'The Apocalypse in Religion: The Different Traditions, Part One', by Ultan Banan. Ruminations on religion and history.

The introduction to this article can be read here.

And I saw heaven opened,

and behold, a white horse…

We haven’t quite experienced the threat of destruction (real or imaginary) that our grandmothers and grandfathers did as a result of the Cold War, and before it, WWII. In those days, there were children who grew up in bunkers and were trained to react to the sound of war sirens and the buzz of overhead airplanes. That was only seventy years ago, and if you were a child who grew up in the seventies, even eighties, you may have heard stories about that era.

Personally, I’ve never been in a bomb shelter and have no wish to be. Well, not strictly speaking true––I’ve been on the subways of St. Petersburg and Moscow, and have stood with amazement on the escalators for two whole minutes while they rose ominously to ground level. It was later I learned they were built with the express purpose of doubling up as bomb shelters, and aesthetically speaking, they must be the most beautiful examples of such in the world.

the apocalypse in religion

Most of us (in the West, at least) have no real experience of war and its consequences. Occasionally, however, we get a taste of it. Perhaps it’s Obama threatening Syria with rocket strikes, or, as with current events, rising tensions between Russia and the US. And in those occasions, maybe you get a feeling deep in the belly, or a buried subconscious tugging…

What if…?

What can that feeling be, but a deep dread that perhaps, just perhaps, the end is upon us?

I suppose the fear of the end is in us all, but for the most part is locked away in that part of our subconscious that enables us to get on with everyday activities and daily life in general. Because you can’t get shit done if you’re preoccupied with death all the time. There must be those who suffer from certain personality disorders who are compelled to constantly face the nihilistic reality of our inescapable end, but for the rest of us, it’s something we avoid thinking about, until we’re rudely confronted with it. Not that it’s unhealthy to spend time speculating on death; most religions have some way or manner of facing death as a means to the affirmation of life (on one level, we can view baptism as a symbolic drowning, for example), and I’m sure many New Age therapies capitalise on such ‘gimmicks’.

Something all (if not most) of the world’s religions share as part of their cosmologies is the ‘End Times’ or ‘Apocalypse’, which is nothing more than a smorgasbord of death: the death of most of the planet’s inhabitants and the symbolic death of the planet itself, if the myths are to be believed. What they all represent, on a deeper level, is a ‘revolution’, the end of one life cycle and the beginning of another. Not that that’s any comfort to those of us who may or may not experience it––most of us will be gone, new world or not. But let’s take a look at the end-time traditions of a few world religions, to see where they differ, and more importantly, where they intersect.

Christianity

Armageddon: Believed to derive from the name, ‘Har Megiddo’, or, ‘Hill of Megiddo’, the supposed location of the ‘final battle’. Sound like a video game? It kinda does. This is where it all comes to a head: the forces of good meet the forces of evil in a final fight to the death. But first let’s rewind…

The lead up to the End Times is known as the Tribulation, during which time the countdown to Armageddon is unleashed upon the earth through the opening of the Seven Seals by the slain lamb (Christ). Following the opening of the seals, Seven Trumpets are sounded by the Angels which leads to seven plagues (the ‘Seven Bowls of Wrath’––biblical!), the occurrence of which announce the return of Christ. Christ comes back, the forces of the Beast gather, they do war, shit gets ugly, Christ wins.

the apocalypse in religion
Mattias Gerung - The Seven Bowls of Wrath (linked to full-size image)

After this, a thousand-year period of peace is ushered in, after which Satan is set loose for a ‘season’ (for another shot at the belt), he takes a beating and is put back in his box. Peace on earth. The end.

It’s important to note here that there are different schools of thought on interpretation. ‘Preterists’ read the book only in context of the 1st century AD, the time of its writing. They believe all this has already happened. ‘Futurists’ place everything in the End Times, and ‘Idealists’ believe the whole thing is merely symbolic.

It may also be interesting to point out that 58 per cent of adult Americans believe in Armageddon as a real and coming ‘historical’ phenomenon.

the apocalypse in religion
The Beast and the Dragon (from the Beatus Escorial)

Islam

Al Malhama al-Kubra: ‘The Great Battle’. Where Islamic and Christian traditions intersect is with the figure of Jesus Christ. The story goes something like this:

The end times of the earth is indicated in the Quran by the following signs: the prevalence of false prophets, drunkenness and revelry, widespread oppression and violence, the appearance of extremely tall buildings, greed and avarice, and a time when lies are believed and the truth scorned. This is the time in which the final battle will occur, when Muslims and Christians unite to fight a ‘common enemy’ (presumably the Jews). All done? No. Then the Muslims and the Christians go to work on each other––this is what’s known as the ‘Great Battle’. Out of the ruin of this war comes what’s known in Islamic eschatology as the ‘conquest of Constantinople’, after which we see the appearance of Dajjal, or the Anti-Christ (the ‘Beast’ in Christian theology). Cue Christ. The Lamb appears and joins forces with Al-Mahdi (the end times prophet of Islam) and together they open a can of shit-kicking on that old fiend Dajjal.

Peace. The End.

Except it’s not. Just as in Christian theology, Al Malhama and the return of the prophets merely signifies the end of one epoch and the beginning of the new, a holier and more joyful (and presumably pretty smashed-up) one.   

Let’s take a break there, with the victory of those good and pure Christians and Muslims. Come back next week to see what the Jews are hiding in their apocalyptic bag of shit-kickery.

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 ‘The Apocalypse in Religion: The Different Traditions, Part One’, by Ultan Banan.  Header image by Taton Moïse. Please note: flash fiction, nonfiction and all other content is the sole work of Black Tarn. Ask before republishing.

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