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Apocalyptic Prophecy: A Brief Cross-Cultural History – 1

By Isabella Price


What is apocalyptic prophecy? The Greek term apocalypse refers to the end of time and is an idea that has haunted humanity for centuries across cultures. There are Hopi, Mayan, Hindu, Egyptian, Greco-Roman, Zoroastrian, Islamic, Jewish, and Christian versions of the end of the world, to name a few. Jewish prophets such as Daniel foretold an apocalyptic future, using “light vs. dark” imagery and haunting descriptions of the end in the Book of Daniel (a part of the Jewish scriptures). The Dead Sea Scrolls, traditionally ascribed to the Essenes, a Jewish monastic sect that retreated into the wilderness at Qumran to await the end of the world, also describe a final confrontation between the armies of God and demonic forces. These writings make it clear that apocalyptic theology was a potent force in their struggle against Roman oppression.

During the life of Jesus Christ, many individuals were convinced that theywere living at the end of times and that judgment was imminent. John the Baptist promulgated an apocalyptic message proclaiming the advent of the new Kingdom of God: “The ax is already laid at the roots of the trees; therefore every tree that fails to produce good fruit will be cut down and cast into the fire” (Luke 3:9). Even Jesus Christ has been portrayed as “a first-century Jewish apocalyptic prophet of the new millennium” by some contemporary biblical scholars, most prominently Bart Ehrman.

“Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse” (1887) by Viktor Vasnetsof, was inspired by The Revelation of John. – Photo: Wikipedia

“Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse” (1887) by Viktor Vasnetsof, was inspired by The Revelation of John. – Photo: Wikipedia

Drawing from this tradition, the world’s end is described in horrific detail in the most controversial and widely misunderstood book of the New Testament: The Revelation of John. The term “revelation” derives from Latin and means the “unveiling” or “revealing” of truth. In the context of Revelation, this truth relates to events revealed by a supernatural source. An almost obsessive concern with when, how, and why the world will come to an end has been a particularly enduring feature of the Western mind. Throughout Western history, Revelation has served as a platform for all sorts of interpretations and projections, and it has provided grist for the mills of countless doomsday prophets. Indeed, expectations of the end-times are woven into the fabric of Western civilization, as evidenced by the religious iconography of medieval Europe and popular culture of our times.

Currently, many Christians in the United States embrace the notion of an “apocalyptic Christ” because it is future-oriented, proclaiming the second coming of Jesus, and the imminence of the last judgment. For the Christian true believer, The Book of Revelation contains prophecies about the future, most of which are frightening, with passages that amount to bloody revenge fantasies and talk about the annihilation of the enemies of God. These events are portrayed as inevitable precursors to a millennial kingdom of righteous rule.

It is foretold that Jesus Christ will descend from heaven in the guise of a warrior-king, leading an army of resurrected saints and martyrs to victory over the demonic hordes of the Antichrist at the final Battle of Armageddon. Interestingly, the loving-kindness aspects of Christ, so emphasized in the Gospels, are practically non-existent in Revelation, a text abounding with rage, retaliation, and resentment. Further, Revelation is written in an unusually cryptic language replete with riddles, metaphors, and symbols.

Anti-Christ and the Devil, a detail from the fresco“Deeds of the Anti-Christ”(1501) by Luca Signorelli – Photo: Wikipedia

Anti-Christ and the Devil, a detail from the fresco“Deeds of the Anti-Christ”(1501) by Luca Signorelli – Photo: Wikipedia

Islam, and in particular Islamist revivalist movements, share some of these ideas. Much is written about end-times in the Hadith or traditional sayings of the Prophet Muhammad. It is foretold that floods, fires, and sudden death will strike human beings. Rather than studying scripture people will be seeking material wealth, sensual pleasures, and worldly power. The Hadith holds that during these times the Antichrist Al-Dajjal will subject everyone on earth to his rule of force and terror. At the same time, the Mahdi or “Guided One” (the prophesied redeemer of Islam) will make an appearance and, with the help of the returning prophet Jesus Christ, battle the Antichrist. Muslims believe that the Army of God will prevail, and all suffering will come to an end. Righteousness and the worship of true Islamic values will be restored, which will usher in a time of peace and justice.

Adherents of all three Abrahamic religions tend to view the progression of time as linear, marked by a beginning in history (a “starting point,” referred to as the Alpha in Revelation), and moving towards a final and more advanced stage in human history and culture (the Omega). This final stage may be described in either secular or religious terminology. Some Jewish, Christian, and Islamic traditions hold that this will be the culmination of a divine plan for our earth. Pre-modern Christian and Jewish teachings maintained that God created the world close to 6,000 years ago. Even so, many contemporary Jewish and Christian believers accept modern scientific research findings concerning evolution and the geological age of the earth. Notable exceptions include Christian Young-Earth Creationists and other Christian fundamentalists, who maintain that the New Testament can be understood as literal truth. Islamic views of the age of the earth and evolution vary.

Asian Apocalyptic

In contrast to these concepts, Asian wisdom traditions view time and history as subject to a repetitive and continuous process of creation, preservation, and dissolution. In India, time is perceived as cyclical. Hindu cosmology maintains that creation is a continuous process of re-creation in which the universe periodically emerges and dissolves only to be recreated. Creation is not the beginning, and dissolution is not the end. The Hindu concept of time embraces billions and even trillions of years that constitute the yugas, vast cosmic cycles through which the evolutionary process runs.

Rudra-Shiva – Photo: Visions of the End

Rudra-Shiva – Photo: Visions of the End

Understandably then, the Hindu apocalyptic conception focuses on the idea of depletion and renewal. One Hindu narrative tells of the end of a cosmic cycle and the dissolution of the world by Rudra, a destructive manifestation of the Hindu deity Shiva. First a terrifying period of drought and famine will occur during which the earth’s resources are exhausted. Then Rudra-Shiva sets the world ablaze, after which torrential rain and a cataclysmic flood will devastate the earth. From the watery chaos the world will be created anew. In another Hindu narrative the god Vishnu will return at the end of the present Kali age, in his last incarnation as Kalki. Shining like a comet in the sky, Kalki will save humankind from darkness and destruction. He will restore the Dharma, the sacred law of justice.

The Buddhist tradition also offers a Messiah-type figure, a future Buddha who is known as Maitreya. Buddha Maitreya is destined to appear at the end of our present eon. His mission is to restore the sacredness of life and revive the mystical-esoteric teachings of Buddhism.

Zoroastrian apocalyptic prophecy, which introduced the idea of a dualistic battle between good and evil, also had a transformative nature. In this conception, history would come to an end at the last judgment, when all metals and minerals would be melted in a great conflagration. Then a flood of molten metal would cover and purify the earth. At this time, Zoroaster (called Zarathustra by the Greeks) would return as a prophet to assist in the restoration of the world. The idea of transformation characterizes the apocalyptic prophesies of the Pawnee Indians, as well, for whom widespread meteor showers and a darkening of sun and moon are portents of the end. According to their narrative the stars would fall down, and the humans who are left would then rise and become stars themselves.

Mayan Long-count Calendar – Photo: Visions of the End

Mayan Long-count Calendar – Photo: Visions of the End

The Hopi have a fascinating apocalyptic prophecy. In the Hopi conception we are currently living in “a world out of balance.” Their prophecy suggests that the world will “shake” three times but does not elaborate specifically what this “shaking” might entail. The Hopi prophecy goes on to suggest that humanity will reach a pivotal threshold, at which we must choose between a path of ever-increasing self-destruction with greed and hatred as its driving force or change to a path inspired by love, peace, and abundance for all beings that leads to a bright new future.

Similarly, the Mayan Long Count Calendar – viewed by some scholars as a map of the evolution of human consciousness and culture – talks about the end of a major cosmic cycle in 2012. The ending of this cycle opens up a unique opportunity to usher in a new era of evolution and collective spiritual awakening for humanity.

It is unfortunate that popular Western culture has misinterpreted the Mayan prophecies and turned them into doomsday scenarios, as evidenced by the blockbuster movie 2012. The Mayan prophecies do not refer to a “physical end” but rather to the end of the world as we know it. And they invite us to redefine our priorities as we come to realize that with our current lifestyle we are destroying the very habitat that sustains us as a species.

Part 2 of this article will be published in the November TIO.

The end-times envisioned in the Jewish and Christian apocalyptic traditions have some features in common: an ordeal of human suffering at the hands of a satanic oppressor, the arrival of a divine redeemer commonly known as the Messiah or “anointed one,” a final battle between the forces of good and evil, a resurrection of the deceased, a day of judgment, and, finally, the advent of a new era of divine perfection. The new reign has both earthly and celestial dimensions. Many of these features are also found in apocalyptic theory outside the Judeo-Christian traditions.