Apocalypse is a term referring to divine revelation of hidden knowledge, usually of the future, conveyed by God through symbolic visions to a chosen prophet or believers. The English term is derived from the Greek apokalypsis (translated variously as “revealing,” “uncovering,” or “lifting the veil”) and related to the Latin revelatio, which conveys a similar meaning. Early Jewish and Christian references understood an apocalypse to include any writings that revealed divine will to humans. Such examples in the Hebrew Bible, or Old Testament, include the appearance of God to Moses on Mount Sinai (Ex 24 and 34) and messages received by prophets, particularly as described in the Books of Daniel, Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel, among others. In the Christian Bible, or New Testament, the words of Jesus are often considered revelations of God's will. This is reinforced in Matthew 11:27: “All things have been delivered to me by my Father; and no one knows the Son except the Father. Nor does anyone know the Father except the Son, and he to whom the Son wills to reveal him.” In the contemporary secular sense, however, “apocalyptic literature” has become generally associated with writings that describe events preceding and culminating in the end of the world in its present form, usually through devastation, without reference necessarily to the salvation of the righteous. While this meaning, which refers exclusively to the “end times,” is not precise, it has derived, in large part, from the last book of the New Testament, the Book of Revelation.
In Christian tradition, Apocalypse is the alternate title for the last book of the New Testament, interchangeably referred to as the Book of Revelation, Apocalypse of John, or the Revelation of Saint John the Divine. It is believed that the term Apocalypse, as a title for the Book of Revelation, was first used by German theologian Gottfried Christian Friedrich Lücke between 1832 and 1852. Lücke applied the term apocalyptic to other writings, such as the Old Testament Book of Daniel, which alluded to the future and, particularly, end times. Lücke also studied and wrote extensively on the authorship of the Book of Revelation, the only completely prophetic book of the New Testament. Apocalyptic passages are also found briefly in the Gospel of Mark (13:1-37) when Christ reveals signs of the end times to his disciples, involving natural disasters and the rising of false prophets.
The author of the Book of Revelation is self-identified as “John, the servant of God” (1:1); however, it is uncertain whether he is also the apostle John, author of the fourth gospel. John described divinely inspired visions he received on the island of Patmos, off the coast of Turkey, most likely between 68 and 96 CE while he was in exile for preaching Christianity (1:9-10). In John's vision, Christ appears to him and directs him to write to the faithful with words of encouragement as well as warning. The book, comprising 22 chapters, describes the opening of heavenly scrolls containing divine disclosures describing great disasters (6); God's defeat of evil forces in the battle of Armageddon provoked by the false prophet or Antichrist (16:14-16); the Second Coming of Christ (19-20); the establishment of God's kingdom on Earth, referred to as the Millennium or a period of 1,000 years of peace and justice (20); and the final judgment, followed by the descending of a new heaven and earth replacing the old and referred to as the New Jerusalem (21).
The Book of Revelation is addressed to the seven Christian churches of Western Asia, and chapters 1 through 3 refer to each church, specifically warning the faithful not to compromise with the prevailing and dominant pagan beliefs. During the 1st century CE, Christians were considered members of a minor Jewish sect, although a threat to the Roman Empire and thus subject to persecution. Early Christians were also in conflict with Jewish religious authorities and therefore faced conflict on two fronts. Apocalyptic literature, in general, has been addressed to people suffering persecution and seeks to strengthen their fortitude, often predicting the end of the world, when evil will be destroyed and justice will prevail. The Apocalypse of John has been subject to more analysis, perhaps, than any other book of the Judeo-Christian Bible because it is filled with symbolic language and ambiguous imagery open to a wide range of interpretations. The number seven is particularly evident, for instance, in references to seven letters (1), seven torches and seven spirits of God (4:5), seven seals on the scrolls (5:1), the Lamb with seven horns and seven eyes (5:6), seven angels and seven trumpets of warning (8:2), the seven-headed beast (13:1), and seven bowls of God's wrath containing the seven last plagues (15:1). The number four also appears repeatedly. With the breaking of the first seal in chapter 6, John envisions the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse coming forward as destroyers representing Pestilence, War, Famine, and Death, each riding a horse of a different color (white, red, black, and “sickly green,” often referred to as pale).
Because the exact date of the final confrontation is not revealed in the Apocalypse of John, descriptions of the end times marked by famine, war, earthquakes, disease, and natural disasters have been interpreted for centuries as signs of the impending end of the world. Since the 1 st century of the Christian era, periods of extreme crisis and upheaval, either natural or social, have led to resurgences in Millennialism, or the belief that the end times are imminent. Such beliefs were strongly held during the first hundred years after the crucifixion of Christ, reappeared during the medieval period and the Reformation, and have resurfaced in the 19th and 20th centuries. The Holocaust and the post-World War II creation of the state of Israel in 1948 also led to speculation about the fulfillment of prophecy. Twenty-first-century concerns over global survival, including nuclear devastation, global warming, cosmic threats, and the spread of pandemics are seen by some as signs that fulfill the vision of the future as presented in the Apocalypse of John.
Many major world religions and cultures adhere to eschatologies (doctrines concerning the “end times”) that describe the return to Earth of revered deities or prophets and the establishment of justice, usually involving judgment and a battle resulting in the triumph of good over evil and the establishment of a period of peace and justice. In Islamic tradition (particularly Shi'ite) a messianic figure, Mahdi (in Arabic, “divinely guided one”), will bring justice to Earth before the end of the world. Islam, in general, holds that only God or Allah knows the future. However, the Qur'an refers to the end times: “The day will come when this earth will be substituted with a new earth, and also the heavens, and everyone will be brought before God, the One, the Supreme” (14:48). Some Islamic interpretations place that date at 2280 CE, which is revealed through numerological codes within the text. In some Buddhist traditions, Maitreya (the future Buddha) will descend to earth to restore Dharma (the law).
Whereas the Judaic Old Testament provides the basis for belief in the establishment of an eventual messianic kingdom, Christianity holds that the end times have already been initiated with the birth of Jesus Christ in Judea (what is now the West Bank in Israel). Judaism, however, holds that the Old Testament prophecies have not yet been fulfilled, and Jews still await the first coming of the Messiah. However, Christians believe that the Book of Revelation or Apocalypse of John is a prophetic book that serves as culmination of both the Old and New Testaments. But the issues arising from the Apocalypse of John continue to be applied to contemporary events in an effort to interpret the future in light of the present. This is illustrated in Apocalypticism, a contemporary belief that the significance of events, both present and future, is hidden and will be revealed in a major confrontation. It is both a religious and secular concept that is reflected in literal interpretations of the Bible, as well as serving as a secular theme in contemporary art forms, particularly books and films that pit good against evil with the fate of the world hanging in the balance. And theologians, and political and cultural analysts have continued for centuries to debate the identification of the Antichrist and the signs that will indicate the coming of a new order.
In 1947, atomic scientists at the University of Chicago created a symbolic doomsday clock to measure global human survival based on the threat of nuclear war. The clock was set at 7 minutes to midnight, with midnight representing catastrophic destruction. The clock was advanced to 5 minutes to midnight in January 2007, based on nuclear proliferation and environmental factors. Despite these scientific estimations, which have fluctuated over 60 years between 11:43 and 11:58, the future remains hidden and open to speculation. This is reinforced in the Gospel of Mark, when Christ offered an apocalyptic insight to his disciples regarding the destruction of the world in its present form: “As to the exact day or hour, no one knows it, neither the angels in heaven nor even the Son, but only the Father. Be constandy on the watch! Stay awake! You do not know when the appointed time will come” (13:32-33).
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