Imagining the Future   /   Spring 2008   /    Articles

Apocalypse During Our Time?

David Cook

Introduction:  Apocalyptic and Apocalypticism


Beliefs that the world’s imminent end is a predictable, known event are common within the three great monotheistic religions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. The classical literary apocalypse became popular within Jewish writings (most especially the biblical book of Daniel) around the second century B.C.E. By the rise of Christianity, it was important for believers to know the signs of the end, and there seems little doubt that many were converted to the new faith precisely because of the apparent correlation between events and prophecies. This correlation gave hope to the believers, especially during times of persecution, and enabled them to feel some control over the future. By the time the Christian Bible was assembled, significant literary apocalypses were included in it (most notably Matthew 24 and the book of Revelation).

Understandably, rabbinical and ecclesiastical elites have always been ambivalent towards the power of apocalypse. The fact that apocalypse represents a source of power outside of hierarchical control, and is often even hostile to it, is just one of the problems inherent in apocalypse. In many cases, the uncontrolled nature of popular messianic and apocalyptic speculation led directly to the creation of off-shoots of the major religions (such as Christianity itself ) and frequent civil disorders. By the rise of Islam during the seventh century, apocalyptic interpretations of the Bible were largely pushed to the sidelines or safely buried under layers of interpretation. Islam, however, founded upon the Prophet Muhammad’s preaching of the imminent Last Day and the cataclysmic destruction of the world, followed by massive conquests and a complete realignment of the Middle East, changed all that.

To read the full article online, please login to your account or subscribe to our digital edition ($25 yearly). Prefer print? Order back issues or subscribe to our print edition ($30 yearly).