As the third millennium nears, "APOCALYPSE!" traces the evolution of apocalyptic belief throughout the ages-from its origin in the Jewish experience after the Babylonian exile to its diverse and often tumultuous expression in modern times. |
Drawing on engaging interviews with historians and biblical scholars, and vivid imagery and historical pictures, this two-hour special chronicles the fascinating history of where our ideas of the End Time and doomsday and destruction come from, and how they have shaped our world.
Central to the apocalyptic belief that has filtered through two millennia of Western consciousness is the last book of the New Testament--the Book of Revelation. FRONTLINE explores who wrote it, scholars' views on its historical setting, and the meaning of its startling images. The key to understanding some of Revelation's wild imagery of beasts, mythic serpents and many-headed dragons lies in the fact that much of Revelation is grounded in six hundred years of Jewish political history and the Jews' wars and defeats under various foreign invaders --Babylonians, Persians, Greeks and Romans.
The Jews' despair not only created a climate ripe for the birth of apocalyptic thought, the cultural influences of the foreign invaders also contributed to the apocalyptic outlook of the Jews. From these diverse viewpoints, a prolific new literature-the apocalypse-was born, with visions of heaven and hell, and at its center, the eternal battle between good and evil. This apocalyptic tradition fundamentally reshaped Jewish culture in the last two centuries before the birth of Jesus.
The Birth of Christianity and the Book of Revelation
In the first century C.E., Christianity began as an apocalyptic sect within Judaism. Jesus and John the Baptist were apocalyptic Jewish preachers who proclaimed the imminent arrival of the Kingdom of God on earth. In the aftermath of the failed First Revolt against Rome in 70 C.E., Jews and Christians began to reflect on the eventual fate of Jerusalem in a series of new apocalypses; one of these was the Book of Revelation.
Although later Christian tradition holds that the Book of Revelation was written by St. John the Apostle, author of the Fourth Gospel, most modern-day historians and New Testament scholars believe that the author was not the apostle John but another man of the same name. It is generally agreed that the Book of Revelation was written by a Jewish Christian who saw the events following Jerusalem's destruction as a sign of the inevitable climax in the eternal war between God and Satan. John portrays the Roman Empire as demonic, the agent of Satan on earth, the antithesis of all that is Godly, and he predicted that Rome itself would soon fall. And John's Revelation draws on earlier apocalyptic writers--Enoch's imagery of Hell, God and Satan; the prophet Ezekiel's image of 'The New Jerusalem;' and Daniel's vision of the triumph of God's earthly kingdom.
Less than one hundred years after it was written, however, readers of Revelation began interpreting it as a literal prediction that a new Jerusalem would descend to earth then and there. Montanus became the first of innumerable prophets who believed in the literal truth of Revelation. In the late second century Montanus inspired thousands to follow him to a remote hilltop believing that a plague outbreak signaled that the 1000-year reign of Christ was at hand.
The second hour of "APOCALYPSE!" explores the impact of apocalyptic thinking from the early Middle Ages to the present, illustrating how the Book of Revelation and its symbolism has shaped the course of Western history in the second millennium-from the apocalyptic overtones of the Crusades to Hitler's apocalyptic language; from Martin Luther's Protestant Reformation to the Antichrist of the American Revolution; from the invention of the printing press to the proliferation of the Internet-and reveals how apocalypse became synonymous with Last Judgment and the end of the world.
Jerusalem the Golden and the Antichrist
As medieval Europe emerged from the Dark Ages at the beginning of the second millennium, Jerusalem again became an important focus in apocalyptic history after Islam swept across the mideast and claimed Jerusalem as one of its holiest sites. Pope Urban II launched the Crusades to rescue Jerusalem and the ensuing holy war dredged up anti-Jewish traditions that linked Jews with the death of Jesus and with the Antichrist. Thousands of French and German Jews were killed by the Crusaders en route to Jerusalem.
At the same time, new interpretations of the Book of Revelation consolidated this sharply dualistic picture of the world, of the battle between good and evil. The visionary saint Hildegard of Bingen was one of the first to interpret the beast in the Book of Revelation as the Antichrist, a figure whose rise to power would parallel Christ's own life, but in a demonic form. For Hildegard, the source of the Antichrist's evil power lay in Judaism. The Antichrist now became the symbol of all that stood against Christianity-whether Jews, Muslims, or Christian dissenters-spawning new speculations about the 'when' of apocalyptic expectation.
"APOCALYPSE!" goes on to explore the Book of Revelation's impact in the centuries which followed. The 12th century Italian monk Joachim of Fiore claimed to have unlocked the secret of Revelation as a key to understanding the whole Bible, and came up with a way of predicting history in a series of charts depicting three ages. Martin Luther popularized a political message of the apocalyse in terms of church corruption. He labelled the pope the Antichrist, Rome the new Babylon and his decision to translate the Bible into German opened the floodgates for new interpretations of Revelation.
Thomas Muentzer, one of Luther's followers, went even further, preaching an apocalytpic rhetoric of radical social and political reform in the 16th century that would end the oppressive aristocracies. Inspired by Muentzer and thinking that the battle of Armageddon was at hand, 6000 peasants rose up in the Peasants Revolt and were slaughtered. But Muentzer's legacy continued to inspire leaders throughout Germany for centuries and later would be seen in the rhetorical propaganda of Marxism.
The New World as a New Jerusalem
Only a century after Muentzer, a new apocalyptic vision of transforming society arose. The Puritans who settled America came out of an intensely apocalyptic political climate in England. They saw in America the possibility of literally creating a new and empty world, the millennial kingdom. John Winthrop, the new governor of Massachusetts, exhorted his fellow colonists in 1630 to build the equivalent of Jerusalem in their new land. The legendary preacher Cotton Mather believed that Christ would return once the colonists had built a truly righteous kindgom. A generation later, this sort of apocalyptic rhetoric fueled the passions of the American Revolution. The Stamp Act of 1765 came to be seen by colonists as the "666," the mark of the beast of the Book of Revelation.
"APOCALYPSE!" traces the new waves of religious fervor that gripped America in the 19th century and tells the story of William Miller, a farmer whose apocalyptic message was so powerful it endures today in the 7th Day Adventist Church. Miller linked the Book of Daniel and Revelation to calculate the exact date on which the world would end: October 22, 1844.
Despite the great disappointment when nothing happened, many American Christians held to their literal expectations and began to turn to a new system of apocalyptic interpretation by John Nelson Darby. Darby came up with the idea of the "Rapture"--a way of describing what will happen the first time that Jesus returns, when he snatches away the elect from the earth to escape a coming period of great tribulation. This idea of the "Rapture" transformed end-time predictions and remains popular among Revelation literalists to this day.
Today, many who believe literally in the Book of Revelation point to the 20th century as an era filled with irrefutable signs that the Second Coming is imminent: the unleashing of the A-bomb and nuclear weapons means mankind can actually bring an end to the world; the founding of the nation of Israel brings the re-creation of the Third Temple one step closer to reality; the proliferation of cable television creates a medium in which the world can instantaneously witness the prophetic death of the "two witnesses" as described in the Book of Revelation; and the European Union, United Nations, and the Internet set up the potential for a one-world order, paving the way for the Antichrist to ascend to power.
Many other Christians do not take such a view of what the Book of Revelation predicts, even though it remains a fixture of the tradition. Although some fringe end-timers and cults such as David Koresh's Branch Davidians and the Heaven's Gate followers have relegated the notion of a literal millennium as a confusing curiosity in contemporary thought, it is estimated that more than one hundred million Americans believe that at least some events, like Armageddon in the Book of Revelation, will come true; the doomsday industry is flourishing.
FRONTLINE's "APOCALYPSE!" concludes with a look at how fundamentalist Jews and fundamentalist Christians are joined in their belief that Jerusalem is now ground zero for apocalyptic expectation as the year 2000 nears. For these believers, the return of the Jews to Israel, and their capture of Jersusalem in 1967, are prelude to the final event needed to prepare the way for the coming of the Messiah: the rebuilding of the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem. Some are preparing for it with steadfast certainty. On a cattle ranch in Nebraska, Pentecostal preacher Clyde Lott believes a specially-bred herd of Red Angus may yield a "Red Heifer" like the one described in Numbers 19 in the Old Testament. By breeding a pure specimen, Lott hopes to help Jewish priests facilitate the rebuilding and rededication of their Temple. For Lott and others, this will be the final sign that the end is near. As FRONTLINE's program "APOCALYPSE!" airs, Lott is preparing to send two planeloads full of pregnant Red Angus cows to Israel.
book of revelation ·
primary sources ·
web site copyright 1995-2014
WGBH educational foundation