As stories of the beginning are provided by any number of religious or secular belief systems, so too are stories of the end. End-time beliefs broadly understood are those things believed about the eschaton, or the end of things: the end of an individual life, the end of a community, the end of the universe, or the end of time itself. End-time beliefs reflect a cultic system’s explanation of how the end of things will come about. These beliefs are based on canonical sources, folk sources in the absence of canonical sources, or creative reinterpretation, willful denial, or simple ignorance of received wisdom whether from folk or canonical sources.
Doctrinal beliefs often differ from popular beliefs. For example, often in the popular Christian imagination the death of the saved is directly followed by their heavenly welcome. However, in the canonical Christian account found in the Book of Revelation, the death of the saved is directly followed by their long wait, along with the damned, for the worldwide bodily resurrection, final judgment, and arrival of God’s heavenly city into which the saved are only then finally welcomed.
Varieties of End-Time Beliefs
Literature that reflects end-time beliefs that describe a final catastrophe resulting in the general destruction of life on Earth is generically, though somewhat imprecisely referred to as “apocalyptic” literature. However, the word apocalypse is simply an artifact of the Christian influence on world culture. The Book of Revelation (or the Apocalypse of Saint John) in the Christian Bible contains an end-time narrative in the ancient Near East tradition that the writer (or writers) inherited from the Hebrew Bible’s Book of Daniel. The word revelation rendered in Greek is anoKdXuyig, or “apocalypse.” Based on the influence of this book on Christian and therefore Western literature, a text that follows the style or content of the Book of Revelation, whether written before, during, or after the closing of the Jewish and Christian canons, became referred to as “apocalyptic.” The Jewish-Christian form of apocalyptic literature properly includes particular identifying elements such as angelic visitation, numerology, catastrophe, judgment, and final punishments and rewards. Yet narratives that lack one or another apocalyptic element still have been considered apocalypses in the generic sense as long as they include catastrophic events that are to accompany the end-time.
Canonical and noncanonical end-time literature presents a diverse array of end-time beliefs, not all of which contain catastrophe and ultimate destruction. Zoroastrian Persia developed rich and complex end-time scenarios. Here the writers of scripture produced two apocalyptic narratives that provide examples from two decidedly different historical moments. The writers of the more ancient apocalypse recorded in the Greater Bundahisn described a general cataclysm that would result in general happiness. Mountains would empty themselves of molten lava enough to cover everything on a newly flattened Earth. “Followers of truth” would experience the molten rivers as a bath of warm milk. “Followers of evil” would experience them as molten rivers but with miraculous results: First, everyone would survive, and second, the experience would occasion a transformation not only of the entire earth but of all humankind. All would begin to speak the same language. All would become followers of truth. Worldwide apocalypse would be followed by worldwide bliss. This particular narrative developed during a time of relative strength and security in the Persian Empire. After the Roman conquest, however, Zoroastrian end-time narratives themselves became more menacing. Writers of the Oracles of Hystaspes revealed the catastrophe and chaos that would reign as the end-time drew near; but rather than a worldwide transformation resulting in a happy family of an egalitarian humanity, this end-time scenario resulted in a devastated Rome, an ascendant Asia, and rewards and punishments meted out by a just, mighty, and decidedly pro-Zoroastrian God.
This latter type of end-time belief resembles more the end-time narratives of another kingdom of little strength and even less security: ancient Judah, the seat of Judaism. The appearance of Jewish apocalyptic literature followed the conquest of Judah by the Persian Empire, whose state religion was Zoroastrianism. The apocalypse in the Hebrew Bible’s Book of Daniel provided a standard for apocalyptic visions that later Jewish and Christian writers were to emulate. In this likely pseudonymous book, Daniel, the famed Jewish hero, saw visions, received angelic visitations, described fantastical images and events ripe for interpretation, invoked numerical and quizzical secrets, and, like the latter Zoroastrian narrative, ended the scenario with punishments for the evil and rewards for the good.
Over time, a variety of Jewish sects gathered in the hills around Jerusalem and in the Near East, some complete with their own messiahs and all evidently anticipating impending doom. Apocalyptic communities included those at Qumran and the Dead Sea who are known because they left records that have survived. Common end-time beliefs among such groups included the rain of destruction on establishment temples and the divine formation of a new regime and new temple of which the sectarians themselves would be the primary beneficiaries.
During this era, the newly founded Christian sect developed similarly heightened end-time expectations. Early Christian canonical and non- canonical end-time and apocalyptic texts from Matthew to Paul to John the Revelator included the almost immediate return of Jesus, their messiah, who would inaugurate the end-time. But whereas some of the texts referred to the return as happening within the lifetime of the writer or reader, other writers avoided more precise dating than that. Medieval Christian end-time anticipation saw the occasional popular apocalyptic deadline come and go. In the European settling of North America, the Puritans saw the Christian conquest of the continent as proof of the impending end, so they evangelized accordingly in order to speed the apocalypse on.
Islam developed its own apocalyptic narrative that, like the Christian one, owed much to its Jewish prototype. Here again there would be a general resurrection, judgment, and punishments for the evil and rewards for the good. But unlike the many canonical and noncanonical Christian apocalyptic texts, there was little by way of timing the event, much less characterizing it as “soon.”
End-time beliefs include a variety of expectations that exist apart from a unifying narrative, written or oral. In Hinduism, for example, although there are certainly texts that include scenarios of the end-time, Hinduism itself contains within it such diverse belief systems that it is virtually impossible to speak of a single Hindu end-time belief. Some Hindu end-time visionaries described cataclysmic ends to the current universe; some, an all-consuming fire; some, an avenging Kalki who would ride on a white horse to transform a holy remnant of humanity and begin a new golden age referred to as the Krta yuga. Other, though not mutually exclusive end-time beliefs focus more sublimely on the cosmic closing of Vishnu’s eyes that would bring the resolution of the current universe, just as the next opening of his eyes would inaugurate yet another new universe through the “Golden Embryo” that is Brahma. Commonly included in most of these end-time beliefs has been the notion that, of the yugas (time units that last hundreds of millions of years) of this universe, the world currently exists in its last and most corrupt phase, the Kali yuga. Precisely how many solar years a yuga includes and where the universe lies in the span of this yuga has provided a source of considerable speculation. Because of this lack of agreement on when the end-time may arrive, Hinduism’s long history has been punctuated by incidents of apocalyptic fervor whenever believers have expected that the end was at hand.
Buddhist end-time beliefs have been established primarily among Mahayana Buddhism and have focused primarily on the Maitreya Buddha. Writers of Mahayana Buddhist scriptures looked forward to the Maitreya Buddha, who would bring in his wake the end of the world as we know it, with or without a catastrophic prelude. End-time beliefs of Mahayana Buddhism do not appear to necessitate widespread immorality or decay but do anticipate the complete abandonment of Buddha’s teachings or dharma. In the wake of a world that would completely forget Buddha Shakyamuni’s (also spelled Sakyamuni) dharma, the Maitreya Buddha would arrive as the new and final Buddha. Some of the end-time visionaries anticipated that the final Buddha would be the world’s ruler, who would teach pure dharma that would bring an end to war, disease, and even death, effecting a transformation of the world as we know it but not its end.
End-time beliefs exist not only within universalizing cultic systems but also within the religious imagination that is more local in scope. Local or regional cults, however, offer the added interpretive challenge of distinguishing between indigenous and colonizing beliefs. Native American end-time narratives, for example, stubbornly frustrate attempts to separate original elements from Christian incursions. End-time beliefs that have incorporated obvious influences from the colonizing cult of Christianity include, perhaps most famously, the multitribal Ghost Dance of the late 19th century. This apocalyptic cult developed from the vision of a Paiute shaman named Wovoka, who prophesied the final coming of Christ, a new Earth that would be inherited by Indian peoples, and, in some accounts, the obliteration of all white peoples.
Other end-time beliefs appear to have less explicitly Christian influence. Originators of the White Buffalo Calf Woman legend of the Lakota Sioux, for example, spoke of the promise of her return. Far from being apocalyptic, this “return” would encourage transformation through human, cultic, or environmental renewal on the rare occasion of the birth of a white buffalo. Yet, although centuries-old versions of the story lack any accompanying end-time expectation, the mere fact of the explicit “return” narrative has fueled end-time speculation when white buffalos have been calved.
Modern end-time cults offer a blend of secular anxiety and New Age interpretations of traditional religion that results in the cult’s particular recipe for apocalypse. Rather than developing their own end-time narratives, these cult systems have usually accepted the inherited end-time narratives of the predominant religious tradition and have modified that narrative depending on the cult’s own doctrinal particularities. In this sense they can be seen as amalgam cults that not infrequently include conscious or subconscious accommodation to modernity. Examples include Japanese end-time cults based in Buddhism, Shintoism, Christianity, new religious movements, or combinations thereof; and American end-time cults being based in Christian apocalypticism onto which New Age elements can be grafted. Like their historic Christian predecessors, non- or quasiChristian cults such as Heaven’s Gate, People’s Temple, and the Branch Davidians of Waco, Texas, have had immediate end-time expectations. Some of these expectations have been realized through cult members’ own actions, for example, when People’s Temple or Heaven’s Gate members realized their own communal end-time through mass suicide.
In addition to explicitly religious end-time beliefs, nominally secular environmental activists have taken on quasi-religious fervor in their beliefs that the end-time is near. These beliefs have included the idea that humanity actively perpetuates the species’ own demise or even ecocide. Such beliefs have inspired some to work to interrupt or reverse the environmental degradation. Others have sought to promote the environmental decay, hastening the decimation or destruction of the human species in order to save the planet for other, more benign life forms.
Fervent belief in the apocalypse, no matter its religious or secular origin, can take on characteristics of being a religion itself. A belief system that focuses on an apocalyptic end-time is sometimes referred to as apocalypticism. In a world where end-time books and films have proliferated and record numbers of Americans have believed that some Christian apocalyptic vision would be realized in their lifetime, apocalypticism carries tremendous cultural, social, and political power.
Throughout the history of apocalyptic movements, the marginalized, colonized, and persecuted have been attracted to apocalypses that could promise the destruction of the persecutors and the reversal of the social hierarchy. Ancient Persian Zoroastrians provided a classic example of end-time beliefs from both of these divergent cultural contexts: An ascendant Persia produced an end-time narrative resulting in blissful global family reunion, and an occupied Persia produced an apocalypse ending in bliss for the Zoroastrian faithful but doom for their Roman invaders. Currently, however, it has been leaders and significant numbers of people in the wealthiest and most powerful countries who have been vigorous promoters of apocalypticism, with some of these leaders controlling the military wherewithal to create an apocalyptic reality. This makes understanding apocalypticism a serious if not urgent area of study.
American Christian apocalypticism has continued the tradition inherited from early Christianity, the medieval church, and the Puritans that the endtime is near. Two thousand years figures prominently in the mythology of the Christian eschaton, based on the most liberal interpretation of the endtime timeline in the Book of Revelation. After the year 2000 CE arrived without the anticipated apocalypse, some Christian apocalypticists extended that 2,000-year marker, revising it to some time within a generation of the turn of the millennium. Due to some perceived problems with the accuracy of the Christian calendar, some have extended the coming apocalypse to centuries in the future.
Topics common to end-time beliefs have included (1) timelines; (2) speculation on the origin of the end-time; (3) dualistic elements of (a) particularity versus universality, (b) bliss versus punishment, and (c) global transformation versus annihilation; and finally, (4) the appropriate cultic responses to the coming end.
Timelines of end-time beliefs vary from “soon” to “far in the future.” Rare is the end-time vision that has provided precise names and dates. And when that has occurred, their followers have been prone to find room for interpretive liberality once that date has passed or the history of the named person has failed to fit the prophecy.
Speculation about the ultimate source of the endtime itself varies in connection with the theological commitments of the believer. End-time beliefs of theistic cults favor divine or semidivine retribution. Nontheistic cults such as Buddhism and secular beliefs such as those of environmentally committed activists often invoke themes of a humanity that would bring about its own destruction.
Dualistic elements such as universal bliss versus universal punishment abound between competing narratives as well as sometimes within the same end-time scenario. The writers of the Book of Revelation, for example, seem to have invited various and self-contradictory interpretations regarding whether sinners would be permanently tortured, fatally extinguished, or miraculously renewed and made ready to enter a new Earth where the only distinction between the renewed sinner and the saint would be the inability of the former to enter the heavenly city. Thematic elements also vary such as whether the apocalypse would result in a complete or a partial catastrophe and whether the destiny of the planet would include total destruction on one extreme versus complete renewal on the other, with interim possibilities including partial renewal or partial destruction.
Finally, end-time beliefs have inspired various responses from their believers in the form of cultic or social action. Some end-time beliefs simply demand that their particular end-time story be read or told. Others encourage cult members to ritually enact the main elements of the narrative. And, rarely, still other belief systems encourage the instigation of actions to effect the conditions for the beginning of the end-time itself. Some believers act to forestall the end-time. Others work to speed the end-time along.
David V. McFarland
See also Apocalypse; Bible and Time; Christianity; Ecclesiastes, Book of; Judaism; Nirvana; Parousia; Revelation, Book of; Time, End of; Time, Sacred; Zoroaster
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Lincoln, B. (1983). The earth becomes flat: A study of apocalyptic imagery. Comparative Studies in Society and History, 25(1), 136-153.
Strozier, C. (1994). Apocalypse: On the psychology of fundamentalism in America. Boston: Beacon Press.
Thompson, D. (1996). The end of time: Faith and fear in the shadow of the millennium. London: Sinclair- Stevenson.