Sunday, 8 May 2011

Apocalyptic beliefs - A summary

In recent posts, I have been examining the apocalyptic beliefs found in Judaism, Christianity, other religions and secular political ideologies.  It's now time to sum up.

Judaeo-Christianity: The End Times

Old Testament ideas about the end times were centred on the notion of the Day of Yahweh.  This was a terrible day of darkness, violence and desolation, although it also meant deliverance for the righteous of Israel.  This conception was developed significantly with the advent of the apocalyptic movement.  Apocalyptic writings, which are found in numerous texts in both Testaments and in extra-biblical literature, consistently exhibit a number of distinctive themes (though not all of them appear in every text):

•  There will be a time of wickedness and immorality.

•  Tribulations will be suffered, involving both human events (war, persecutions) and disarray in the natural order.

•  A messianic figure will appear.  This was obviously identified by Christians with Jesus Christ.

•  God will judge the world.

•  The wicked will be damned.

•  The elect will receive eternal happiness in a utopia.

Judaeo-Christianity: The Messiah

The Jewish conception of the Messiah in the Old Testament is that of a perfect king sent by Yahweh to reign in prosperity and justice.  This king would be descended from David and would be a kind of David reborn.  He would possess exceptional virtues and talents.  The Messiah later came to be conflated with another eschatological figure, the Son of Man.  The Son of Man, rather than being a human king, was a transcendent, superhuman figure who would execute judgement at the end of time.  Both of these conceptions fed into Christian beliefs about Jesus Christ.

By contrast, the belief also existed that an exceptionally wicked figure or figures would appear in the end times.  This belief in manifested in Ezekiel's writings about Gog and Magog and in the Christian idea of the Antichrist.

Other belief systems

The developed pattern of apocalyptic motifs set out above is to some extent culturally specific to Judaeo-Christianity, though it heavily influenced Islam (it resembles Zoroastrian doctrine too).  The motif of a last judgement followed by the damnation of the wicked, for example, is mostly associated with the Abrahamic religions.

However, there is a pronounced cross-cultural pattern that emerges from a study of non-Judaeo-Christian belief systems.  It underlies beliefs found in Indian and Chinese religion and in political ideologies like fascism and Marxism.

The basic 'shape' of the apocalyptic myth seems to be (1) an era of degeneracy and evil, transformed by (2) a messiah figure, into (3) a utopian new world.  These events are often accompanied by disarray in the natural order.