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?
Jews could never assume that the forces of evil were an equal match against the power of God. In their monotheistic view, God reigned supreme even if, in this moment, the forces of evil thrived unchecked. Various theories were put forth to account for why God had temporarily abdicated his royal rule to such evil powers. Regardless of the reason, God would, in their view, eventually re-establish God’s authority over all of creation, permanently ending the rule of the evil forces. For them would come judgment and, ultimately, annihilation. This end-time judgment would convict the human servants of Satan as well (the pagans). Righteous Jews, loyal to God, would be rewarded in the afterlife. The world would be set right-side-up again.
These apocalyptic views lasted beyond the rule of the Greeks and continued into the succeeding Roman period of Israel’s oppression. The time of Jesus was rife with apocalypticism. Not every Jew subscribed to the apocalyptic movement, but many did and many apocalyptic leaders rose out of the suffering of the Jewish people. The first example to be mentioned in the New Testament is John the Baptist.
John was an apocalyptic preacher of great renown. His fiery pronouncements of doom hit a nerve with many Jews of his day including Jesus. According to the gospels, John announced that “the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Mat. 3:2). In other words, it was imminent. The end of the world-as-they-knew-it was about to take place. John warned people to “prepare the way of the Lord” (Mat. 3:3). How? By ensuring that when the end occurred, Jews would be found to be righteous having atoned for their sins by purifying themselves. John offered at least a symbolic washing, a baptism, that may or may not have had the intended effect of atoning for sin. Warnings abounded. John admitted that “even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire” (Mat. 3:10). Clearly, this warning was for those whose allegiance was not to God; annihilation awaits those in league with Satan: “the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire” (Mat. 3:12).
Along with these apocalyptic utterances, John also apparently predicted the arrival of someone special who would inaugurate this world-correcting process. He announced the coming of one greater than he who would “baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire” (Mat. 3:11). Scholars remain uncertain if John actually meant to indicate that this person was Jesus but later Christians interpreted John this way. One thing seems certain: Jesus carried forward John’s message.
According to the Gospel of Mark, the first words Jesus proclaimed were nearly identical to John’s: “The time if fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel” (Mark 1:15). So much in the New Testament gospels attests to an urgent apocalyptic element in Jesus’s “gospel” that one cannot easily dismiss it as a creation of the later church. Much of what Jesus did demonstrates how the world would cease being “upside down” when the kingdom of God arrived. Jesus upended, for example, the power that Satan and his demons held over possessed individuals. Jesus healed the sick who were often thought to be sick as a result of either being in the grip of Satan or suffering punishment for their sins (the old Deuteronomistic view had not completely vanished). The announcement of forgiveness could go hand-in-hand with healing (Mat. 9:5; cf. John 9:2-3) and carried on John’s mandate of preparation.
Jesus’s teachings are no less apocalyptic. Sheep and goats became metaphors for sinners and the righteous as Jesus tells his audience that, without good deeds (trees bearing fruit; see John’s comment above), sinners will “go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life” (Mat. 25:46). Jesus warned about being “thrown into hell” (Mat. 5:22; Mark 9:47) and taught that the kingdom would be home to such righteous individuals as the Jewish patriarchs and prophets but sinners would be “cast out” (Lk. 13:28; see also Lk. 16:19-30).
Along with belief in the current dominion of Satan, the imminence of God’s retribution, and the need for repentance, Jesus, like John, also taught about the coming of someone who would inaugurate the apocalyptic reversal. He called this figure the “Son of Man” (Mat. 9:6, 10:23, 11:19, 12:8, 13:37, 41, 16:27-28, 17:9, 12, 22, 19:28, 20:18, 28, 24:27, 30, 37, 39, 44, 25:31, 26:2, 24, 45, 64, etc.). It is not clear in the gospels whether Jesus was referring to himself as this cosmic figure or to someone else. What is clear is that after Jesus’s death, his disciples identified him as this Son of Man although the term was quickly replaced with other designations in the early church. In apocalyptic fashion, Jesus proclaimed that the Son of Man would be seated at God’s right hand (Mat. 26:64), would come on the clouds (Mat. 24:30, 26:64), with angels and sit on a throne (Mat. 13:41, 19:28, 24:31, 25:31), to “gather out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all law-breakers, and throw them into the fiery furnace” (Mat. 13:41-2). According to some sayings of Jesus, this cosmic judge would arrive during the lifetimes of those who heard him (Mat. 10:23, 16:28).
In the footsteps of John and Jesus came the apostle Paul, another apocalypticist who preached a similar scenario. For Paul, Jesus Christ was the one who would bring about the kingdom. According to Paul, as with John and Jesus, the kingdom was imminent (1 Th. 4:15) and its coming would involve angels and trumpets (1 Th. 4:15) as “the Lord” comes down from the clouds (1 Th. 4:17). Paul warned that sinners would have no place in the kingdom (1 Cor. 6:9-10; Gal. 5:19-21) but instead would be liable to “sudden destruction” (1 Th. 5:3).
The heightened level of apocalyptic expectation diminished over time as the expected imminence of Jesus’s return was replaced with patient waiting and the creation of the church. Nevertheless, the doomsday scenario was never completely divorced from the gospel message. The Nicene-Constantinopolitan creed recited throughout Christendom to this day plainly states that Christ will “come to judge the living and the dead” as Christians “look for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come.”