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The Way The World Ends

The Christian Bible begins with the creation of the world, before time itself began. It closes with a harrowing vision of the world's end, when time will be no more. For most of Western history, when the world began has been a matter of curiosity. But predicting when the world will end has been an all-consuming passion.

Of all the books of the Bible, none has fired the imagination of the West more than the last: the mysterious Apocalypse. The four horsemen of the apocalypse, the heavenly book with seven seals, the beast with the mark of 666, the Whore of Babylon, the deceitful Antichrist--these are just a few of the powerful and troubling images that Revelation injected into Western art and consciousness. Its prophecies have been of even greater consequence: the return of the Jews to the Holy Land, the millennial kingdom of Christ on earth, the Battle of Armageddon and the promise of a new heaven and earth have justified numerous wars and revolutions and inspired utopias and religious sects of every sort.

Millennial dreams and apocalyptic nightmares are never far below the surface of the American psyche--especially now, as the third millennium approaches. Of course, few people seriously think the apocalypse will come at 12:01 on New Year's Eve; some of those who do will descend on Jerusalem at the year-end with millennial expectations, putting Israeli police on high alert (following story). The deeper and more interesting phenomenon is the enormous role prophecy has played in Western religious and popular culture. A NEWSWEEK Poll found that 40 percent of American adults do believe that the world will one day end, as Revelation describes, in the Battle of Armageddon. Every choir that sings "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" or the Salvation Army's "Onward, Christian Soldiers" resurrects martial images and themes from Christian prophecy. In the 1970s, the best-selling book of the decade was Hal Lindsey's apocalyptic "The Late Great Planet Earth," with 28 million copies sold by 1990. More recently, a series of "Left Behind" novels by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins based on Christian prophecies, including two published this year, have sold more than 9 million copies. Among academics, studies of the apocalyptic tradition have produced dozens of new books. "Over the past 30 years," says Bernard McGinn, a medieval specialist at the University of Chicago Divinity School, "more scholarship has been devoted to apocalypticism than in the last 300."

Like Christians and Jews, Muslims also see an apocalyptic end to the world: there will be natural calamities, followed by the war of Armageddon led by the "hidden" imam, a descendant of Muhammad, and Jesus against the forces of evil, led by Dajjal, an Antichrist figure. After a millennium of peace, both Jesus and the imam will die and the final judgment will take place. For Hindus and Buddhists, time is cyclical, and so the world renews itself after each cycle but never ends.

Christian apocalypticism--the vision of the endtimes--comes from a mysterious book written by John, a Christian prophet living in exile on the island of Patmos toward the end of the first century. His intention was to warn the fledgling Christian communities of Asia Minor against compromising with the Roman Empire and its cult of the divine emperor. His message, though, took the form of a personal revelation from Christ filled with mythic beasts, avenging angels and terrifying tribulations for humankind amid clashing cosmic forces. Much suffering would come to the world, John prophesied, before Christ himself would return to defeat his human adversary, the Antichrist, in the Battle of Armageddon. Christ would then establish a millennial kingdom on earth for the just. Then, after a final clash with Satan, Christ would pass judgment on all the living and the dead. For the just, there would be a heavenly Jerusalem--a new heaven and a new earth. But the precise meaning of John's figurative revelation was hidden in strange and forbidding symbols that Christians have tried to decipher ever since.

"The whole of Western history can be read through the prism of John's Apocalypse," says historian McGinn, coeditor of a recent three-volume Encyclopedia of Apocalypticism. In the 12th century, for example, the Crusaders saw the recapture of Jerusalem from the Muslims as a defeat of the Antichrist. Christopher Columbus set sail thinking his voyage to India would hasten the return of Christ to earth. For the same reason, Oliver Cromwell readmitted Jews to England after the English civil war, thinking his victory would establish the New Jerusalem on British soil. Isaac Newton wrote a book on the Biblical prophecy, hoping to prove that "the world is governed by providence." In Puritan New England, America's greatest theologian, Jonathan Edwards, studied John's Apocalypse and calculated that the millennium of Christ's kingdom on earth would begin in the year 2000.

"Apocalypticism"--the belief that God will shortly intervene in history, destroy the wicked and initiate his own kingdom on earth--did not begin with John of Patmos. Jesus himself was a Jewish prophet "who taught and expected the end of the world as he knew it," argues New Testament scholar Bart D. Ehrman in his new book, "Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium." The apostle Paul, writing two decades after the death of Jesus, expected to witness Christ's return to earth. But the Gospel of Matthew, reflecting views of Christians some 60 years later, has Jesus warning his disciples to look out for signs of the endtimes--among them, wars and famines and earthquakes. But he also warned that "the end is not yet."

Whether John's Apocalypse (the word means "unveiling") is a foretelling of the future or a symbolic interpretation of the then current situation of Christians has long vexed church theologians. Early Christianity had revived the long-dormant spirit of Hebrew prophecy, and in doing so relied on Jewish precedents. Much of John's arcane imagery is borrowed from Ezekiel, Zachariah and especially the dreams of Daniel. He also uses numbers as a code for letters. Thus the beast whose number is 666 translates to Nero, the mad emperor who had persecuted Christians; his seven heads refer to the first seven Roman emperors. Similarly, the number 1,000 does not denote a period of 10 centuries but symbolizes an indefinite period of long duration.

In short, most contemporary Biblical scholars now believe that John was not predicting a distant future. Rather, he was locating the trials of the first-century churches within a wider cosmic battle between Christ and Satan. Like the earlier prophets, he wanted Christians to know that the faithful would be rewarded and their oppressors punished.

For as long as the early church suffered persecution, John's vision of a divine rescue was both compelling and consoling. By the third century, however, John's Apocalypse was widely considered unworthy of being included among the canonical books of the Bible. Jerome and other church fathers thought that John's endtimes vision encouraged religious fanaticism (reading it, one bishop led his flock out to the desert to await the end) and that his anti-Roman polemics provoked unnecessary civil discord. Augustine defined what soon became the official Catholic position: John's Revelation should not be interpreted literally or as future-telling, but as an allegory of the everyday struggle between good and evil, the church and the world. On that basis, the Apocalypse was officially accepted as Scripture.

Even so, medieval Christians wanted to know where they stood on God's timetable. They had no clocks or watches, no universal calendar to record the passing of the centuries, much less mark the end of the first millennium. But they did have an abundance of wars, famines and natural calamities--precisely the signs that Jesus said would signal the endtime. Medieval society lived in the shadow of imminent apocalypse, but this apprehension often spurred missionary action. Convinced that Christ's return was near, Pope Gregory I (590-604) sent a group of monks north to convert England where its leader, Augustine, became both the first Archbishop of Canterbury and a saint.

The Middle Ages were rich in speculations by learned monks about where their own age stood in relation to the endtimes. Chief among these was Joachim of Fiore, who claimed that a personal revelation had unlocked the secret of John's Apocalypse as the key to the whole Bible. In essence, Joachim found that all of history was divided into three progressively more spiritual epochs: the age of the Father (the period of the Old Testament), the age of the Son (the period since Christ) and a soon-to-come age of the Holy Spirit, in which new religious orders would renew the church and through it purify the entire human race. His own age, he saw, was one of transition and crisis: the Antichrist, he believed, was already alive in Rome and his defeat would bring about the end of the present era in 1260.

Joachim's scheme of progressively purer ages influenced millenarian movements for the next 700 years. Never mind that he--and others--miscalculated specific dates. What mattered was his vision of a purified world, which appealed to spiritual reformers of every stripe. Radical followers of Saint Francis (whom some saw as the sixth angel of John's Apocalypse) proposed the abolition of property and other institutions in favor of a pure communist society. In the 16th century a group of Anabaptists, convinced the millennium was near, took over the town of Leiden. John, their leader, proclaimed himself king and messiah. Through terror, he abolished private ownership of money, instituted polygamy and banned all books but the Bible. In the late 19th century, early Marxists could claim this radical tradition as a precursor of true communism.

Indeed, millenarian dreams were a constant problem for Europe's established churches. When a visionary friar informed Pope Benedict XIV that the Antichrist had arrived and was already 3 years of age, the pope was visibly relieved. "Then I shall leave the problem to my successor," he said. What made the Apocalypse of John so enduring is that any hated or revered figure could be identified as one of the mythic players in his symbolic endtimes scenario. For some in the late Middle Ages, it was Emperor Frederick II; for Frederick's supporters it was Pope Innocent IV, whose name could be translated into the dread mark of the beast--666. For many Christians it was Muhammad or the Turks in general, whose armies threatened to devour Europe. Eventually, Napoleon, Hitler, Stalin and even Mikhail Gorbachev (who seemed to have the "mark of the beast on his forehead") entered the list of Antichrists.

Martin Luther was the first to identify the papacy as such with the Antichrist. At first he discounted the value of John's Apocalypse. But then he saw in it a revelation of the Church of Rome as the deceiving Antichrist who secretly served Satan. For him, the papacy was the "synagogue of Satan" and "the kingdom of Babylon and of the true Antichrist"--a view that was to become dogma for all Protestant churches. "By 1641," writes historian Eugen Weber in his brilliant new book, "Apocalypses," "a clergyman could be denounced to [the English] Parliament for declaring that the pope was not Antichrist."

The Puritans who settled Massachusetts were driven by prophecy as well. Having endured a transatlantic exodus, they began to see their theocratic colony as a real, if as yet imperfect, model of the New Jerusalem prophesied by John. They were, it seemed to many of them, participants with God in creating a millennial kingdom of God on earth. Eventually, many of their descendants came to believe in a revised endtimes script: Christ would return after--not before, as John wrote--his American saints had established a millennial society. This optimistic vision was well expressed in 1832 by revivalist Charles Grandison Finney, a president of Oberlin College. He thought that if the church helped converts to be educated, given just wages and thus regenerated in body as well as in soul, then "the millennium may come in this country in three years."

Others were more pessimistic. In 19th-century America, as in 14th-century Europe, the country was overrun with visionaries, reformers and prophets. Among the most creative was Joseph Smith, who concluded at an early age that the entire Christian enterprise was a corruption of what used to be. In 1823, he reported angelic revelations, telling him to gather a group of latter-day saints in preparation for Christ's return to earth. (Mormons believe he will appear in Independence, Mo., as well as in Jerusalem.) Twenty years later, Baptist convert William Miller concluded, after extensive study of Biblical prophecy, that Christ would return in 1843, then changed it to Oct. 22, 1844. Thousands of believers withdrew from their churches in anticipation. When Christ failed to appear, Miller's movement was shattered. But a remnant under Ellen White reinterpreted the spiritual meaning of the prophesied date and formed the Seventh-day Adventists.

Catholics, too, received prophecies and warnings of the endtimes in the 19th century. They came in a series of apparitions of the Virgin Mary at Lourdes and other European sites. After her appearance to Catherine Laboure in Paris in 1830, the church struck a "miraculous" medal for distribution among the faithful. On it was an image of the Virgin appearing as "the woman clothed with the sun," a figure straight out of John's Apocalypse.

Although John's prophecies were aimed at Christians, they have also had enormous significance for Jews. According to one ancient tradition, the Antichrist will be Jewish, but the predominant emphasis in Christian prophecy is on the return of the Jews to the Holy Land and the rebuilding of the Jerusalem temple as a prelude to the Jews' conversion to Christ. This view made Christian fundamentalists, for whom prophecy fulfilled is proof of the Bible's literal truth, one of Zionism's strongest supporters over the last century. It also explains why the creation of the state of Israel in 1948 excited fresh expectations that the countdown to Armageddon had surely begun.

Jews, of course, have their own apocalyptic traditions built around the coming of the messiah. One view, espoused by the great medieval philosopher Maimonides, is that the messiah will be an exceptional but human being who will preside as king over a free Israel for a thousand peaceful years, according to God's covenant with his people. The other, more mystical view, says philosopher Shaul Magid, of the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, is that "flesh will no longer exist and there will be pure spiritual reality." Talmudic tradition divides history into three ages of 2,000 years each: an age of confusion (from creation to Abraham), the age of Torah (from Abraham on) and the age of redemption (approaching the coming of the messiah). This year on the Jewish calendar is 5760, leaving 240 years in which the messiah could come.

Christian fundamentalism owes much of its continuing power and appeal to the belief that the prophecies of John, Daniel and other Biblical writers forecast a sequence of specific historical events. But fundamentalists have also shown a remarkable capacity to add to the stock of apocalyptic portents. Since the Antichrist must have the means for controlling the world, many new technological advances are now seen as ominous signs: Social Security numbers, bar codes, ATMs, international organizations like the United Nations and the European Common Market, and--most recently--the World Wide Web. As a newly elected president, George Bush set off alarms among many Biblical literalists when he announced in 1990 his ambition to create a "new world order." Could he be, some fundamentalists wondered, the cat's-paw for the Antichrist?

Whether fundamentalists and other "prophetic" Christians will suffer in the endtimes remains for them a matter of some dispute. They have built an escape clause into the endtimes scenario: "the rapture." This means that at a trumpet's blast, all true Christians will suddenly ascend halfway to heaven the moment Christ begins his descent. Cars will be driverless, planes will be pilotless and children will lose parents if they are among the secret elect. Others think that even the elect will suffer at least part of the seven years of hell on earth that God plans for the wicked. At least one church, in North Hollywood, has taken steps to preserve its property should its officers disappear during the rapture. The church's insurance companies have agreed to delay premium payments for seven years, when the raptured officers return.

Of those who say they believe in the Bible's endtime prophecies, few are likely to translate those beliefs into such direct action. Nor, with a robust economy, are there too many signs of millenarian social unrest. Next month authors LaHaye and Jenkins will publish yet another volume, a nonfiction title that asks, "Are We Living in the End Times?" Clearly, the answer is "Not yet"; the last in their fiction series is planned for the year 2003. For most Americans, it appears, the Biblical account of the endtimes continues to resonate because there are few competing narratives. Even nuclear annihilation and ecological implosion can be fit into John's Apocalypse. When Ronald Reagan was president, recalls University of Wisconsin historian Paul Boyer, who has studied modern apocalyptic movements, he suggested that "we may be the generation that sees Armageddon." But on leaving the White House in 1989, Reagan allowed that "America's greatest moment is yet to come." He wasn't thinking of the millennium.

Exiled on his island, John of Patmos never imagined that his apocalyptic writing would become a handbook for interpreting historical events. Like most first-century Christians, he thought the end was imminent. And one can only wonder how he'd react to those throughout history who have used his vision to justify violence, war, paranoia and even hate.

Though widely read for the wrong reasons, John's Apocalypse nonetheless insists on hard truths that no serious believer can discount. One is that sinners have reason to fear a God who, having chosen to create the world, can also choose to destroy it. The second is that the just have reason to hope in a God who stands by those who trust their lives to him. Thinking of the end of the world--like contemplating one's own end--is a painful process. But studying the Apocalypse presumes that even the end of the world is within the province of God. And who's to say that John's mythic battle between Christ and Antichrist is not a valid insight into what the history of humankind is ultimately all about?

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