A Brief History of Apocalypse

Printed in the Fall 2014 issue of Quest magazine. 
Citation: Smoley, Richard. "A Brief History of Apocalypse" Quest 102.4 (Fall 2014): pg. 133-139.

Theosophical Society - Richard Smoley is editor of Quest: Journal of the Theosophical Society in America and a frequent lecturer for the Theosophical SocietyWinged beasts from the abyss. Angels of bottomless pits. Lakes of fire. These are some of the traditional images of apocalypse. Lately Hollywood's restless imagination has added new images to the gallery: planets crashing into earth, invasions by malign and omnipotent aliens, ecodisasters on a global scale.

Author Howard Bloom has called it the "apocalyptic addiction," and it is still with us. If a radio preacher sees his ratings drop, he can stick a pin in the calendar, determine the date of the Second Coming, and garner attention nationwide. And one popular painting from around 1973, The Rapture by Charles Anderson, shows Jesus Christ returning over the skies of Dallas as the souls of believers waft up to him, leaving their crashed cars strewn about. 

From another angle, we can ask whether legitimate concerns (about the environment or nuclear war) have become hopelessly muddled with ancient apocalyptic fears, setting off waves of anxiety and obscuring what actually needs to be done. Thus it may be helpful to look at this addiction and how it has manifested in Western civilization.

Today the word apocalypse mostly refers to the end of the world. It did not originally have this meaning. The word comes from the Greek‚ (apokalypsis), which in its most basic sense simply means "uncovering" or "revelation." It has been applied to revelations of two types: (1) the eschatological (dealing with the end of the world and the judgment of the dead); and (2) the mystical, usually involving some kind of otherworldly journey. The first is by far the better known, largely because of the influence of the book of Revelation, whose title in the original Greek is in fact apokalypsis (Rev. 1:1). In the years after Revelation was written in the late first century AD, it exercised so much influence that the name came to be applied to apocryphal works with similar themes, such as the Apocalypse of Peter and the Apocalypse of Paul.

The Laurasian Mythos                                                                  

But the idea of the end of the world goes much further back. In his book The Origins of the World's Mythologies (reviewed in Quest, Fall 2013), the Harvard Sanskritist E.J. Michael Witzel explores the commonalities among the world's mythologies. He strikingly concludes that many of the world's mythic themes can be traced back well beyond the bounds of written history.

Witzel claims that there is a more or less consistent narrative (he calls it a "novel") that can be found in the myths and scriptures of the peoples of Eurasia, North and South America, and even Polynesia. From their common features, he argues that this narrative very likely dates as far back as 40,000—20,000 BC. Using a name taken from geology for one of the protocontinents, Witzel calls this the Laurasian mythos. It encompasses the history of the world from the generation of the gods to the end of time. As such, it recapitulates the human life cycle from birth to death: "Laurasian ‘ideology' seems to be based on a fairly simple idea, the correspondence of the ‘life' of humans and the universe" (Witzel, 422). Witzel also notes:

Laurasian mythology also tells of the destruction of our world. It may take place as a final worldwide conflagration—the Gaterdamerung or Ragnar in the Edda, Siva's destructive dance and fire in India; by molten metal in Zoroastrian myth or by devouring the world; or by fire and water in Maya and other Mesoamerican myths; or as in the Old Egyptian tale of Atum's destruction of the earth. However, the end also takes other forms, such as ice and long-lasting winter, for example, in the Edda, or in Iran with Yima's underground world, or again, a flood. (Witzel, 181)

Witzel includes the biblical apocalypse in this picture. Like most scholars, he sees the Persian religion Zoroastrianism as the immediate source of this idea, which percolated into Judaism around the sixth century BC and thence into Christianity, "the end of the world, judgment of humans, and emerging paradise in Zoroastrian myth," he says, being the source "from which the Christian belief in the end,' the final judgment, and paradise are derived" (Witzel, 181).

The Day of the Lord

Theosophical Society - A painting commissioned in 1973 by Leon and Ruth Bates of the Bible Believers Evangelistic Association and executed by Charles Anderson. Sometimes known as The Dallas Rapture, its actual name is simply The Rapture.
A painting commissioned in 1973 by Leon and Ruth Bates of the Bible Believers Evangelistic Association and executed by Charles Anderson. Sometimes known as The Dallas Rapture, its actual name is simply The Rapture.

Given these preliminaries, we can see the biblical apocalyptic genre emerge in this way: The background is a covenant between God and Israel, described at length in Deut. 27—28: "And it shall come to pass, if thou shalt hearken diligently unto the voice of the Lord thy God, to observe and to do all his commandments which I command thee to this day, that the Lord thy God will set thee on high above all nations on earth" (Deut. 28:1; biblical quotations are from the King James Version). Then follows a series of curses that will beset Israel if it fails to keep its side of the bargain.

As initially understood, this covenant applies simply to the fortunes of the nation; it has no eschatological element. But by the time of the prophets (the eighth century BC onward), the orientation shifts. The prophets begin by denouncing the sins of Israel, with warnings about the devastation that must ensue if the people do not repent. The earliest version of this sequence appears in Amos, the oldest of the prophetic writings, dating to the (possibly early) eighth century BC. Threatening the wayward Israelites for their crimes and injustices, Amos says, "Thy wife shall be an harlot in the city, and thy sons and thy daughters shall fall by the sword, and thy land shall be divided by line; and thou shalt die in a polluted land: and Israel shall surely go into captivity forth of his land" (Amos 7:17).

Amos does not end his prophecy on this dire note. Ultimately, the Lord says, "I will bring again the captivity of my people of Israel, and they shall build the waste cities, and inhabit them; and they shall plant vineyards, and drink the wine thereof; they shall also make gardens, and eat the fruit of them" (Amos 9:14).

Elsewhere (e.g., Amos 5:18—20), the prophet alludes to a "day of the Lord" in which these events will come to pass. This day of the Lord is not eschatological in the strict sense: Amos does not foresee an end of the world, but rather a time of chastisement of Israel along with an eventual restoration. None of these things are described as taking place outside the course of human events as such.

These themes develop in the later prophets, such as Second Isaiah, which portrays the Babylonian captivity (586—539 BC) as a time of chastisement for the nation and looks forward to the restoration foreseen by the earlier prophets, "for [Jerusalem] hath received of the Lord's hand double for all her sins" (Isaiah 40:2). Most scholars date Second Isaiah to the time of the Jews' return to their homeland under Cyrus the Great of Persia in 539 BC. But even here there is little if any explicit reference to an end of the world. It is really only in the second century BC that the apocalyptic genre arises in a recognizable form.

Daniel's Time of the End

The first full-blown apocalyptic text, and the only one to make its way into the Hebrew Bible, is the book of Daniel. In many ways, Daniel sets the tone for the genre as a whole. Ostensibly a work by and about a prophet and sage of the sixth century BC, it almost certainly dates to centuries later—specifically, the second century BC. Alluding as it does to a number of datable historical facts, Daniel is a vaticinium ex eventu—a "prophecy" written only after the events purportedly foretold.

We find this prophecy in Daniel 10—12, which foretells the coming of "the abomination that maketh desolate" (Daniel 11:31). This refers to events of 167 BC, when the Hellenistic king Antiochus IV Epiphanes, who then ruled Judea, tried to set up an altar, and possibly an image, of Zeus in the Jerusalem Temple. This was an abomination to the monotheistic Jews. Writing during this period, pseudo-Daniel foresees not only the ouster of Antiochus but the fulfillment of time, when "many of them that sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, some to shame and everlasting contempt" (Daniel 12:2).

We can see the difference between this prophecy and the earlier ones in the Bible. Daniel predicts that the defeat of Antiochus will usher in, not merely the restoration of Israel, but "the time of the end" (Daniel 12:4). Thus appears perhaps the first instance in Jewish thought of the culmination of Witzel's Laurasian "novel."

What Daniel predicted did not take place. The coming of the "abomination of desolation" did not herald the end of time. Instead the Jews, led by the priestly family of the Maccabees, rose up, drove out Antiochus, and established an independent Jewish kingdom that lasted around a century. Because Daniel so closely connects Antiochus's "abomination of desolation" with the end of time—evidently unaware of this more prosaic outcome—scholars have argued that Daniel can be dated to no later than 164 BC, when the Jews were victorious (Metzger and Coogan, 151).

New Testament Apocalypse

For Christianity, the next significant apocalyptic documents appear in the synoptic Gospels (Matthew 21, Mark 13, and Luke 21). They are similar enough that they are known together as the Apocalyptic Discourse or the Little Apocalypse. This is a collection of Jesus's sayings in which he predicts the destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem followed by the end of the world.

The relation of these two events is by no means clear from the texts themselves. In the first place, scholars tend to assume that, like the Sermon on the Mount, this collection consists of isolated sayings of Jesus that were later grouped together by the Evangelists, so their original mport may be muted. In the second place, even as presented, the sequence of events is vague. Some contend that Mark 13:7—"but the end shall not be yet"—is an attempt to separate the time of the Temple's destruction from the end of the world (Metzger and Coogan, 403), but this is not entirely convincing, since Christ goes on to say, "This generation shall not pass, till all these things be done" (Mark 13:30).

The Apocalyptic Discourse describes the invasion of Judea by the Romans and the destruction of the Temple, which took place in AD 70. Hence scholars date the synoptic Gospels, of which Mark is the earliest, to this period, usually AD 65—90. (Scholars agree that Jesus did not actually say many of the things attributed to him, so these prophecies too would be vaticinia ex eventu). They are unlikely to be much later, because, as we have seen, the authors still expected that the time of the end would soon follow after these events.

Certainly in the early days of Christianity, apocalyptic expectation was extremely high. The earliest New Testament text, 1 Thessalonians, dated to no later than AD 52 (Brown, 457), is partly meant to soothe the fears of Christians who were worried about the fates of their loved ones who died before Christ's return (1 Thess. 4:13—18). One verse here—"then we which are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them [i.e., the dead in Christ] in the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air, and so shall we ever be with the Lord" (1 Thess. 4:17)—is the source of the well-known Rapture doctrine.

The Vision of John

Finally, there is the centerpiece of the apocalyptic genre—Revelation. Much about this text is problematic. Its author, "John," has been associated with the writer of the fourth Gospel and the three epistles in the New Testament attributed to John, but scholars began to doubt this attribution as early as the third century, and it is now almost universally discredited. The book's date is also debated. Taking the lead from the second-century church father Irenaeus (Against the Heresies, 5.30.3, in Eusebius [3.17], 81), who placed it toward the end of the reign of the emperor Domitian from 81 to 96, most scholars put it in the last decade of the first century. By this theory, Revelation would have been written to encourage Christians suffering from Domitian's persecution.

This view has some difficulties. For example, the evidence for a persecution of Christians under Domitian is very weak. If it did occur, it had nothing like the vehemence of Nero's famous persecution of the Christians in 64.

There is also the problem of the celebrated "beast": "Let him that hath understanding count the number of the beast: for it is the number of a man; and his number is Six hundred threescore and six"—666 (Rev. 13:18). In the centuries since Revelation was written, this beast has been associated with such figures as Napoleon, Hitler, and Saddam Hussein. But scholars generally identify him with Nero, emperor of Rome from 54 to 68. By the numerological analysis known as gematria or isopsephy (in which the hidden meanings of words are divined by adding the numerical values of their letters), the number of the Hebrew letters for "Nero Caesar" add up to 666 (Brown, 793).

But this interpretation leaves us with a difficulty. If Revelation was written in the 90s, why should it focus on Nero, who had been dead for some twenty-five years? Some scholars say that John is referring to a Nero redivivus, whose supposed return was the subject of legend in the late first century (and was sometimes identified with Domitian), but the British biblical scholar Margaret Barker has another theory: the core of Revelation was written in the late 60s, during the Jewish revolt against Rome, when apocalyptic expectation would have been high. Revelation's clumsy Greek, full of Hebraisms, has usually been explained by the assumption that Greek was not its author's first language, but Barker suggests that it is because Revelation, at least in part, was originally written in Aramaic and only later translated into Greek. (Like a number of scholars, Barker believes that Revelation was not written at one time but went through several stages of composition.) If so, the traditional date of c.95 could simply mean that the text took its final shape and was translated into Greek at that point (Barker, 2000, 71—72).

Barker's theory has another argument in its favor: the intense, hallucinatory spirit of Revelation better reflects the dire period of the 60s—with the overthrow of Nero and the Roman invasion of Judea—than the comparatively calm times of the 90s.

What does all this amount to? If Revelation, or a large part of it, can be dated to the era of the Jewish War (AD 66—73), we see a striking commonality among the great apocalyptic texts of the Bible: each was written during a period of extreme crisis for the Jews, and each predicted that this crisis—which had not yet fully played itself out—was the harbinger of the end of time. Since these texts all came to be accepted as sacred scripture by the Christians, mainstream Christianity has always been beset with intense apocalyptic expectation. It has resurfaced in more or less every generation from the first century to the present.

The Monarch and the Whore

As the years wore on, the Christian apocalyptic tradition would expand and mutate. After the fall of the western Roman Empire in 476, it would speak of a coming universal Christian monarch who would rescue the faithful from the onslaught of barbarians or, later, Muslims—an idea that surfaces frequently over the centuries, for example in the prophecies of the sixteenth-century seer Michel de Nostradamus (Smoley, Nostradamus, 19—20). And Rev. 20:2—3, which speaks of a thousand years during which Satan is bound, gave rise to many elaborate millennial speculations. Indeed, today the word "millennium," meaning "a thousand years," is often used to refer to a coming age of peace and harmony.

The book of Revelation is intensely anti-Roman. While this is conveyed obliquely and symbolically (it would not have been safe to do otherwise), it is clear enough. We have already seen how the beast is probably to be identified with one of the emperors, whether it is Nero, Domitian, or Nero redivivus. Moreover, the "great whore" of Babylon described in Revelation 17 certainly refers to Rome, who sits on "seven mountains" (verse 9; Rome was built on seven hills) and who is identified as "that great city, which reigneth over the kings of the earth" (verse 18).

 Theosophical Society -  sixteenth-century woodcut portraying the whore of Babylon as the papacy. Note the three-tiered papal tiara on the woman's head.The title above, Johannis, simply means. "of John," indicating that the illustration is based on the book of Revelation.
 A sixteenth-century woodcut portraying the whore of Babylon as the papacy. Note the three-tiered papal tiara on the woman's head.The title above, Johannis, simply means. "of John," indicating that the illustration is based on the book of Revelation.

This anti-Roman polemic put Revelation in comparative disfavor in the late western empire (313—476), where Christianity was first tolerated and then proclaimed as the official religion, but the text regained its popularity in the Middle Ages, when many condemned the papacy's arrogance and corruption. At this time the whore of Babylon was again equated with Rome—not with the fallen pagan empire, but with the Catholic Church. No less a figure than Dante made this connection. In his Inferno, he says to the simoniac pope Nicholas III: "It was shepherds such as you that the Evangelist had in mind when she that sitteth upon the waters was seen by him committing fornication with kings" (Inferno 19:106—08; in Alighieri, 1:199).

The association between the whore and the papal power would prove hard to break. In the sixteenth century it was propagated by the Protestant Reformers Martin Luther, John Calvin, and John Knox. Engravings in early editions of Luther's German translation of the New Testament show the whore wearing the triple tiara of the popes. The theme persists. In 1964 the Jehovah's Witnesses sect published a book entitled "Babylon the Great Has Fallen!" God's Kingdom Rules! One illustration in it depicts the great whore, the church of Rome, as a glamorous woman with a cocktail glass. She is riding a scarlet-colored wild beast (Rev. 17:3), identified in the book as the United Nations.

The images in the apocalyptic texts, vivid when not lurid, lend themselves easily to embellishment by the imagination. But because these texts arose in unique historical circumstances, applying them to the current scene requires a great deal of mental contortion (as in "Babylon the Great Has Fallen," which has to overstate the links between the papacy and the U.N.). One must harmonize very different, often very obscure, prophecies from Daniel, the Gospels, Revelation, and elsewhere into a picture that is at least roughly self-consistent—while adapting them to a time and place of which the original writers could scarcely conceive.

Hence there are many disputes among today's believers. There are the premillennials versus the postmillennials—that is, those who believe that Christ will return before the thousand-year period mentioned in Rev. 20:1—6 versus those who believe he will come after. We have already encountered the idea of the Rapture inspired by 1 Thessalonians. Premillennials are split between those who believe this Rapture will take place before the "tribulation" mentioned in Rev. 2:22 and 7:14—a time of upheaval and pestilence on earth—and those who believe it will take place after. The immensely successful Left Behind novels by Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins—as well as the painting The Rapture—are based on the premise that the Rapture will occur before the tribulation. The faithful will disappear instantaneously into heaven, leaving their dishes unwashed and their cars veering off the roads, and the rest will be left to reap the fruits of their unbelief. A rumor in the evangelical world, no doubt apocryphal, says that a certain major airline will not assign a Christian pilot to the same flight as a Christian copilot, on the grounds that the plane will crash if Jesus takes them both at once.

Theosophical Society - A stylish, cocktail-sipping whore of Babylon as conceived by Jehovah's Witnesses. The United Nations buiding and log appear in the background because the sect equates the beast of Revelation with the UN. From "Babylon the Great is Fallen!" God's Kingdom Rules!
A stylish, cocktail-sipping whore of Babylon as conceived by Jehovah's Witnesses. The United Nations buiding and log appear in the background because the sect equates the beast of Revelation with the UN. From "Babylon the Great is Fallen!" God's Kingdom Rules!

The Displacement of Fear

At this point you may ask why we should care about these ideas.

Because they are still very much alive and active. They are the source of practically all of the "end times" prophecies that are floating about in the current psychic atmosphere. As outlandish as these predictions may seem, they are regarded by tens of millions of people as accurate pictures of events that will unfold in the near future. That every generation since the time of Christ has done this is, perhaps, amusing, but it may also make us want to understand the apocalyptic impulse more clearly.

The issue is intricate. I have tried to deal with it at some length in my book The Essential Nostradamus, but a few brief points can be made here.

To begin with, psychologists speak of the human propensity toward displacement. You are terribly afraid of something—so afraid that you cannot face it consciously. You deal with it by projecting it onto something that is more remote and hence less threatening.

This explains a great deal about the apocalyptic addiction. Your world, like mine, is going to end in a few decades at the most. That is certain and irrefutable. But the thought of your own death is terrifying, and there are few who can think about it for any length of time.

The end of the world is considerably more remote. Deep down, I suspect, everyone knows that the world is not going to end this way, with Jesus in the clouds over Dallas and the husbands of vanished believers wandering around the house wondering where their wives have gone. The Supreme Being, after all, is not a producer of preposterous disaster films. But by displacing anxiety over your own death onto a collective holocaust that is always just around the corner, you make it more distant and thus more manageable. That this is supposed to happen to everyone at the same time makes it all the more comforting, since many people are afraid of dying alone.

Then there is what theologians call theodicy or divine justice—why God permits evil. Most people would probably acknowledge that there is a rough justice in the world: more often than we care to admit, people get exactly what they deserve. But the accounts do not add up perfectly. Innocents suffer; the wicked prosper. Much of this is due to human evil, but not all of it. Pain and suffering seem to be woven into the stuff of the universe.

Theosophists, like many believers in Eastern religions, may see the answer to this question in karma and reincarnation: the harmless baby suffers now because it did evil in a past life. This presents problems of its own (which I cannot go into here), but it is much better than a meaningless, justiceless world. For religions that do not hold to reincarnation, like Christianity in almost all its forms, the issue remains. The end of the world, with its judgment of the quick and the dead, provides an answer: now, in this wicked system of things, the accounts are out of balance, but Jesus will come back in the end and set them right.

The Mortal Universe

Much more could be said about these matters, and thousands of books have been written about them. But I would like to end with just one further observation, which goes back to Witzel's Laurasian "novel." It is certainly true that this universal epic myth parallels the life cycle of an individual human. On the simplest level, this suggests that the human mind is foredoomed to cast the world in anthropomorphic terms: we are humans, so we are going to think of the universe in some way as human too.

Of course, if this is true for acknowledged myths, whether they are the legends of the Maya or the book of Genesis, it must also be true of the current scientific worldview, which also says that the universe has a lifespan, from the Big Bang to its eventual collapse. The end of the world is always essentially the same myth, whether it is imagined as a Big Crunch or as the Son of Man coming in glory amidst a cloud of saints. This truth may be hard for some to see, but then, as Joseph Campbell once observed, myth is someone else's religion. It is never your own.

Can we make the same argument about the Theosophical worldview, with its vision of countless universes at countless levels of manifestation, punctuated by eternities of sleep in pralaya? Yes, undoubtedly. The resemblance still holds, even if the scale of vision is immensely larger than even the most daring physicist might venture. The question is where we go from there. We could stop with a Kantian relativism, which says that we can never grasp the universe in its true form, outside the limited categories of human cognition. Or we could step past this barrier and suppose that our human experience and our human understanding of the world, though far from perfect or complete, are nevertheless a legitimate part of the great universal drama in which the divine beholds the divine—a drama that will continue beyond the death of this world and of innumerable others.


Alighieri, Dante. The Divine Comedy: Inferno. Translated by Charles S. Singleton. Two volumes. Princeton: Princeton/Bollingen, 1970.
Anonymous. "Babylon the Great Has Fallen!" God's Kingdom Rules. Brooklyn: Watchtower Bible & Tract Society, 1964.
Barker, Margaret. The Revelation of Jesus Christ Which God Gave to Him to Show to His Servants What Must Soon Take Place. Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 2000.
Brown, Raymond E. An Introduction to the New Testament. New York: Doubleday, 1997.
Eliade, Mircea, ed. The Encyclopedia of Religion. Sixteen volumes. New York: Macmillan, 1987.
Eusebius. The History of the Church. Translated by G.A. Williamson and Andrew Louth. 2d ed. London: Penguin, 1989.
Ford, J. Massyngberde, ed. and trans. The Anchor Bible: Revelation. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 2000.
Hanson, Paul D. The Dawn of Apocalyptic: The Historical and Sociological Roots of Jewish Apocalyptic Eschatology. Minneapolis: Fortress, 1975.
McGinn, Bernard. Visions of the End: Apocalyptic Traditions in the Middle Ages. New York: Columbia University Press, 1979.
Metzger, Bruce M., and Michael D. Coogan, eds. The Oxford Companion to the Bible. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.
Smoley, Richard. The Essential Nostradamus. 2d ed. New York: Tarcher/Penguin. 2010.
———. Introduction to Emanuel Swedenborg, The Shorter Works of 1758. Translated by George F. Dole. West Chester, Pa.: Swedenborg Foundation, forthcoming.
Witzel, E.J. Michael. The Origins of the World's Mythologies. New York: Oxford University Press, 2012.

Richard Smoley's latest book, The Deal: A Guide to Radical and Complete Forgiveness, was published in January 2015 by Tarcher/Penguin.