Millions have prayed, sacrificed, repented, flogged their backs, pilgrimaged, even killed themselves -- all because of the particularly nasty scenario of doom and destruction laid down in the Bible book `The Apocalypse'. However, most modern Bible experts agree that St. John never meant the end of the world to be taken too literally.
Okay, so here's what's gonna happen. According to John's visions, it all starts to go wrong when the `lamb of God' one day decides to open up the huge, sealed book of life. The looks of the lamb betray little good. As John writes, it looks `as it it were slain, having seven horns and seven eyes.'
Don't worry, we mortals probably won't have to face this heavenly lamb -- yet. The first thing we do notice, is four horsemen: one on a white horse, one red, one black and one pale. The band of horsemen is here to bring about a lot of misery. The swordsman on the red horse spreads war, the man on the black horse leaves a trail of famine, and that skinny guy sitting on the pale horse, that's Death himself, bringing `plagues or pestilence' -- John leaves it up to Mr. Death to decide. By the way, the guy with the crown and the bow on horse #4 causes no problems in particular.
The horsemen are barely there, and here comes more trouble. Suddenly, the Sun goes black. The Moon becomes red as blood. There's a massive earthquake. Amazingly, the stars drop from the sky like figs from a tree, and the heaven slams shut `as a book folded up'. All mountains are dislocated, and every island begins to drift.
Still surviving, right? Wait, the worst is yet to come. Suddenly, everything becomes quiet, and in the `four corners of the world' (sic), four angels appear. It's the angels that cause the silence: they hold back all wind. Then, from the direction of the Sun, a fifth angel descends, carrying a special item John calls `the seal of God'. The angel marks the slim total of 140.000 Jewish people with the seal, and rushes home. By now, you're probably beginning to feel somewhat nervous. John anyway foresaw that a huge crowd would dress in white robes and pray for salvation.
And to be honest, nothing has really happened yet. After half an hour of complete silence, all hell breaks loose. There's a huge thunderstorm, there's the sound of voices coming out of nowhere, and there's another massive earthquake. Next, there's hail. And fire, burning up all grass and pulverizing one third of all trees. A mountain-sized comet plunges into the sea, turning one third of all water into blood while killing a third of all organisms living in the sea, and sinking one third of all ships.
It becomes darker still. A talking eagle is spotted. It screeches there's more to come. And that's no understatement. For the next moment, another meteor plummets into the Earth. An angel brings out a key and uses it to open the lid of a bottomless pit humanity somehow overlooked. Now, you're in for some REAL trouble.
There's smoke coming from the pit, and then, suddenly, huge amounts of killer locusts, each as lethal as a scorpion, flock out of the smoke. The scorpion locusts leave the 140.000 who carry the divine sign unscathed, but sting everyone else, for five long months in a row. By now, people `shall desire to die,' John estimates. But isn't that a pity: to their astonishment, they discover it is no longer possible to die.
Then, after those five painful months, the locusts take the shape of horses, albeit with manlike faces, long hair and lion's fangs. They total the number of two hundred million. The king of the monsters, a guy appropriately named `Exterminans', arrives at the scene.
Still holding out? Prepare yourself, actually they've been treating you mildly so far. Suddenly, the locust army out of hell sets out for a huge massacre, butchering one third of all people. People are burnt, suffocated in smoke, or squashed by huge lumps of brimstone, all of which sling out of the locust's mouths. Cities crumble, Jerusalem is destroyed and there's another earthquake, a devastating thunderstorm, and yet another earthquake.
Then, a sign is spotted in the sky. It's the Virgin Mary, `clothed with the Sun, and the Moon under her feet, and on her head the crown of twelve stars', as John puts it. Another sign is seen: a huge, red dragon that uses its tail to throw one third of all stars (weren't they already gone?) to the surface of our pitiful planet. In a brief but fierce fight, the dragon along with several other demons is booted out of the sky. Unfortunately, they all fall down to earth. The dragon is in a bad mood. It declares war on the Virgin Mary and her likes.
And when that happens, you'd better hide. Out of the sea rises a huge beast, with seven heads and ten horns. (In a later chapter, John will explain that the ten horns are actually ten power-hungry kings without a kingdom.) The beast has `words of blasphemy' written on its seven foreheads, has the feet of a bear and the mouth of a lion. Don't try to kill it, you'll find that the head you're hacking off grows back on within moments.
If you can't beat 'em, join 'em, most people decide. They kneel in front of the beast, and decide to `adore' the dragon. The sea monster reigns for 42 months, speaking the curious combination of `great things and blasphemies'.
Then a second beast hits the scene, this time coming out of the earth and wearing two horns. The new beast takes over power from the sea monster, and demonstrates his supernatural talents, for one thing by letting it rain fire on earth. Understandably, the remnant of the earth's inhabitants accept the beast willingly as their new leader. They should have known better, though: the number of this beast happens to be 666. Although John never actually calls it that way, the beast is in our time often referred to as the antichrist.
Meanwhile, the 144.000 who still carry the mark of God on their foreheads decide they don't want to have anything to do with the beasts. On mount Sion, they team up with the divine lamb. Also joining are three angels, one of which sets out to warn the masses not to hang around with beast nr. 666 anymore. Meanwhile, another angel reassures the 144.000 that the sinful city of Babylon will soon be destroyed. In yet another supernatural appearing, someone looking much like Christ descends on a cloud. Next, seven more angels appear, carrying seven divine plagues. Still following?
Now, if you're one of those who take the antichrist beast for leader, you're definitely in for trouble. The first angel strikes and wounds everyone. The second one turns the sea into blood, whereupon `every living soul' that happens to be in the sea drowns. The third angel turns all rivers and fountains on Earth into blood. The fourth angel harasses the population with heat and fire. The fifth angel brings darkness to the beast's kingdom. The sixth angel heads for the Middle East and dries up the river of Euphrates.
The unholy threesome -- the devil dragon, the antichrist and his false prophet, who is also there -- take up the glove, and declare an all-out war on God. They send out three ghostly frogs to convince all world's leaders to engage in the final battle. God in the meantime gathers his troops at a place which in Hebrew is called Armageddon (literally: the hill of robbers). And there's more voices and thunderstorms. Not to mention the biggest earthquake that ever shook the Earth, all previous apocalyptic earthquakes included. More cities crumble. Mountains collapse. Every island is swept from the face of the earth. And there's more hail, with hail stones as big as tennis balls.
Another angel descends, declaring the evil city of Babylon has just been destroyed, it only took one hour. Kings and merchants lament over the devastated city. A bright, avenging angel descends to lead the troops of God: it sits on a white horse, wears a blood sprinkled garment and has the dubious pleasure of carrying a two-edged sword in its mouth. Together with the others, the angel beats the antichrist and his false prophet and throws them into a pool of lava. If you were dumb enough to have joined the antichrist, you're dead: the angel with the sword slashes everyone and uses the corpses to feed the birds.
Now that the big part of the job is done, it's time to clean up the mess. Another angel comes down, ties the defeated devil dragon, tosses it back into the pit and shuts the lid. Not to be opened for another thousand years. Every martyr Christian that was ever beheaded comes back to life. Reunited, they live and reign for a thousand years.
But time flies when you're having fun. Suddenly, it's a thousand years later, and oh boy, the devil is at it again. He comes out of his pit and seduces all nations to join him in yet another war against the city of martyrs. But God himself puts the uprising swiftly to an end, by letting out a huge heavenly fire, which burns all the bad guys. This time, the devil himself is tossed into the pool of lava. The false prophet -- obviously, he survived the lava the first time -- is taken captive. He will be tortured forever, John is told.
Now, it's time for the final judgment. All the dead rise, and are judged `according to their works'. Many are cast into the pool of lava, those who have an entry in the book of life -- the chosen ones -- live forever.
By now, our planet has underwent some radical changes. There are no more seas, for instance. The skies open up, and an entire city -- the new Jerusalem -- gently lands on earth. It is made of gold, has twelve foundations, twelve gates and twelve angels guarding the gates. People don't die anymore. And what's more, they don't suffer, cry or worry about anything anymore. There are no more murderers, sorcerers, liars and, notably, no more dogs. Also, there's no more day and night. The world bathes in the gloom of the glory of the Lord. `Behold, I make all things new,' God declares.
No, seriously: should we worry?
All in all, the end of the world John foresaw is quite a ride. Interestingly, it lacks a well-defined chronology: the stars are swept from the sky again and again, the antichrist and his prophet die and come to life, people are killed in vast numbers, but in a next chapter, they seem to be doing just fine. According to theologists, this timelessness depicts the heavenly point of view of eternity.But the lack of a clear chronology also makes the book prone to speculation: what apocalyptic state are we in today? Didn't we already have the diseases, hunger and war? And hold it, that Saddam Hussein guy, isn't he the antichrist?
Arguing like this, people have seen the antichrist in Napoleon, Stalin or Hitler, while others have connected the emerging beasts with the US and the USSR, the German empire vs. the Allies, Saddam Hussein's Iraq vs. the UN, or Milosevich's Serbia vs. NATO. But let's assume John's vision is to be taken literally. Clearly, we would have noticed an earthquake that dislocates all mountains and islands on earth, an army of demon-like locusts attacking us and two comets that slam into our inhabited world -- to mention only a few.
Still, even today many Christians believe the world will end sooner or later, with or without all the monsters, earthquakes and supernatural battles involved. Mainly, this is because the the book is very abstract and obscure to an untrained reader. The Apocalypse is by far the most difficult, hard to understand Bible book of them all.
Bible scholars have pointed out that John wrote about the vision around 70 A.D., a time when Christianity was brutally being persecuted and actually in danger of becoming extinct for the first time. John, himself being captured and thrown into a pot of boiling water once, wanted to support his fellow believers. The Apocalypse was his way of saying: don't despair, we will win in the end.
Interestingly, the imagery from The Apocalypse is deeply imbedded in the religious traditions of John's time. As many scholars have argued, almost all beasts, eagles, locusts, dragons and acts of nature John describes stem from the long standing tradition of Jewish religious culture -- and even date back to the Zoroastrianist apocalyptic of the ancient Iranians. The symbol language John uses would clearly have been understood by the faithful from John's days.
So, should we really worry about antichrists and demons waging war on God? You guessed it: probably not. Well, don't be disappointed, there's plenty of other, more realistic apocalyptic scenario's left!
Once, I visited a personal homepage where a movie fan brilliantly parodied all apocalyptic soothsaying. The guy that ran the page argued that television actor David Hasselhoff is in fact the devil. Among many other things, Hasselhoff definitely is the monster that comes out of the sea: he does it all the time in the Baywatch series. You may take the seven heads that keep growing back on for the seven TV-series he's in and that are constantly rerunning on television. And so on, and so on.
Clearly, the guy has a point. Translating abstract biblical vision into secular fact is a risky, haphazardous business. It can only lead to disconcern and more, hilarious speculations.