O’Leary's Theory of Apocalypticism

O’Leary, Stephen D. (1994). Arguing the Apocalypse: A Theory of Millennial Rhetoric. New York: Oxford University Press.

O’Leary points out “the study of apocalyptic argument leads to the conclusion that its stratagems are endless, and not susceptible to negation through rational criticism.” 221-222). He has constructed a theory of how millennial rhetoric is used to manage concepts of time, evil, and authority (20). Thus the:

“mythic narrative of Apocalypse can be used to justify the existence of evil on a cosmic scale by pointing to the promised restoration of an earthly Kingdom of God, while individual experience of evil is itself [a sign and a] proof…that the cosmic drama of evil is nearing its resolution. (42).

Apocalyptic beliefs that demonize, says O’Leary, come from a literal interpretation of prophecy that sees a physical battle between good and evil that functions on a societal level, along with a specific timetable and geography for how God intervenes in earthly affairs with a final judgment. (6-7, 218-220)

“The problem is not the mythological character of Revelation; rather, it is that any interpretation of the [apocalyptic] myth (whether by skeptics or by dogmatists) that reduces it to literal and factual content inevitably distorts the deliberately metaphorical language of prophecy.” (1994: 220).   O’Leary calls this the tragic interpretation of apocalyptic, and says only a sense of comedic can compete by accepting the irony that God’s judgment of good and evil has already occurred, is occurring even now, and is always about to occur, thus making calendar dates and specific timetables “indefinite and unknowable.” (84)  

This is not a new view. Augustine argued that the signs of the End Times were present throughout history, and thus should not be interpreted as signals. O’Leary divides apocalypticism into the tragic and comedic modes.

  In the tragic periodization of history, calamities appear as part of a predetermined sequence that will culminate in the reign of Antichrist, whose final defeat will be followed by the millennial kingdom. In Augustines's provisionally comic view of history…calamities become episodes, recurrent events that all human communities must face without recourse to an apocalyptic understanding, while the millennial kingdom becomes an obscure allegory of the church in the present age. Augustine explicitly invokes the comic perspective when he cautions readers to be skeptical in evaluating apocalyptic claims…[the] comic interpretation of the Apocalypse thus neutralizes its predictive function. What remains is the exhortation of the saintly life and the aesthetic functioning of the text experienced as allegory (p. 75). 

“While conspiracy strives to provide a spatial self-definition of the true community as set apart from the evils” as seen in the scapegoated “Other,” according to Stephen O’Leary, “apocalypse locates the problem of evil in time and looks forward to its imminent resolution” while warning that “evil must grow in power until the appointed time.”(6)


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