There are quite a few post-apocalyptic shows out these days. The Last Man on Earth is one example, a television series that is set in 2020, a year after a deadly virus has wiped (almost) everyone out. A handful of people have natural immunity, which the main character, Phil (Will Forte) soon discovers after spray painting billboards across the U.S. with the message “Alive in Tuscon.” It seems to be a lonely life for Phil before he realizes he isn’t really the only person left alive, but he can choose any mansion to live in, drive any car on the empty, open roads, and the grocery stores are abandoned for his taking (only non-perishables are really edible though). There are downsides such as no electricity, no running water, and an end to all of the other modern-day conveniences that an urbanite would be used to, which were, in the past, handled by “someone else.” It would be much better if a farmer or botanist were left behind, but I guess it is supposed to be relatable to most of us.
Watching this show has compelled me to think about other apocalypses in sacred literature, mainly Noah and the global flood. I always have thought it was rather chilling that gods were created to be such harsh punishers of humankind. In the Qur’an, this story is used as one of many examples of the communities that were sent a messenger but disobeyed and so endured the promised wipe-out. It always seemed strange to me that God would be discussed to be so violent when the immediate messages in these literatures were that human beings should be kind, charitable, and moderate with each other.
Yet, could these authors, so compassionately inclined to help people be more ethical people (the Qur’an, for instance, basically tells people to stop being selfish, arrogant, wasteful, and miserly – sounds good to me!) simply be thinking it would quell violence if they said, “Hey, don’t worry about it. God will take care of that. You just worry about being a decent person”? Don’t kill because God will. Emotionally-anchored method of control via fear? Sure. But well-intended.
Secondly, perhaps the authors, at the time of their messages, were distressed and desperate at how human beings seemed to be destroying the earth and each other, and so narrated a fantasy of humanity’s destruction. It is written that the god(s) were annoyed, but really I think the authors were. And perhaps rightfully so.
Do we all have secret fantasies of what it would be like if there were just fewer cars on the road, if the cities were just a little less populated? Fewer humans = fewer damages? I am going to guess that some of us do. That we might/might not be terrible people for entertaining such thoughts is not, in my opinion, the point. Rather, I find more interesting the implications in these ancient and re-emergent desires for a insta-clean world that 1) we feel incredibly helpless and 2) we recognize human beings as the problem. Of course, the third implication, discouraging as it is, is that even if we could save ourselves, (and maybe a few other “good” -or in the modern versions, lucky- people), we are not at all convinced the heroes won’t turn into and re-breed an entire population of villains once again.
Maybe that is why religious writers were compelled to then craft geographies of heaven and hell (or in the Jain, Hindu, and Buddhist traditions, just designate earth as hell in general, i.e. life equates to suffering). But how then are we supposed to honor and care for the earth that we have right now (and most likely the only life we will ever have)? Are we really at the point of no return in terms of healing and repairing the earth that we create fictions of “a new earth” (or plan missions to colonize Mars)? Have we always been at that point? Is that all we have ever been creative and courageous enough to hope for?
I am thankful to The Last Man on Earth and other contemporary literatures for helping me see a very human and quite sad impetus in the ancient God-destroys-humanity stories like Noah and the great deluge. Perhaps, in my mind anyway, I no longer feel as confused or offended by “an angry God.” I feel empathetic with the pissed-off human who created that god, revealing his/her consciousness that human-directed destruction is occurring, yet the reluctance to wish us completely gone without at least one more try. With that, I leave you lines from the ancient Mesopotamian Epic of Gilgamesh:
In those days the world teemed, the people multiplied, the world bellowed like a wild bull, and the great god was aroused by the clamor. Enlil heard the clamor and he said to the gods in council, “The uproar of mankind is intolerable and sleep is no longer possible by reason of the babel.” So the gods agreed to exterminate mankind. Enlil did this, but Ea because of this oath warned me in a dream. He whispered their words to my house of reeds, “Reed-house, reed-house! [. . .] tear down your house and build a boat, abandon possessions and look for life, despise worldly goods and save your soul alive. Tear down your house, I say, and build a boat. These are the measurements . . .
LaChelle Schilling, Ph.D., graduated in 2014 from the Women and Religion program at Claremont Graduate University. She teaches composition from a contemplative pedagogical approach at Oklahoma State University. Currently, she is working on a book project titled Minimalism, Mindfulness, and the Middle Way, incorporating guidance from sacred wisdom literatures. She is also working on certification as a yoga instructor.