The Dialectical Materialism of Apocalyptic Eschatology

In what may be one of the most quoted passages amongst the works and writings of Karl Marx, Marx writes in his introduction to his Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, that “Religious misery is in one mouth the expression of real misery and in another is a protestation against real misery” (3). “Religion,” Marx continues, “is the moan of the oppressed creature, the sentiment of a heartless world, as it is the spirit of spiritless conditions” (3). “It is,” Marx says, “the opium of the people” (3).

Marx’s description of the religious endeavor, in many ways, also serves as an appropriate description of the functioning of both Eschatology and Apocalyptic literature. Both are imbibing means of giving “expression of real misery,” utilized in giving vivid voice to “the oppressed creature.” The Eschaton and the apocalypticism, as it appears within the narrative and writings of the Kethuvim, serve as what Marx called “the sentiment of a heartless world,” and “the spirit of spiritless conditions.” John Edgar McFayden seems to sympathize with a similar summary suggesting that “the apocalyptic writers derive the future from the past and present, and make it an object of consolatory hope” (273). McFayden goes on to say that “with the apocalyptic writers the future is the brilliant counterpart of the sorrowful present, over which it is to lift them” (273).

A common feature in exilic/post-exilic thought is the revelatory realization of the immense incongruence and inapplicability of the ideas of retributive justice in the everyday workings of the world. Weeping by the waters of Babylon brought with it the all too real and cutting knowledge that the wicked more often than not go unpunished and the righteous all too often are down trodden, oppressed, exploited, and cast asunder. As Maya Angelou once wrote, “The caged bird sings of freedom.” Thus, with their brows bruised by the heels of their oppressors the Hebrew people begin to dream of the future, looking to a time when justice will roll down like a river, when the righteous will be raised to the right hand of God, when, as Marx has written, “the imaginary flowers which adorned the chain” will be plucked, “not that man should wear his fetters denuded of fanciful embellishment, but that he should throw off the chain, and break the living flower” (3). In this way, the apocalyptic/eschatological vision became the “opium of the [Hebrew] people” (3), as it was a way in which to self-medicate, dulling the pain and trauma captivity and oppression.

Yet the purpose apocalyptic vision of the eschatological imagination is twofold. Restating Marx, “Religious misery is in one mouth the expression of real misery and in another is a protestation against real misery” (3). There is not only expression of misery but, also protestation. Perhaps then, when Marx further suggests that “The abolition of religion, as the illusory happiness of the people, is the demand for their real happiness” (3), the demand of Marx most resembles that of the Hebrew apocalyptic literature in that “The demand to abandon the illusions about their condition is a demand to abandon a condition which requires illusions” (3). It is equal parts consolation and critique, as it only truly consoles via its critique of illusory consolation. Thus, continuing this parallelism of a kind of Marxian Dialectical Eschatology, when Marx describes the task of philosophy in the historical realm, he is at once elucidating that of the eschatological, in that “The immediate task of philosophy [/eschatology] when enlisted in the service of history, is to unmask human self-alienation in its unholy shape, now that it has been unmasked in its holy shape” (4).

There is, therefore, something of a paradoxical negation at work within these systems.

[It] includes in its comprehension and affirmative recognition of the existing state of things, at the same time also, the recognition of the negation of that state, of its inevitable breaking up; because it regards every historically developed social form as in fluid movement, and therefore takes into account its transient nature not less than its momentary existence; because it lets nothing impose upon it, and is in its essence critical and revolutionary (Marx, 17).

In this regard I would also suggest that the description of the Eschaton as “the ultimate fate of individuals persons: death, posthumous, heaven, hell, and resurrection” (Harris, 250), does not fully grasp the full expression of that which is eschatological. There is a profound “this-worldliness,” an immanent rather than a simply transcendent functionality available within the eschatological undertaking.  It is not simply talk of “End Things” but it too serves as a critique of the functions of the world, a critique of power, politics, economy, and authority. Perhaps one could say that that which is most purely apocalyptic is the apocalypse that tears away the very fabric of apocalypticism. Likewise, perhaps that which is most truly eschatological is the Eschaton that ruptures and breaks apart the very framework of eschatology. Perhaps, prodding further still, that which is most fully messianic is the Messiah that not only disrupts but, utterly destroys the very structures of messianism.  This is the eschatology of the everyday, which “defies the perverse reading of eschatology as some triumphant End of History where the divine trumps the human” (Kearney, 11).“Thus the criticism of heaven transforms itself into the criticism of earth, the criticism of religion into the criticism of right, and the criticism of theology into the criticism of politics” (Marx, 4).

Harris, Stephen L. Understanding the Bible. 8th ed. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2011. Print.

Kearney, Richard. “Epiphanies of the Everyday: Toward a Micro-Eschatology.” After God: Richard Kearney and the Religious Turn in Continental Philosophy. Ed. John Panteleimon Manoussakis. Bronx: Fordham University Press, 2006. Print.

Marx, Karl. “A Criticism of the Hegelian Philosophy of Right.” Selected Essays. Amazon Digital Services: Public Domain Books, 2006. Kindle Edition.

—. Capital: A Critique of Political Economy (Das Capital) . Amazon Digital Services, 2011. Kindle Edition.

McFayden, John Edgar. Introduction to the Old Testament . Amazon Digital Services: Public Domain Books, 2004. Kindle Edition.


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