A History of the End of the World

A History of the End of the World

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by Jonathan Kirsch

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"[The Book of] Revelation has served as a "language arsenal" in a great many of the social, cultural, and political conflicts in Western history. Again and again, Revelation has stirred some dangerous men and women to act out their own private apocalypses. Above all, the moral calculus of Revelation—the demonization of one's enemies, the

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"[The Book of] Revelation has served as a "language arsenal" in a great many of the social, cultural, and political conflicts in Western history. Again and again, Revelation has stirred some dangerous men and women to act out their own private apocalypses. Above all, the moral calculus of Revelation—the demonization of one's enemies, the sanctification of revenge taking, and the notion that history must end in catastrophe—can be detected in some of the worst atrocities and excesses of every age, including our own. For all of these reasons, the rest of us ignore the book of Revelation only at our impoverishment and, more to the point, at our own peril."

The mysterious author of the Book of Revelation (or the Apocalypse, as the last book of the New Testament is also known) never considered that his sermon on the impending end times would last beyond his own life. In fact, he predicted that the destruction of the earth would be witnessed by his contemporaries. Yet Revelation not only outlived its creator; this vivid and violent revenge fantasy has played a significant role in the march of Western civilization.

Ever since Revelation was first preached as the revealed word of Jesus Christ, it has haunted and inspired hearers and readers alike. The mark of the beast, the Antichrist, 666, the Whore of Babylon, Armageddon, and the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse are just a few of the images, phrases, and codes that have burned their way into the fabric of our culture. The questions raised go straight to the heart of the human fear of death and obsession with the afterlife. Will we, individually or collectively, ride off to glory, or will we drown in hellfire for all eternity? As those who best manipulate this dark vision learned, which side we fall on is often a matter of life or death. Honed into a weapon in the ongoing culture wars between states, religions, and citizenry, Revelation has significantly altered the course of history.

Kirsch, whom the Washington Post calls "a fine storyteller with a flair for rendering ancient tales relevant and appealing to modern audiences," delivers a far-ranging, entertaining, and shocking history of this scandalous book, which was nearly cut from the New Testament. From the fall of the Roman Empire to the Black Death, the Inquisition to the Protestant Reformation, the New World to the rise of the Religious Right, this chronicle of the use and abuse of the Book of Revelation tells the tale of the unfolding of history and the hopes, fears, dreams, and nightmares of all humanity.

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Editorial Reviews

Jay Tolson
… Revelation nonetheless was canonized as part of the New Testament, and Kirsch offers a thorough account of the intellectual and spiritual mischief that Revelation has spawned -- and also some of the good. Medieval Catholics used the book to justify the Crusades, support reform efforts and validate persecution of the Jews, while later Protestant reformers (including the same Luther who objected to Revelation) drew on its imagery to attack Catholicism and the papacy. "I do not know whether the pope himself be Antichrist or his apostle," Luther wrote, apparently without blushing.
— The Washington Post
Publishers Weekly
The question of how and when the world will end has captivated thinkers for centuries. Wars, natural disasters, social upheaval and personal suffering often send believers back to the writings of their prophets and seers, whose gift is to bring satisfying answers to such questions. The book most studied in the Western tradition is Revelation, the last entry in the Christian canon. Kirsch, an attorney and book columnist for the Los Angeles Times, takes the reader on a delightful 2,000-year journey as he explores a text he describes as "a romantic tale, full of intrigue and suspense" and shows how churches, philosophers, clergy and armchair interpreters have promoted their political, social and religious agendas based on their belief that the end was imminent. Some of this history can be quite sobering, as the powerful have waged wars and built societies based on their varying perceptions of Revelation's message. However, consistent with Kirsch's earlier literary efforts, in particular The Harlot by the Side of the Road, the author exercises great care while treating his material with both sobriety and a healthy sense of the ironic. Written clearly and for a general audience, this is a fine book that merits wide readership. (Sept.) Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
Best-selling author and columnist Kirsch here tackles a fascinating topic: the mysteries, controversies, and prophesies about frightening events and the end of the world as described in the book of Revelation. Finding support in comments from Philo, Irenaeus, Augustine, and Pope Gregory the Great, Kirsch addresses questions of both authorship and appropriateness for inclusion in Scripture, comparing it with the book of Daniel, which he considers to be propaganda, like much else in the Bible. Moving on, he discusses Revelation's effect on other popes and kings, self-appointed prophets, grand inquisitors, church reformers, Christian Zionists, messianic pretenders, the Left Behind books, televangelists like Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell, and even President Ronald Reagan. Revelation is seen as a fearfully frightening book, especially when it is understood from the "premillennial" perspective followed by many fundamentalist Christians today. Extremes are further evident in splinter groups and self-proclaimed prophets such as David Koresch of the Branch Davidians. Unfortunately, Kirsch neglects to show balance in his citations of Scripture. He ignores the issues of sin and the judgment of God that is present in both Testaments and singles out only the instances where God's and Jesus's love is stated and exemplified. Recommended for academic libraries. George Westerlund, Palmyra, VA Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Literary critic and publishing lawyer Kirsch (God Against the Gods, 2004, etc.) adds yet another volume to the sprawling corpus of work on the New Testament Book of Revelation. Part biblical commentary, part socio-religious history, this study adds little to the field. Starting with a discussion of earlier Jewish and Christian apocalyptic literature, the author moves into a commentary on Revelation itself. Here, he flounders. Kirsch consistently derides people throughout history for coming up with incorrect answers to the book's mysteries, but he seems certain that his own interpretations are accurate. He sees Revelation as a statement about the times in which it was written, not as a work of prophecy. Thus, he declares, the book's "mysteries" are merely coded references to Rome, Caesar, etc. It seems quite an act of hubris to boldly declare that there are obvious answers to one of history's most mysterious and fervently argued-over texts. Kirsch's flippant remarks are also off-putting: comparing emperor worship rituals to the Pledge of Allegiance, for instance, or competition among Roman cities for a temple honoring the emperor to competition over winning an NFL franchise. The author eventually moves on to the history of how Revelation has been interpreted and used and abused by Western Christianity. In this discussion, he is more competent, and his work is more useful. Beginning with early arguments over the text's legitimacy, Kirsch goes on to describe Revelation's influence on individual visionaries such as Hildegard of Bingen and its role in such historical movements as the Crusades and reforms of the papacy. Moving westward, he describes the unbridled impact Revelation hashad in America, spawning entire new denominations and giving rise to sometimes frightening cult movements. He closes with a discussion of the apocalypse in the atomic era, as well as Revelation's role in popular culture. Pulp critique of the ever-popular End Times.

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A History of the End of the World

How the Most Controversial Book in the Bible Changed the Course of Western Civilization
By Jonathan Kirsch

HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.

Copyright © 2006 Jonathan Kirsch
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0060816988

Chapter One

Something Rich and Strange

Revelation has as many mysteries as it does words.

"I know the ending," goes the slogan on a license-plate frame that can be spotted here and there on the streets and highways of America. "God wins."

It's a credo that pious Jews, Christians, and Muslims hold in common, although they might quibble on exactly what is meant by the word "God." But the plainspoken slogan conceals a profound and enduring mystery: human beings of all faiths, in all times and all places, have wondered when and how the world will come to an end. Nowadays, of course, the very same questions are being asked (and answered) by scientists rather than theologians. For the Christian true believer, however, "the ending" refers to a scenario that is described in horrific and heart-shaking detail in the single scariest book in all of scripture, the book of Revelation.

The beginning of the end, according to Revelation, will be augured by mysterious signs and wonders--a black sun and a blood-red moon, the stars falling to earth, persecutors and false prophets, plague andpestilence and famine. Then the satanic arch-villain who has come to be called the Antichrist will rise to absolute power on earth. After seven years of oppression and persecution under the Antichrist, Jesus Christ will descend from heaven in the guise of a warrior-king, lead a celestial army of resurrected saints and martyrs to victory over the demonic hordes at the Battle of Armageddon, drape Satan in chains and confine him in a bottomless pit, and reign over an earthly kingdom for one thousand years.

At the end of the millennium, Satan will break out of his bonds, and Jesus Christ will be compelled to fight a second and final battle. At last, the dead will be resurrected, the living and dead alike will be judged, and the earth as we know it will be destroyed once and for all. The end of the world, according to Revelation, will be followed by the creation of "a new heaven and a new earth," a celestial paradise where the Christian saints and martyrs will spend eternity in perfect bliss. Everyone else will sizzle forever along with Satan in a lake of fire and brimstone.

That's the pitch line for the book of Revelation, so to speak, but the text itself is something even richer and stranger. The nightmarish landscape conjured up by its author is stalked by God and the Devil, the Lamb and the Beast, a lascivious whore and a woman in labor, angels and demons in the countless thousands, and a bestiary of monsters so grotesque and so implausible that they would not seem out of place in a comic book or a horror flick. At certain moments, in fact, the book of Revelation resembles nothing so much as an ancient prototype of the psychological thriller and the monster movie, and its imagery seems to fire the same synapses in the human brain.

Nowadays, Revelation finds its most ardent readers in Christian fundamentalist circles, but even someone who has never opened the very last book of the New Testament is likely to find the plot and characters to be hauntingly familiar. The idea that the world will end (and soon)--and the phantasmagoria of words, numbers, colors, images, and incidents in which the end-times are described in the book of Revelation--are deeply woven into the fabric of Western civilization, both in high culture and in pop culture, starting in distant biblical antiquity and continuing into our own age. The Battle of Armageddon, the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, the Seventh Seal, the Great Whore of Babylon, and, more obliquely, the Antichrist, the Grim Reaper, and the Grapes of Wrath have migrated from the pages of Revelation to some of our most exalted works of literature, art, and music as well as the sports pages, the movie screen, and the paperback best seller.

Above all, the book of Revelation has always been used as a kind of codebook to discover the hidden meanings behind the great events and personages of history--war and revolution, kings and conquerors, pandemic and natural disaster. And the words and phrases of Revelation, its stock figures and scenes, have been recycled and repurposed by artists and poets, preachers and propagandists--all in ser-vice of some religious or political or cultural agenda. The conquest of Jerusalem by medieval crusaders, the Bonfire of the Vanities in Florence during the Renaissance, the naming of the newly discovered Americas as the New World, and the thousand-year Reich promised by Adolf Hitler are all examples of the unlikely and unsettling ways that the book of Revelation has resonated through history. Even today, end-of-the-world fears and fantasies are peddled by Hollywood moviemakers and best-selling novelists, hard-preaching televangelists and presidential hopefuls.

Still, the book of Revelation is regarded by secular readers--and even by progressive Christians of various denominations--as a biblical oddity at best and, at worst, a kind of petri dish for the breeding of dangerous religious eccentricity. Most Jewish readers have never bothered to crack open a copy of the Christian scriptures, and when they do, they are deeply offended to find that Jews are described in Revelation as members of "the synagogue of Satan."1 Indeed, the fact is that Revelation has always been regarded with a certain skepticism--as "a curiosity that accidentally and embarrassingly belongs to the New Testament"--even within pious Christian circles, and even in antiquity.2 So the ironic and disdainful treatment of Revelation in Ingmar Bergman's The Seventh Seal, a darkly postmodern motion picture that questions whether God exists at all, is not wholly anachronistic.

"Death is behind your back. His scythe flashes above your heads. Which of you will he strike first?" cries an overwrought preacher of the High Middle Ages as he wanders through a plague-ridden countryside in the company of flagellants and penitents. "You are all doomed, do you hear? Doomed! Doomed! Doomed!" And a battle-scarred squire, newly returned from . . .


Excerpted from A History of the End of the World by Jonathan Kirsch Copyright © 2006 by Jonathan Kirsch. Excerpted by permission.
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