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FRONTLINE 1805W Air date: November 22, 1998

Apocalypse!

Written, Produced. & Directed by
William Cran & Ben Loeterman
L. Michael White, Historical Consultant

 

NARRATOR: At the end of a brutal century, FRONTLINE presents an important film for the new millennium.

FBI: The time to come out is now!

NARRATOR: From Waco and Littleton to Y2K and global warming, we are bombarded by visions of the Apocalypse.

DAVID KORESH: The Lord will come with fire-

Prof. L. MICHAEL WHITE, Univ. of Texas at Austin: With someone like David Koresh, who sees himself as a new Messiah figure carrying on the tradition- "I am the agent of God's plan to bring the world to an end."

NARRATOR: Tonight on FRONTLINE, a stunning journey back nearly 2,000 years to unravel the origins of the Book of Revelation, and how these ancient ideas have shaped our world.

BROTHER DAVID: We are here to prepare the way for the second coming of Christ.

BROTHER SOLOMON: We are now living in the end time.

NARRATOR: And as the clock ticks towards the year 2000, the power of these ideas has intensified.

Prof. PAUL BOYER, Univ. of Wisconsin-Madison: Forty percent of Americans say the world will end at the battle of Armageddon.

Prof. L. MICHAEL WHITE: And they can point to the bomb and the founding of the state of Israel and any number of other things to be signs that the prophecies in Revelation are actually becoming realities in our times.

BROTHER SOLOMON: All books meet and end in Revelation.

NARRATOR: Apocalypse, the end time, Armageddon, the millennium.

This is the story of a book. It is the story of how that book came to be written in its own time, and it is the story of the impact that book has had on almost 2,000 years of history. It is the book which brings the Bible to its close. It is the Book of Revelation.

Prof. L. MICHAEL WHITE, Univ. of Texas at Austin: The Book of Revelation in the New Testament has the literal title in Greek, "The Apocalypse of John." The word "Apocalypse" means "revelation," that which is uncovered.

Prof. PAULA FREDRIKSEN, Boston University: Words mean what people think they mean. For academics, "Apocalypse" means the revelation of hidden things. To the popular ear, to the public ear, "Apocalypse" means the cataclysmic end of things.

NARRATOR: As the hours and minutes slip by to the end of this millennium, there are those who await the end of the world and the final judgment which they believe is foretold in the Book of Revelation.

READER: Then they gathered the kings together to the place that in Hebrew is called Armageddon. [Rev. 16:16]

NARRATOR: Few people have ever read the Book of Revelation. Everyone has heard of it.

READER: The first angel sounded his trumpet, and there came hail and fire mixed with blood. And it was hurled down upon the earth. [Rev 8:7]

Prof. L. MICHAEL WHITE: Phrases, ideas, symbols, images from the Book of Revelation tend to pepper our consciousness.

READER: I looked and there before me was a pale horse. Its rider was named death, and Hades was following close behind him.

Prof. PAULA FREDRIKSEN: The four horsemen of the Apocalypse, the whore of Babylon, fornicating with the Kings of the earth, drunk on the blood of the saints, the beast from the sea, the number 666-

Prof. PAUL BOYER, Univ. of Wisconsin-Madison: The images are memorable, unforgettable- stars falling to earth, beasts arising from the sea, the seas turning into blood, the blood of dead men.

NARRATOR: The writer of Revelation uses these blood-curdling images to tell of a future war between good and evil.

Prof. JAMES TABOR, Univ. of North Carolina at Charlotte: The Book of Revelation, if taken literally, assumes what might be called a final fling of evil, that is a tremendous and vast control of the earth by this final evil ruler, sometimes called the antichrist.

NICHOLAS CAMPION, Author, "The Great Year": Saint John's vision was of a great final battle. Nation will rise up against nation. There'll be plagues and devastations, supernatural terrors, great battles in the sky as Archangels fight demons, absolute, total devastation.

NARRATOR: At this apocalyptic moment in human history, Christ's victory at the battle of Armageddon prepares the way for his second coming.

Prof. PAUL BOYER: And at that point will be established the millennium, the thousand-year reign of justice, peace, harmony, culminating in one of the most glorious visions of all literature, the new heaven and the new earth, the new Jerusalem.

READER: I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem coming down out of Heaven from God. [Rev. 21:2]

Prof. PAULA FREDRIKSEN: Jerusalem holds a central place. Jerusalem itself is permanently wed to this Western story of the triumph of good over evil.

Prof. NORMAN COHN, Author, "Pursuit of the Millennium": Jesus is expected to reappear there at the second coming. And it is from there that the last judgment will take place.

NARRATOR: With a million Christian pilgrims on their way to Jerusalem, the Book of Revelation has never seemed more relevant. Already rife with religious tension, Jerusalem is now a focus of intense anxiety and anticipation. In nearly every age, there have been those who found signs in the Book of Revelation that the end time is close at hand.

Prof. L. MICHAEL WHITE: The Book of Revelation is often thought of as prophecy. The author John is viewed as the prophet who sat and saw the future.

NARRATOR: The return of the Jews to Israel and the capture of Jerusalem are two signs that have set the apocalyptic clock ticking. In a city where every stone is loaded with meaning, the ruins of the temple have special significance. There are Christian literalists and ultraorthodox Jews who believe the Messiah will not come until the temple is built again. Some are working actively to hasten that day.

Rabbi CHAIM RICHMAN, The Temple Institute, Jerusalem: The Jewish people have been commanded to build the temple. The commandment says, "You shall make for me a sanctuary, and I will dwell amongst you."

NARRATOR: Rabbi Chaim Richman takes this commandment quite literally. The walls of the Temple Institute are lined with artists' impressions of Solomon's temple, which he aims to reconstruct down to the last detail.

Rabbi CHAIM RICHMAN: One of the major focuses of our efforts is the restoration of the temple vessels. We have a golden vessel here, which is used to gather the blood from Passover sacrifice, that actually could be used in the rebuilt temple. The only place for the third temple, according to the Bible, is the same place that held the first and second temple, and that is the Temple Mount.

NARRATOR: What stands in the way of a new temple is one of Islam's holiest shrines, the Dome of the Rock, where Muslims believe Mohammad ascended into heaven.

Prof. PAUL BOYER, Univ. of Wisconsin-Madison: Not too long ago, members of the group sought to carry up a rock which they wanted to place there as the foundation stone of the third temple, an enormously provocative act which, of course, triggered a violent reaction. Bloodshed and death resulted.

RICHARD LANDES, Dir., Center for Millennial Studies, Boston Univ.: There must be at least a dozen people who would love to blow up the Dome of the Rock. The apocalyptic imagination is filled with violence. Now, normally, that's God's job, but when God doesn't do it- OK, so it is possible that there would be violence.

NARRATOR: Fearing violence, Israeli police have been rounding up end-timers like Brother David. He and his followers came to Jerusalem to witness the return of Jesus.

BROTHER DAVID: We are here to prepare the way for the second coming of Christ. There have been many, many Christians throughout the centuries that said "The Lord's coming back." However, they really didn't have the signs to back up what they were saying. But fortunately, our generation, we do have those signs.

NARRATOR: The signs tell Brother David and his flock that the stage is set for Armageddon.

END TIMER: [reading] "A finger on a button, the key twists. In an instant, a city no longer exists. Before you die, I hope you know the way. The Bible's happening today. What does the Holy Spirit say? Hold fast. Continue to pray because the Son of God is on his way."

NARRATOR: With the year 2000 only weeks away, what Israeli security forces fear most is a deliberate act of violence by religious fanatics. The aim might be to spark the great mythic battle of Armageddon, and so hasten the coming of the end of time.

READER: Then I saw the Beast, and the kings of the earth and their armies gathered together to make war. [Rev. 19:19]

NARRATOR: The key to understanding some of the wilder imagery in Revelation lies in the fact that much of it is grounded in 600 years of Jewish history. Armageddon is a real place. The word comes from Megido, an ancient stronghold where kings of Israel once stabled their war chariots.

Prof. L. MICHAEL WHITE, Univ. of Texas at Austin: Megido was a major fortress governing the landscape, and it's where a number of important battles took place. It's not hard to imagine the chariot wars and the other kinds of battles that took place here. There's lots of reliefs from antiquity that show just such battles happening and the victories that resulted there. "Megido" means "place of battle," "place of triumph." It just depends on who's going to triumph.

NARRATOR: The origins of the Book of Revelation lie in war, defeat and despair.

Prof. L. MICHAEL WHITE: The political history of the Jewish people is central to the story, and it really begins in the year 586.

Prof. JAMES TABOR, Univ. of North Carolina at Charlotte: In the year 586 B.C., the famous King Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon, actually enters Jerusalem, burns the temple, sacks it, destroys the city itself and takes the population into exile.

NARRATOR: The partly restored ruins of Babylon in modern Iraq, with its great ceremonial gate, preserve the power and glory of this ancient oppressor.

Prof. L. MICHAEL WHITE: Babylon was a magnificent city for its day, with huge stone walls decorated with these enormous, gorgeous pictures of beasts.

NARRATOR: Savage beasts, mythic serpents and many-headed dragons appear in the Book of Revelation and will haunt the apocalyptic imagination for 2,500 years.

Prof. L. MICHAEL WHITE: If you think about the imagery of demons and dragons and beasts that we find so commonly in apocalyptic literature, some of it comes from this very experience of seeing the powerful images of the enemy, Babylon.

NARRATOR: Babylon shook the Israelites' faith in their god to its core. In the Jewish calendar, July 22nd is the ninth day in the month of Av. On that day, a commemorative service is held here at an ancient fortress. Modern Israeli Jews come here to mourn the destruction of the first temple and the exile in Babylon.

Prof. JOHN J. COLLINS, University of Chicago: You get a great sense in the biblical literature of homesickness. You find this especially in the Psalms. "How can you sing the psalm of the Lord in a foreign land?"

The destruction of Jerusalem, the exile of the Jewish people, posed what you might call a situation of cognitive dissonance. According to their religion, they were the chosen people of the most powerful God.

Prof. L. MICHAEL WHITE: "What went wrong? Has God abandoned us? Is the Babylonians' God more powerful than our God? Is there some other reason why this fate has befallen us?" They began to think, "Maybe it's not god's fault. Maybe it's our fault."

NARRATOR: To answer those questions, the Jewish prophets were forced to reexamine, rethink and rewrite their own history, and this is where the long line of Jewish apocalyptic literature begins. [www.pbs.org: Explore Jewish apocalyptic literature]

Prof. JAMES TABOR: The exile was a complete shattering of the hopes and dreams of ancient Judaism. And then the prophets come in - Isaiah, Jeremiah, all the prophets - and they began to predict this glorious future. The Jews will return. They'll rebuild the temple. The Messiah will come. Israel will realize its historic destiny.

NARRATOR: And so the Jewish people began to rewrite the story of their covenant with God. In doing so, prophets like Ezekial began to conjure up symbols and images, such as "the new Jerusalem," that will reappear in the Book of Revelation.

Prof. L. MICHAEL WHITE: In his vision, Ezekial sees the city of Jerusalem literally rebuilt, the temple standing up in the middle as the centerpiece of Jewish identity.

Prof. JOHN J. COLLINS, University of Chicago: This gives rise to a motif that we still find in the Book of Revelation, the motif of the new Jerusalem.

Prof. PAULA FREDRIKSEN, Boston University: Babylon and Jerusalem are two eternal poles in human experience. They're the urban expressions of the idea of good and evil.

NARRATOR: The resurrection of the dead in Revelation can also be traced back to the Book of Ezekial.

Prof. JOHN COLLINS: In the Book of Ezekiel, there is a great vision where Ezekiel sees a valley full of dry bones.

Prof. L. MICHAEL WHITE: Ezekial is said to have been picked up by God's hand and transported to a distant valley strewn with dry bones. All of a sudden, these dry bones are brought back to life and then raised again to living beings. In its original form, this was understood as symbolizing the resurrection of the nation of Israel itself.

Prof. PAULA FREDRIKSEN: This idea will resonate as the resurrection of the dead at the end of time. Ezekial's another main architect of the way the West imagines the end of time.

READER: And he cried out mightily with a strong voice, saying "Babylon the Great is fallen, is fallen."

NARRATOR: Fifty years after the destruction of Jerusalem, Babylon itself was overthrown by Cyrus the Great, king of the Persians. For the next 300 years, the Jewish people were ruled from Persepolis. In 538 B.C.E., Cyrus allowed the Jews to return home and rebuild their temple. The Book of Isaiah called Cyrus "the Lord's Messiah."

Prof. NORMAN COHN, Author, "Pursuit of the Millennium": It was a benign rule. It allowed them to pursue their religion. It actually financed the rebuilding of the temple after its devastation by the Babylonians. They were well treated.

NARRATOR: The religion of the ancient Persians left its mark on Judaism. Named after Zoroaster, the great prophet who lived 2,500 years ago, Zoroastrianism is still alive in modern Iran.

Deep in the salt desert beyond the town of Yazd in Iran, some of the 150,000 who still follow Zoroaster make a pilgrimage to Chek Chek. Cut into the side of a mountain, the holy temple gets its name, Chek Chek, from the drip-drip of spring water seeping through the rock. What lies at the very heart of their system of belief is the dualism of light and dark.

Prof. JOHN COLLINS: Dualism is generally the idea that human life is governed by two opposing powers, between good and evil or, as it's sometimes put, between light and darkness.

Prof. L. MICHAEL WHITE: In the Persian mythological tradition, we have Ahura Masda, the good god, the god of light, who is at war with Areman, the evil god.

Prof. NORMAN COHN: The idea that of the world as the battleground for the two great forces, the divine force and the devil, is of Zoroastrian origin. The earliest apocalyptic belief is Zoroastrian. The influence which Iranian religion exercised over Jewish apocalyptic thinking, and through that over Christian apocalyptic thinking, was profound.

NARRATOR: The next great impact on the apocalyptic tradition came in 333 B.C.E., when Alexander the Great's army swept across the Middle East and crushed the Persian empire. In Iran today, traditional storytellers still recall the exploits of Alexander.

IRANIAN STORYTELLER: [subtitles] Alexander made a swift turn, reached for his sword and galloped into the battlefield!

NICHOLAS CAMPION, Author, "The Great Year": One of the most amazing events in the ancient world were the conquests of Alexander the Great. In the period of 10 to 15 years, Alexander conquered much of the known world- Greece, Egypt, Persia, through to Northern India, including Palestine. And the effect of this was to produce an amazing cultural intermingling between all these different traditions.

NARRATOR: Westerners see him in an heroic light, but here Alexander is seen as a dark, destructive tyrant who laughed when he burned Persepolis.

Prof. PAULA FREDRIKSEN, Boston University: What Alexander brings with him is an incredibly powerful international idea. He brings Greek. He brings the idea of Greek culture, which scholars refer to as Hellenism.

Prof. JOHN J. COLLINS, University of Chicago: Alexander the Great brought with him a tremendous reversal of values. In Jewish culture, purity was an extremely high value. Modesty- a great value. No exposure of the human body. The Greeks were quite the opposite. The statues they put up were typically of naked human beings. And this must have brought a great sense of shock, a great sense of a different culture.

NARRATOR: This altar of Zeus shows the blending of cultures. Here Greek gods and heroes are locked in combat with the beasts and serpents of Middle Eastern myth.

In about 250 B.C.E., an anonymous Jew writing under the name of Enoch borrowed images from Greek mythology which were to resonate through apocalyptic literature, down to the Book of Revelation.

Prof. L. MICHAEL WHITE: The head angel who rebels against God is thrown down to earth. He's imprisoned in a pit below the earth that comes to be called Hades- Hell. We have evil and Satan. We have angels. First Enoch gives us some of the most important components of what we think of as later Jewish and Christian apocalyptic tradition.

NARRATOR: But there was a political price to pay for Greek culture. Israel found itself ruled by the Greek tyrant Antiochus.

Prof. PAULA FREDRIKSEN: The point of no return was when Antiochus himself put a statue to Zeus with his own features in the temple. Having an idol introduced into the temple was something that people couldn't live with.

NARRATOR: The response was the Maccabean revolt.

Prof. L. MICHAEL WHITE: A small band of warriors under Judas the Maccabee - his name literally means "Judas the hammer" - began a kind of guerrilla war against these Greek armies. In the year 164, a small band under command of Judas himself actually manages to retake the temple, and while holding off the Greek armies, proceeds then to repurify and rededicate the temple. That is the event celebrated as the feast of rededication, or Hanukkah.

NARRATOR: But there was another way of fighting back against Greek oppression. The Book of Daniel was written at the time of the Maccabean revolt, but its author set his story in the time of the Babylonian exile some 400 years earlier. In the book, Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon, dreams of a colossal statue, and only Daniel can interpret its meaning.

READER: This image's head was of fine gold, his breast and his arms of silver, his belly and his thighs of brass, his legs of iron.

NICHOLAS CAMPION, Author, "The Great Year": Daniel said that this represented the four great periods of history, the four great empires. Each metal corresponded to an empire.

NARRATOR: The golden head represented Babylon, silver Persia. The Greeks were the legs of bronze, and the tyrannical dynasty of Antiochus were the feet of clay. Like the statue, these empires were doomed to fall.

NICHOLAS CAMPION: He said that the shattering of the statue represented the end of history, the final end of human corruption and decadence, and the inauguration of the kingdom of God.

NARRATOR: Daniel's author is telling the Jewish people that their time has come at last, that God's earthly kingdom will be established in Israel.

READER: His dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and his Kingdom that which shall not be destroyed. [Dan. 7:14]

Prof. L. MICHAEL WHITE: So the visions of Daniel are responding to a period of crisis and oppression and using Apocalypse as a way of saying, "Hold fast. Stay faithful. God will deliver. God will triumph."

Prof. JOHN J. COLLINS, University of Chicago: The last great oppressor that you meet in the ancient Jewish apocalyptic literature is Rome. Rome first came on the scene as friend of the Jews. The Maccabees, after they attained their independence, sent a delegation to Rome and said, "Oh, you're a great people. Come and help us," which was probably the most foolish thing they ever did.

NARRATOR: Jerusalem fell within Rome's orbit of power. It was ruled by a client king, the infamous Herod, who rebuilt the city and restored the temple. But some Jews viewed Herod and the Romans as oppressors. Once again they were forced to reinterpret their past. This created another wave of apocalyptic fervor in Jewish thought.

Prof. JOHN COLLINS: Jesus and John the Baptist can accurately be described as apocalyptic prophets, meaning that they were people who expected an abrupt and decisive change that you might describe as the manifestation of the kingdom of God, some big overturning.

NARRATOR: To Jews like John and Jesus, the temple, the seat of divine favor, had now become the symbol of collaboration. Their apocalyptic preaching put them in direct conflict with the power of Rome.

Prof. JOHN COLLINS: John the Baptist taught that the wrath was coming, that there was a great day of judgment coming. And the practice of baptism was a kind of communal repentance before the great day of the Lord.

Prof. L. MICHAEL WHITE: The classic formulation of John the Baptist is "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand. Let's return to a pure nation of Israel." And in the case of Jesus, it's also "The kingdom is at hand."

Prof. PAULA FREDRIKSEN, Boston University: When Jesus says "Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand," he means the end of normal time and the beginning of a reign of goodness and peace. Yes, I think Jesus was apocalyptic.

NARRATOR: Even after Jesus died on the cross, executed by the Romans, his followers continued to believe the end was near.

Prof. PAUL BOYER, Univ. of Wisconsin-Madison: Certainly, the earliest Christians took away from his message the belief that his return would occur in their own lifetime. [www.pbs.org: Examine Jesus' apocalyptic message]

Prof. L. MICHAEL WHITE: Even a full generation after the death of Jesus, in Paul's later letters, he says that "The night is far gone. The dawn is very near." Something's about to happen soon, and it's quite clear, if you read Paul, he never expected to die before the kingdom arrived.

NARRATOR: John and Jesus were not alone. An apocalyptic sect called the Essenes had already withdrawn to the desert and established a community on the shores of the Dead Sea.

Prof. L. MICHAEL WHITE: It's on those cliffs of the Dead Sea, in this extremely harsh wilderness environment, that the Essenes, fulfilling the prophesies of Isaiah, sought to build the pure community where they would await for the coming of the Messiah.

NARRATOR: The discovery in these caves of the Dead Sea Scrolls gave a vivid insight into Jewish apocalyptic belief at this time.

Prof. JOHN COLLINS: Now, all of these texts have a strong apocalyptic coloring, that there will be a final judgment in which they will be vindicated and their enemies discomforted.

NARRATOR: The Dead Sea Scrolls preserved in this museum provide modern scholarship with no evidence that John or Jesus were directly influenced by the Essenes. But the Scrolls do show their visions of the end time had much in common.

Prof. JAMES TABOR, Univ. of North Carolina at Charlotte: One of the major intact Scrolls that was found in the very first cave in 1947 we call "the war of the children of light with the children of darkness." It's set in terms of a battle that takes place for Jerusalem.

Prof. JOHN J. COLLINS, University of Chicago: On the face of it, it seems to be a script for a final battle. As they figure it, the key to their success will be the heavenly army will show up.

Prof. L. MICHAEL WHITE: They take this quite literally. They're planning to fight this battle. And indeed, in the war of 66 to 70, the first revolt against Rome, the Essenes themselves, following this battle plan, literally marched out to war against the Roman soldiers and were annihilated.

NARRATOR: The Essenes must have thought the great revolt against Rome was the end-time battle described in their war scroll. [www.pbs.org: Read the War Scrolls]

Prof. JOHN COLLINS: The story of the Jewish revolt, like many popular rebellions against great powers, was one of apparent success at first.

Prof. ADELA YARBRO COLLINS, University of Chicago: The revolt began in Galilee, and then the Romans moved towards Jerusalem.

Prof. JOHN COLLINS: Some of the rebels had taken over Jerusalem and thrown out the high priests. The climax of the war really was the siege of Jerusalem.

Prof. ADELA COLLINS: The leaders of the revolt seem to have believed that God would not allow the temple to be taken.

Prof. L. MICHAEL WHITE: In the end, the Romans broke through the city walls, burned and destroyed the city, and worst of all, destroyed the temple once again.

Prof. ADELA COLLINS: The Romans took the leader of the revolt, Simon, to Rome and led him in triumph. The Arch of Titus shows the Romans taking the great treasures from the temple, taking them away, taking them to Rome, the most striking one of these being the Menorah, but also temple vessels.

Prof. PAULA FREDRIKSEN: Many Jews, including those Jews who were Christian, interpreted the destruction of the second temple as an apocalyptic signal that the end of time is at hand.

NARRATOR: All that remains of the second temple is its western wall, the famous Wailing Wall.

Prof. L. MICHAEL WHITE: The destruction of Jerusalem in the year 70 C.E. leads to yet another stage of apocalyptic reinterpretation.

Prof. PAULA FREDRIKSEN: The Roman destruction of Jerusalem immediately sets up a vibration with the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem half a millennium earlier.

Prof. L. MICHAEL WHITE: They have to retell their story. They have to rethink their own past. In the period between roughly 75 and 100 C.E., we have a proliferation of new Apocalypses. One of these is the Book of Revelation itself.

NARRATOR: Ephesus in present-day Turkey was one of the great centers of the early church. The Book of Revelation was written at the same time as the Gospels, in about the year 95, by a Christian Jew living in Ephesus.

Prof. ADELA COLLINS: Christian tradition attributes the Book of Revelation to John, the son of Zebedee, who was one of the 12 disciples of Jesus or one of the 12 Apostles. And he was entrusted with care of the mother of Jesus, according to the Gospel of John. So the idea was that he and Mary, the mother of Jesus, moved to Ephesus.

Prof. BERNARD McGINN, University of Chicago: Well, the traditional view is that the author of the Apocalypse - that is John, the beloved disciple - lived to an advanced age in Asia minor and was exiled to the island of Patmos because of his opposition to the Roman government.

NARRATOR: Legend has it that John was shipwrecked and washed ashore on the island of Patmos. Patmos is a remote Greek island, hard to get to and hard to escape from. For a thousand years there has been a monastery here, which is dedicated to the memory of "John the theologian."

A short way downhill from the monastery, the monks still tend a small chapel in a cave. According to local tradition, John was asleep in this cave when he had a vision.

READER: On the Lord's Day, I was in the Spirit and I heard behind me a voice like a trumpet.

Prof. L. MICHAEL WHITE: In John's own account, he is in the spirit on the Lord's Day and begins to hear a voice and begins to see a vision of a lampstand and lights.

READER: I turned around to see the voice that was speaking to me. I saw seven golden lampstands.

Prof. L. MICHAEL WHITE: And we begin to get this revelation of the future of the world.

NARRATOR: Today biblical scholars take a different view of the Book of Revelation, who wrote it and what it was all about.

Prof. BERNARD McGINN: Modern scholarship really separates John the wandering prophet, from John the evangelist.

Prof. L. MICHAEL WHITE: It's not absolutely clear that John was either in prison or even in exile. The author simply says he was on Patmos on account of preaching the word of the Lord. That could even sound as if he's kind of a circuit preacher and this is one of his stops.

NARRATOR: Close study of the Book of Revelation lays bare its strident vision of a Satanic threat to Christianity. The author draws on ancient prophets and earlier apocalyptic writers, using words and images that hark back to the oppression by Babylon.

READER: She held a golden cup in her hand filled with abominable things and the filth of her adulteries. Babylon the great, the mother of prostitutes and of the abominations of the earth.

Prof. ADELA YARBRO COLLINS, University of Chicago: The "whore of Babylon" is an interesting image. The author of Revelation indicates that he means the city of Rome by describing the whore as seated upon a Beast and defining the Beast as seven hills. And to any ancient reader, that would mean Rome.

READER: The seven heads are seven hills on which the woman sits.

NICHOLAS CAMPION, Author, "The Great Year": John is using the idea of Babylon as the most corrupt and decadent city in the world, and saying "Look, here's Rome, just the new Babylon."

NARRATOR: What outrages the author of Revelation above all else is the imperial cult, which demanded submission to the deified emperor in Rome.

Prof. L. MICHAEL WHITE: What made it a problem for Jews and Christians to participate in the imperial cult was that you had to perform sacrifices to the emperor or in honor of the emperor. That runs very close to idolatry. We have references to the image of the Beast that people are forced to bow down and worship.

READER: They also worshipped the Beast and asked "Who is like the Beast?" [Rev. 13:14]

Prof. L. MICHAEL WHITE: You must be a part of the empire. You must be loyal to Rome.

NARRATOR: Only 20 years after the sack of Jerusalem, the author of Revelation refuses to make sacrifice for emperors who had crucified Jesus and ´MDNMªdestroyed the temple. In Revelation, Rome is the evil empire.

Prof. L. MICHAEL WHITE: What John is suggesting is that when the forces of the devil and the Roman empire is toppled, a new heaven and earth will be created, like a new beginning of the earth.

NARRATOR: The emperor Domitian, who had just inaugurated a temple to himself in Ephesus, is the Beast of the Apocalypse with the mysterious mark "666." Revelation says Domitian's days are numbered and predicts the exact date on which his empire will fall.

Prof. L. MICHAEL WHITE: The Roman empire will actually be destroyed in three and a half years, and God will reign in a new, triumphant kingdom immediately thereafter. The expectations of John didn't come to pass. The Roman Empire lasted for a great deal longer.

NARRATOR: On the island of Patmos, where John is said to have written the Book of Revelation, the monks celebrate Easter. Their celebrations are pregnant with symbols from the apocalyptic tradition, from Babylon the longing for a new Jerusalem.

READER: I saw the Holy City, the New Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God. [Rev. 21:2]

NARRATOR: From Persia, the images of light and dark.

READER: There will be no more night for the Lord God will give them light. [Rev. 22:5]

NARRATOR: From the Hellenistic crisis come angels, devils, heaven, hell and the dream of victory in the war between God and Satan.

READER: Then I saw the Beast and the kings of the earth and their armies gathered together to make war. [Rev. 19:19]

NARRATOR: For Greek Orthodox Christians, the stroke of midnight on Easter Sunday marks the moment when Christ rose from the dead. Christ's resurrection prefigures his second coming. To celebrate, the monks hammer on a wooden spar they believe comes from Noah's Ark.

Throughout Christian history, Christ's resurrection prefigures his second coming, his victory over evil at Armageddon, his thousand-year reign of peace. But ever since it was written, interpreters have tried to understand Revelation's predictions for the millennium and the day of judgment.

In the Book of Revelation, an angel appears on the island of Patmos and tells John to write what he sees on a scroll and send it to the seven churches across the sea in Asia minor. But other New Testament writers living in the great cities of the Roman empire rejected the Book of Revelation and its subversive message.

Prof. L. MICHAEL WHITE: The revelation of John is probably not the mainstream view. The author of 1st Peter will say "Be subject to governing authorities. Pay homage to the Emperor." Well, that stands in sharp contrast to the Book of Revelation.

NARRATOR: Ignored for nearly 100 years, the Book of Revelation would come back to haunt the church. In the late 2nd century, an apocalyptic prophet called Montanus inspired thousands to follow him to a remote hilltop. Montanus had interpreted an outbreak of plague as a clear sign that the thousand-year reign of Christ was at hand.

Prof. L. MICHAEL WHITE: Montanus seemed to expect that, literally, a new Jerusalem would descend out of heaven and land on a mountaintop in central Turkey, at his home town of Perpuza. Well, needless to say, it didn't quite happen that way.

Prof. NORMAN COHN, Author, "Pursuit of the Millennium": From the time of Montanus onwards, there have been innumerable prophets who believed in the literal truth of Book of Revelation. Not only that but that the prophecies were to be fulfilled here and now, at any moment.

NARRATOR: A century later the city of Rome, now 1,000 years old, became the next great focus of apocalyptic expectation.

Prof. L. MICHAEL WHITE: This is the first time 1,000 becomes a significant number. People say, "Wait a minute. This looks like things that John predicts for the end of time."

NARRATOR: Rome's millennium celebrations triggered the most vicious persecutions of Christians the empire had ever seen. As the blood of martyrs was shed in amphitheaters, some saw the emperor Decius as the Beast of Revelation, and this the last fling of evil.

READER: And I saw the souls of those who had been beheaded because of their testimony for Jesus and because of the word of God. They reigned with Christ a thousand years. [Rev. 20:4]

NARRATOR: For two centuries, the power of Rome and the early church had coexisted uneasily, and the anti-imperial invective in the Book of Revelation did nothing to improve matters. But everything changed in the year 313, when the emperor Constantine saw a vision of the cross, defeated his enemies and declared Christianity a legitimate religion.

Prof. PAULA FREDRIKSEN, Boston University: From the point of view of Constantine's bishops, the awkwardness for Christianity, with its own apocalyptic heritage, comes with Christianity's political success. The traditional apocalyptic reading has to be wrong because now the empire is Christian. Rome can't be Babylon.

Prof. L. MICHAEL WHITE: The Christian church itself, and especially its leaders, doesn't know quite what to do with the Book of Revelation.

NARRATOR: Most church leaders favored excluding Revelation from the Bible. To this day, it does not appear in the Bible of the Greek Orthodox Church. Then, at a council of bishops in the year 394, Augustine, the great Christian scholar and saint, argued that the Book of Revelation was written by the Apostle John and should be included in the New Testament, if interpreted correctly.

Prof. BERNARD McGINN, University of Chicago: Augustine is the dominant Christian leader and thinker of the western Christian tradition in his time.

NARRATOR: The truly apocalyptic events that were about to engulf the Roman world influenced Augustine's interpretation of Revelation.

Prof. PAULA FREDRIKSEN: Augustine himself happened to live - it was his good or bad luck - happened to live in an apocalyptic hot zone.

Prof. BERNARD McGINN: Well, the most dramatic event in Augustine's lifetime, of course, is the sack of the city of Rome in the year 410. It was this destruction that moved Augustine to write his great book, "The City of God."

Prof. PAULA FREDRIKSEN: Rome had been identified with the church and therefore, if Rome fell, that meant that it's the beginning of the period of the antichrist.

Prof. BERNARD McGINN: What Augustine said is, "No, empires rise and empires fall. What is constant is the internal history of the building up of the City of God through the agency of the church."

Prof. L. MICHAEL WHITE: In Augustine's reinterpretation of the Book of Revelation, what he essentially does is to say that the symbolism that some people before had been taking literally- none of them were literal. He did not believe in a literal thousand-year reign. He did not believe in a literal figure that would come as a kind of antichrist or anything like that.

Prof. BERNARD McGINN: It drew the apocalyticism out of the Apocalypse. And through Augustine's "City of God," this spiritualizing interpretation of the Apocalypse became dominant in the West for a thousand years.

Prof. PAUL BOYER, Univ. of Wisconsin-Madison: He sort of, you know, puts it on tranquilizers, in a way. And this becomes the position of the church historically, and in fact pretty much down to the present.

NARRATOR: As the classical world gave way to the Dark Ages, the church continued to see the imagery of John's Revelation in purely symbolic terms.

RICHARD LANDES, Dir., Center for Millennial Studies, Boston Univ.: At the level of the elite - which is what historians can see because they're the only ones leaving texts - millennialism is gone. At the level of popular Christianity, it's still thriving.

Prof. L. MICHAEL WHITE: So if you look at the emerging Christian art of this period, the popular mind of Christianity in the early Middle Ages is much more literalistic in its reading of the Book of Revelation. [www.pbs.org: Explore Revelation's images and meanings]

NARRATOR: By now, the year 1000, the first Christian millennium, was drawing near. Whereas Eastern religions see time as a cycle of birth and rebirth, apocalyptic thinking assumes time has a beginning, a middle and an end. The linear view of time and history so central to the Book of Revelation was to shape the intellect and imagination of the West. As ordinary people became increasingly aware of time passing, the approaching millennium took on a new significance.

RICHARD LANDES: Bede, who was a monk in northern England at the time, comes up with chronological changes, including the introduction of Anno Domini, and a whole new set of calculations for the age of the world.

Prof. L. MICHAEL WHITE: So the new Christian calendar starts at the year zero and counts forward. It's going to raise the specter of what happens when we get to the year 1000.

RICHARD LANDES: They're stuck with this date, and that's the date at which the commoner popular enthusiasm about millennialism surges up to the top. We get pilgrimages. We get popular heresy, apostolic movements.

Prof. L. MICHAEL WHITE: The year 1000 is approaching, that magic number that will always cause people to think about the Book of Revelation.

NARRATOR: On the eve of the first Christian millennium, a new pope was enthroned.

Prof. L. MICHAEL WHITE: Pope Sylvester II became the pope in the year 999. The last mass of 999 was going to be the occasion, perhaps this time, for Christ not only to emerge in the Eucharist to be seen by the faithful, but to emerge on earth from heaven at his second coming.

It must have been a really anxious time for those people. But of course, the hour passed and nothing happened, and the congregation breaks out "Te Deum Laudamus," "Praise be unto God." The world had not ended.

But it still leaves a lingering question that Christianity will have to wrestle with: When will it happen?

 

PART TWO

 

NARRATOR: A millennium had come and gone, 1,000 years of Christian history had passed. But Jerusalem, that sacred symbol in the apocalyptic imagination, was now firmly in Islamic hands, the site of the temple dominated by Muslim shrines. In 1095, Pope Urban II issued a call to take it back from the infidels. It would initiate 300 years of holy war, the Crusades.

Prof. L. MICHAEL WHITE, Univ. of Texas at Austin: The Crusades probably began as an attempt to liberate the eastern Mediterranean for Christians to live there. But as then the Crusades themselves began to grow in popular imagination, and as the holy war rhetoric became more prominent, it starts to take on these much more apocalyptic tones. Each victory and then defeat only added to the sense that this was a battle of cosmic proportions, that this was really about the antichrist.

NARRATOR: Though not mentioned by name in Revelation, the antichrist has come to be a central figure of the Apocalypse. One of its earliest depictions comes from the time of the Crusades, drawn by the German nun Hildegard of Bingen.

Prof. PAUL BOYER, Univ. of Wisconsin-Madison: Hildegard of Bingen is one of the most interesting figures in the whole history of apocalypticism- very brilliant, a very talented, multi-talented woman, and a deep believer in Bible prophecy.

NARRATOR: Hildegard wrote this music, painted these pictures, and had powerful apocalyptic visions.

Prof. L. MICHAEL WHITE: One of Hildegard's most dramatic visions is the one where she describes the actual birth of the antichrist figure. And it is indeed a monstrous birth.

READER: In her vagina there appeared a monstrous and totally black head with fiery eyes, ears like the ears of a donkey, nostrils and mouth like those of a lion, gnashing with vast open mouth.

Prof. BERNARD McGINN, University of Chicago: That, of course, is the image of the antichrist, who will be born from the Church, who will persecute believing Christians, and who will try to pretend that he is divine by ascending into heaven.

NARRATOR: For Hildegard, the source of the antichrist's evil power lay in Judaism.

READER: The Antichrist orders them to observe both circumcision and Judaism according to the customs of the Jews.

Prof. L. MICHAEL WHITE: I don't think we can lose sight of the fact that she uses a great deal of earlier medieval Christian anti-Jewish legend and thinking. For her, it's very clear that the Jews are the enemy of Christ.

NARRATOR: Each year, the town of Trier, Germany, celebrates the first day of Pentecost with a procession. On this day in 1096, Crusaders arrived in Trier on their way to Jerusalem.

Prof. PAUL BOYER: When the Crusades were getting underway and Christians were going off to Jerusalem to redeem the city of Jerusalem from the heretics, at the same time we see horrible, horrendous antisemitic persecutions breaking out in some of the cities of Germany.

NARRATOR: Pope Urban had envisioned a crusade of knightly warriors fueled by religious spirit. But what began as a holy mission turned into apocalyptic mob violence.

Prof. NORMAN COHN, Author, "Pursuit of the Millennium": These hordes, who felt that as a necessary preliminary to the Second Coming it was necessary to kill all Jews. This was not the official church doctrine. The official doctrine was that all Jews must be converted to Christianity before the Second Coming. But one way of settling this matter was to kill them, and there would be no unconverted Jews left.

NARRATOR: The Crusaders killed thousands of Jews in the towns along the Rhine. Their deaths were marked by the singing of the ancient prayer of grief over the destruction of the temple.

Prof. L. MICHAEL WHITE: This anti-Jewish sentiment had, of course, been around for several centuries prior to Hildegard. But with the beginning of the Crusades, we get the first mass killing of Jews as a part of a Christian holy war. That, combined with the sense of this apocalyptic adventure, is really going to kick off for us a thousand years of antisemitism.

NARRATOR: Through the ages, the dualism of Apocalypse - light and dark, good and evil - has fueled hatred and violence. But for some it has also infused historic events with prophetic meaning. Perhaps the most far-reaching interpretation of the Bible as a blueprint for history stems from the 12th century Italian monk, Joachim of Fiore. At the monastery in Casamari, south of Rome, Joachim would change the course of Christian apocalyptic thinking.

Prof. BERNARD McGINN, University of Chicago: Joachim of Fiore is the most important apocalyptic thinker of the whole medieval period and maybe, after the prophet John, the most important apocalyptic thinker in the history of Christianity.

He tells us that he was trying to understand and write a commentary on the Book of Revelation and finding it impossible. The book was too difficult. And then one Easter morning he awakened, but he awakened as a new person, having been given a spiritual understanding of the meaning of the Book of Revelation and the concords- that is, the relationship of all the books in the Bible.

NARRATOR: Joachim began a long tradition of biblical prophesy by expressing his predictions of history in a series of charts. He tied the meaning of history directly to the Holy Trinity.

Prof. L. MICHAEL WHITE: The first is the age of the father. He links it to the period of ancient Israel. The second is the age of the of the son. It's the period of the church from the New Testament down to his own time.

The third age, the one that's just about to dawn, he calls the age of the spirit. It's the age when the whole world will be at peace, and the whole world will look like and live like a monastery.

Prof. NORMAN COHN, Author, "Pursuit of the Millennium": Joachim's vision of the third age was peaceful. It was a spiritual age. It would be a purification of the world through the existence of the influence of a monastic order which would be totally spiritual, totally pure.

NARRATOR: And yet Joachim's vision was a radical departure. He rejected the official church view that Christ's return lay somewhere off in the distant future. In the midst of the Crusades, he predicted that Armageddon was near.

NICHOLAS CAMPION, Author, "The Great Year": Joachim put himself effectively in opposition to the Catholic hierarchy. He triggered a sense of hope that the age of the spirit was indeed about to begin, and that the old corrupt order would be overthrown.

Prof. BERNARD McGINN: Joachim was a real apocalypticist, in the original sense of the prophet John, because he believed the current events that he saw around him were signs of the times, signs that had been predicted in the Book of the Apocalypse and now were being fulfilled. This is what Augustine and others had ruled out.

NARRATOR: Joachim illustrated the Beast of Revelation with its seven heads representing kings who have oppressed Christianity. The first head is Herod the Great. The sixth head is Saladin, the Turkish leader who had repulsed the Crusaders and now controlled Jerusalem.

Prof. BERNARD McGINN: He believed that Saladin was the current persecutor, and that right around the corner would be the seventh head, who would be the final historical antichrist.

NARRATOR: Joachim also turned to Revelation to tell him how long till the end.

Prof. L. MICHAEL WHITE: He comes up with a numerical calculation by reading scripture and figuring out how to put the numbers together. By the time he totals it all up, he comes to the conclusion that from the birth of Christ to the end of time is 1,260 years.

NARRATOR: The date he settled on, 1260, lay only 80 years in the future.

Prof. NORMAN COHN: It's an immensely complicated numerological fantasy which led him to the year 1260. Also, of course, he would be conveniently dead before that, which indeed he was.

NARRATOR: Despite the passing of his predicted date, the centuries following Joachim would see a growing sense that the end of the world was imminent.

Prof. L. MICHAEL WHITE: When we look at the Middle Ages, one of the things you see very clearly is they saw the end of the world all around them. When a Christian of that day went into a church building, the scene over the doorway was the Last Judgment, with a fearful Christ standing in judgment and the jaws of hell waiting for the sinner.

NARRATOR: The most striking example of apocalyptic art from the Middle Ages are Signorelli's frescoes in the cathedral at Orvieto, Italy.

TOUR GUIDE: This is the story of the end of the world. This is the story of the Apocalypse, all what happened before during and after the end. So the story starts with the preaching of the antichrist. And you see on this side, you can see a man looking like Jesus.

NARRATOR: But it's not Jesus. Signorelli's is the first known depiction of antichrist as a deceptively Christ-like figure.

Prof. BERNARD McGINN: And as we see this face, which is a demonic parody of the face of Christ, with all the features of the traditional portrayal of Christ but somehow, in the genius of Signorelli's art, made into an image of evil.

NARRATOR: One fresco depicts the fate of true believers.

Prof. BERNARD McGINN: And the idea, of course, is the great idea of hope, that those who have lived according to the Christian gospel will be called up to participate with Christ in eternal glory.

TOUR GUIDE: On this side of the arch is going on really the end of humanity. And look how amazing! Isn't that amazing, painted 500 years ago? You see, the laser rays will destroy the humanity. This is like "Star Wars," huh?"

NARRATOR: But art like Signorelli's came at enormous cost. To pay for it, the church sold indulgences, certificates that offered the buyer a better afterlife.

Prof. PAUL BOYER: In fact, the church has left us with some of the great treasures of medieval art through money that in part was raised by indulgences.

NARRATOR: In the year 1517, convinced that indulgences were a symptom of a profoundly corrupt church, a young priest in Germany dared to protest. His name was Martin Luther. The reform he led would split the church into Catholics and Protestants, in the process creating a new legion of apocalyptic thinkers.

Dr. MARK EDWARDS, Jr., Pres., St. Olaf College: Luther set out to reform the church, to bring it back to what he saw as its proper mooring. The church, as the institutional church, saw him instead as a great threat to their income and a heretic. Luther would have been just one more reformer in a small area if it had not been for the printing press. Thanks to the printing press, Martin Luther became the best-seller throughout the empire.

NARRATOR: Luther produced a series of pamphlets which identified the antichrist as the pope himself. [www.pbs.org: More on history's antichrists]

Dr. MARK EDWARDS, Jr.: The Catholic church, in effect, put out an arrest warrant on Luther. And so a number of his supporters arranged to have him kidnapped and carted off to the Wartburg Castle. There he was disguised as a knight. He grew a big beard. He gained weight. And he sat down and wrote his famous translation of the New Testament.

Prof. PAUL BOYER: Luther's decision to translate the Bible into German is to make it accessible to the people. The Bible will no longer be a mysterious text that is simply interpreted through the medium of a priesthood, but each individual become will become his or her own priest.

NARRATOR: But when he got to Revelation, Luther had mixed feelings.

Prof. L. MICHAEL WHITE: Luther says, "My spirit can't penetrate this book. It can't make a good sense of it." Also, he thinks it's really not a central part of the Bible. He actually, in his German translation, relegates it to an appendix.

Dr. MARK EDWARDS, Jr.: But what's interesting is even though he felt that way, it's the one book that he illustrated where he put woodcuts, because Revelation allowed him to make one of his central points, which was the papacy was the antichrist, and the end of the world was coming. And so there you see the only woodcuts in the New Testament.

You see the whore of Babylon wearing a papal crown. You see the seven-headed Beast wearing a papal crown. The message was clear. You didn't have to read. The papacy, the papal church, was where Satan was working to undermine Christendom. And the fact that Satan was there meant the world was coming to an end soon.

NARRATOR: Without meaning to, Luther had opened the floodgates to new interpretations of the Book of Revelation.

Dr. MARK EDWARDS, Jr.: Martin Luther believed that everyone would read the scripture the same way he did, and so all he had to do was make it available and people would come to the same opinion. Or if they didn't, Satan was subverting them. What he found out was that Satan was very busy because everyone who picked up the Bible and read it were going off in different directions and reaching conclusions that Luther not only disagreed with, but was convinced were the result of Satan's direct meddling.

NARRATOR: The raw power of apocalyptic dualism was about to be unleashed again. At the cathedral in Mulhausen, a disciple of Luther's named Thomas Muentzer took to the pulpit to propose his own version of the Apocalypse. Even today, Muentzer's message is remembered.

GERMAN CLERGYMAN: [through interpreter] Luther's reformation didn't go far enough for him. Muentzer interpreted the battles and riots of the farmers as a sign from God for the Last Battle.

Prof. PAUL BOYER: Thomas Muentzer is an example of what can happen when apocalyptic scriptures become widely accessible. Muentzer took the images of the Apocalypse, the images of a desperate struggle between the forces of righteousness and the forces of evil, and applied it to the peasantry of Europe. And he preached to the peasants that the wealthy people of the day are in fact the evil ones whose destruction is foretold in the Book of Revelation.

GERMAN CLERGYMAN: [through interpreter] "The time of harvest is here," Muentzer declared. "And God himself sent me to his harvest. I sharpened my sickle because my thoughts are focused on the truth."

Dr. MARK EDWARDS, Jr.: It's not a moral reform. It's not a spiritual reform. It's economic. He's worried about the poor. And the working classes, especially in the growing cities of that time, were particularly drawn to his message. This was going to be a class revolution.

NARRATOR: On the site where Muentzer would lead his apocalyptic revolution, there now stands a monument to his effort. This museum was built by communist East Germany especially to exhibit a diorama - the largest canvas in the world - dedicated to telling the apocalyptic visions of Thomas Muentzer.

TEACHER: [to student group] He was the local leader of the Peasants' War that actually started in 1524 in the Black Forest.

Prof. NORMAN COHN, Author, "Pursuit of the Millennium": Thomas Muentzer attached himself to the Peasants' War, a great mass rising of peasantry which was in no way apocalyptically inspired, was an absolutely straightforward peasants' revolt.

Prof. L. MICHAEL WHITE: Muentzer and a hand-picked army of 300 men go off to the town of Frankenhausen to join the peasants' revolt. The princes aren't going to sit around and take this. In fact, they send an army under Philip of Hesse to put down the revolt. Philip places an array of cannons on a hilltop overlooking the peasants' stronghold.

Prof. PAUL BOYER: The peasants are arrayed against the German princes and their army, and Thomas Muentzer continues to assure them, even at the last moment, that Christ will intervene on their side.

Prof. L. MICHAEL WHITE: Muentzer steps forward and says, "I will catch their cannonballs in my sleeves and throw them back at them." And just at that moment a rainbow appeared in the sky.

Prof. PAUL BOYER: They're singing hymns. They literally are awaiting a glorious triumph.

Dr. MARK EDWARDS, Jr.: As the princes load their cannons and the cavalry gets ready to charge, the peasants are singing, "Come, Holy Spirit," believing this battle is the final battle of Armageddon, and that God was going to break in and stop it right there.

Prof. L. MICHAEL WHITE: At least 5,000 of the peasants were slaughtered in that day. Philip's army lost maybe a dozen. It was a horrendous defeat for the peasants' revolt. Muentzer himself was found hiding in a cellar in the town of Frankenhausen and eventually was caught, forced to confess his sins, and was beheaded by the princes.

Despite this horrible defeat that they faced, Muentzer's legacy is not one that disappears so easily. Later generations, particularly in Germany, would look at him as a hero, as a proletarian rebel. Marxism would come along later and think of him as a saint, as a martyr to the cause.

NARRATOR: This East German monument remains testimony to the enduring legacy of Thomas Muentzer. Three hundred years later, Karl Marx would transform the apocalyptic ideas of Muentzer into a secular ideology.

Prof. L. MICHAEL WHITE: The godless communism of Karl Marx has a number of apocalyptic overtones. It relies on interpretations and language from the Book of Revelation in order to understand what's happening in human history.

Prof. PAUL BOYER: It envisions history in terms of a series of great stages which will culminate in a moment of crisis, leading essentially to a kind of millennium, the era of communism, when class differences and exploitation and suffering will end.

NICHOLAS CAMPION, Author, "The Great Year": We have the words of "The International," the communist anthem, "This is our last and final struggle," and after then there will be no more struggles. All will be peace."

NARRATOR: Only a century after Muentzer, a new apocalyptic vision of transforming society arose. Religious and secular ideas were woven together into a bold social experiment called the New World. It began with a handful of dissident Christians fleeing the oppression of the Protestant Church of England.

Prof. PAUL BOYER: The Puritans see now the possibility of literally creating, in what they saw as a new and empty world, the millennial kingdom, the vision of a truly righteous nation.

NARRATOR: In 1630, the new governor of Massachusetts, John Winthrop, exhorted his fellow colonists to build the equivalent of Jerusalem in their new land.

READER: We shall find that the God of Israel is among us when he shall make us a praise and glory that men shall say of succeeding plantations, "The lord make it like that of New England." For we must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us. [John Winthrop, "A Modell of Christian Charity," 1630]

Prof. L. MICHAEL WHITE: When the Puritans talked about founding the New Jerusalem in the American colony, they're really harking to the language of the Book of Revelation. Revelation 21:10 talks about Jerusalem descending from the heavens at the end of times. They see themselves really as bringing the last days, the end of time, into reality by founding this new religious experiment.

NARRATOR: The exuberance of that early experiment is recalled in psalms and hymns like "New Jerusalem." Cotton Mather, the most legendary in a family of preachers, helped inaugurate an era of urgent anticipation.

READER: There are many arguments to persuade us that our glorious Lord will have an holy city in America, a city the streets thereof will be pure gold. [Cotton Matter, "Magnolia Christi Americana"]

JAMES WEST DAVIDSON, Author, "Logic of Millennial Thought": Cotton Mather was probably one of God's most strenuous creations. He was an energetic minister, a man who sensed that the world was constantly on the edge of some great climax. There was a sense that in a matter of months, Christ might come to earth. There might be a conflagration that burns the entire world to purify it. Cotton Mather constantly warned his parishioners about this, spoke energetically about it, had prayer meetings, would get down before dinner every night on his knees and pray for the coming kingdom.

NARRATOR: Mather and the colonists believed that Christ would return once they had built a truly righteous kingdom. It was this sort of apocalyptic rhetoric that a generation later fueled the passions of the war of independence from England.

JAMES WEST DAVIDSON: This was not just a simple political dispute, this was the history of redemption in the balance, that King George was not just some sort of well-intentioned but obtuse king, King George could be seen as the antichrist.

NARRATOR: Paul Revere depicted events as no less than a fight against the Beast of the Apocalypse.

Prof. L. MICHAEL WHITE: It was clear to the partisans in the Revolutionary War that events in their own day were really signaling that this was a part of prophetic plan of God, especially when they looked at something like the Stamp Act.

JAMES WEST DAVIDSON: The Stamp Act sets duties on a whole range of legal transactions. If you're going to buy a house, if you're going to sell a house, if you're going to go to court, you need stamped paper to file documents. If you're going to play cards even, you need stamped paper for those cards.

There's this sense in the Revelation of the Beast having a mark that it places upon all its people, so that the Stamp Act, for those who are looking at it from a millennial point of view, see this stamp as a kind of mark of the Beast.

Prof. L. MICHAEL WHITE: The old Puritan rhetoric of the New Jerusalem, the Promised Land, jells in the period around the Revolutionary War in a kind of secularization of those ideas. America is the New Jerusalem. They're the ones who are going to create the perfect state. This is the time that God has set in motion. This is a destiny that they are going to achieve, and it's going to lead from there into the building of a national ideology. [www.pbs.org: Review apocalypticism in America]

NARRATOR: America, more than anywhere else, has fostered apocalyptic thinking. One stream led to the 19th century ideals of social reform, but for many in the early 1800s a bleaker view took hold. Joseph Smith led the Mormons west in search of the New Jerusalem. And in upstate New York, there is a chapel in memory of a man whose apocalyptic message was so powerful, it endures today in the 7th-Day Adventist church.

William Miller was a farmer. By studying the Bible, he felt he could unlock the secret to when Christ would return.

Prof. PAUL BOYER: His message was based on his interpretation of some very difficult passages in the Book of Daniel.

NARRATOR: By linking Daniel and Revelation, Miller calculated that a divine countdown of 2,300 years had begun in 457 B.C.E. Subtracting 457 from 2,300 brought him to the year 1843.

Prof. L. MICHAEL WHITE: Now, in one sense, it's not too surprising that, you know, after all of these calculations and after all of this elaborate study, inevitably each new interpreter comes along and says, "It's only a year or two from now." But that's exactly what Miller does and what he concludes.

Prof. STEPHEN O'LEARY, Univ. of Southern California: In 1839, Miller hooks up with Joshua Himes, who has a whole publicity machine. And Himes put his printing press and his whole public relations machinery at Miller's disposal. And at that point, we can begin to see the Millerite movement coming into existence.

NARRATOR: They soon numbered more than a quarter million.

Prof. PAUL BOYER: They were ordinary Americans. Many of them were involved in other reform movements. Joshua Himes in Boston, for example, was also involved in the abolitionist movement. People were drawn to Miller out of the larger cultural climate of the moment. And they were not cranks. They were not fringe people. They were ordinary Americans who found his interpretation compelling.

NARRATOR: Miller predicted that Christ would return sometime between March 21, 1843, and March 21, 1844.

Prof. L. MICHAEL WHITE: As the time went on and nothing yet happened, the crowds got even larger. New Year's of 1844 comes along, and the sense of expectation is great. Nothing happens. Finally we get to March of 1844, the end of what he thinks of as the window of the Second Coming. And even then, it doesn't come.

NARRATOR: Miller's followers refused to accept failure.

Prof. PAUL BOYER: They went back to the drawing board, and they realized that they had made an error of one year by neglecting to take into account the transition from B.C. to A.D.

NARRATOR: They settled on October 22nd, 1844. The more people they convinced of the new date, the less their earlier disappointment seemed to matter. The momentum was building. Huge crowds began gathering on the strange formation at Miller's farm they called Ascension Rock.

As the fateful night approached, they prepared themselves. Millerite farmers left their fields unharvested. Others sold all their earthly possessions in anticipation of the end.

Prof. PAUL BOYER: Miller creates the conditions then for an incredible letdown, an incredible sense of disappointment.

NARRATOR: It would be remembered by one Millerite as "the great disappointment."

READER: Our fondest hopes and expectations were blasted, and such a spirit of weeping came over us as I never had experienced before. It seemed that the loss of all earthly friends could have been no comparison. We wept and wept until the day dawned.

Prof. PAUL BOYER: It really was a literal event that they anticipated. And when it doesn't happen, it's really an existential crisis, I think, for many thousands of Americans.

NARRATOR: And yet the chapel built in Miller's memory is strong testimony that despite overwhelming disproof, faith in this notion of Bible prophecy remains unshaken.

In the 1840s, a British minister devised a new system that laid the foundation for many forms of modern apocalyptic expectation. His name was John Nelson Darby.

Prof. L. MICHAEL WHITE: Darby's prophetic system retains Miller's basic expectation that the coming of Christ is going to be soon, and then the thousand-year kingdom will commence. But he develops the notion of a great parenthesis- that is, a pause in the divine clock. And the clock will only start again when the Second Coming is near.

NARRATOR: Darby christened this moment "the Rapture."

Prof. L. MICHAEL WHITE: "The Rapture" is the term that he coins. That term doesn't exist in the Bible at all. He creates it. It's Darby's way of describing what will happen the first time that Jesus returns, when he snatches away the elect from the earth.

Prof. PAUL BOYER: The doctrine of the Rapture is a tremendous breakthrough in the history of prophetic teaching because with it Darby avoided the problem of the Millerites, the problem of date setting. But at the same time the doctrine of the Rapture holds believers in a state of constant readiness. They could be snatched from the earth literally at any moment.

Prof. STEPHEN O'LEARY, Univ. of Southern California: It was Darby's genius to invent a system of prophecy interpretation which still survives in almost the same form today, and without any significant changes.

NARRATOR: John Hagee is a well-known televangelist.

Rev. JOHN HAGEE: ["The Rapture Hour"] -and we shall be changed! All over the earth, homes of believers will have the supper dishes on the table, the food will be on the stove, but the occupants are mysteriously and suddenly gone. The headlines will be screaming, "Millions are missing. The church has been Raptured."

NARRATOR: For most Christians today, Revelation is not a blueprint for history. Yet even for the non-religious, in a century that has witnessed genocide and two world wars, the Apocalypse has become embedded in our consciousness. Apocalyptic language has been used in the service of even the most anti-religious movements.

Prof. L. MICHAEL WHITE: Adolf Hitler begins to use an enormous amount of highly apocalyptic rhetoric. Language like "the thousand-year Reich," the Third Reich, all of these are apocalyptic terms coming right from Joachim of Fiore.

NARRATOR: Hitler found his antichrist in the Jews. In his personal manifesto, Mein Kampf, Hitler seems to paraphrase the Book of Daniel when, instead of the Beast, he says, "The Jew would really devour the peoples of the earth."

Dr. MARK EDWARDS, Jr.: The Jews, in Hitler's vision, were given powers that no human beings have. And yet that made them so Satanic, and the struggle against them so righteous, in his particular vision.

Prof. L. MICHAEL WHITE: For most people today, Hitler's demonizing of the Jews, the "Final Solution," really is one of the worst atrocities in human history. Most people now, I think, would say that Hitler is the antichrist, not the Jews.

NARRATOR: Suddenly the Apocalypse seemed more attainable than ever before. The end of the world no longer took a leap of imagination.

Prof. L. MICHAEL WHITE: There's been kind of a growing sense of anxiety and paranoia about where the world is going. Whether it's environmental, disaster or biohazards or atomic war, there's this sense that, you know, maybe things are a little out of control. And that's, I think, something that everybody feels, whether they're particularly religious or not, whether they believe in prophecy or not.

NARRATOR: Christian booksellers meet annually to promote their $3 billion industry. Among them are a small but growing number who believe that end-time events are literally foretold in the Bible. Apocalyptic literature is the fastest-growing part of the business, inspired largely by the success of one man.

HAL LINDSEY: I tried to take the complexity of prophecy and to show that there was a very specific scenario that the prophets predicted would all come together in history, shortly before the return of Christ.

NARRATOR: Lindsey's first book, The Late Great Planet Earth, became the non-fiction bestselller of the 1970s, crossing over from Christians to a world-wide readership of over 25 million.

Prof. PAUL BOYER: Hal Lindsey publishes a book, The Late Great Planet Earth, which is really a popularization of John Darby's system. Theologically, there's nothing new there. What he does is link it to current events.

NARRATOR: The pivotal event in Lindsey's scenario was the Arab-Israeli war and the return of Jerusalem to Jewish hands.

NEWSREEL ANNOUNCER: Defense Minister Dayan says, "We have returned to the holiest of our holy places."

Prof. STEPHEN O'LEARY, Univ. of Southern California: With the Israeli recapture of Jerusalem you get a kind of visceral excitement which runs all through the Christian prophecy believers. This was the event which I think really served as a kind of impetus for a whole generation of prophetic interpretation.

Rev. JOHN HAGEE: There are five Bible signs of the terminal generation.

GRANT JEFFRIES: The first and most important was the rebirth of the nation Israel.

Rev. JOHN HAGEE: Isaiah 66 and 8 says "a nation shall be reborn in a day," and that happened in May, 1948.

HAL LINDSEY: Increase of earthquakes, increase of famine, increase of plague.

Rev. JOHN HAGEE: In the Bible, pestilence is a disease that cannot be cured. For our generation, that's AIDS. Daniel said in chapter 12, in the end of time, there would be a knowledge explosion. We are the generation that has the information highway. You can literally drowned yourself with information.

GRANT JEFFRIES: We're told that two of God's witnesses in the future will be killed by the antichrist, and the whole world will witness this event at the same time. With CNN and worldwide instantaneous visual communication, for the first time in history this prophecy is capable of being fulfilled in our lifetime. And that, I believe, is one more significant indication that we're living in the age when we can expect the Messiah.

Rev. JOHN HAGEE: As far as I'm concerned, I could disappear off this television set while I'm talking to you. There's nothing left in the Bible to happen before the Rapture of the church.

ACTOR: [as news reporter] ["Apocalypse"] The United States of America is officially at war.

NARRATOR: Combining news clips with specially shot footage, Christian filmmakers dramatize for their audience what events like the Rapture may look like.

ACTOR: ["Apocalypse"] Oh, my God! Charlie! Charlie! This is impossible. This is just impossible. I just can't believe it. I don't know what to say. My cameraman, Charles Tappas- he's just disappeared right in front of me!

Prof. PAUL BOYER: With the Rapture, the prophetic clock begins to tick again. And at that point, events will unfold very quickly and very dramatically.

NARRATOR: Next comes the Tribulation, a seven-year period of catastrophe and chaos that precedes the return of Christ and the battle of Armageddon.

Rev. JERRY FALWELL: We need to be warning a lost world that judgment is coming, and the carnage is so horrible that most of the population on the earth during the Tribulation will be annihilated. This final devastation will actually-

NARRATOR: Popular ministers like Jerry Falwell preach these events to an audience numbering in the tens of millions.

Rev. JERRY FALWELL: Now, you need to note that you will not be here. If you're a believer, you will not be here. This is not intended to frighten saints. Not one saint will spend one moment in the Tribulation period. We will have gone up in the Rapture. I believe in the pre-millennial coming of Christ.

NARRATOR: At times, believers have chosen not to wait for Jesus to rapture them.

HEAVEN'S GATE LEADER: We came to offer a doorway to the kingdom of God at the end of this civilization, this age, the end of this millennium.

NARRATOR: The Christian New Age group Heaven's Gate castrated and then killed themselves in preparation for what they called "the next level."

The links of such groups to Revelation have often been tenuous. But one young man named Vernon Howell, in a splinter group of the 7th-Day Adventists, developed his vision directly from the ideas of William Miller.

Prof. JAMES TABOR, Univ. of North Carolina at Charlotte: Vernon Howell went to Jerusalem and rented an apartment, and he began to study with some of the rabbis, the Orthodox rabbis in Israel. And he was an avid student of the Bible.

NARRATOR: Howell went to Jerusalem to see if it was physically possible during the Tribulation for 144,000 of God's faithful to gather on the Temple Mount to be saved.

Prof. JAMES TABOR: While he was there, he had the experience that changed his whole life. He reports the experience of ecstatically being caught up into heaven, like the author of the Book of Revelation, seeing heaven open.

DAVID KORESH: [FBI tape] The Russian Cosmonauts gave a report that they saw seven angelic beings flying towards earth with the wings the size of a jumbo jet. Okay, so what happened was in 1985, when I was in Israel, I met up with those people. Seriously.

FBI NEGOTIATOR: You met up with who now? The seven- the two Cosmonauts?

DAVID KORESH: No, no. See, the Russian Cosmonauts were in their space station.

FBI NEGOTIATOR: Right.

DAVID KORESH: And they radioed down to their headquarters they were terrified-

FBI NEGOTIATOR: Right. I can-

DAVID KORESH: -that they saw seven angelic beings moving towards the earth.

FBI NEGOTIATOR: Okay. And you met these seven angelic beings.

DAVID KORESH: Exactly.

Prof. JAMES TABOR: From that moment on, he says, "I instantaneously and suddenly in a moment understood completely all the mysteries of the Bible." He came back, he changed his name to David Koresh, as we now know him. and took on then that new persona, that new identity as the final revelator or Christ figure.

NARRATOR: Koresh took his name from the Hebrew for Cyrus, the Persian king who delivered the Jews from Babylon. The Branch Davidians in Waco, Texas, were also waiting to be delivered.

Prof. STEPHEN O'LEARY, Univ. of Southern California: David Koresh taught his followers that they were living in Babylon, and the- you know, the U.S. government was the fulfillment of the scriptural prophecy and that Babylon was the persecutor of the saints.

If you were a member of the group and maybe you doubted Koresh's teaching, when the tanks appear outside and the black helicopters appear overhead, how could you doubt anymore?

NARRATOR: At first Koresh thought news coverage of the stand-off would attract the 144,000 followers he would take to Jerusalem to be saved. He tried repeatedly to convince the FBI of his logic.

DAVID KORESH: [FBI tape] You don't even know what Chapter 7 teaches when it shows the Lamb stands on Mt. Zion with the 144,000 having the seal of the Father on their foreheads.

FBI NEGOTIATOR: So where are the 144,000?

DAVID KORESH: They're right here in this country. They're out here in this world. Now, let me explain. Remember how I told you God said to wait?

FBI NEGOTIATOR: Okay.

DAVID KORESH: Things are happening you don't even understand right now.

Prof. STEPHEN O'LEARY: When David Koresh interpreted the Bible for the FBI negotiators, they could only see this as what they called "Bible babble." The phrase "Bible babble" indicates a real failure to come to grips with what was going on there.

Prof. JAMES TABOR: David Koresh envisioned his group actually ending up in Jerusalem. And so Waco in '93, for him, was clearly a surprise. It didn't seem to fit any prophesies of the Bible that he had expounded.

The footage that we see now, with the noise and the lights at night, pressuring the group- he had to go back to his texts and wonder, "Well, maybe this is the end. Maybe there's something I've missed," you see? And so by handling the situation in the way that it was handled, the government really delivered to David, I guess we could call it, an early Apocalypse,

FBI NEGOTIATOR: The time to come out is now. If you can't see your way through, walk towards the sound of the speakers. David, don't do this to your people.

Prof. PAUL BOYER: Doomsday cults are very significant. They tell us something about a contemporary cultural climate of anxiety, of apprehension, of uneasiness about trends in our contemporary world. [www.pbs.org: Examine Koresh's apocalyptic beliefs]

Prof. STEPHEN O'LEARY: If we think only in terms of cult leaders and fanatics, we miss the point. Those people are the extreme manifestations of a phenomenon that is truly grass-roots, below the surface, not often noticed, but part of our national identity.

NARRATOR: Among the fastest-growing church groups to embrace end-time beliefs is the Pentecostal movement. At a local church in Mississippi, members gathered to hear the words of cattle rancher Clyde Lott.

CLYDE LOTT: Every one of us that's in this sanctuary tonight is here because God brought us here for his divine purpose in this day and time.

NARRATOR: These people believe that before Christ can return, the Jews must rebuild the temple in Jerusalem.

CLYDE LOTT: But right now God is giving his people an opportunity to be a part of his prophetic work as it begins to unfold before us in the land of Israel.

NARRATOR: Ancient Christian and Jewish apocalyptic traditions, long separated, have now converged in their mission to rebuild the temple.

Rabbi CHAIM RICHMAN, The Temple Institute, Jerusalem: We believe that the rectification, as it were, of our spiritual relationship with God, with the Creator, and that of all mankind, come about through the resting of the divine presence, which only comes about here in Jerusalem on the Temple Mount.

NARRATOR: Richman's Temple Institute is dedicated to seeing the temple rebuilt.

RABBI CHAIM RICHMAN: One of the only things that are missing from the ability to build the temple is the red heifer.

NARRATOR: Before the temple can be built, the grounds must be purified by the ritual sacrifice of a perfect red heifer. Ironically, even though they each have their own prophetic agenda and timetable, Rabbi Richman and Clyde Lott have found a common ground.

CLYDE LOTT: I was out checking cattle, and I just happened to stop and sit on a tree that had fallen. And I began to pray, and I began to thank God for what he had done for me, for forgiving me of my sins, for filling me with his spirit. And I began to ask God what could I do in return.

NARRATOR: God told Lott he could help by raising the sacred red heifer.

CLYDE LOTT: There is a certain shade of red that the red heifer has to be, and it's basically taken from the word aduma, which means red coloring of the earth in the Middle East. This little heifer calf is real close to the color. In fact, she may be the exact color.

NARRATOR: The next step is to fly two planeloads full of pregnant cattle to Israel.

CLYDE LOTT: We realize that if that door is open for us to go in December, that it will be within God's perfect timing, so that when the cattle get there, it will be at the exact time that God said that the cattle were supposed to arrive in Israel.

READER: Do not seal up the words of the prophecy of this book because the time is near.

NARRATOR: When he arrives in December, Lott will be setting foot on ground zero of apocalyptic fervor.

Prof. PAUL BOYER: The level of intensity associated with apocalyptic belief is really almost at an all-time high.

NARRATOR: Israeli police are keeping a close watch on Brother Solomon, whose flock is convinced they will live to see the end of time.

BROTHER SOLOMON: We are now living in the end time, and that's definite. We should be ready. The Book of Revelation definitely teaches us that the time is near and we are to be ready. All books meet and end in Revelation.

Prof. PAUL BOYER: The vision of the future that's embedded in the apocalyptic world view is really a frightening one. But combined with the fear is a sense of meaning. History has a beginning. History will have an end. And history will culminate in a glorious era.

Prof. L. MICHAEL WHITE: One of the real problems with the Book of Revelation is as long as people call it from ancient times into modern times, there's going to be the sense of having to reinterpret its meaning for a current event. And that's going to open up all kinds of new doors of interpretation. We probably haven't seen the last one yet.

READER: I am the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End. [Rev. 22:13]

 

 

A FRONTLINE coproduction with

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Copyright 1999 WGBH EDUCATIONAL FOUNDATION

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ANNOUNCER: Explore FRONTLINE's Apocalypse! archive on line. For a roundtable with experts on apocalyptic thinking, extended interviews from the program organized thematically, explore parallels between David Koresh and Thomas Muentzer and much more at pbs.org.

Next time on FRONTLINE: In 39 states, judges are elected, not appointed. And like all candidates, they need money to win.

Prof. ALAN DERSHOWITZ, Harvard Law School: It's bad enough when you give senators and presidents money. It's much worse when a lawyer or a corporation gives a judge money.

ANNOUNCER: Correspondent Bill Moyers finds out whose contributing and what they get in return. Is Justice for Sale? Tomorrow night on FRONTLINE.

For a VHS copy of Apocalypse!, please call PBS Home Video at 1-800-PLAY-PBS.

 

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