My family was big on apocalypse. My Calvinist grandmother and my anti-nuclear father were both convinced, in different ways, that the end was nigh. For my father and me, this manifested in building an amateur bunker in preparation for nuclear Armageddon. The apocalypse mindset was passed on through our family, though over the years it morphed into new forms.
Since childhood, I had subscribed to the population explosion doomsday theory that was prevalent from the 1960s until quite recently. I then moved on to believing in the new Ice Age apocalypse prediction of the 1970s. In the 80s and 90s, it was first the acid rain and then the AIDS apocalypse. Then it was the Y2K millennium bug apocalypse, which would wipe out all technology in the year 2000. Then I feared that our fossil fuels would run out, with the result that seven eighths of the world population would die off, as the peak oil theorists claimed.
Some time in my mid-forties, I came to realise that every few years I required a new apocalypse as the expiry date ran out on the previous one. It was as if there were an apocalypse-shaped slot in my mind that had to be periodically filled with new content. This struck me as a mental health issue. Was I really looking for new Armageddons, so that I could feel under threat all the time? Was this a dependency? Was I addicted to apocalypses?
Rather than searching for a new cataclysm, I decided to take a step back and ask: why am I drawn to the apocalypse narrative in the first place? And is it just me? Western culture seems obsessed with apocalypses: from those preached by tele-evangelists, to the ravings of terrorists and cults and the fantasy scenarios depicted in blockbuster movies.
As John Gray writes in Black Mass: Apocalyptic Religion and the Death of Utopia, “The political violence of the modern West can only be understood as an eschatological phenomenon.” We have lived within the apocalyptic mindset for two thousand years and it has shaped the evolution of our culture, arts, philosophy and even psychology in ways we’re probably still not fully aware of.
So where did the apocalypse story originate?
No Heaven, Hell or Apocalypse in the Old Testament
In the western world, we tend to think that the belief in doomsday is universal, international and timeless, but this eschatology is actually tied to one small area of the world—the Middle East—at one very specific moment in history.
Most faiths view time and cosmology as cyclical, with eras or epochs that move from birth through maturity, decay and destruction to cosmic rebirth, after which the cycle repeats for all eternity. Such beliefs are most often associated with Buddhism and Hinduism (The Wheel of Time) but they also exist in the faiths of the Mayans, Aztecs and ancient Egyptians, as well as among the Hopi, Q’ero and many other First Nations and aboriginal peoples. Cyclic rebirth is also a tenet of Taoism and some Chinese folk religions, influenced the thirteen-century Nordic belief in Ragnarök and is an element of Jainism. There are several exceptions—such as the eternal afterlife creed of the Zoroastrians and the apocalyptic beliefs of the thirteenth-century Japanese Nichiren Buddhists—but otherwise, before the spread of Christianity, the idea of a linear end time barely existed. Instead, most of the world conceived of time as cyclical.
Even early Judaism was not apocalyptic at all. According to New Testament scholar, Bart D. Ehrman, “There is no place of eternal punishment in any passage of the entire Old Testament. In fact—and this comes as a surprise to many people—nowhere in the Hebrew Bible is there any discussion at all of heaven and hell as places or rewards and punishments for those who have died.”
Ehrman claims that, before the New Testament, the idea of the apocalypse—the cataclysmic moment at which every soul is sent to everlasting heaven or hell—simply does not exist and there is no eternal life of torment for the dead. The dead simply remain in Sheol, the grave or pit: eternal nothingness is their only punishment. The heaven that was promised by late Judaism and early Christianity, Ehrman claims, was very much in this world: “Jesus believed eternal life was lived in the body here on earth.”
Ehrman argues that, when the apocalypse and resurrection narrative appears in late Hebrew texts, such as Ezekiel and Isaiah—“Your dead shall live, their corpses shall rise”—this is about the “afterlife of the nation.” For the Israelite prophets, “the ‘resurrection’ was not something to happen at the end of human history when individual bodies returned for eternal reward or punishment. It was instead a metaphor for the nation being given new life.”
This political dream arose amid intense geopolitical conflict, as the Jews struggled for control of Jerusalem for more than eight hundred years, while they were subjected to Assyrian (722–539 BCE) Persian (529–244 BCE) and Hellenistic rule (334–323 BCE) and finally subjugated by the Roman military.
In response, over the two centuries before Christ, many of the colonised Israelites began to believe that a messiah would come to destroy the colonisers.
The Military Messiah and Linear Time
Our ideas about a peaceful messiah and his end time prophecies are all wrong, claims anthropologist Marvin Harris: “What people fail to realise about these vengeful prophesies is that they were made in conjunction with actual wars of liberation waged under the leadership of real-life military messiahs … From the gospels alone you would never know that Jesus spent most of his life in the central theatre of one of history’s fiercest guerrilla uprisings.”
Christ was not a preacher of peace, Harris and Ehrman claim, but just one in a line of “Jewish military messiahs.” As Ehrman says, “The cult of the vengeful messiah was rooted in the practical struggle against Roman colonialism.”
Citing Josephus (37–100 CE), a Jewish defector to the Romans, Harris argues that Jesus was one of five such rebel leaders—each declared King of the Jews—who lived between 40 BCE and 73 CE. The Jews, he claims “consistently believed the messiah would be the great and powerful ruler who delivered Israel from its oppressors” and rebuilt a “great Jewish empire.”
According to Harris, Christ was aggressive and nationalistic. As evidence, he cites Luke 22:36, where Christ says, “He that hath no sword, let him sell his garment and buy one.” If you take the New Testament at its word, Harris says, “Least of all would you ever suspect that Jesus himself died a victim of the Roman attempt to destroy the military-messianic consciousness of the Jewish revolutionaries.”
A sudden dramatic shift occurred in the apocalypse narrative in the generations following Christ’s death, Ehrman explains: “before the birth of Christianity, no one thought the messiah would be someone who would die and be raised from the dead.” The historic disappointment of Jesus’ death prompted a necessary rewriting of the meaning of the death of the messiah.
So the apocalypse changed from the dream of a victorious military insurgency against the Roman Empire, to a promise of universal destruction and eternal afterlife in another realm. It moved from the geographically local to the infinite and universal. The ideas of heaven and hell became abstracted: hell was no longer endless nothingness in the grave, but eternal torment for one’s enemies, in an ethereal realm. The apocalypse would no longer happen during the lifetimes of Christ’s followers, as they had been led to believe—”Truly I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things take place” (Mark 13:26–30)—instead, the Christ cult would have to wait indefinitely for a post-mortem second coming, in which linear time would end and the entire world would be destroyed.
So why did the apocalypse narrative change so dramatically?
The Great Defeat and the Birth of a Universal End Time
The apocalypse narrative underwent its greatest change following an event that upturned the Judeo-Christian world: the second destruction of the temple of Jerusalem by the Romans in 70 CE and the final defeat of the great revolt in Judea.
According to Harris, the defeat caused such shame and confusion that all memory of it was suppressed. From reading the Bible, he says, “you could never guess that in 68 A.D. the Jews went on to stage a full-scale revolution that required the attention of six Roman Legions under the command of two future Roman Emperors before it was brought under control [in 73 CE]. According to Josephus, 1.1 million Jewish non-combatants died during the siege and military takeover and 97,000 Jews were enslaved. Jerusalem was burned to the ground and the survivors dispersed. The long awaited Jewish and Christian goal of establishing a Holy Jewish Empire was over. Defeat was total.
But surely the New Testament, with its blood-soaked vision of the apocalypse, was written before the cataclysm of 70 CE?
Apparently not. Ehrman states, “It is now widely acknowledged that the earliest gospel was Mark, written around 70 CE; the last was probably John written around 90–95 CE.” Fearful for their lives, the authors—highly educated Greek-speaking Christians living under persecution in other parts of the Roman empire, two generations after Christ’s death—deliberately revised the Christ myth. Harris claims,
The decisive break with the Jewish messianic tradition probably came about only after the fall of Jerusalem, when the original politico-military components in Jesus’ teachings were purged by Jewish Christians living in Rome and other Roman cities of the empire, as an adaptive response to the Roman victory … it quickly became a practical necessity for Christians to deny that their cult had arisen out of the Jewish belief in a messiah who was going to topple the Roman Empire.
Paradoxically, this violent apocalyptic cult reinvented itself as a cult of peace in times of defeat, out of geopolitical necessity. Christ was reconceived as a pacifist and the promised land relocated far from Judea, in an abstract heaven. Christianity also had to extend entry rights to its movement to non-Jews in order to survive: it could not have spread through the Roman Empire if it had not accommodated itself to Roman culture and universalised its message. Once again, the local was transformed into the universal. This is what Harris calls “[Saint] Paul’s attempt to obscure the Jewish military-messianic origins of the Jesus movement.”
By why should pacifists cling to the idea of a world-ending universal apocalypse?
A Revenge Fantasy for a Traumatized People
Religious scholar Dereck Daschke has pointed to the relationship between traumatic experience and the emergence of apocalyptic thought in post-70 CE Judaism and early Christianity. The apocalypse narrative is a collective response to the trauma of the military destruction of the Holy Land, and the sense of a “world shattered by unexpected, unexplained pain and disillusionment.” In this light, the Day of Judgement could be seen as an all too human fantasy of final, irrevocable justice, dreamed up by a defeated religious group subjected to seemingly never-ending violent injustice. And since the Roman Empire encompassed the entirety of their then known world, the Christian apocalypse extended to the limits of that world, morphing into a universal punishment imposed on the entire human race.
Violent flashbacks, psychotic delusions and recurring fantasies of destruction and revenge are common among people who have suffered serious trauma. The early Christians may have been experiencing a kind of PTSD, which was reinforced in the echo chambers of their isolated groups. The Book of Revelation, written around 96 CE—more than twenty years after the fall of Jerusalem—reads like a psychotic hallucination, with its Jesus with eyes “aflame of fire,” wearing a garment “dipped in blood” and ruling the nations with “a rod of iron.” This is a powerful sublimated revenge fantasy.
The problem with such revenge narratives, as neuroscientists now understand, is that, as they relive the foundational trauma, they trap the victim in a loop that retraumatises them. The Apocalypse of John, the twenty-four pages that end the Bible, is the trauma nightmare on which Christianity was founded. As Michel Barkun puts it, “the entire New Testament canon is apocalyptic, in other words Apocalypticism is Christianity.”
This revenge fantasy of a traumatised people became a faith that spread like fear throughout the western world over the next thousand years, retraumatising generation after generation, while the connection to the original historical trauma event was lost.
The Reverse Colonisation of the Romans
In the three centuries after 70 CE, Christianity developed even more universalist abstractions of the afterlife, when it fused with Neoplatonism and adopted the Platonic ideal of the realm of pure forms and the notion of the One. Christians reimagined Plato’s abstract realm of pure forms as a place that Christian souls could inhabit after death. This new ethereal promised land, far from the bloody soil of Israel, also permitted the entry of the resurrected flesh and bones of believers. This is why Fernando Pessoa characterises Christianity as “the degeneration of a debased Neo-Platonism” and why Nietzsche refers to it as “Platonism for the masses.”
In a kind of reverse colonisation, the Christians appropriated the beliefs of the Greeks and Romans. Their Day of Judgement became the narrative gateway between this Earth and the realm of pure ideas. Apocalypse was the narrative device required to fuse Christianity onto Neo-Platonism—a fusion that ensured its spread throughout the Roman Empire, where Neoplatonism was the dominant philosophy of the elites from 230 to 529 CE. The Neoplatonist scholar St. Augustine did more than anyone else to influence what Christianity would become over the next thousand years, and he recalculated the final day of the apocalypse as taking place 300 years after his lifetime.
The Christian apocalypse narrative spread voraciously as the Roman Empire reshaped and propagated Christianity. It was not until the fourth century that the twenty-seven books of the New Testament were compiled, the texts deemed apocrypha discarded and the Book of Revelation became part of the canon (around 367 CE). It was just one of at least eleven books of apocalypse that had proliferated post-70 CE.
As the Roman Empire began to fall in the fourth century, this too was interpreted by Christians as the beginning of their long awaited end time. In the seventh century, the apocalypse narrative was adopted wholesale by Islam, where it was embellished with a complex eschatology of signs of the end times and with even greater post-mortem punishments and pleasures following the Day of Judgement.
Over the next millennium, many sects and prophets predicted the date of the end of the world, which was supposed to occur in the years 786, 793, 800, 970, 992, 1000, 1033, 1184, 1260, 1284, 1290, 1306, 1335, 1367, 1370, 1378, 1420 and 1496. There were a further thirty-five failed occurrences of the last day before the year 1700. Seventy-three last days came and went in the twentieth century and twenty have already passed in the twenty-first.
Believers tend to read the apocalypse in terms of the political struggles of their own eras. As the apocalypse has failed to transpire, again and again, the narrative has had to adapt to survive, mutating through different religious factions, cults, death cults and political movements, retraumatising adherents as it moves through time.
The Repurposing of the Apocalypse that Never Comes
By the middle ages, the second coming was already a thousand years too late, so Christians began to distort their own narrative: they no longer had to wait for the apocalypse and final judgement, but could bring it about by their own actions. This justified the systemic violence of the crusades, the Spanish Inquisition and, later, the Reformation.
In 1213, Pope Innocent III used apocalyptic theology to rally Europe to a fifth crusade to capture Jerusalem and the Holy Land from the Ayyubid Empire. The rise of Islam, he claimed, was a sign of the reign of the Antichrist, whose defeat would usher in the second coming.
In mid-seventeenth-century Civil War England, the Puritans emerged, together with a proliferation of millennial and millenarian cults, such as the Anabaptists, and later the Mennonites, Amish and Hutterites. The Puritans’ flight from Europe to the Americas echoed the exodus of the Jews a thousand years before, and the New World was confused with the New Jerusalem that had been prophesied to emerge after the apocalypse. Yet again, persecuted believers fantasised that they were living through the last days and that their oppressors would soon face a bloody day of reckoning. Even Christopher Columbus saw himself as a millenarian leader bringing about the second coming of Christ and ushering in the millennium, Christ’s thousand-year reign (Revelation 20:1–6).
The founding beliefs of America’s Puritan settlers were deeply apocalyptic and America therefore became the new epicentre of the apocalyptic narrative. From the founding fathers to present day leaders, Americans have talked of American exceptionalism, America as a beacon of hope and of America’s manifest destiny.
The Apocalypse Narrative and the Utopians
The French Revolution, as secular as it believed itself to be, was contaminated by the Christian apocalypse narrative, as we see reflected its violent revolutionary culling of the sinful and its invocation of a day of final judgement, the Reign of Terror, followed by a thousand-year reign of peace in the republic. Revolutionaries like Jean-Jacques Rousseau believed that they would end history, restart from Year One and return humanity to its prelapsarian state, in which the ideals of equality and liberty would once again reign in “perpetual peace.” This is what M. H. Abrams calls “apocalypse by revolution,” a “secular means of renovating the world.”
The English Puritans also saw the 1793 French Reign of Terror as a sign of the end times. According to Abrams, there was “a chorus of prophets who invested the political events in France with the explosive power of the great Western myth of apocalypse, and so expanded a local phenomenon into the perfervid expectation that man everywhere was at the threshold of an earthly paradise restored.”
From the eighteenth to mid-nineteenth century, America experienced its “second great awakening,” with the explosion of hundreds of protestant and utopian sects, all preaching damnation, salvation and that the end is nigh. They further distorted the original narrative: the believers would now bring about the end time through the sheer power of faith. The failure of the 1834 and 1844 Doomsday prophecies of the Millerites (the Great Disappointment) resulted in a breakaway faction now known as the Seventh Day Adventists. The Millerites also laid the foundation for the Jehovah’s Witnesses.
The belief in creating a new Jerusalem on virgin soil is not unique to religious groups: it also permeates the language of nineteenth-century American utopian socialism, which inspired many communitarian experiments, such as the Owenite colony at New Harmony, the Fourierist utopians, the Brook Farm Transcendentalist Unitarians and the Onedia community. Ironically, many of the groups that attempted to create new secular utopias adopted the narratives of a heaven on earth and a dying world and thus western radical secularism embedded itself ever deeper within the apocalypse myth.
It was through these pioneering Christian socialists and the merging of Christian progressivism with the foundations of the American progressive era that the apocalypse narrative survived the twentieth-century collapse of faith in Christianity.
The apocalypse narrative mutated once again to survive in this new environment. We could call the new form, which is still alive and well today, secular apocalypticism.
The Apocalypse Narrative Infects Secularism
As philosopher John Gray explains in Black Mass: Apocalyptic Religion and the Death of Utopia, the ideological narratives of Marxism and ecologism have unconsciously absorbed the Christian apocalypse narrative. One of Friedrich Engels’ cited sources of proto-revolutionary inspiration was the Münster Rebellion of 1534. Ostensibly an early communist revolt, it was led by an eschatological millenarian Anabaptist sect, who preached a fusion of revolution and apocalyptic retribution.Marx imbibed the idea that history has an end point and purpose from Hegel; Hegel absorbed it from radical Protestantism. In Marx’s writings, the apocalypse narrative morphs into a belief in the inevitability of the stages of history and the teleological project of progress. Heaven on earth will arise following a fated destruction. Looking back, Marx is “a formidable prophet whose writings prophesied an apocalypse and redemption,” an example of what John Gray describes when he writes, “Where the west is distinctive is in using force and terror to alter history and perfect humanity … in the twentieth century [apocalyptic beliefs] were embodied in secular regimes that aimed to remake humanity by force.”
When these secular western apocalyptic beliefs were exported to twentieth-century Asia, the results were cataclysmic. In Cambodia, Marxist teleology and eschatology became the apocalypse cult of Pol Pot with his Year Zero, leading to the genocide of nearly a quarter of Cambodia’s population. In Mao Zhedong’s Communist China, the apocalypse narratives of the Cultural Revolution and the Great Leap Forward led to 15–55 million deaths. Both regimes exploited the same idea that terror and destruction can bring about a day of judgment, followed by a reign of peace. The language of Mao was that of the western apocalyptic tradition that had lain hidden within Marxism. “Don’t make a fuss about a world war,” Mao said, “At most, people die … Half the population wiped out … It’s best if half the population is left, next best one-third.”
Nazism was also inspired by the apocalyptic Christian idea of the purifying cataclysm that would usher in the thousand-year reign. Even the name the Third Reich drew directly from the Christian millenarian narrative of the teleological three ages of history.
At the height of the Cold War in the 1970s and 80s, CND (the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament) also put forward the nuclear war apocalypse thesis with a repent or the apocalypse will be nigh narrative. CND has been in decline since the end of the Cold War, but Christian CND (CCND) has turned out to be the most enduring element of the movement.
The late twentieth century brought a huge resurgence in eschatological passion, as the USA’s apocalypse obsession hit the emerging youth culture, producing the apocalyptic death cults of the Manson Family, Jim Jones’ People’s Temple, David Koresh’s Branch Davidians and the Heaven’s Gate cult. The American model spread worldwide, inspiring the murderous Japanese cult Aum Shinrikyo (1995) and the mass suicide cult of the Order of the Solar Temple in Geneva (1997).
The most radical ecologists also follow a version of the Christian model of a violent civilisational collapse caused by man’s sins. Today’s eco-protest movement, Extinction Rebellion, with its claims that “our earth is dying” and that “billions of children will die” and its staged environmental die-ins, has often been described as cult-like, millenarian and “death-obsessed.” Their claims that “we are in the sixth mass extinction event,” their banners reading Are We the Last Generation? and their public displays of penitence all directly reference the early Christ cult—although most supporters of Extinction Rebellion would not accept that lineage. As we’ve seen, wherever there is historical trauma, the apocalypse narrative adapts to suit the new terrain.
Many of the radical ecologists’ future plans for a post-scarcity world present images of heaven, featuring bright sunlight, clean air, pure architectural forms at one with nature, and animals and children frolicking over verdant pastures. Luxury eco-communism merges all these strands of apocalyptic narrative into a vision of a perfectly planned, sustainable, egalitarian society brought about following the supposedly inevitable prophesied cataclysmic collapse of industrial capitalism.
Eco activist Greta Thunberg’s hosts at the World Economic Forum openly situate her in an apocalyptic context and a 2020 portrait of Thunberg even depicts her surrounded by eschatological references. The wild animals in the picture reference the apocalypse of Isaiah (9:6–7; 65:20): “The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion … and a little child shall lead them.”
Apocalyptic eschatology haunts our modern ideal of progress. How often in today’s politics do we hear the message that we must progress towards human perfection or face apocalypse?
Again and again throughout western history, we see exactly the same narrative model. If someone is telling you that their plan for a society of perfect peace has to come about to avert the destruction of the world, that is the apocalypse narrative.
And this is accompanied by the same dark flip side that has come to us all the way from the first Christians: a subconscious yearning for the end of all things, for a bloody revenge against the world as it is.
But is it psychologically healthy for modern cultures to continually retraumatise themselves by keeping the apocalypse narrative alive, no matter how secular its current metamorphoses are? Shouldn’t we acknowledge that the evolution of the idea of apocalypse has been chaotic, that the history shaped by those who believe in apocalypse has been a violent mess? Shouldn’t we give up our sublimated revenge fantasies and move on?
I no longer buy into the apocalypse narrative. But the question is: can we live without this narrative, given that it underlies nearly all our belief systems? How can we get rid of this dubious and dangerous belief, in a world that insists on framing every event as a signal that we must do penance because the end is nigh?