In popular parlance, the word “apocalypse” has come to mean “cosmic catastrophe.” In the biblical tradition, however, and in the ancient world more generally, the catastrophe is never a final end. With very few exceptions, the catastrophe is a prelude to a new beginning or new creation.
Waste and void
In the year 597 BCE, or thereabouts, the prophet Jeremiah had a vision:
I looked on the earth, and lo, it was waste and void;
And to the heavens, and they had no light.
I looked on the mountains, and lo, they were quaking,
And all the hills moved to and fro.
I looked, and lo there was no one at all,
And all the birds of the air had fled.
I looked, and lo the fruitful land was a desert,
And all its cities were laid in ruins
Before the Lord, before his fierce anger (Jer 4:23–26).
Waste and void, tohu wabohu, was the condition of the earth before creation in Genesis 1:2. Jeremiah was not actually anticipating the end of the world, but the destruction wrought by the Babylon army when it invaded in Judah. It would indeed lay cities in ruins and make fruitful land like a desert, but the prophet projects the disaster onto the mountains and the heavens as well.
The language of cosmic destruction is often used in the Hebrew Bible to dramatize disasters, whether military or natural. The most vivid example is found in the Book of Isaiah, chapters 24–27, often called “the apocalypse of Isaiah,” although it lacks the visionary form that is typical of that genre:
The windows of heaven are opened. And the foundations of the earth tremble.
The earth is utterly broken, the earth is torn asunder (Isa 24:18–19).
We do not know the occasion of this prophecy. It seems to have been a military destruction (“the city of chaos is broken down . . . you have made the city a heap, the fortified city a ruin,” 24:10, 25:2), possibly of Babylon, by the Persian king Xerxes in 485 BCE. Because the city of chaos is not explicitly identified, the oracle could be applied to other disasters, and taken to describe the final destruction of this world.
Nonetheless, the destruction is not complete. The Lord of hosts will reign on Mount Zion and in Jerusalem (22:23). Jerusalem evidently survives though the heavens fall and the earth break apart.
Near Eastern myth
The imagery of destruction in Isaiah 24–27 draws heavily on ancient Canaanite myths that are known to us from discoveries at Ugarit in northern Syria. In those myths, the supreme God is called El, but Baal is the rider of the clouds who brings fertility and life.
In one phase of the myth, however, Baal is challenged by Mot (Death), who swallows him like an olive. When Baal dies there is no rain. The wadis dry up and the fields are dry. Baal is rescued, however, by his sister Anath. When he comes back to life, the rain comes again. The heavens rain down oil and the wadis run with honey. The story obviously reflects the cycle of nature, which dies and comes back to life every year.
In Isaiah 24–27 too destruction is followed by recovery. Yahweh the God of Israel will swallow up Death forever, as Death had once swallowed Baal.
Early apocalyptic literature
The end of the world in biblical tradition is associated especially with the apocalyptic literature. This is visionary literature, often concerned with the end of history and with the heavenly world. It first appears in the second century BCE in books attributed to Enoch (who lived before the Flood) and Daniel (who supposedly lived several hundred years earlier in the Babylonian Exile). These books anticipate a divine judgment that will bring history as we know it to an end, but they do not necessarily anticipate the destruction of the physical world. One passage in 1 Enoch (91:16) says that the first heaven will pass away and a new heaven will appear, but these books are more interested in human destiny, including the judgment of the dead, than in the fate of the cosmos.
Only at the end of the first century of the common era do we get consistent accounts of the end of this world. One such account is in 4 Ezra, an apocalypse written after the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE. There we are told that “the world shall be turned back to primeval silence for seven days, as it was at the first beginnings so that no one shall be left.” Then after seven days the world will be roused and all that is corruptible will perish. The earth will give up those that sleep in it, and judgment will follow.
The Book of Revelation, or the Apocalypse of John, the last book in the New Testament, was written about the same time. Revelation has many passages describing cosmic destruction. In chapters 6–8, the Lamb (Jesus, the Messiah) opens seven seals, revealing various forms of destruction. The Fourth Seal reveals a pale green horse, ridden by Death; the sixth a great earthquake which causes the sky to fall and the sky to vanish; the seventh by stars crashing to earth, locusts and plagues. Finally, in 21:1 the visionary sees a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and earth had passed away, and the sea was no more.
These apocalypses from the end of the first century CE leave little doubt that the authors actually expected that the physical world would come to an end. Nonetheless they were written in reaction to the end of the symbolic world of ancient Judaism, when Jerusalem and its Temple were destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE. That event, like the corresponding destruction by the Babylonians, impressed on the visionaries the fragility of all things, and gave rise to an acute sense that this world is passing away.
But in the biblical tradition, destruction is never the last word. It is always followed by new birth, or a new creation. The divine figure seated on the throne in Revelation 21:5 proclaims “Behold, I make all things new.”
I know of only one exception to this in the apocalyptic literature of the Roman era. The Fifth Book of Sibylline Oracles contains oracles written in the early second century CE in Egypt. In 115 CE, in the reign of the emperor Trajan, the Jews in Egypt mounted a great revolt which ended in disaster. When the revolt was crushed the Jewish community in Egypt, which had flourished for 300 years, was virtually wiped out. The sibyllist expressed the destruction and devastation in good apocalyptic fashion:
I saw the threat of the burning sun among the stars
and the terrible wrath of the moon among the lightning flashes.
The stars travailed in battle. God bade them fight . . .
Heaven itself was roused until it shook the fighters.
In anger it cast them headlong to earth.
Accordingly, stricken into the baths of ocean,
They quickly kindled the whole earth. But the sky remained starless.
Thus ends the Fifth Book of Sibylline Oracles, with no new creation or resurrection. It was exceptional in the literature of ancient Judaism and early Christianity, but then so was the finality of the destruction that befell the social world of Egyptian Judaism.
Apocalypses are supposedly revelations, but in fact, like all literature, they are attempts to find order and meaning in the chaos of experience. They are projections based on the observation of history and of nature. History teaches us that nothing lasts forever. Empires fall as surely as they rise. To be sure, history is dotted with confident assertions that some empire or culture would last forever. The Roman poet Virgil thought that Jupiter had given Rome empire without end. Francis Fukuyama thought history had reached its end with the collapse of the Soviet Union. The apocalypses typically predict an everlasting kingdom of God, but are usually wise enough to assign it to the unverifiable future. Nature too teaches us that everything must die, but it also teaches us that death is followed by new birth. Modern post-apocalyptic scenarios are typically bleak. In Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, the hope for the future hangs on a single flower peaking through the rubble. We are acutely aware that humanity could go the way of the dinosaurs, whether because of climate change or because of an erratic dictator with nuclear weapons. Extinction is not unthinkable. The ancient myths, including the biblical ones, are more optimistic. They are based ultimately on the cycle of nature. Death is the necessary prelude to new life, but the new life can take various forms.
If the ancient apocalypses are based on an enduring truth, it is the inevitability of disaster, sooner or later. Every tradition in the ancient world had stories of cosmic destruction by flood and by fire. In many traditions, these destructions were part of the order of nature. In the biblical tradition they are punishments for human sin that defiles the earth. But the destruction is never final. Even if everything is reduced to primeval silence, there is always a new beginning after it. Life will go on. But the life that goes on may be different from the life we have known and cherished.