“I have even had dreams”
Christian apocalypticism seems to be running rampant in contemporary Western culture. Christians and curious others spend millions of dollars each year for the next book by John Hagee, Tim LaHaye, Pat Robertson, Harold Camping or the like. Christian preachers all around the globe warn of a divine judgment to befall the entire planet in the near, very near future. Lovely little old women and bored old men see signs of things to come around every corner, just as they have for countless generations. Even in daily conversations, echoes of “burn in hell”,” judgment day is coming” and “one day you’ll see, but then it will be too late” ooze through western culture like an overflowing sewer. Torturous, grueling and sometimes graphically described fantasies of pain and torment are often projected on to those who dare to question the legitimacy of the bearer of this so-called “news” of divine judgment.
So, exactly what is Christian apocalypticism, where did it come from and why does it seem pervasive in our culture? Let’s start by looking at the roots of apocalypticism.
Around the turn of the second century BCE, in a geographical locale known as Yehud, later to become Judea and then Palestine, was the city of Jerusalem, the religious-political center of the Yehudim, the Jews. This local traditional culture was being influenced by a burgeoning and dominant Hellenistic culture following on the boot-heels of Alexander the Great. As had always been the case, economically minded and influential Yehudim were often attracted to the social and monetary benefits of assimilating into this wide-reaching and successful culture. More traditional, “Torah observant” members who called themselves the Hasidim, saw this as not only an affront to their society, but to their heritage, to their lineage and most importantly, to their deity.
Around 198 BCE, control of the territory including Yehud was lost by the Ptolemies of Egypt to the south, and became a province of the Seleucid kingdom of Syria to the north. The Seleucids pressed their Hellenistic influence on their territories.
In the third quarter of the second century BCE, The king Antiochus IV Epiphanes invaded Jerusalem. During his visits, he defiled and ravaged the Temple, taking whatever he wanted, setting up a representation of Zeus and offering swine on the sacred altar of the Jerusalem Temple.
“And entered proudly into the sanctuary, and took away the golden altar, and the candlestick of light, and all the vessels thereof And the table of the shewbread, and the pouring vessels, and the vials, and the censers of gold, and the veil, and the crown, and the golden ornaments that were before the temple, all which he pulled off. He took also the silver and the gold, and the precious vessels: also he took the hidden treasures which he found. Taking all this, he went back to his own country, after he had spoken with great arrogance and shed much blood.” (I Mac. 1:21-24)
“Two years later, the king sent the Mysian commander to the cities of Judah, and he came to Jerusalem with a strong force. He spoke to them deceitfully in peaceful terms, and won their trust. Then he attacked the city suddenly, in a great onslaught, and destroyed many of the people in Israel. He plundered the city and set fire to it, demolished its houses and its surrounding walls, took captive the women and children, and seized the cattle.”(I Mac. 1:29-32)
Antiochus issued a decree that “all should be one people, each abandoning his particular customs”(I Mac. 41b-42a) Observance of Torah was outlawed under penalty of death. Those caught with a Torah scroll were executed. Circumcision was forbidden. “Women who had their children circumcised were put to death, in keeping with the decree, with the babies hung from their necks; their families also and those who had circumcised them were killed.”(I Mac. 1:60-61)
The traditional belief of the Jews was that all was of God. Everything was under his control, both good and evil. “I form the light, and create darkness; I make peace, and create evil; I am the LORD, that doeth all these things.” (Isaiah 45:7 – JPS) If, according to their beliefs, they were obedient to God, they should prosper and succeed. If they were disobedient to God, they should fail and suffer. This was their traditional teaching passed down through their holy scriptures known as Deuteronomistic Theology. The fall of Israel in 722 BCE and their own destruction in 587 at the hands of the Babylonians was understood through the eyes of destruction due to disobedience. In the second century BCE, this “theodicy” or “defense of God’s goodness and omnipotence in view of the existence of evil” did not reflect their real-world experience. They were not being punished because they were being disobedient; they were being punished because they were being obedient. This is where the rubber of mythology meets the road of reality.
From this altered state of reality emerged a sectarian world-view and literary genre known today as apocalypticism, from the Greek verb ‘apocalyptein’ meaning “uncover” or “reveal”. The noun is ‘apocalypsis’ and hence the English word apocalypse. Apocalyptics believed that God had “revealed” a new reality to them.
In an apocalyptic writing, (an apocalypse, revealing or revelation) insights into the past, present and future are “revealed” to a seer of a vision. These visions will often be revealed by a divine being. The imagery of the vision can be impossible for the seer to understand, so the divine being will provide clarification. The seers of these pseudonymous writings are often former heroes of ancient Israel. Cosmic events of the future for the long-dead seer more accurately relay earthly trials and events of the author’s own time. Typically the ‘end times’ of the future predictions correlate with the present time of the author/audience.
One early such apocalypse is known as “The Book of the Watchers”, found in I Enoch. Enoch was the mythical son of Jared, the father of Methuselah and great-grandfather of Noah. Hebrew legend told that Enoch had not died, but was one of the two people taken up to heaven by God. Enoch was the supposed seer of the visions in I Enoch.
The Book of the Watchers describes visions of heaven and earth before the flood of Noah. It draws from a small passage of scripture found only in Genesis 6 regarding the ben elohim or sons of God and the nephilim. The sons of God are described as stars and angels who rebelled against God and mated with earth women, because, as we all know, earth girls are easy, and hot !!
The leader of this cosmic rebellion was known as Semyaz and Azaz’el. This fictional character would later be used as the model for the christian Satan. As a result of this extra-terrestrial vaginal invasion, these rebels are tossed out of heaven and into a pit under the earth. The pit would become the Christian Hell. The offspring of these divine creatures grew to be giants who dominated humanity and provided them with tools which brought war and destruction (The Hellenistic influence is evident by comparing the legend of Prometheus). God imprisoned these evil forces and sent the flood to destroy this corrupted world. (One wonders why God chose to destroy all of mankind instead of just destroying the evil forces, rather than simply imprisoning them)
Anyway… I Enoch was redacted and modified over the next few centuries, likely to reflect paradigm shifts within the culture. It was a very popular book in early Christianity, but was ultimately identified as heresy, blacklisted and almost forgotten. Fortunately, English translations can now be found in many book stores and libraries.
This apocalyptic literary genre was common from the second century BCE into the second century CE, thriving at times of intense persecution. As outdated cultures die out, those clinging to the archaic views often go into the darkness kicking and clawing. Several such writings are available today in translated form. The biblical canon contains two such writings, but those only scratch the surface of apocalyptic writing. Early New Testament authors were apocalypticists, but not the only apocalypticists. A portion of the book of Daniel contains apocalyptic visions written against Antiochus Epiphanes and those who were swayed by Greek influence. The Apocalypse of John was written against the Roman Empire and those who were swayed by its influence.
One of the primary literary devices of apocalyptic writing is abstract imagery, often very convoluted and difficult to understand for modern readers, but it would have been clearly understood by the audience of the author’s culture since it drew from mythologies familiar to contemporary readers and listeners. One of the advantages of apocalyptic interpreters is the ability to transfer or project current people, events or circumstances on to those otherwise unclear scenarios.
The problem with apocalyptic thought is that it is always a complete and utter failure. The Maccabeans successfully ousted the Seleucids to establish their kingdom of YHWH but the corruption within their own culture brought in the Roman empire to settle a dispute that, well, didn’t really work out well at all for the Yehudim. In the early Common Era, the Roman Empire wasn’t defeated by the “Army of God”; the Army of God was squashed like a bug under the heels of the overwhelming might of the Romans. Years later the Roman Empire would become the Army of God, but that’s another Constantinian story for another Constantinian time.
Ever since the earliest days of Christianity, these apocalyptic judgments have been looming “just around the corner”. One can go to any point in Christian history and find someone, somewhere crying “The End is Near!” Yet society continues to grow, sometimes faster than others, cultures continue to change and evolve, and the apocalypticists continue their warnings of impending doom.
As Christianity continues to be de-mythologized by science, history, cosmology, archaeology, biology, geology, paleontology and every other -ology imaginable, except perhaps cosmetology, those who feel the most marginalized, the most embarrassed and those left standing in the feces of their own ignorance, will be the ones who cry the loudest.
As we learn more and more about this wonderful world we share, the only thing doomed is apocalyptic thought.