Beliefs about the end of the world through the ages
Here we will explore the curious phenomenon of the fear of the end of the world which has repeatedly appeared throughout the ages. All over the world and in every language, there has never been a more widely discussed subject.
As to the dogma “Credo Resurrectionem Carnis”, the addresses of the fathers of the Church before the council assembled in the Sistine Chapel in Rome, were, on the whole, in accord with the opinion expressed by the cardinal archbishop of Paris. The clause “et vitam setemam” was tacitly ignored in view of the possible discoveries in astronomy and psychology. As it were, these addresses epitomised the history of the doctrine of the end of the world as held by the Christian Church throughout the centuries.
The existence of a profound and tenacious faith is as old as the centuries, and it is a notable fact that all religions, irrespective of Christian dogma, have opened the same door from this mortal life upon the unknown which lies beyond, it is the door in the Divine Comedy by Dante, although the conceptions of paradise, hell, and purgatory peculiar to the Christian Church, are not universal.
Zoroaster and the Zend-Avesta taught that the world would perish by fire. The same idea is found in the Epistle of St Peter. It seems that the traditions of Noah and of Deucalion, according to which the first great disaster to humanity came by flood, indicated that the second great disaster would be of an exactly opposite character. Among the Romans, Lucretius, Cicero, Virgil, and Ovid all also announce the future destruction of Earth by fire.
According to Jesus, the generation which he addressed would not die before the previously mentioned disaster occurred. St Paul, the real founder of Christianity, believed deeply in the resurrection and the coming end of the world, making it a fundamental dogma of the new church.
Belief in the end of the world did not simply disappear, however. Believers decided to stop taking the prediction literally, seeking instead new interpretations. However, belief in the Gospel suffered as a result. We devoutly buried the dead, laid out in coffins with reverence rather than being burned by fire, and it was written on their tombs that they would rest there until the resurrection.
The reign of Nero was a bloody one, and martyrdom seemed to be the natural consequence of a virtuous life. Prodigies appeared on every hand; there were comets, falling stars, eclipses, showers of blood, monsters, earthquakes, famines, pestilences, and above all, there was the Jewish war and the destruction of Jerusalem.
There was every indication that the end of the world was at hand. Nothing was wanting. The Apocalypse announced that Jesus would descend on a throne of clouds and the martyrs would rise first. The Angel of Mercy would await God’s command.
Once more, it became necessary to reinterpret the words of the evangelists. The coming of Christ was put off until after the fall of the Roman Empire, and thus considerable margin was given to the commentator. A firm belief in a final and even an imminent catastrophe persisted, but it was embedded in vague terms, which robbed the spirit as well as the letter of the prophecy of all precision. Still, the conviction remained.
Every catastrophe, earthquake, epidemic, famine, and flood, every phenomenon, eclipse, comet, storm, sudden darkness, and tempest, was regarded as the forerunner and herald of the final cataclysm. There were many sects which believed that Christ would reign with the saints on Earth a thousand years before the Day of Judgement. Comments about the apocalypse continued to flourish through the sombre darkness of the Middle Ages, and in the 10th century the belief gained ground that the year 1000 was to usher in the great change. This conviction of an approaching end of the world, if not universal, was at least very general.
War and pillage were the universal rule, but these plagues from heaven made men somewhat more reasonable; the bishops came together and it was agreed that a truce would be established for four days a week, from Wednesday night to Monday morning. This was known as the Truce of God.
It is not strange that the end of so miserable a world was both the hope and the terror of this terrible period. In the 19th century, predictions concerning the end of the world were associated with the appearance of comets several times over. Earthquakes and volcanic eruptions have sometimes attained such proportions as to lead to the fear that the end of the world was at hand.
The history of the earth could offer us a remarkable number of similar tragedies, partial cataclysms and threats of final destruction. Faith has in part disappeared; mystery and superstition, which struck the imagination of our ancestors and has so curiously been represented in the portals of our great cathedrals, and in the sculptures and paintings inspired by Christian traditions, this theological aspect of the last day of the earth has given way to the scientific study of the duration of our solar system. Is the destiny and sovereign end of the human mind, the exact knowledge of things, not the search for Truth?…
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