Sunday, 8 May 2011

The messiah and the apocalypse outside Judaism and Christianity

The themes that I have been exploring in Judaeo-Christian apocalyptic literature are found in other religious and secular belief systems too.  Interestingly, this appears to be equally the case whether time is seen in those systems as being linear or cyclical.

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.  The Judaeo-Christian tradition, followed by Islam, added the concept of a judgement by God and the damnation of the wicked, together with various supernatural evil figures like the Antichrist, Gog and Magog.


As one would expect, Islam has borrowed heavily from Judaeo-Christian beliefs about the end times.

It is quite well known that Muslims expect the coming of the Mahdi, the Islamic messiah who will reign in righteousness where previously there had been oppression:

Hadhrat Abu Saeed Khudri (RA) relates that Rasulullah (SAW) said: Al Mahdi will be from my progeny.... He will fill the world with justice and fairness at a time when the world will be filled with oppression. He will rule for seven years.

The Prophet (SAW) said: Allah will bring out from concealment al-Mahdi from my family and just before the day of Judgment; even if only one day were to remain in the life of the world, and he will spread on this earth justice and equity and will eradicate tyranny and oppression.

There are also villanous eschatological beings who will appear, namely Masih ad-Dajjal, the Islamic antichrist, and the biblical Gog and Magog (Ya'juj and Ma'juj).  Jesus will also return.  There will be disorder in nature, and Allah will pass judgement on the righteous and the wicked, who will respectively inherit paradise and hell:

When the sun is wrapped up [in darkness]
And when the stars fall, dispersing,
And when the mountains are removed...
And when the seas are filled with flame
And when the souls are paired...
And when Hellfire is set ablaze
And when Paradise is brought near,
A soul will [then] know what it has brought [with it].

(Qur'an, 81.1-14)


In Buddhist tradition, mankind will become wicked and the Dharma will disappear from the earth.  Then a new Buddha, Maitreya, will appear to restore it:

There will arise in the world a Blessed Lord,
an Arahant fully-enlightened Buddha named Metteyya,
endowed with wisdom and conduct,
a Well-Farer, Knower of the worlds,
an incomparable Trainer of men to be tamed,
Teacher of gods and humans,
enlightened and blessed....

He will thoroughly know by his own super-knowledge,
and proclaim, this universe with its devas and maras and Brahmas, its ascetics and Brahmins,
and this generation with its princes and people....
He will teach the Dhamma...
and proclaim, just as I do now, the holy life in its fullness and purity.

(Cakkavatti-Sihanada Sutta, 25)

It is also believed that each great cycle of years (maha-kalpa) ends apocalyptically, with the destruction of the world by water, fire, or wind.


At the end of the current age (yuga), there will be a period of wickedness. Kalki (an avatar of Vishnu) will appear, do battle with the forces of evil, and restore righteousness.

As with Buddhism, the belief exists that the end of the current age, or at the end of a kalpa cycle, the world will be destroyed by fire and water, followed by the return of a new golden age (satya yuga).


Taoist texts such as the Taishang dongyuan shenzhou jing and Nuqing guilu foretell that the ills of the present age will increase into a period of tribulation and cosmic disorder, which will be brought to end end by the coming of a messianic figure, the 'Perfect Lord of Great Peace' or Li Hong.  The wicked will be destroyed, but the elect will survive to experience the new age of Great Peace.

Ancient Rome

It is well known that utopian and messianic themes appear in the work of the great Roman poet Virgil.  He connected these with political events of his own time.

Justice returns, returns old Saturn's reign,
With a new breed of men sent down from heaven.
Only do thou, at the boy's birth in whom
The iron shall cease, the golden race arise,
Befriend him, chaste Lucina; 'tis thine own
Apollo reigns. And in thy consulate,
This glorious age, O Pollio, shall begin,
And the months enter on their mighty march.
Under thy guidance, whatso tracks remain
Of our old wickedness, once done away,
Shall free the earth from never-ceasing fear.
He shall receive the life of gods, and see
Heroes with gods commingling, and himself
Be seen of them, and with his father's worth
Reign o'er a world at peace. For thee, O boy,
First shall the earth, untilled, pour freely forth
Her childish gifts, the gadding ivy-spray
With foxglove and Egyptian bean-flower mixed,
And laughing-eyed acanthus. Of themselves,
Untended, will the she-goats then bring home
Their udders swollen with milk, while flocks afield
Shall of the monstrous lion have no fear.
Thy very cradle shall pour forth for thee
Caressing flowers. The serpent too shall die,
Die shall the treacherous poison-plant, and far
And wide Assyrian spices spring....
(Eclogues, 4)

Then Caesar from the Julian stock shall rise,
Whose empire ocean, and whose fame the skies
Alone shall bound; whom, fraught with eastern spoils,
Our heav'n, the just reward of human toils,
Securely shall repay with rites divine;
And incense shall ascend before his sacred shrine.
Then dire debate and impious war shall cease,
And the stern age be soften'd into peace:
Then banish'd Faith shall once again return,
And Vestal fires in hallow'd temples burn;
And Remus with Quirinus shall sustain
The righteous laws, and fraud and force restrain.
Janus himself before his fane shall wait,
And keep the dreadful issues of his gate,
With bolts and iron bars: within remains
Imprison'd Fury, bound in brazen chains;
High on a trophy rais'd, of useless arms,
He sits, and threats the world with vain alarms.
(Aeneid, 1)


The leading scholar of fascism, Roger Griffin, has identified the myth of "palingenesis", or rebirth, as the keystone of fascism.  Fascist ideology had a millenarian strain which claimed that the nation was sunk in decadence and that the Duce or Fuehrer would lead it into a utopian new age.  Griffin writes in The Nature of Fascism:

[W]hat all permutations of fascism have in common... is that their ideology, policies and any organisations are informed by a distinctive permutation of the myth that the nation needs to be, or is about to be, resurrected Phoenix-like from the forces of decadence, which, without drastic intervention by the forces of healthy nationalism, threaten to extinguish it for ever. Thus, when in an overtly anti-liberal and anti-socialist spirit Fascists celebrated the creation of a Third Rome, Nazis believed they were founding a New (national and European) Order, Mosley promoted the idea of the Greater Britain or Codreanu looked forward to the appearance of the Rumanian New Man, all were being true to the core mobilising myth of fascism.

It is also worth noting that Germany in the years before the arrival of the Third Reich was permeated by politicised messianic expectations (see Klaus Schreiner's essay on the subject in Toward the Millennium: Messianic Expectations from the Bible to Waco, ed. Peter Schäfer and Mark R. Cohen).


The myth of deliverance from capitalist decadence and injustice to the socialist utopia through the epochal violence of the workers' revolution is central to Marxism.  As Marx said in perhaps his best known statement of the ideology of communism:

In a higher phase of communist society, after the enslaving subordination of the individual to the division of labour, and therewith also the antithesis between mental and physical labor, has vanished; after labour has become not only a means of life but life's prime want; after the productive forces have also increased with the all-around development of the individual, and all the springs of co-operative wealth flow more abundantly - only then can the narrow horizon of bourgeois right be crossed in its entirety and society inscribe on its banners: From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs!  (Critique of the Gotha Programme)

Interestingly, Lenin denied that this self-evidently utopian vision was utopian at all:

The state will be able to wither away completely when society adopts the rule: "From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs", i.e., when people have become so accustomed to observing the fundamental rules of social intercourse and when their labor has become so productive that they will voluntarily work according to their ability.  "The narrow horizon of bourgeois law", which compels one to calculate with the heartlessness of a Shylock whether one has not worked half an hour more than anybody else--this narrow horizon will then be left behind. There will then be no need for society, in distributing the products, to regulate the quantity to be received by each; each will take freely "according to his needs". From the bourgeois point of view, it is easy to declare that such a social order is "sheer utopia" and to sneer at the socialists for promising everyone the right to receive from society, without any control over the labour of the individual citizen, any quantity of truffles, cars, pianos, etc. Even to this day, most bourgeois “savants” confine themselves to sneering in this way, thereby betraying both their ignorance and their selfish defence of capitalism.  (The State and Revolution)