Even in the 21st century, we are not without our warnings about the end of the world – euphemistically referred to as “the apocalypse.” Cults continue to arise predicting the end and even forecasting specific dates as to when it will happen. Movies and TV shows offer fictional recreations of the apocalypse. The atom bomb was supposed to usher in the age of the apocalypse. Climatologists warn that life as we know it will end if certain changes to our behaviors are not enacted. Are fears of the apocalypse a modern phenomenon or do they reach back deep into our collective history?
Apocalyptic notions actually began within Judaism and came to full flower in the 2nd century BCE. The Greco-Roman world generally viewed history in cyclical patterns in keeping with their observations of the rotation of the stars and planets and the repetition of the seasons. Kingdoms rose and fell, life came and went, the sun appeared every morning. Jews of the Biblical age (the Old Testament period) also tended to see history in this way. Their past was marked by repetitive, covenantal milestones in which the Jewish people would at times be faithful to God and be rewarded with blessings, and at other times be disobedient to God and be punished with various calamities. This is sometimes referred to as a Deuteronomistic view of history, named for one of the books of Torah.
But things changed for the Jewish people while they were under the domination of the Greek successor-kings to Alexander the Great. In the 2nd century BCE, the Greek king Antiochus Epiphanes of Antioch, Syria, forbid Jews in Israel from practicing their religion under penalty of torture and even death. In this new situation, whenever faithful Jews tried to be obedient to Torah and to God, they reaped punishment instead of blessing. Only acquiescence to pagan Greek demands resulted in the cessation of punishment. Good was rewarded with misery; evil collusion with blessing. The world view, for these Jews, had been turned upside down.
This upside-down view of the world is at the basis of apocalyptic thinking. How could Jews reconcile the incongruency that resulted from the fact that obedience to God led to punishment? They began to accept the notion that the world was not under the direct control of God but of God’s evil opponents. These forces of evil were envisioned as being led by an anti-God figure, often identified as Satan. Satan’s dark forces were temporarily in charge of planet earth. Their own human minions, the pagans, were acting on behalf of Satan and against the will of God. The world was indeed turned upside down: evil (paganism) was rewarded with power and wealth, goodness (Judaism) with persecution and suffering. How long would God let this happen?