The word apocalypse has many meanings. In religious usage, it identifies the last book of the Christian Bible, the Revelation of John; a genre of ancient Judeo-Christian visionary literature; or doomsday, the destruction of the world at the end of time prophesied by the Apocalypse. In more popular usage, it identifies any catastrophic or violent event, such as the Vietnam War (e.g., the movie Apocalypse Now ). Apocalypticism is the religious belief system that interprets human history from its origins to the present as signs of the imminent end of the world. It is one feature of Christian eschatology, the branch of theology dealing with the state of the soul after death, purgatory, hell, and heaven.
The adjective apocalyptic also has many meanings, from attitudes characteristic of apocalypticism (e.g., the world is so evil it will soon be destroyed), to features of literary apocalypses (e.g., the seven-headed dragon of Apoc. 12), to cultural references to apocalyptic expectations (e.g., the movie Armageddon ), to exaggerated fears of a crisis (e.g., the apocalyptic reaction to the Y2K "bug").
Apocalypticism is a feature of all three monotheistic religions. The Book of Daniel describes the Hebrew prophet's vision of the end, and messianism has regularly flared up in Jewish diaspora communities, as when Sabbatai Sevi (1626–1676) predicted the end of the world. In the twentieth century apocalypticism influenced responses to the Holocaust and supported religious Zionism. In Islam, the resurrection, day of judgment, and salvation are apocalyptic features of orthodox belief as evident in the Koran, and apocalypticism influenced expectations of an Islamic messiah in Sunni belief, Iranian Shi'ism, and the Bahá'í faith. Apocalypticism, however, is most common in Christianity, probably because of the continuing influence of the biblical Apocalypse, which has informed not only the eschatology of Christianity but also its art, literature, and worship. Its rich, otherworldly symbolism and prophecies of the end of time are well-known and include the Four Horsemen, Lamb of God, Whore of Babylon, Mark of the Beast (666), Armageddon, Last Judgment, and New Jerusalem.
Apocalyptic belief has been associated with heretical and extremist movements throughout history. For example, the Fraticelli, Franciscan dissidents of the fourteenth century, accused Pope John XXII of being the Antichrist; Thomas Müntzer, an apocalyptic preacher, was a leader in the German Peasants' War of 1525; the American Millerites left crops unplanted, expecting Christ to return in 1844; and David Koresh, leader of the Branch Davidians before the conflagration that destroyed their Waco compound in 1993, claimed to be the Lamb of the Apocalypse. Nevertheless, there is nothing necessarily unorthodox or radical about apocalypticism, which the theologian Ernst Kaseman has called "the mother of all Christian theology" (1969, p. 40). The sermons of Jesus (e.g., Matt. 24) and the theology of Paul are filled with apocalyptic prophecies, and Peter identified Pentecost—the traditional foundation of the Christian church—as a sign of the end of time (Acts 2). Furthermore, the creed followed by many Christian faiths promises the return of Christ in majesty to judge the living and the dead, and many Protestant denominations, such as Baptists and Adventists, have strong apocalyptic roots that support a conservative theology.
The expectation that Antichrist will appear in the last days to deceive and persecute the faithful is based on apocalyptic interpretations, and during the Middle Ages and Renaissance this belief informed drama, poetry, manuscript illustrations, and paintings, from the twelfth-century Latin Play of Antichrist to Luca Signorelli's compelling fresco at Orvietto Cathedral (1498). The twentieth century, with its numerous wars and social upheavals, has thinly disguised the figure of Antichrist and integrated other apocalyptic images into its literature (e.g., William Butler Yeats's poem "The Second Coming") and popular culture (e.g., the movie The Omen ). Apocalyptic notions also pervade religious polemic; during the debates of the Reformation, for example, Protestants and Catholics identified each other as Antichrists, a term still used by some fundamentalists attacking the papacy.
Another expectation derived from the Apocalypse is the millennium, the thousand-year period of peace and justice during which the Dragon is imprisoned in the abyss before the end of time. More generally, the term millennium refers to any idealized period in the future. Communism, for example, has been described as a millenarian movement because of its promise of a classless society; like the Russian Revolution of 1917, millenarian movements have often been associated with violence of the sort that occurred during the Brazilian slave revolts in the 1580s. The Center for Millennium Studies at Boston University maintains a database of contemporary millenarian movements.
These social movements indicate the tremendous influence of the Apocalypse and the ways in which religious apocalypticism has been secularized. Secular apocalypticism is manifest in popular appropriations of physics that, in one way or another, predict the extermination of life, with references to entropy and the infinite expansion of the universe until it fizzles into nothingness or recoils into a primal contraction. It is also evident in environmentalist forecasts of the extinction of species and the greenhouse effect, in predictions of famine and hunger arising from the exponential increase in world population, and in responses to the devastations of the worldwide AIDS epidemic. Modern secular apocalypticism was particularly strong during the cold war in predictions of nuclear destruction, as evident in Ronald Reagan's references to Armageddon in the 1980s and popular culture (e.g., the movie Dr. Strangelove and the ABC television film The Day After ).
Although the term apocalypse brings to mind images of destruction and violence, and although the sociologist Michael Barkun has linked millennarian hopes to various forms of disaster, the biblical Apocalypse includes many promises of peace and assurances of rewards for the faithful, including a millennium ushered in by Jesus—a far cry from dire predictions of bloody revolution and disaster. For Christians, the apocalypse need not be negative, because the New Jerusalem follows the destruction of an evil world, and life in heaven follows death. In an increasingly secular world, however, the apocalypse summons lurid visions of individual or mass death.
AHR Forum. "Millenniums." American Historical Review 104 (1999):1512–1628.
Barkun, Michael. Disaster and the Millennium. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1974.
Emmerson, Richard K., and Bernard McGinn, eds. The Apocalypse in the Middle Ages. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1992.
Funk, Robert W., ed. "Apocalypticism." Special issue of Journal for Theology and the Church 6 (1969).
McGinn, Bernard, John J. Collins, and Stephen J. Stein, eds. The Encyclopedia of Apocalypticism. New York: Continuum, 1998.
O'Leary, Stephen D. Arguing the Apocalypse: A Theory of Millennial Rhetoric. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994.
Patrides, C. A., and Joseph Wittreich, eds. The Apocalypse in English Renaissance Thought and Literature: Patterns, Antecedents, and Repercussions. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1984.
Strozier, Charles B., and Michael Flynn. The Year 2000: Essays on the End. New York: New York University Press, 1997.
RICHARD K. EMMERSON
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A PPROPRIATE D EATH
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