Has It Always Been The End?

“I’m breaking in, shaping up, then checking out on the prison bus/This is it, the apocalypse/Whoa.” -“Radioactive,” by Imagine Dragons, aka the official song of 2013.

I just saved the world from destruction in Diablo III and watched Abbie and Ichabod hold back the Apocalypse on Sleepy Hollow. My husband watched how interpersonal relationships played out in the fraying U.S. of The Walking Dead. In his article “5 Popular Beliefs That Are Holding Humanity Back,” David Wong explained that people tend to think they are fulfilling a prophecy, that about 40 percent of Americans think Jesus will return in the next few decades. (The second link, from the Pew Research Center, further breaks down the numbers: About 58% of white Evangelical Christians think Jesus will return within the next 40 years.)

So I began to wonder: Have people always thought they were living in the End Times?

That the idea is attractive is not difficult to understand. Should a religious figure return, that means that some sort of balance will be restored and that the faithful will enter Paradise. Should one survive a disaster, well, there’s the thrill of survival and the possibility of being a hero. This time, we can finally get it right, and create our own Paradise.

But is this a new obsession? Medieval literature, after all, certainly features heroes and monsters, but on a smaller scale than “saving the world.” Though perhaps it was moot to have specific stories that depicted the End Times; for many medieval Europeans, the next world/the afterlife was very real and would provide an answer to the suffering of this world. Maybe the end of the world is less acute when your own end comes quickly.

There are some stories of panic as the year 1000 approached, though there is some controversy as to just how much panic there was and among whom. (Many peasants, for example, would have been ignorant of the calendar year. Nor were dates standardized, so the New Year occurred at different times in different places, and it might even be a different month in a different country.)

Around 950, by Adso of Montier-en-Der wrote “Treatise on the Antichrist.”  According to Adso, anyone who lives contrary to Jesus’ teachings is an antichrist, and so there have already been and are many Antichrists. Adso goes on to describe what the actual Antichrist will be like, and explains under what conditions will he arrive:

This is why the Apostle Paul says that the Antichrist will not come into the world “unless the defection shall have come first,” that is, unless first all the kingdoms that were formerly subject shall have defected from the Roman Empire. This time has not yet come, because even though we may see the Roman Empire for the most part in ruins, nonetheless, as long as the Kings of the Franks who now possess the Roman Empire by right shall last, the dignity of the Roman Empire will not completely perish because it will endure in its kings. Some of our learned men say that one of the Kings of the Franks will possess anew the Roman Empire. He will be in the last time and will be the greatest and the last of all kings. After he has successfully governed his empire, he will finally come to Jerusalem and will lay aside his scepter and crown on the Mount of Olives. This will be the end and the consummation of the Roman and Christian Empire.

That is, then, the end cannot come about until the Roman Empire completely perishes, and, at least medievally speaking, the Romans lived on through the Franks.  The Franks’s power, though, was beginning to wane at this time.

To close, Adso writes, “No one knows how much time there may be after they shall have completed this penance until the Lord comes to judgment.” He described the end of the world, but did not and could not give a date for it.

In 960, Cartulaire de Saint-Jouin-de-Marnes was more certain: “As the century passes, the end of the world approaches.”  Thanks to events like Halley’s comet, others also took to predicting the end was nigh. Famines, illnesses, and wars also stalked Europe; the First Crusade would be called by the end of the century.

That we see these ideas playing out now isn’t so strange, either: besides the “War on Terror,” the last century has seen many genocides, wars, and disasters.

So has each century. Philosopher Walter Benjamin describes the Angel of History:

There is a painting by Klee called Angelus Novus. An angel is depicted there who looks as though he were about to distance himself from something which he is staring at. His eyes are opened wide, his mouth stands open and his wings are outstretched. The Angel of History must look just so. His face is turned towards the past. Where we see the appearance of a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe, which unceasingly piles rubble on top of rubble and hurls it before his feet. He would like to pause for a moment so fair [verweilen: a reference to Goethe’s Faust], to awaken the dead and to piece together what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise, it has caught itself up in his wings and is so strong that the Angel can no longer close them. The storm drives him irresistibly into the future, to which his back is turned, while the rubble-heap before him grows sky-high. That which we call progress, is this storm.

The past is one long disaster. But apparently, the future is, too, full of Hunger Games, Purges, and The Contenders.  If we have always lived in a state of emergency (or so it seems), it might be natural, then, for people to assume they are living at The End. The struggle we have to plan long-term taken to its ultimate conclusion.

Further, “The World” is bigger than just the U.S. and Western Europe. Do other cultures/religions have these fantasies?

“Eschatology” is the word used to talk about “the end.” Dictionary.com gives this definition:

noun – Theology .

1. any system of doctrines concerning last, or final, matters, as death, the Judgment, the future state, etc.
The dictionary mentions theology specifically, but in our more secular era, I think the term could certainly apply to Sleepy Hollow, The Walking Dead, Supernatural, Fallout, Buffy: The Vampire Slayer, Dragon Age and so on. Oh, there is a secular word, “apocalyptic,” but that necessarily implies great violence. I don’t think The End has to be violent, though violence of some kind seems to be a given. And when speaking of Christianity specifically, the term is “Millenialism.”
In Hinduism (I should add, in some forms of Hinduism; there are many variations and sects), the world progresses through four stages; these stages will then repeat.  Paul Flesher explains, “There are 426,899 years to go [of the current stage]!” Buddhism will see a new Buddha who returns when much of the world has forgotten the teachings of the Dharma. Maitreya Buddha will lead the world to Englightenment. The concept of an “End Time” or even an “end” seems to be a more natural fit for the cosmology of the Abrahamic religions. A religion that seems time as cyclical, such as Hinduism, can’t really have an end. Which isn’t to say there aren’t ideas of some kind of end, but that if my question is: Do all people/cultures think in these terms, of “The End,” the answer is likely no.
But the Western World, tied as it is to Christianity, is tied to the idea of The End.  Indeed, the Wikipedia page for “List of dates predicted for apocalyptic events” largely lists European and American predictions. And this idea has spread with Christianity. Professor Paul Boyer explains:
No, it’s [the idea that the world will end soon] certainly not confined to America. One finds it in parts of Europe, and certainly it’s very pervasive in parts of the world where American fundamentalist missionaries have spread the word, through parts of Latin America, through parts of sub-Saharan Africa.

Boyer goes on to explain that this kind of thinking underpins much of Western philosophy, from Marxism to environmentalism:

A kind of secular apocalyptic sensibility pervades much contemporary writing about our current world. Many books about environmental dangers, whether it be the ozone layer, or global warming, or pollution of the air or water, or a population explosion, are cast in an apocalyptic mold. That is, a crisis is looming. We’re on the verge of some horrendous catastrophe and we must do something. That’s the secular apocalypse, apart from the religious apocalypse, because the religious apocalyptic writers say disaster is looming but there’s not much we can do except see to our own personal salvation. These other writers propose strategies for avoiding the crisis that lies ahead. But they have in common, I think, an apocalyptic sensibility.

I’m not religious, so it’s easy to scoff at the idea of Jesus returning. But I do have apocalyptic visions running through my head when I think about global warming. Environmental and other disasters could indeed be a crisis; we’ve lived through others. But perhaps the rhetoric can be overblown at times because even atheists and agnostics and other non-religious people must still wrestle with a culture of Millenialism.

Christianity, not surprisingly, can trace its eschatology back to Judaism. Capture by the Babylonians required the Jews to rethink the promises God had made. During the Babylonian Captivity, Zoroastrianism, with its central conflict of Good and Evil, influenced Judaism, as did the Hellenism of Alexander the Great. Professor L. Michael White points out:

So First Enoch [written c. 250-200 BCE] gives us some of the most important components of what we think of as later Jewish and Christian apocalyptic tradition. We have God and Satan, good and evil. We have angels. The story of Genesis about the sons of God now have become the angels. In fact in the book of First Enoch, these angels are also called the watchers. They’re the stars in heaven. At least the ones who don’t fall. The others are the demons of hell. And importantly we have a cosmic battle thought of in these very dualistic terms where the forces of God and the forces of Satan will fight for control of the universe. But the stage for this battle, the battleground itself, is earth.

These ideas, then, didn’t just spring from Judaism or any one philosophy, but from a mixture of religions and cultures. In 66-70 CE, the Essene sect prepared to fight the Romans. They see not an end to the world but the end to the current age and the start of a new golden age. As for early Christians,  “[e]ven a full generation after the death of Jesus … they still think that the second coming of Jesus and the arrival of the kingdom would be something that’s just around the corner.”

Later theologians would contain these threads. Augustine insisted the Book of Revelation was symbolic and should not be read as a prophetic text, but Joachim of Fiore, writing in the 12th century, viewed it as a historical text, one that could be taken literally, that signs in the book were not just symbols, but truly signs to interpret and analyze.

When Joachim comes to interpreting the 12th chapter of Revelation, he sees the seven-headed dragon as indicating seven heads of concrete historical persecutors through the course of history, and not just as a general symbol of evil. He identifies the sixth head with Saladin–he [sic] Islamic leader who reconquered the city of Jerusalem from the Crusaders in the year 1187–and sees him as immediately preceding the coming seventh head, who will be the Antichrist, the last and greatest persecutor of the second status of the Church.

Islam has a similar eschatology: three periods, and the final one will lead to ultimate judgment. A leader called the Mahdi will appear and rule the world for some time before the Day of Judgment. The Mahdi will also face a false Mahdi.

So. The Western World has a long history of thinking it’s the End Times. If my original question was “Have people always thought this way?” the answer appears to be yes, at least for someone of a Judeo-Christian background living in Europe or the U.S.

Rationally, I know it’s not really The End. Even if global warming kills us all, life will continue. Yet growing up with these ideas in the background, I can’t help but crank “Radioactive” and think about burning wastelands.

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History. Hindi cinema. Hugging cats.

8 thoughts on “Has It Always Been The End?”

  1. I grew up believing Jesus was coming back like NOW. I’m pretty sure the preachers threw in a good hellfire and brimstone sermon when they got bored. It wasn’t until I was older that I learned that scholars haven’t always interpreted the book of Revelation like the Southern Baptists do and that interpretation only came about in the past 200-250 years. Also, the book of Revelations is an example of a genre of writing in the ancient world?

    Mind blown.

    Good analysis by the way. :)

  2. Personally I think the reason I’m so attracted to apocalypse-scenario stories is a) because they’re essentially fantasy and I will always dig that (the real world is so boring you guys! ) but also b) I like to explore ‘What would society do if….?’ and I guess by extension, ‘What would I do if…?’

    To be honest if there was a zombie apocalypse I would fall at the first hurdle because I really can’t run :)

    I recently read Millennium by Tom Holland and found it to be a pretty interesting non-sensational version of the goings on in Europe around the year 1000. It seems that some scholars
    and bishops thought Jesus and the Antichrist might be heading for the final showdown, particularly as the Roman emperors were acting a bit weird and Europe was a mess politically. But the church’s position was that predicting the end times was trying to guess God’s plan which is not for us mere mortals. I’m no medieval scholar so i can’t vouch for its credentials but it was a good read.

    1. It is a natural “what if” scenario. In terms of media representation, the what if seems to be: What if I lived through the Apocalypse? I’d be a hero, of course!

      In general I actually try to avoid these scenarios because the reality is I would die. The zombies would eat me, I’d get killed on Day 1 of the Hunger Games, etc. I was surprised, then, to see just how much media I consume that uses this kind of what if (which in turn lead to my general question…).

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