Virtually every civilization has been characterised by religious beliefs about the end of all things, not least about the timing and the conditions that precede the end, and signs of its imminence. There are many differences between these beliefs across civilisations, but many similarities too.

In many cultures and religions, the end or “eschaton” (a term used in Western culture), it is believed, will be inaugurated by a Messianic figure. He will usher his authentic and faithful followers either to paradise or into earthly bliss. In contrast, those who rejected and resisted him will be destroyed, in some cases partly by their own hands, sometimes solely by his. Because of its association with violence and a degree of doubt about just who will be rewarded and who will be destroyed, contemplation of the eschaton tends to be characterised by considerable anxiety.

Thanks to the spread of Christendom via Western imperialism, general terminology about the end times largely reflects Christian usage. Because the Greek word for “last”, eschatos, was used in the New Testament of the Christian Bible (e.g., Revelation 22:13), “eschaton” became a Christian term for the End of the World, and “eschatological” a useful adjective for thought and discourse relating to the end of the world. Strictly speaking, both ‘eschaton’ and ‘eschatological’ might apply only to the Christian concept of the End of Days, but in practice, they are used more widely. The COVID-19 pandemic is only the most recent life-altering episode to spark renewed eschatological interest, prompting many to discover more about the history of eschatological thinking. If so, it will be helpful for the reader to bear in mind some other terms, which will be encountered in the literature, but are often used imprecisely and inconsistently.

One of the most important Christian texts about the eschaton is the last book of the Bible, usually known in English as the “Book of Revelation”, a literal translation of its self-description as the Apokalypsis (the word for revelation in Greek) of Jesus Christ. But the book has been widely known by the Latinized version of its Greek title: Apocalypse. Narrowly, apocalypse, or its adjective form, apocalyptic, should only apply to the one book of the Bible—but its usage spread. Biblical “apocalyptic literature” is usually understood to include the Book of Daniel from the Old Testament (or Hebrew Bible), with which it has much in common. Sometimes, it includes other biblical texts as well, whose theme or language is similar to those of Revelation. Include in these are extensive sections of Ezekiel and Zechariah, the 24th and 25th chapters of Matthew’s gospel, and the 2nd chapters of 2 Thessalonians and 1 John.

One of the most important Christian texts about the eschaton is the last book of the Bible, usually known in English as the “Book of Revelation”, a literal translation of its self-description as the Apokalypsis (the word revelation in Greek) of Jesus Christ.

There are several associated terms, originally used for the themes of those works, that have for a long time had currency beyond biblical parameters. “Apocalypticism” in the broadest sense, describes a worldview that civilization, or perhaps life on Earth as we know it, will soon come to an end, in a single, violent event: “the apocalypse”. But as a result, almost any disastrous, destructive, or terminal event may now be described in the media as “an” apocalypse. “Apocalyptic” is often used to describe belief in a violent end to the world, with human agents either entirely bringing about or having a role to play in the cataclysmic destruction of the earth or life on it. A useful distinction is that eschatology is concerned with things relating to “The End”, whereas “apocalyptic” often means a focus on a violent eschaton: the apocalypse.

Thus, apocalypticism today need not be Christian or even religious. Yet, for the last 2,000 years, apocalypticism has generally been a concern, even an obsession, of explicitly Christian eschatological literature. There is also a narrower Christian apocalypticism, concerned especially with the biblical Book of Revelation and what it reveals about what were future events at the time it was written, but have since occurred, and events that are still to come, at the eschaton.

Millennialism is a term for overwhelming concern for apocalyptic literature and/or for how the Millennium might be introduced (if, in fact, human beings can have a role in its advent, about which Christians have disagreed, sometimes violently over the last two millennia).

A final term: in the Book of Revelation, a thousand years of peace (sometimes interpreted as literal, sometimes as figurative) is associated with the Second Coming of Christ (with the final End of Days coming at the end of the Millennium). This gave rise to another term: millennialism. This term has expanded in meaning as well, describing at first a belief in the thousand-year reign of Jesus after his Second Advent, to a belief in the complete transformation of this world at the end of its history. It is often used to refer to the cluster of Christian beliefs about the last days (which are quite variable, and, at times, contradict one another). More recently, some scholars have even used millennialism to describe utopian cults or sects that are not Christian. Millennialism is a term of overwhelming concern for apocalyptic literature and how the Millennium might be introduced—if, in fact, human beings can have a role in its advent. Christians have disagreed on this point, sometimes violently, over the last two millennia.

A Recurrent Theme

However one describes it, belief in the imminence of the end of the present world and the advent of a new age is widespread and recurrent in history. The conviction that “the end is nigh” has both created many sects and cults, and compelled them to vigorous evangelism—even to violent action. Yet millennialism has rarely been confined to a lunatic fringe, though that is the way it is widely perceived in the Western world today. Social movements, high policy, and both geographical and intellectual discoveries were driven by apocalypticism or eschatology, which were powerful motivating factors in the Crusades, Columbus’s voyage across the Atlantic, the subsequent fall of the Aztec and Inca civilizations to the Spanish (since both indigenous civilizations had eschatological and messianic expectations), and the European Wars of Religion that followed the Protestant Reformation.

The quest to better understand Christian apocalyptic texts underpinned mathematical and scientific breakthroughs, such as those of John Napier (1550–1617), the discoverer of logarithms, and the legendary Isaac Newton (1642–1727). Magical thinking about the turn of the millennium, as much as rational concern about computer mechanisms, drove alarm in 1999.

The eschatological beliefs and movements best known in Europe are those that have arisen from Christianity. To some extent, this has been a moving target. Faithful believers used certain kinds of hermeneutics when reading the same corpus of sacred texts, and they deployed the same kinds of rhetoric in declaring the imminence of the eschaton.[1]

But people other than Christians have also been concerned with a violent end to all things over the centuries. In the case of Muslim beliefs, one can speak, in a precise sense, of apocalypticism as well as eschatology, because Islam incorporated ideas and themes from the apocalyptical literature of Christians. Even Buddhism and Daoism, often seen in the West in idealistic terms as innately peaceful religions, have eschatological strains of belief that have given rise to apocalyptic movements. In the late-eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the White Lotus movement posed the first major internal challenge to the Qing dynasty in China, while the Taiping Rebellion came bloodily close to overthrowing the Qing before being suppressed through even greater bloodshed. The Hoa Hao movement in Vietnam, and Japan’s notorious Aum Shinrikyo cult (responsible for terror attacks in 1994–95) are recent examples.

However, even among sceptical and sophisticated Europeans in the twenty-first century, one does not have to scratch very deep to find readiness to believe in an eschaton, even an apocalypse, and fear about the end-time events. Eschatological anxiety isn’t far beneath the surface.

Patterns in History

What this reflects, I suggest, is the way that human history actually has seen repeated events in which sophisticated civilization has collapsed. In the twelfth century BC, the transition from late Bronze Age to Iron Age in the Aegean, Eastern Mediterranean, and Levant, was marked by violent mass migrations, invasions, the destruction of many cities, and the collapse of commercial networks across the region.[2] In the seventh century, the Assyrian Empire, the great superpower of the ancient Near East, was not only politically overturned; its great cities, centres of culture and power as well as of population, were savagely destroyed in a cataclysm of violence that effectively effaced Assyria.[3]

In the fifth century AD, the Roman Empire famously “fell”. Rome had not only projected power over significant parts of three continents for several hundred years—it had achieved a degree of technological, industrial, commercial, and cultural sophistication unsurpassed until the nineteenth century.

In the fifth century AD, the Roman Empire famously “fell”. Rome had not only projected power over significant parts of three continents for several hundred years—it had achieved a degree of technological, industrial, commercial, and cultural sophistication unsurpassed until the nineteenth century.

In Europe, North Africa and the Middle East, ordinary people gaped in awe at roads and aqueducts which they could not match, while scholars and poets, writing in Arabic as well as Greek and Latin, hearkened back to the glory that was Rome—for half a millennium and more after it fell. Yet, in the late twentieth century, many scholars argued that the Roman Empire gradually transformed rather than falling, as barbarian immigrants (not conquerors) were accommodated into a new culture. But today, archaeological evidence has confirmed the older story: “The end of the Roman West… destroyed a complex civilization, throwing the inhabitants… back to a standard of living typical of prehistoric times.”[4]

Most strikingly given current events, the Black Death killed vast numbers of people in Asia, the Middle East, North Africa, and Europe in the 1330s-40s. It is impossible to know for sure, but it is thought that at least one in three died of plague in Europe. This is the academic consensus, rejected only by scholars who argue that the death toll was higher, more like 40 percent, perhaps even half, of the population. There were recurrent, repeated, outbreaks of the plague over the next two hundred years, though they were gradually less lethal. In the face of this massive mortality, perceptions were unsurprisingly widespread that the End must be at hand, spawning a series of idiosyncratic and fanatical cults.[5]

Conclusion

There is, then, a history of societies collapsing. Eventually, life goes on and apocalyptic fears are put aside, for a time. With this history in mind, Christians might see the foreshadowing of a greater culmination still to come. It is easy to scoff at our ancestors’ fears. But it only takes a pandemic to reveal our eschatological anxiety.

In this context, Christians can see the the foreshadowing of a climax that has not yet come. Further, while those who have performed prophetic exegeses of the past have made mistakes, this does not mean it is impossible to come to a fuller understanding.

Footnotes
[1]„For a competent overview see Frederic J. Baumgartner, Longing for the End: A History of Millennialism in Western Civilization (New York: St Martin’s Press, 1999); more tendentious but more stimulating is Norman Cohn, The Pursuit of the Millennium: Revolutionary Millenarians and Mystical Anarchists of the Middle Ages ([1957] London: Pimlico, 2004), which has a justified celebrity (or notoriety).”
[2]„See Eric H. Cline, 1177 B.C.: The Year Civilization Collapsed (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2014).”
[3]„Dan Carlin, The End is Always Near: Apocalyptic Moments, from Bronze Age Collapses to Nuclear Near Misses (New York: HarperCollins, 2019), 67–86.”
[4]„Notably see Bryan Ward-Perkins, The Fall of Rome and the End of Civilization (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995), quotation at p. 183; cf. Carlin, 88-124.”
[5]„E.g., Cohn, 131-44.”

„For a competent overview see Frederic J. Baumgartner, Longing for the End: A History of Millennialism in Western Civilization (New York: St Martin’s Press, 1999); more tendentious but more stimulating is Norman Cohn, The Pursuit of the Millennium: Revolutionary Millenarians and Mystical Anarchists of the Middle Ages ([1957] London: Pimlico, 2004), which has a justified celebrity (or notoriety).”
„See Eric H. Cline, 1177 B.C.: The Year Civilization Collapsed (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2014).”
„Dan Carlin, The End is Always Near: Apocalyptic Moments, from Bronze Age Collapses to Nuclear Near Misses (New York: HarperCollins, 2019), 67–86.”
„Notably see Bryan Ward-Perkins, The Fall of Rome and the End of Civilization (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995), quotation at p. 183; cf. Carlin, 88-124.”
„E.g., Cohn, 131-44.”