mk. 13:1-2) concerns the destruction of the temple. “And Jesus answering said . . . Seest thou these great buildings? there shall not be left one stone upon another, that shall not be thrown down” (v. 1, King James Version). This prospect would be traumatic to the disciples, due to the sheer physical force that would be required to make the temple fall, and also because of what the destruction signifies: the crumbling of their trusted religious institution.
The second describes religious deception and confusion. Jesus warns, “Take heed lest any man deceive you: For many shall come in my name, saying, I am Christ; and shall deceive many” (13:5-6). This conveys an aspect common to trauma: disruption of the sacred narrative—whether it explicitly references God or not—on which someone has structured their life.
The third concerns instability of the global order, “wars and rumors of wars” (13:7). “For nation shall rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom: and there shall be earthquakes in divers places, and there shall be famines and troubles” (v. 8), Christ says. The chapter also describes trials of persecution: “But take heed to yourselves: for they shall deliver you up to councils; and in the synagogues ye shall be beaten: and ye shall be brought before rulers and kings for my sake, for a testimony against them” (v. 10); betrayal by one’s family: “Now the brother shall betray the brother to death, and the father the son; and children shall rise up against their parents, and shall cause them to be put to death” (v. 12); and public shame—“And ye shall be hated of all men for my name’s sake . . . “ (v. 13).
During times of peace, the events of Mark 13 seem fantastical. In times of upheaval, though, we are reminded of how literal their fulfillment can be. Within the last several weeks, my own neighborhood was threatened by a fire that forced the evacuation of tens of thousands of people, and burned nearly 2,500 homes. Christ’s description of the extreme readiness that will be required of his disciples—“And let him that is on the housetop not go down into the house, neither enter therein, to take any thing out of his house” (13:15-16)—played out concretely for people who, moments before, were engaged at work, reading, watching TV, or preparing meals. Within minutes, personal fates were put in the balance and, in some cases, irreversibly altered.
Along with its descriptions of woe, though, Mark 13 introduces assurances that can inform our experience of trauma. Christ tells his disciples, “Take no thought beforehand what ye shall speak, neither do ye premeditate: but whatsoever shall be given you in that hour, that speak ye: for it is not ye that speak, but the Holy Ghost” (13:11), indicating they will not be left alone when they are brought before councils for his sake. Christ promises that, at the point where even the stars of heaven fall from their place in the sky, the angels themselves will intervene to “gather together his elect from the four winds, from the uttermost part of the earth to the uttermost part of heaven” (v. 27).
Beyond providing fodder for our imaginations about end-time catastrophes, Mark 13 conveys a wisdom that can help us prepare for trauma—and about the wisdom that can come from trauma. It seems scandalous to suggest that wisdom can come from trauma, because it defies our association of goodness with states of peace, and bad things with experiences of chaos and disruption. The problem with this customary thinking is that it relegates too much of life to the category of the bad. It embraces a fallacy that only good things come from peace, and only bad things from chaos and disruption. This simplistic view does not fit the fact, evidenced in the lives many, that peace sometimes corresponds with inertia and lifelessness, and trauma can indeed impart wisdom of an inimitable kind.
The wisdom that comes from trauma, towards which apocalyptic texts can point us, is the knowledge that God is present at the extreme edges of our existence—where survival gives way to catastrophe—as much as He is at its peaceful center. We understandably fear the wisdom that comes from trauma because it may be difficult, if not impossible, to integrate with our other states of being. It can also isolate us socially. Those who have not been to the extreme edge along with us may be unprepared to understand what we try to communicate about what we have learned.
None of this intends to normalize trauma, and we do not wish for it for ourselves or others. Apocalyptic literature, though, assures us that God is not absent at the margins of our existence. Scripture identifies this as one place in which God is revealed to us—where we can learn that God, in addition to indwelling us, surrounds us on all sides.
The Very Reverend Dr. Isaac Skidmore is a licensed therapist in Oregon and an adjunct professor in the school of clinical mental health counseling at Southern Oregon University. He is an auxiliary priest at Archangel Gabriel Orthodox Church in Ashland, Oregon. He is the author of Edge of the Abyss: The Usefulness of Antichrist Terminology in the Era of Donald Trump.