Introduction - Apocalypse: The Forever Ending Story
The Forever Ending Story: A History of Apocalypse and the Continuing End of Time
J. Scotte Burns II
Life's a laugh and death's the joke, it's true.
You'll see it's all a show,
Keep them laughing as you go.
Just remember that the last laugh is on you.
Always look on the bright side of life.
- Monty Python's Life of Brian
"I don't see why it matters what is written. Not when it's about people. It can always be crossed out."
- Terry Pratchett & Neil Gaiman, Good Omens
The journey to understanding the development and meaning of apocalypse is a fascinating venture, filled with unexpected twists, surprising connections, and humor one is not supposed to indulge - like chuckling at a funeral. Still, some friends are just too spirited to not honor them with a post-mortem laugh. Likewise, fond memories of fears passed deserve an irreverent wink now and then. It is in this spirit that we embark on an amused, yet purposeful voyage through mankind's most intimate fear: The End of Himself. Before exploring the specific elements involved in the evolution of The End however, a more fundamental question must be considered: Did we always think this way, and if not, what happened?
As many of us have grown used to a familiar, static, and seldom questioned chronology of events known as "history", the answers are both refreshing and surprising. When considering apocalyptic thought in particular, it is often simply recalled that apocalypse has something to do with The Book of Revelation (popularly misnamed "Revelations"), about which the church will offer warning whenever necessary. Understanding its origin and meaning is therefore often seen as unnecessary by many that simply believe in it, whatever it is. Most folks also judge themselves at least as being sufficiently sinless to not have to worry too much about being devoured by dragons and spat into lakes of eternal fire. The plan for The End is seen as having been settled and understood in toto throughout Judeo-Christian history anyway, leaving little reason for personal analysis or interpretation.
Among the errors with making the latter assumption is the fact that apocalypse is a literary and cultural tradition that long predates Christianity and its New Testament. As we will see, it existed before the Old Testament, Judaism, and possibly even taxes. Naturally, death is a bit older, or the whole affair would be quite meaningless. What is more, the modern notion of a sequence of events including creation, apostasy, messiah, sacrifice, an uncertain intermission, and then a noisy outburst followed by eternal happiness for the righteous is the End-product of a long and fascinating evolution of inspired myths, political maneuvers, dogma, catastrophes, revivals, misinterpretations, and cultural conditioning. Letting this mixture ferment over time, then baking it in the eager flames of evangelical fervor, results in a spiritual flambeau known as apocalypse - a dish seldom served hotter than today.
The first necessary ingredient is the notion that the world will indeed end. As intuitive as the idea seems today, it wasn't always that way. Unlike creation stories, which everyone worth their salt (1) in the ancient world produced in great variety, the end of the story did not seem to much interest the Egyptians, Sumerians, Babylonians, or proto-Persian cultures who produced our earliest written historical records. Although they differed in many other cultural and philosophical respects, they apparently agreed that the gods had set Creation in perpetual motion, an eternal situation that was just fine by most folks. This is not to say that the ancients were unaware of the chaotic nature of things. Indeed, ancient tales of Marduk, Gilgamesh, and others make fantastic mention of the instability and darkness of the world. Combat myths, such as the destruction of Tiamat by Marduk (2), and the subsequent ordering and creation of the universe were ubiquitous and easily recognizable even by members of otherwise disparate and competitive societies. Such metaphors were the literary devices that provided challenge and intrigue for the perpetual heroes, who vanquished evil and assured that the sun rose for eternity and whatnot. So, gods, people, critters, and tales involving combinations of the three went merrily on, changing, adapting, and expanding, but remaining confident that as things had always been, so they would always be. Then, about four to eight centuries before the creation of the earliest books of the Old Testament came the Persian prophet Zarathustra, known to the Greeks as Zoroaster.
Founding a religion that would inspire subsequent Jewish mythology, Zoroaster’s teachings remained influential through the Muslim conquest of the Middle East in the seventh century, at which point everyone began bowing to Mecca and arguing with the neighbors. As told through its sacred scriptures, known as Avesta, Zoroastrianism focused on the conflict between opposing universal forces. The positive force was known as asha, and its negative counterpart was druj. Each had its representative deity as well. In the white trunks was Ahura Mazda, who created the world and therefore deserved praise and lovely hymns. In the black corner stood Angra Mainyu, agent of evil and chaos. Human beings, as a part of the created world where the conflict between the two sides was to be settled, could serve and stand for either deity, but Zoroastrians were expected to uphold the moral and ethical model of asha, battling evil and sustaining the world in righteousness. And, rather than being good simply by serving priests or offering sacrifices, individual Zoroastrians were expected to personally behave in a particularly virtuous way under the watchful eye of their God. While such a model is theological second nature today, at that time it was a highly unusual development in religious thought. Under this system, good guys and bad guys became wondrously easy to find in a world that also developed another important and novel characteristic: It would end!
In Zoroastrian theology, the conflict between good and evil no longer involved an eternal balance, but instead was to be fought on earth until good triumphed and evil was destroyed forever. Afterward, there would be universal physical resurrection of the dead, so that everyone could be gathered and confronted with their lifetime scorecards of good versus evil acts, judged by God, and then seated accordingly for eternity. Once this assembly had finished its judicial business, the metals of the world would become molten and the judged would have to pass through the resulting rivers and lakes of fire on the way to their expected eternal rewards. (Today, we ritually honor this event in a ceremonial act we call airport security.) The righteous would experience nothing but a warm, fuzzy feeling all over as they passed into paradise, while the damned would be destroyed in a screaming, fiery finale. Human earthly history would pass away as paradise reigned supreme.
In the Zoroastrian hymns known as the Gathas, purportedly composed by Zarathustra himself, this apocalyptic event, roughly translated as "the making wonderful" (Cohn, 1995) was to occur almost at once. When it didn’t do so ahead of the death of the prophet himself, the faithful were forced to be creative in adapting their faith to a dead-living-prophet world. Their inventive response was to imagine a future time when Zarathustra would return to finish his work and bring the world to its tidy and prophesied end. The savior, known as the Saoshyant, would be born of a virgin and would be ultimately responsible for leading the forces of good in the final battle against evil, thereby making the world wonderful.
Once the issue of the death of the prophet was effectively laid to rest, so to speak, the fix produced a new problem. As a growing community of faith, and so a potentially worthwhile source of livelihood and security for its administrators, Zoroastrianism could not have the end coming too soon. So, a series of multi-millennial epochs was conceived in which a new savior, each a version of Zoroaster himself, would appear at regular intervals, thereby marking the ages of man before the final curtain. The whole scheme made a neat picture of the beginning, middle, and end of everything, including god and his pseudonymous messenger.
This tale was so intriguing and powerful that it was adapted and readapted countless times, with various cultures adding splashes of color here and there according to taste and geography. If one happened to live near a major river or other large body of water, the beginning and/or end of everything took on a lovely aquatic quality, including flood stories and rains of unusual items. Mountain peoples were fond of earthier imagery; while legends from the deserts favored animal stories, destructive fires, and so forth. As cultures mingled over the following centuries, so did their religious mythologies and images, until in many places, one couldn’t tell a Zoroastrian from a Mithra devotee (3) from a Christ cultist. Of course, you couldn’t go around telling any of them that - a situation that persists among established religions to this day - because the cultural identities drawn from their perceived differences eventually became much more important to them than their common beliefs. Legends became laws and definitions became dogmas until in time people started believing that God actually cared what people named Him or Her, how meat was cooked, and who owned which strip of otherwise forsaken desert wilderness. It is a strange and marvelous world that we have tried to make wonderful.
The upside to all this was is that it did afford some measure of certainty in what can be an unpredictable and unforgiving world. Once properly seasoned to suit the cultural needs of the populations served, religions based upon a clear and communicable timeline provided a blueprint for proper societal thought and behavior, making getting along with God and one another a much more orderly business. Not that cultural differences in sacred definitions haven't proven nettlesome, as various persecutions, crusades, inquisitions, and ethnic cleansings will testify.(4) Even so, a shared understanding of humankind's meaning and course through God's Plan has provided a significant part of whatever cohesiveness and intent Western civilization might be said to posses. An important aspect of this religious paradigm has been apocalypticism and the groups that have formed around its cozy fires of damnation. Setting aside for a moment the subtle variations that have developed, there are a few key similarities in the perceptions of apocalyptic groups.
First, apocalyptic believers put great stock in a supernatural realm of mysterious and awesome power, of which human beings are only dimly aware. They also believe that the actions of characters in this mystical realm have a direct effect on events in the human sphere. For example, in the traditional biblical view, God reigns over a court of saints and angels of varying power and importance. The conflict with their evil counterparts in the form of Satan and his demons and damned souls both reflects and influences events on Earth. In time, their activities are supposed to actively enter the earthly realm, blurring the distinctions between the worlds. In earlier cultures, the lesser minions would have been called demigods and such, but Western faiths will have none of that. Father, Son, Holy Spirit, angels with magical powers, saints, prophets, and even the devil himself all derive their powers and positions from the one true God. In the popular view, this makes the Judeo/Christian God and His subordinates fundamentally different from the many supreme deities and their pantheons from "polytheistic" cultures that shared a similar arrangement. It is just this kind of clear distinction that one must keep in mind when considering the really important religious questions.
Next, apocalypticists often have a profound sense that things are not as they should be. That is to say that there is a mysterious gap between the script and the play. Forces beyond their control are affecting the course of events, leaving them anxious and uncomfortable with their inability to fully assume their ordained position in the kingdom of heaven, the afterlife, the New Age, or what have you. Much time and energy is therefore devoted to reconciling events and prophecies. During times of severe social stress or natural disaster, this activity becomes even more acute, leading to increased apocalyptic fervor and experimentation with ever more graphic visions of impending death and universal doom. For believers, apocalyptic scenarios provide the dynamic formulae for calculating precisely how all shall be made right, dogs and cats will learn to coexist in peace, double coupons will never expire, and God and His Creation will live happily ever after.
Finally, apocalyptic groups see themselves as a special sort of people. Their God shares this perception, and makes them responsible in some way for helping bring about the apocalypse, as well as putting them in charge of running things once the curtain falls. God could do this without help from the favored group of course, but He seems to want to give them something to do while waiting for the end, which can demand great patience. Since such spirited cultural identity must be supported through a cooperative effort, a grand collective title for the people involved is developed to secure the perception and its continuation. After all, who could resist being among "God's Chosen" and such? The group is thereby distinguished from the masses due to their superior knowledge of God and their place in the divine plan.
A key element in this paradigm is that knowledge of the schedule and character of apocalyptic events is not available to just anybody. An exclusive showcase of revealed prophetic visions by way of dramatic media is necessary. God will not simply pop down with a reasonable instruction book for the End of All Things and tell everyone to be ready by 7:00. The events must be cloaked in otherworldly fog, being sufficiently esoteric to require either extensive research, or at the extreme, a legendary prophet of The Chosen or some other inspiring figure to receive and interpret the message. In turn, the prophet and his revelation, being available only to the preferred people, becomes a part of the story that confirms their special place and their distinctiveness from the common rabble. (If willing to convert to the True Faith, the rabble can sometimes join The Chosen, however. Such conversions are often seen as further proof of the True Faith and the fulfillment of prophecy.)
These elements will sound familiar to anyone exposed to the major "monotheistic" faiths of the western world - Judaism, Islam, and Christianity. Apocalyptic concepts are not limited to these, though, as will become plain as our colorful chronology of apocalypse unfolds. Yet, most practitioners of the Western faiths have so completely incorporated apocalyptic ideas into their beliefs that the notion of human history being drawn inexorably to a violent, predestined demise has become the conventional wisdom. Combined with various creation stories, parables, and explanatory tales, the apocalyptic paradigm has helped produce the certainty of human significance, security, and purpose necessary to comfortably organize and interpret Man’s existence. There is great comfort derived from the corporate belief that we know what is happening in a universe that would otherwise seem unfathomable and therefore perpetually threatening. The fact that science is dismantling this carefully built system is the primary reason it frightens, angers, and confuses many believers.
So, while amusing ourselves with its eccentricity, it is necessary for the reader to keep in mind how essential apocalyptic assumptions are to the western psyche. While often irreverent concerning its esoteric details and frothier manifestations, it is therefore the purpose of this book to provide insight into this essential element of human history and to explore its profound and continuing influence. We must not slight the relevance of apocalyptic belief to history and social evolution for the sake of cheap laughs or impertinent grins. These will be had instead at the expense of the amusing anxieties that accompany apocalyptic thought, the comic actors who faithfully pursue its chimeras, and the funny bits that color our history when we forget that we collectively invented it all in the first place. The notion that God may have allowed humanity to carry on even in the face of such absurdity could be ironically interpreted as proof of the existence of the divine through a profound, yet subtle and sublime universal sense of humor at which we should marvel, and in which we may revel. Thank God.
(1) "Salt money", referred to in Latin as salarium argentum, was a portion of the pay given to Roman soldiers. It is the origin of the English word "salary". Used as currency, salt was also sometimes exchanged for slaves. Therefore, being "worth your salt" meant a great deal more than being economical with the table condiments. Today, salt retails for around thirty-nine cents per pound, while a suitable slave is financially out of the question for most households.
(2) According to this Babylonian creation story, the father god Apsu and his mate Tiamat gave birth to the gods, who then proceeded to annoy their parents with their horseplay and bickering at all hours. So, Apsu decided to slay his offspring and then take a nap. However, the youngsters discovered the infanticidal plot and killed Apsu instead. Tiamat took offense and pledged revenge. She apparently could have used a nap, too. Fearful of their vengeful mom, the adolescent gods talked their youngest cousin, Marduk, into having it out with her. He had four eyes, four ears, and spat fire when he talked, so he seemed a natural choice. He blackmailed the others into giving him undisputed power over all of the gods if he should win the struggle with Tiamat. Once this was agreed, he snared Tiamat in a net, blew on her really hard, poked holes in her with an arrow, then cracked her skull open with a mace. He then made half of her body into the roof of the sky. The rest went to make trees, mountains, and soft places to lie down and gloat. After Marduk thereby created the world, his victory revels were interrupted by the gods he had jailed for their support of Tiamat complaining about their food. Marduk and Ea, his father, responded by executing one of the captive gods as a way of pointing out to the others that the food really wasn't that bad, considering. Meanwhile, since he had nothing better to do with the leftover god-blood, Ea created human beings out of it. This last part of course is seen as quaint today, as it is widely understood that we are actually made of clay, not god-blood.
(3) Mithra was worshipped in Persia for centuries before Zoroaster ostensibly founded what is now recognized as the world's first revealed faith. Zoroaster professed the holy dominion of Ahura Mazda, who in turn was served by the "bounteous immortals" or Amentas Spenta. In a handy incorporation of the neighbor's myth, it was held that among these frolicking minions was Mithra, whom Ahura Mazda admitted was very godlike. In this manner, Zoroastrianism did not supplant Mithracism, but cast it in a different light and then absorbed it. (Cooper, 1996.) Christian writers would later give Jewish myths similar treatment. This technique makes transition from one religious paradigm to another fairly seamless, as the names and places are already familiar. Consequently, daily routines are not disturbed and most folks don't really notice, which is nice.
(4) Although it has become accepted that to testify means to swear the truth of a statement or the power of an oath by placing one hand over the heart or on the Bible, the method of bonding one's word was not always so. In ancient times, male genitalia were often seen as a source of both life and strength. Therefore, a hand placed on the male privates prior to swearing truth was seen as a solemn oath. (I got 'yer truth right here.) For example, in Genesis 24:2 when Abraham was making his servant swear to find him a nice Jewish girl to be his latest daughter-in-law, he says, "Put, I pray thee, thy hand under my thigh And I will make thee swear by the LORD." By this logic, the biblical proscription agaisnt women testifying in church seems unavoidable. The Latin root "testi" is therefore likely the basis for both testify and testicle. This knowledge certainly gives one pause when gospel singers ring out that they are about to testify. Perhaps it helps with the high notes?