Apocalypses and Terminations
“Who killed the world?” — graphitto in the film, “Mad Max IV”
By Charles Jeanes
End Times and Revealed Truths
It’s pretty obvious why novels and films set in a post-apocalyptic future on earth are popular. We live today with a sense of dread, or at least anxiety. Our planet seems precarious. Climate change is denied by no one who is educated on the issue and unbiased. Economic collapse is practically expected even by people who extol capitalism, though there are far fewer who love capitalism than there were before the 2008 Wall St. meltdown.
Apocalypse is a word from Greek meaning “revealed thing.” Apocalypse is not a synonym for “the end” as popularly imagined. The end-time (Greek, eschaton) is the final period of human history, that time when the planet will no longer support our species, after which no one can predict the fate of Earth. Prophets of the Judeo-Christian tradition have said a lot about the end of humanity, and have had many truths revealed to them by God, if you believe their authority. The end of history, for them, was when God brought his plan to perfect fulfilment.
The Jewish Bible, or Tanakh, has no finish in prophecy of the end time. In it, the last book is Chronicles, and it simply says “let him (us) go up [to Jerusalem].” The Christian Bible has a very different end and leaves the reader with a terrifically vivid impression.
Although the last book of the Christians’ New Testament is alternately called Revelation, or the Apocalypse of St. John (“the Divine”), scholars are in agreement that the author was not, as the Church Fathers believed in the second century CE, the same John who wrote the fourth gospel and was supposedly “the beloved disciple” of Jesus. Without this book of fantastic visions, Christianity would lack its story of the Antichrist, Armageddon the final battle, the Millennium of Peace on earth under Christ’s reign, the Four Beasts of empire, the Great Whore of Babylon, the seven trumpets, Satan’s rebellion against God, with one-third of the angels of heaven in the ranks of the rebels, the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, and many other fabulous images.
Our minds have been thoroughly imprinted by this Christian revelation of the end of history, and its images are easily activated in our collective unconscious. In today’s column, I will sketch an overview of how stories of the end have been prominent in our history since the time of ancient Israelite tribes in the deserts of the Holy Land.
The first end-time was the flood that annihilated all humankind from earth, except for Noah and his family. Last year Hollywood gave us a blockbuster film with Russell Crowe as the man chosen by God to re-establish the human race after God became regretful that he had ever put humans on the planet. It was not a great film, but the mere fact that such a theme is popular entertainment tells us something about our fascination with the termination of we humans.
Israelite scriptures are far from the only ones with a tale of a vast flood in the near East, and the prevalence of such tales in Sumer, Egypt, Greece and Persia, tells historians that a real event such as a killing flood has occurred in the ancient past and made itself felt as legend. No one would argue that the rains killed off our species, but the archeological evidence of a great flood event has been discovered. The more interesting part of the story, for me, is God having second thoughts about his wisdom in creating humans and becoming disgusted with our “evil ways.” That idea – that we are not very good, and do not deserve a future – is not rare.
After Noah comes the Tower of Babel story to explain how humanity was divided into nations and languages (hence “babble”), as God did not like the plan of man to build so high that no rising waters would ever drown us all again. A tower to save us from the next flood seemed like a great idea, although maybe a fleet of arks would have been more practical.
Humans even back then were not going to go quietly without a fight.
The Bible has a swift way of dealing with prophets who cannot foresee the future. The Book of Deuteronomy (Greek, “second law”) says that if a prophecy is false, so was the prophet, and thus one knows his predictions were not authorized by God. Just wait, and time will tell you which prophet had God’s true approval. In the meantime, whom do you believe…?
There are accounts in the Old Testament of many hundreds of prophets, most not named, who never had a book dedicated to them, unlike Samuel, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and Ezra, the greats of the canon. Elijah and Elisha, very great prophets, have no books in their names.
Isaiah and Jeremiah prophesied accurately for the ancient worshippers of YHWH. Assyria wiped out ten tribes of Israel, and Babylon razed Jerusalem and its Temple, as foretold by these men of power. Ezekiel foresaw an incredibly fine new Temple, but even though this vision was never fulfilled, he was not a false prophet, since he predicted that God would restore the tribe of Judah to Jerusalem. However, from that time until 400 years later, the Jews would not have a king. The fall of the house of David, which God had promised would never occur, was permanent after the Babylonian exile. New prophets arose to tell the future of a Davidic king who would be “an anointed one” – a messhach (messiah). First Persians, then Greeks, would rule over the Jews and not allow them to have a king, only a high priest, as leader. It is a nice curiosity of the book of Isaiah that it refers to Cyrus, the Persian king who conquered Babylon and freed the Israelite elite to return to Judea, as a messiah, an anointed one of God.
Daniel and the Maccabean kings of Israel
The Israelites had folklore tales that were never canonized as holy texts, and several were tales of a magical prophet called Daniel, who supposedly lived in the time of the Exile in Babylon. He is a kind of Merlin or Robin Hood, outwitting Israel’s foes. So when someone wanted to ensure a book was revered, that someone attributed the scroll to Daniel, long after the time of Daniel.
Daniel foretold the “desolation of the abomination” and a vision of “The Son of Man” coming in clouds to “the Ancient of Days.” The historical event behind his vision was the great uprising of Israel against a Greek king, Antiochus IV, and that king`s attempt to force Jews to worship Jupiter, and who desecrated the temple by a sacrifice of swine on the altar. He was defeated by the guerrilla armies of Judas Maccabeus, the Hammer, whose brothers and other relatives would establish the new dynasty of kings in Jerusalem. They were eventually dethroned by the Romans and their client Herod the Great, who married a princess in the line of the Maccabean family. With Herod, we enter the era of Jesus of Nazareth.
Books of Enoch
At the time of Herod, there were many wild men prophesying an apocalypse, in the sense of an end. The end was to be a good thing, when finally all the vast powers of the gentile nations would be humbled by God and Israel would ascend to its rightful place as ruler over all other nations and have their king once more over them, as in the days of David. These Messianic predictions were rife among the masses but not liked by the priesthood or by the Pharisees who were the earliest rabbis. When the rabbis decided which texts would be authoritative and inside the canon of holy scripture, most writings after about 200 BCE were rejected, although Daniel (likely written c. 160 BCE) was canonized. The Books of Enoch were not allowed, and they were rich with fantasies of the end of time and a coming Kingdom; with references to Enoch communing with “The Watchers“ and several added bizarre details about Adam and Eve, the serpent and the Garden, these books were just too far-out for the men who decided what was proper for Jews to read as a guide to God`s plan.
Another significant group of writings were the scrolls of the Essene sectaries, known to us today from the Dead Sea Scrolls. Scholars are not in consensus yet about those writings and whether they contain the main doctrines of the Essenes. But the War Scroll is certainly an end-time vision for war between Light and Darkness, Righteousness and the Lie.
Jesus of Nazareth
The true, historical Jesus will never be known in the way we can know about his historical contemporary, Augustus Caesar. Jesus had no biographer or historian to write his life story. It was not an Israelite custom to write history as we know history; that was one of the great inventions of the Greeks, honed by the Romans. We simply know next to nothing about Jesus as a person because our sources are not history, but gospel, documents for God’s purposes.
However, even without historians’ accounts of his life, it is fair to say Jesus did teach about something he called the Kingdom, of God or of Heaven, and left his followers thinking he was the Messiah. No one wrote a gospel about Jesus until 40 years after his death – at least, no gospel that was allowed into the New Testament. We have to piece out the story from these.
Did Jesus predict the end of history and the final elevation of Israel to rule over the gentiles when God would rule humanity directly? We can never know for sure. Did he believe he was Saviour and Redeemer? Not likely, according to scholarship by people not believers in him.
Whether to believe the texts of Mark, Matthew, Luke and John in the gospels, as factual telling of what Jesus taught, is a belief one decides based on reasons not usually rational.
A Christian accepts Jesus was messiah (christos, Greek for anointed) in a mystical fashion, not as a temporal king who defeats Rome at Armageddon; rather, Jesus was the divine conqueror of death and redeemer of humanity for eternal life. Not a Caesar-like ruler, but God himself, had been crucified. This was a grander individual than a mere king like David.
This interpretation of Jesus as Saviour of the souls of his faithful worshippers is the reading of his life by a man who never met Jesus. That man was the Apostle Paul, previously called Saul.
Paul insisted he knew enough about Jesus without having known him in the flesh, as the 12 disciples did, because Jesus the Christ communed directly with Paul and took him up to the “third heaven” for instruction. Paul did not need to have accompanied Jesus nor heard his teaching, for Paul knew by other means that Jesus was Christ, and the teachings of Jesus as a rabbi were not important. Jesus’ brother James “the Just” who headed the new sect of Jesus-followers within Temple Judaism certainly thought that knowing Jesus in his lifetime mattered, and so did Peter. They did not intend the way of Jesus to be taught outside the chosen people, Israel. Their version of Jesus’ teachings, and the meaning of his life, was harmonized with worship of YHWH at his Temple; had James and Peter been the dominant determinants of Jesus’ legacy, there would have been no Christianity, but instead a variant of Judaism.
The New Testament gospels are all written after Paul had won the battle for interpreting Jesus, since James died in 62, Paul in 64, and rabbinic or Pharisee Judaism, had branched away in a new direction. Christianity as theology was founded on the letters of Paul and the four gospels which upheld the view of Jesus as divine Son of God, Saviour, Redeemer, resurrected and sitting at God-the-Father’s right hand.
Paul’s Jesus was an end-times Christ, and Paul wrote quite clearly that he did not expect human history to proceed beyond his own lifetime. The fact that history carried on is the main reason there would be a Church (ecclesia, Assembly). That Church became an empire when the pagan Roman realm collapsed.
History changes the course of the Israelites
One big, horrible fact of history tore the old religion of the Judeans/ YHWH worshippers from all its historic foundations and sent Judaism and Christianity onward into the future: Rome annihilated Israel as a national population, culture, and territorial entity, because of two vast wars by the Jews to liberate their Holy Land from Rome’s empire and the rule of the Caesars.
After 135, Jerusalem ceased to exist, and Jews were forever exiled from its region by Rome. That year marked the end of the second Jewish War with Rome, and the bid by Simon bar Kochba, called The Messiah by some rabbis, to free his people. In 70 AD, Roman armies had eradicated YHWH’s temple and crushed the first revolt, also led by men who called themselves messiahs and kings in David’s line. The end of Israel as a people and the scattering of the old people among all the peoples of the Roman, Persian, and European realms, meant an end to the faith that Jesus, his disciples, his family, and Paul, had known.
Would God end history for his chosen people, and put them above the gentiles? Not yet, was the apparent answer. In the aftermath of the wars, the followers of Jesus made a right-angle turn away from the root of Israelite belief, and declared that Christians, converts to Christ from among all peoples, not just the 12 Tribes of Israel, now inherited the role God once bequeathed only to the people of Abraham and Moses. Christians were “Israel”. There was a New Covenant.
John (whoever this writer was, in secular history) presents a Jesus in his gospel who is in perfect harmony with Paul’s teaching. Jesus is Christ, knowing he is God, eternal, knowing all that would happen to him before it happened, and fulfilling a mission his Father set for him. This Christ is a victor, not a victim. He is The Word, existing from the beginning of all, one with God, saving humanity by his eternal sacrifice for their sins. Paul taught this understanding of Jesus, but we may be properly sceptical that the historical Jesus was truly this person.
As I outlined above, John was wrongly believed to have written the Revelation, and so that book was canonized as the last book of the Christian Bible.
The Middle Ages were a time very ripe for irrational outbursts of millenarianism, of movements of ignorant Christians following various preachers and visionaries, all believing that the end was nigh. The greatest fear came around the year 1,000, but many other times were witness to this craze for the Second Coming of Christ. Social insurrection, of poor against rich, was the usual accompaniment of these end-time hysterias.
There is one book to read on this topic: The Pursuit of the Millennium by Norman Cohn. The greatest literary product of this kind of thinking is probably the collected writing of Joachim of Fiore. The failures of the various predictions never stopped new ones arising. When the Crusaders took over Jerusalem from the Arab Muslims in 1099 AD, history was supposed to end, many believed. History, however, marched on.
The time of the Turkish Muslim empire’s conquests, Luther’s destruction of the unity of one Church, and the Wars of Religion between Roman Catholics and Protestants in Europe, was another era rife with horrid violence. Crazed regimes motivated by the conviction that the end of time was at hand, sprang up in the Czech lands and among German peasants.
Belief was widespread that Christ was coming again to institute his Kingdom on Earth, and the poor would rule over the rich and powerful. All such experimental societies, such as the Anabaptist Kingdom of Munster in the Rhine region, ended in terrible scenes of brutality as the princes of Europe exerted their power over sectaries. (Again, the book by Cohn is excellent on this subject.)
Another product of this fearful age was a book by Thomas More, Utopia. It did not predict the future, but any depiction of a better world than the present order came to be termed a “utopian vision.” Utopian end-time predictions, or positive versions of human futures, have abounded since then. Progressivist writers, Karl Marx foremost, foresaw a bright tomorrow.
There has been no lack of writings about the future that offer both good and bad visions of what would happen to the human race in the twentieth century. Hitler and Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot, tried to make the future conform to theories about race war and class war.
The Star Wars and Star Trek franchises show a future mostly favourable to human ability to survive and thrive in outer space. Mad Max movies take the opposite view.
Ecological nightmare and mass death compete now with visions of humanity making some incredible transformation of our consciousness that will save us and the planet from several looming catastrophes.
Feeling Desperate, Feeling Expectations
The night I write this, I hear Terence McKenna, the psychedelic guru and author, speaking on radio from a workshop he gave in 1994; he is predicting a positive world transformation in 2012. He was aware even back then of the desperation and despair gathering in human hearts as we looked to the future. His prediction did not pan out, yet if his date was wrong, his expectations were quite reasonable.
I have written my own conviction here last column, that we will have history as usual, not some cataclysmic break with our past. I have the same urge to be an optimist as many do, yet my training as an historian makes me obstinate.
McKenna was a scientist, and his projection of the future had scientific hypotheses at its basis.
We are all wonderfully free to believe whatever we like about the future, our own or the entire species’ prospects. Base your favoured view on observed facts, on scientific theory, or on spiritual faith, it matters very little as to outcome.
But it matters a lot which view you hold, for the quality of your life in this present moment. Optimism feels better. Compassion for others feels better. Doing what you can to make a better tomorrow gives your life a quality it will otherwise lack.
Conclusions: Forging the Future from History or from Hope?
If I choose to believe that our future will not depart radically from humanity’s past patterns, because I am an historian and I have seen the repetitive nature of our record, still I hope otherwise. I hope we will not make our future from the fabric of our past, but will weave new materials. I can imagine an improved humanity. I can act as if that were possible.
Hope of unprecedented change, and rational calculation of probabilities, can conflict and still coexist in one mind. That is the condition in which I find myself.