Rapture vs. Ragnarök: A Pagan Apocalypse

While the earthquakes of Harold Camping’s apocalypse failed to roll around the globe at precisely 6PM (God has apparently modernized enough to observe human time zones), I spent the day reading The Road to Middle-Earth: How J.R.R. Tolkien Created a New Mythology. I suppose I find modern mythology more appealing when presented as such.

Of course, the myth of the “Rapture at [time] [date] [year]” is not really modern, although it has grown steadily more punctual along with our systems for telling time. The human yearning for an exclusive and meaningful exit is not new. I’ve always felt a mixture of admiration and (I’m ashamed to say) a touch of schadenfreude for Jesus’ first disciples, disappointed in their expectation of His return during their own generation, yet somehow hanging onto their beliefs and building a religion that has long outlasted its original expiration date. Their resilience in the face of dashed expectations set a precedent which has been followed by apocalyptic societies ever since. Which begs the question: what to do after the apocalypse fails to materialize?

Quite unexpectedly, I stumbled across a possible answer in Tolkien’s discussion of Ragnarök, the apocalypse of Norse mythology, which has some interesting points of departure (of course) from the Christian concept of Judgment Day. The answer is both obvious and startling, considering its source.

Ragnarök is the mythical last battle between good and evil, recounted in the 13th century Poetic Edda (“Völuspá” verse 43 onward) and in Snorri’s Prose Edda, Ch. 51). Both eddas paint familiar visions of an apocalypse and the chaotic last years leading up to it: a time of human wars and sinful crime precede natural disasters (both fire and winter), eclipses, and finally a battle with gods and heroes on one side, giants and monsters on the other. This battle results in mutual annihilation and almost total destruction of the world. The stories of Ragnarök do hint at a new world arising from the ashes of the old, but it is hard to be certain whether this glimmer of hope predates Norse pagan contact with Christianity. Regardless, Tolkien’s comments (or rather, Shippey’s summary of them) deal with Ragnarök itself, not with any hope of surviving it.

Shippey summarizes Tolkien’s commentary on Ragnarök as follows:

A major goal of The Lord of The Rings was to dramatise that ‘theory of courage’ which Tolkien had said in his British Academy lecture was the ‘great contribution’ to humanity of the old literature of the North. The central pillar of that theory was Ragnarök—the day when gods and men would fight evil and the giants, and inevitably be defeated. The right side remains right even if it has no ultimate hope at all. In a sense this Northern mythology asks more of men, even makes more of them, than does Christianity, for it offers them no heaven, no salvation, no reward for virtue except the sombre satisfaction of having done what is right. (The Road to Middle-Earth, p. 156)

I often run into the assertion that Christianity contains a set of moral guidelines without which non-Christians (and atheists) can have no ethics. Yet Tolkien, a good Catholic, devoted his life to studying pre-Christian literature and mythology, and arguably wrote a new pre-Christian mythology in The Lord of the Rings. He was grasping at certain older truths which (he said) were actually easier to convey in this fashion (Lettersp. 147). It appears that one of these truths was the startling idea that humanity could live ethically, even without knowledge of the Christian God. As a Catholic, he would never argue that one could be saved by works alone, but simply that salvation was not the sole reason to do the right thing.

The concept of Ragnarök—or at least Tolkien’s interpretation of it—is nevertheless a grim one: good souls battle for the sake of doing good, even when there is no hope of victory. One who had fought in the Battle of the Somme could certainly relate to this sort of pagan courage, “the very brink, where hope and despair are akin.” (“The Last Debate”, Return of the King) This is a code of ethics grounded on the principle of no Rapture: or at least, no guarantee that any one person will live to see it.

I am struck by the contrast between Tolkien’s “theory of courage” and the guiding principle of many Christian apocalyptic cults. For them, believers will be saved by the right beliefs, not by courage; courage is irrelevant when one is guaranteed victory. “Us versus them” is not a struggle between good and evil, fought to the last breath. Instead, “us” means believers,  while “them” is everyone else: including friends, relatives, or people who simply have not heard the message. Ragnarök will only happen to those “left behind”, who are regarded with pity (at best) or disdain. (The feeling is often mutual.)

Belief in the next world often leads to disregard for this one. Some of Harold Camping’s followers maxed out credit cards, quit jobs and abandoned worldly responsibilities in the weeks or months leading up to their expected Rapture. Others, more charitable, donated much of their savings to the billboard campaign and/or endured public ridicule to spread the word to as many people as possible. Critics harped on how much charity work could have been done with all that money and manpower, but for these believers, such work is futile: the next world is the only one that matters.

That being so, what does an apocalyptic do on the day after an apocalypse fails to materialize?  Probably revise one’s appointment calendar and stick doggedly to the “belief not works” and “heaven not earth” side of the equation. But if there are any lessons to be learned from a Rapture postponed, it might be the ones Tolkien found in the myth of Ragnarök: the challenge of doing “good [merely] for goodness’ sake,” and the possibility that this world, too, is worth fighting for.


Recommended (Online) Reading:

Apocalypse Now: Why Believers Will Grow Stronger If the World Doesn’t End” by Maia Szalavitz

“The Millennium Is Here Again: Is It Panic Time?” by Jon Paulien

Books Referenced in This Post:


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