Choose your apocalypse
I call myself a “spiritual free-lancer,” i.e., I don’t subscribe to any formal religion. I’ve explored many different religions, taken a pinch of this and a dash of that to concoct my own belief. I don’t usually get into the field of politics or religion. Still, lately, I’ve read articles from scholars of the three Abrahamic (Judaism, Christianity and Islam) faiths discussing the end of the world and even discussed this with some of my friends who believe the pandemic is the first sign. Consequently, I’m going to go out on a limb and risk offending some people (too easy to do today, in my humble opinion, but I’m flat out of fucks to give) by providing a look at what the “end of the world” means for different religions. Some religions call it the “Coming Final Battle,” while others call it “Armageddon” or “The Hour.”
Diverse and complex
While apocalyptic thought about doomsday is diverse and complex, most narratives contain some elements that would be easily recognized by Jews, Christians and Muslims:
- At some unspecified time in the future, the world will end.
- A messianic figure will appear and return to the earth.
- God will judge all people, sending some to heaven and some to hell.
One thing is clear, however. Since we began keeping records, people have been thinking about the end of the world, which is why the world’s major religions have formulated detailed viewpoints on this topic. Disclaimer: I’m not a religious scholar by any means, and I’ve probably misunderstood quite a bit. Nevertheless, I’m going to give it my best shot. As Joan Osbourne put it in “What If God Was One Of Us?,” I’m just a stranger on a bus trying to make my way home.” So, let’s take a look at what various religions have to say about doomsday.
Judaism has no direct word for Armageddon (the word is a Greek transliteration of the Hebrew har məgiddô. Har means “a mountain or range of hills”), but there are references in the Hebrew bible to events that are similar to Armageddon, including the Day of the Lord (in which God causes death and destruction to people who deserve to be punished) and the War of Gog and Magog (in which Israel and its God fight their enemies, rather than an anti-Christ).
In Christianity, the bible’s Book of Revelation talks about Armageddon, which is the final battle on earth between the forces of God and Satan. As I wrote earlier, the word Armageddon is believed to stem from Hebrew for “mount of Megiddo.” Megiddo is located in Israel and was the site of many battles. Some Christians believe the Book of Revelation is a roadmap that defines precisely how the world will end. They think that Judgment Day will take place on Armageddon and Jesus will save the true believers, leaving non-believers behind to face intolerable suffering. Christian Zionists believe that God restored Israel to the Jews in 1948 and that this established a clear path to the End Times foretold in several books of the bible. According to these accounts, after a cataclysmic battle with the Antichrist, Jesus will return and usher in a thousand years of peace and the Jews will convert to Christianity.
Islam calls the end of the world The Hour. This is when Jesus (Yes, you read that correctly. Islam recognizes Jesus as a prophet) returns to Damascus and slays an anti-Christ who has put the planet in danger. Once the anti-Christ has been disposed of, a period of perfect harmony will follow. Later on, Jesus will die a natural death, which will result in a time of destruction that leads directly to The Hour. The events in the period leading up to this are called “Lesser Signs of the Hour” and “Greater Signs of the Hour.” The Lesser Signs are “moral, cultural, political, religious and natural events designed to warn humanity that the end is near and to bring people into a state of repentance.” These signs are so general that it is possible to find indicators of them in any modern society (for example, crime, natural disaster, etc.). The Greater Signs, on the other hand, offer a more detailed account of the final days. Although these stories vary considerably, a few elements are consistent: Muslims will conquer Constantinople; the Antichrist will appear and travel to Jerusalem; a messianic figure (in some instances Jesus, and in some cases the Mahdi) will come to earth, kill the Antichrist and convert the masses to Islam. Once that happens, the world’s non-Muslim territories will be conquered.
Hinduism and Buddhism
In the Hindu version, Vishnu returns in the last cycle of time as a figure called Kulki, who rides a white horse, carries a sword that looks like a comet and destroys the forces of evil. Some Buddhist prophecies call the equivalent of Armageddon Shambhala, which is when good triumphs over evil. The critical difference is that the planet is restored rather than destroyed so people can pursue enlightenment.
Zoroastrians believe that the history of the world lasts for 12,000 years, with four distinct periods. In the first period, good and evil are separated, in the second, the good world is invaded by evil and the third is when the fight between the two forces intensifies. In the final period, evil is defeated and goodness prevails. The final period is thought to have started with the birth of Zoroaster and still continues.
The Mahdi (the Guided One)
Even though they battle each other in Iraq and Syria, many of the Sunni and Shiite militants (especially the “Twelvers,” who believe his appearance is imminent) who have been drawn to the battlefield are motivated by the same apocalyptic belief. They fight in the vanguard of the Mahdi. For Sunnis, the Mahdi is not yet here, but he has already been born for most Shiites but is now hidden. Both sides believe that justice will prevail when he reveals himself and that the Mahdi’s role is to “end the disunity of the Muslim community and prepare for the second coming of Jesus Christ.” In the sectarian apocalypse, everyone has a role in a script written over a thousand years ago, and no one wants to miss the show. Jerusalem also features heavily in the end-of-the-world prophesies, which I find ironic since the name means “city of peace.”
For years, al Qaeda used apocalyptic predictions in its internal and external messaging, primarily by using the name “Khorasan,” a region that includes part of Iran, Central Asia, and Afghanistan. This is the region from which it is prophesied that the Mahdi will emerge alongside an army bearing black flags. Captured internal al Qaeda documents and communiqués from Osama bin Laden often listed his location as Khorasan. An al Qaeda cell in Syria even adopted the name. These claims were, however, mostly symbolic. ISIS, however, evoked the apocalyptic tradition much more explicitly, both in actions and words. This is why it was important for ISIS to capture Dabiq, a town thought in some versions of the narrative to be a possible location for the final apocalyptic battle.
Al Qaeda and ISIS
For ISIS and AQ before it, an essential feature of the narrative is the expectation of sectarian war. “The early Islamic apocalyptic prophecies are intrinsically sectarian because they arose from similar sectarian conflicts in early Islam waged in Iraq and the Levant. As such, they resonate powerfully in today’s sectarian civil wars,” according to Will McCants, a historian of early Islam. Hassan Abbas, an expert on jihadi movements, observes, “ISIS is trying deliberately to instigate a war between Sunnis and Shiites, in the belief that a sectarian war would be a sign that the Coming Final Battle has arrived. ISIS is exploiting these apocalyptic expectations to the fullest,” Abbas said. “It is also why it was so important for ISIS to establish a caliphate.”
The draw of apocalyptic ambitions
The powerful appeal of apocalyptic ambitions can influence people to do unimaginable things. In the past, we saw followers of James Jones in 1978 and the People’s Temple in Jonestown, Guyana (914 dead), the apocalyptic cult Aum Shinrikyo tried to kill millions of people in Tokyo with biological and chemical weapons (13 died and thousands more suffered ill effects), while members of the Branch Davidians (76 dead, including 25 children) gave their daughters to David Koresh as brides and fought to the death to keep him from being arrested. Followers of the Heaven’s Gate cult (39 died) committed suicide in the hope of getting on board the UFO hiding behind the Hale-Bopp Comet. Members of other apocalyptic Christian cults have sold all their possessions in preparation for the foretold second coming of Jesus Christ that never came. Postponed again! It seems these religions have much more in common than we thought. They all seem to agree on the place and the cast of characters. It’s just the endings that differ. So, if you’re planning on attending the “end-of-the-world event, make sure your Covid passes are up to date and count on Jerusalem being double-booked. Which version will prove to be correct, and when will it take place? Your guess is as good as mine.