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Christian eschatology

The Christian Apocalypse is by far the most visible in Western thought.  Subject as much to mockery as it is to veneration, some parts have been so thoroughly lampooned that now, the real thing can seem like a caricature.  This is not a uniquely modern point of view, as most mainstream Christian establishments historically have tended to ignore the apocalyptic books of the Bible (Guyatt 61), but the Apocalypse crops up often anyway.  Martin Luther said he hated the Book of Revelation but then told anyone who would listen that the Pope was the Antichrist (Drane 9; Guyatt 62).  Many of the founding leaders of the American colonies, not least the famous theologian Jonathan Edwards, cited current events as evidence of the imminent End Times.

The New Testament is also where the term “Apocalypse” came into use.  The proper name Apocalypse refers specifically to the Christian End, but derivations of the word—apocalypse, apocalyptic, apocalypticism—have since been co-opted by scholars to refer to different aspects of universal eschatology not specific to Christianity.

Winding up to Revelation, the Bible drops a few passages of particular interest to prophecy enthusiasts, including Matthew 24 and 25, in which Christ describes the dark times that will precede his return.  He cautions against false prophets and warns of the wars, famines, pestilences, and earthquakes that are only “the beginning of sorrows” (Matt. 24:8).  Christians will be persecuted.  Many will be martyred and many others will turn from the faith.

There will then be “great tribulation, such as was not since the beginning of the world to this time, no, nor ever shall be,” after which time the “sun [shall] be darkened, and the moon shall not give her light, and the stars shall fall from heaven, and the powers of the heavens shall be shaken” (Matt. 24:21,29).  Those Christians who manage to stick with it, though, will be rewarded when Christ returns.  Christ says that he will come when everyone least expects it, but also says that “this generation shall not pass, till all these things be fulfilled” before leaving Christians to wait expectantly for 2,000 years and counting (Matt. 24:44,34).

The most famous Christian contribution to apocalyptic scenarios is the Book of Revelation, an opaque and sometimes controversial book of the Bible: at some points in Christian history, Revelation has been cut out of the New Testament altogether (Guyatt 71).  Every passage from Revelation, Northrop Frye says, “is a dense mosaic of allusions to and echoes from the Old Testament,” which is perhaps partly to blame for the book’s notorious difficulty (Frye 235).

In the beginning of the book, God gives a scroll with seven seals to Jesus, the only person worthy of opening it.  Jesus, referred to both as the Lamb of God and as “the Lion of the tribe of Judah,” breaks the seals one by one (Rev. 5:5).  The first four release each of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse: a conqueror (who has come to be identified as the Antichrist[1]), war, famine, and plague.  At the breaking of the fifth seal, the souls of the martyred cry for justice, but are told to wait for the rest of the fated martyrs to be appropriately dispatched. The sixth seal releases a great earthquake; the sun turns black and the moon red, the stars fall from the sky, and “the heaven depart[s] as a scroll when it is rolled together; and every mountain and island [are] moved out of their places” (Rev. 5:14).  Before the last seal is broken, an angel marks with the seal of God the 144,000 people—12,000 from each of the tribes of Israel—who are to be protected from the coming disasters, and notes that other righteous people will also be saved.

The breaking of the seventh seal reveals that seven trumpets need to be blown by seven angels.  The first trumpet signals a rain of blood, hail, and fire that destroys most plant life; the second prompts a meteor to hit the oceans, which does it for all sea life; the third does the same to the life in lakes and rivers; the fourth darkens the sun and the moon (again).  The fifth releases a plague of demonic locusts[2] that torture but do not kill all men unlucky enough to be without God’s seal; the sixth looses four angels bound in the Euphrates who, with a monstrous army of two hundred thousand, kill a third of humanity. At this point, one would presume the beleaguered survivors would surrender, but they hard-headedly continue to worship devils and idols and refuse to repent their murders, sorceries, fornications, and theft, so the seventh trumpet sounds, which brings forward seven angels with seven seriously troubling bowls (Rev. 9:21).

At this point, John takes a break to tell of a woman who births a child, who is almost eaten by a great red dragon.  The archangel Michael led the fight against the Dragon, “that old serpent, called the Devil, and Satan, which deceiveth the whole world,” and Satan and his fellow rebellious angels were cast out of heaven (Rev. 12:9).

The Dragon delegates his powers to the Beast, and after a false prophet convinces everyone to worship the Beast, it marks everyone with its image and decrees that no one without his stamp can participate in commerce.  At this point, Jesus and the 144,000 saved have retreated to Mount Zion, giving them a good view of the havoc to be wreaked by the seven bowls.  An angel pours out the first bowl, and everyone with the mark of the beast is covered in sores.  The second bowl is poured on the sea and the third on the rivers, which turns them to blood and kills everything that managed to survive the meteorites. After the fourth bowl is poured out, the sun’s heat intensifies to the point of pain; the fifth brings darkness but also intensifies the pain of the afore-inflicted sores.  The Euphrates dries up when the sixth bowl is poured out, and the Antichrist’s armies gather together to wage the battle of Armageddon.  The seventh bowl prompts another earthquake and a storm of giant hailstones.

After the bowls are emptied, yet more angels appear to announce to those who have not yet caught on that God’s judgment has come and that Babylon has fallen.  The Whore of Babylon makes a brief cameo.  The gates of heaven open and Jesus rides out at the head of the heavenly hosts to kill his opponents, hurl the Beast and his false prophet into a lake of fire, and dump Satan into a bottomless pit.  Jesus resurrects those who have been slain during the Beast’s reign and takes up residence in a peaceful earth for a thousand years.  The prophet John of Patmos, who all-around gives the impression of being a truly singular fellow, does not dwell for long on this millennium of paradise; he devotes only three verses to it, out of the total 404.  The rest are “dominated by stories of woe and upheaval.” (Guyatt 70).

After the thousand years are up, for reasons not entirely clear Satan is let loose and causes mischief for a while in the nations Gog and Magog.  He and his followers lay siege to Jerusalem, setting the scene for one last showdown between the forces of good and evil before, in what Guyatt refers to as “one of the great anticlimaxes of Western literature,” fire rains down from heaven and incinerates the invaders without fuss (Guyatt 70).  Satan lands himself in the lake of fire with his Beast, and every human is resurrected and undergoes the Last Judgment.  The wicked are sent to hang with Satan in the lake of fire for the rest of eternity, and the righteous enter New Jerusalem,  which descends from heaven.  God and Jesus, who take up residence in the city, light with their glory the gold and precious stones from which the city is made.  Sorrow and death have been put to an end.  John warns his readers not to forget his visions, “for the time is near” and “he which testifieth these things saith, Surely I come quickly” (Rev. 22:10,20).

A popular outgrowth of the Revelation Apocalypse is the Rapture, extremely popular in the United States but a relatively recent development in Christianity (around the eighteenth century).  The concept is—dividing, to put it mildly, both within Christianity and on the larger political stage. Though its converts have been a vocal and fast-growing bunch on the American cultural stage in recent years, belief in the Rapture is unique to just one denomination, the evangelical Protestants (Gribben 4). The term “Rapture” does not appear in the Bible, and the idea is based upon a few short mentions, such as I Thessalonians 4:16-17:

“For the Lord himself shall descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trump of God: and the dead in Christ shall rise first: Then we which are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air: and so shall we ever be with the Lord.”

and Matthew 24:39-42:

“…so shall also the coming of the Son of man be.  Then shall two be in the field; the one shall be taken, and the other left.  Two women shall be grinding at the mill; the one shall be taken, and the other left.  Watch therefore: for ye know not what hour your Lord doth come.”

One of the most reliable sources for a description of the Rapture is only about fifteen years old, the massively popular evangelical series Left Behind, a sequence of novels and films presided over by Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins (Gribben 11).

According to this tradition, everyone who has formally accepted Christ into his or her heart will be lifted from earth to join Christ in heaven, leaving their cars to careen into highway medians and unpiloted airplanes to drop from the sky (LaHaye 35; Gribben 11).  Babies still in the womb and children under the age of twelve will also be swept up (Rossing 21).  Though the exact time of the Rapture is unknowable, Matthew 24-25 says one can know of Christ’s second coming from signs of humanity’s descent into wickedness—war, natural disasters, events in Israel, and so forth.

The Rapture, however dramatic, is just a precursor to the Great Tribulation,[3] a seven-year period in which the Antichrist seizes control of the earth.  At first, he appears as a great leader and a man of peace—he ends all war in the Middle East—but halfway through the Tribulation, he begins demanding absolute allegiance to his rule.[4] The “Tribulation Saints” (those who turn to Christ after the Rapture and refuse to be branded by the Antichrist’s mark) will be persecuted and martyred by the Antichrist and his minions during this time.  The Antichrist gathers his armies for the final showdown, Jesus returns to earth as an avenging warrior-king and wins handily, and the rest follows the timeline set out by the Book of Revelation (Boyer 314; Gribben 11-12).

Belief in the Rapture may be part of a fairly specific sect of Christianity, but it is thoroughly a part of American doomsday chic, spawning films, books, and other media that are consistently on best-seller lists.  According to a 2002 Time and CNN poll, 59 percent of Americans believe that the apocalyptic prophecies of Revelation (not necessarily the Rapture) will come true.[5] Keeping with the precedent set down by Christians since Jesus’s death, 17 percent (or more than 50 million Americans) believe this end will come in their lifetimes (Gibbs 43).



[1] The Antichrist is never named in Revelation.  The word “antichrist” is used only four times in the Bible, and once more in the plural form, all in 1 and 2 John.  The Antichrist (capitalized) has also come to be associated with, or the same as, the Revelation figures of the Dragon, the Beast, the false prophet, and the Whore of Babylon.

[2] Though they are called locusts in Revelation, they bear little resemblance to the earthly animal: their shapes are of warhorses, they have men’s faces, women’s hair, lion’s teeth, scorpion’s tails and poison, and are crowned in gold. Rev. 9:7-10.

[3] Actually, there is some dispute on this point.  Most place the Rapture before the Tribulation, but there are others who believe the Rapture will occur mid- or even post-Tribulation (Gribben 13).

[4] Coincidentally, Barack Obama has recently taken over as a favorite for many on the lookout for the Antichrist, dethroning past villains as widely varied as Russia, the United Nations, and Goldie Hawn.

[5] A different poll, conducted by Newsweek in 1999, found 40 percent of Americans believe the world will end as it is foretold in the Bible, 19 percent believe the Antichrist is alive on earth today, and 18 percent believe Christ will return in their lifetimes (Woodward 66-74).

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