“Surely we would be better off if we put an end to our obsession with endings.” – Philosopher John Gray.
We’ve worried about the end from the very beginning. Since Biblical times apocalypticism has been a constant human narrative, providing fearful ideas and images about the ultimate destiny of the world. In recent years, despite the cultural influence of science, it has taken on a whole new impetus and impact.
“Apocalypticism … (has) become a constant and unavoidable presence in everyday life,” say anthropologists Kathleen Steward and Susan Harding. “The New Age and the New World Order permeate the airwaves.”
So it seems. As the calendar approached Dec. 21 – the day when, according to some, the Mayan calendar predicted an end-times upheaval – a lot of people seemed to be suffering apocalypse syndrome.
Earlier this month inmates in a Russian women’s prison experienced such an intense “collective mass psychosis” about the end of the world that the prison warden called in a priest to calm them down. The French government barred access to a mountain in the south of the country to fend off New-Age types who thought an alien spaceship inside provided an escape from the planet’s destruction. Chinese authorities arrested nearly 100 people in a “pre-apocalypse” crackdown on end-of-times rumor mongering.
Even the United States government felt it necessary to calm public jitters about end-of-the-world fears with an official announcement that the Mayan calendar was wrong and assurances there was no comet on a collision course with earth. In Australia, Prime Minister Julia Gillard tried satire to dispel apocalyptic fears. “My dear fellow remaining Australians,” she said in a deadpan appearance on television. “The end of the world is coming. It was Y2K. It was even the carbon price. It turns out that the Mayan calendar is true.”
We might all share the humor if the idea of apocalypse didn’t affect so many. “Unfortunately these rumors have many people frightened, especially children,” a NASA official recently blogged. “NASA has received thousands of letters concerned about the end of the world.”
Perhaps before dismissing this kind of thinking we need to understand it. As political analyst Robert Leonhard explains: “Our world is shaped, influenced, and in some cases governed by age-old prophecies recorded in the sacred literature of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam … It should not surprise us then that all three beliefs contain compelling and controversial visions of how human history will end.”
Notions of apocalypse are rooted in our understanding of history. There are two basic models of history – the cyclic and the linear. History moves either in a circle or in a line.
The cyclical view of history dominates most Eastern religions – Hinduism, Buddhism, Shintoism, for example – and pagan cultures like that of the ancient Greeks. This tradition sees human history as occurring in cycles; there is neither a starting point nor an end point to it. Such a view, as historian Richard Kyle notes, “Does not encourage end-of-the-world predictions.”
A linear view, on the other hand, sees history generally heading in a single ongoing direction. This notion of history, says Kyle, implies that historical events have a specific purpose and an ultimate end point in which that purpose is fulfilled.
The Western mind has been greatly influenced by this linear model of history. Westerners almost invariably perceive worldly events heading in a continuous direction with a particular purpose to be attained. Our modern notion of progress reflects this linear understanding of history. (You have to be heading somewhere to “progress” anywhere.) So, too, does apocalyptic thinking. As Kyle says, “this linear view of history does encourage end-time thinking.” Events in the world are thought to be moving toward some final judgment on humanity, some future Day of Judgment.
Kyle argues that this linear way of thinking about history began in the ancient Near East with the Hebrews and their confrontations with their neighbors – from the Egyptians and the Persians (with the Philistines, Assyrians and Babylonians along the way) to the Greeks and Romans. In effect, Western apocalypticism can be traced to the political history of the Jewish people going back thousands of years.
That history began with God’s promise to Abraham and a small wandering Hebrew tribe around 1,900 B.C. As it says in Genesis: “I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great … and I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonor you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”
Such a promise clearly implies movement into the future and the expectation that at some point that promise will be fulfilled. The result in eschatological terms – that is, ideas of world-endings and what they involve – is that Jews see the purpose of history as the eventual fulfillment of God’s covenant with Abraham, a promise that, according to the Torah, would be fulfilled with the arrival of the Messiah.
Early Christians pretty much adopted this purposive view of history. However, they believed the Messiah had arrived. Jesus Christ had fulfilled God’s covenant with Abraham, and established a new one to be fulfilled with the Second Coming. Drawing on the Jewish prophetic tradition, early Christians thought the Second Coming was imminent.
Islam, too, took over the Jewish idea of history-with-a-purpose, stamping it with Muhammad’s authority in the Qur’an and Hadiths. Again relying on Jewish eschatology, Muslims forecast a golden age in which the Mahdi arrives as the final caliph before Judgment Day. During this waiting period the world will be ruled by Sharia laws.
Leonhard points out that originally, neither the Qur’an nor the Hadiths, the sayings of the prophet, described end-times events, but medieval Islamic clerics borrowed freely from the Torah and the New Testament and interpreted the prophecies in those texts as really being about Muslims. Where Jewish or Christian views clashed with Muslim preferences, the clerics claimed the original had been corrupted by Islam’s enemies.
So how will the world end?
There’s certainly an abundance of apocalyptic scenarios in the Torah, and many Old Testament visions of end times are positive and peaceful – Isaiah, for example. Still, in Genesis, not long after Adam and Eve, you get Noah and the Flood, arguably the proto-typical image of end-times in Western culture. Nor should we forget Sodom and Gomorrah where “the Lord rained … brimstone and fire.” The ancient Hebrew prophets – Jeremiah and Ezekiel, for instance – also warn of dire consequences if the Jews weaken in their faith.
The Dead Sea Scrolls, a collection of 1st century Jewish documents (by a very non-traditional sect) only discovered in 1947, refer to the final confrontation between the Prince of Light and the Angel of Darkness. “The writer of this scroll sees people involved in a struggle of cosmic proportions,” says religion scholar Craig Koester.
The Book of Daniel, composed in the 2nd century B.C. when Judaism was again under assault, is arguably the most apocalyptic book in the Jewish Bible. As he interprets King Nebuchadnezzer’s dream, Danel discloses the kingdom of God and a fantastical vision of the rise and fall of worldly empires. Daniel’s great hero is the Son of Man who frees the Jews from tyranny and is given, as Koester puts it, “everlasting dominion over all peoples.” Daniel also ushers in the “resurrection of the dead and a time of judgment.”
Muslims, too, have their Yawm al-Qiyamah, or Day of Reckoning. According to the Hadiths, the Mahdi, the greatest caliph, will arrive to engage in a cataclysmic conflict that will ultimately free Muslims from the corruption of the world and see all other religions bow to Islam. The Mahdi will even find the original Ark of the Covenant, which will contain evidence to prove Judaism and Christianity are false religions. Jesus will return, too, but only to assist the Mahdi and admit to Christians and Jews that he was wrong and the true faith is Islam. Jesus also kills the Antichrist, the Masih ad-Dajjal, who led so many down the wrong path.
According to the Hadiths, Muslims need to watch for both major and minor signs of Qiyamah. The former includes Christ coming to help the Mahdi. But there are also minor signs to watch for – men wearing effeminate clothing and marrying other men, people not caring if their children are illegitimate, women trying to dominate men through sheer numbers, among others.
Christianity is equally apocalyptic, although, of course, it is Christianity that will win out at the end of time. “If we take Jesus of Nazareth as the starting point for Christianity, Christianity is apocalyptic in its origins,” says biblical scholar Paula Fredriksen. “Apocalypticism is Christianity.”
That argument is reinforced by some of the sayings attributed to Jesus. “This generation shall not pass away before all of these things have come to pass,” He told his disciples. When asked about the signs of the end-times, Jesus refers to war and wickedness and evil, and then makes this promise: “All these things shall be fulfilled in your own time.”
Historian Mervyn Bendle points out that the Apostle Paul’s letters, along with the Book of Matthew in the New Testament, are also deeply apocalyptic. The two most crucial events in the New Testament – Christ’s Crucifixion and Resurrection – occurred at the same time as a series of earthquakes, according to Matthew. Paul demonstrates the influence of apocalyptic attitudes with his descriptions of the great struggle between life and death. And, taken as a whole, the gospels recount Jesus’s announcement of the soon-to-arrive kingdom of God and His plan for the world.
However, the main source of Christianity’s apocalyptic imaginings has been, says Bendle, the last book of the New Testament, the Book of Revelation of St. John the Divine, with its vision of an end-of-days world where good and evil, the forces of God and the forces of Satan, the Lamb and the Beast, engage in a final cosmic battle for the soul of mankind.
According to the Book of Revelation, there will be a time of Tribulation when Satan’s earthly agent – the Antichrist or the Beast who will rule a unified Europe (the European Union, in the view of some) – attempts to assert control over the world. Israel is invaded and Jerusalem occupied. During the years of Tribulation the nations of the world gather for the final apocalyptic war. Of course, Christ has returned and God’s forces eventually triumph, ushering in a new golden age in which Christ would reign for 1,000 years until the final judgment and the end of the world
John’s strange book has had an immense impact on Western consciousness even though it has been downplayed by the Roman Catholic Church and mainstream Protestantism. Early Christians believed Christ’s return and the end of the world was imminent, but by the 5th century A.D., with no Second Coming on the horizon and Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire, the book was being interpreted allegorically. Institutionalization, as the historian Richard Kyle remarks, “put a damper on the fires of apocalypticism.” Revelation, St. Augustine argued, showed the history of the church, not the end-times. The Tribulation was an allegorical description of the conflict of good and evil within the hearts and minds of Christians.
In 431 A.D., the Council of Ephesus adopted Augustine’s views, declaring the time of the Second Coming could not be known and, therefore, Revelation’s notion of salvation referred not to mankind’s future but to what happened to the individual soul after death.
That edict has been disputed ever since. The 12th-century monk Joachim of Fiore had his own revelation about the Book of Revelation. After an epiphany one Easter morning Joachim thought he’d been given the key to the true meaning of Revelation – history is divided into three eras based on the Trinity of the Father, Son and the Holy Spirit. The Old Testament was the era of the Father, while the New Testament was the era of the Son. That must mean, he thought, that a third era, the final Age of the Spirit was approaching.
Events of the time seemed to warrant this claim, and Joachim’s ideas spread throughout Europe. Many in Europe thought that Saladin, the Muslim leader who’d taken Jerusalem from the Crusaders in 1187, was a harbinger of the Antichrist.
“Such ideas turned Europe upside down,” writes Kyle. “Joachim had challenged (the Church’s) the spiritualized interpretation of Revelation. The Antichrist, the millennium, Gog and Magog were no longer spiritualized. They were real people and real events.”
The years between the 12th and the 15th centuries also seemed to reinforce Joachim’s interpretation of history. Apocalypticism ran rampant through Europe after the Mongol invasions in the 13th century and the horrors of the Black Death in the 14th century. Apocalyptic anxieties continued in the 16th and 17th centuries as Europe descended into the wars of religion.
“Europeans believed that they were living in the last and perilous times,” says Kyle. “They saw the events of their time in light of Daniel, Revelation, and even astrological predictions.”
Some weren’t content to wait for the end in peace. In the early 1500s, a priest by the name of Thomas Muentzer thought the visions of Revelation applied to his time. He told peasants that the rich were the evil ones described in the Book of Revelation and called on them to challenge rich landowners and other authorities. The rich didn’t take kindly to anyone trying to redistribute their wealth. They gathered their armies and handily slaughtered the peasants as they marched into battle singing hymns. So ended The Peasants’ Revolt in 1525.
There have been other outbreaks of apocalypticism since the 16th century, but the Reformation and Enlightenment and the new age of science, with its promise of building heaven on earth through technology, undermined the psychological need for divine salvation. As material life improved and famine and disease declined, and a more secular world view took hold, Westerners grew less concerned with apocalypse. That doesn’t mean apocalypticism faded away; it merely took other forms. Karl Marx’s theory of history, with its feudalist, bourgeois and proletariat eras, was essentially a reworking of Joachim de Fiore’s narrative, as well heavily indebted to the Jewish apocalyptic tradition.
So why in our supposedly post-ideological age has apocalypticism returned so strongly? Why despite all the “progress” of modernity – scientific, social, political, moral, etc. – do so many think the world is going to end, at least as we know it? And what might be the consequences of this new Apocalyptic Era?
Those questions will be considered in tomorrow’s concluding essay.