Happy New Apocalypse!

With apocalypse fever receiving a boost from all those alleged Mayan prophecies surrounding 2012, Daniel Kalder undertakes a brief survey of the history of Catholics and the End Times.

Exiled to the Isle of Patmos, St. John wrote the Book of Revelation in a state of fevered anticipation. He could hardly have imagined the wildly destabilizing effects his apocalypse would have upon believers over the next two millennia. But that mix of urgency and astonishing imagery is so potent that millions have used both his work and the Book of Daniel as keys to their own times—often with catastrophic results.

The first recorded instance of an ultra-literal reading of Revelation occurred in 156 AD, when a certain Montanus assured his followers that the New Jerusalem would soon descend upon a field in Anatolia. It didn’t. As would prove to be the case repeatedly throughout history however apocalyptic yearning was strong enough to survive this disappointment, and Tertullian (160-220AD)—“the Father of Latin Christianity”—subsequently converted to Montanism before forming his own more radical splinter sect.

It’s little surprise then that both Origen (185-253/4) and St. Jerome (347-420) strove to stifle apocalyptic beliefs, for if a theologian as great as Tertullian could succumb to heresy, how much worse was the danger for everyone else? But it was St. Augustine (354-430) who proved the most effective foe of apocalyptic literalism. He scoffed at contemporaries who believed the end was nigh, arguing that every epoch contained signs of apocalypse. Revelation, rather, was an allegory for the struggle of good and evil; the Millennium was already under way, the Second Coming had already taken place, and the City of God was the Church. The End would occur on God’s timetable, which was unknowable.

A year after Augustine’s death the Church council at Ephesus made his interpretation official, but the lure of apocalypse remained strong. Indeed, soon Pope Gregory the Great (540-604) would survey the plague and violence of his own era and conclude that The End was nigh. It wasn’t.

An absence of documentation makes it difficult to track apocalyptic belief during the Dark Ages. However the Venerable Bede (672-735) evidently grew so tired of peasants pestering him about the Last Days that he replaced the Anno Mundi dating system, based on the age of the earth, with Anno Domini. The problem with AM was that the 6000th anniversary of Creation was traditionally a high point of apocalyptic expectation. By getting rid of it, the troublesome 6000AM was replaced with the neutral 800 AD.

But was the problem solved, or merely postponed, to the year 1000AD? Legend has it that crowds of repentant sinners amassed in Jerusalem on New Years’ Eve 999 to plead with God for mercy. In fact, the contemporary chronicles contain precisely zero references to this event. But a school of historians led by Richard Landes of Boston University has argued that if you survey the period from around 970AD to 1033AD, an apocalyptic millennium does emerge.

For instance, there was more attempted date tinkering, to make it appear as though 1000 AD had already passed. A monk named Rodolfus Glaber described signs and portents in the years surrounding the new millennium. Jews were massacred, and churches were decorated with scenes of the Last Judgement. On the anniversary of Christ’s crucifixion in 1033 there was plague, panic and a mass pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Landes also points out that the “Peace of God” penitential movement culminated in 1033 with peasants amassing in the fields of France crying out “PAX”.

Coincidence? I think not.  

The 12th century meanwhile produced the first superstar of apocalyptic prophecy since St. John, in the person of a Calabrian monk named Joachim of Fiore (1135-1202). Feted by both the Pope and Richard the Lionheart, Joachim viewed history as a sequence of patterns of sevens and threes, all of which indicated that the world was on the verge of the final Age of the Spirit, during which everyone would be converted to Christianity and global peace would follow. Incidentally, by arguing that redemption could occur within history, rather than after the End of Time, Joachim inadvertently established the conceptual framework for secular millenarianisms such as the French Revolution and the various Marxist tyrannies of the 20th century. Oops.

The most famous outburst of Catholic apocalypticism however occurred in Florence in 1494, when Girolamo Savonarola (1452-1498) declared that the heart of the secular Renaissance was in fact the New Jerusalem. After persuading the equally apocalypse-obsessed King Charles VIII of France not to destroy the city, the Dominican friar was proclaimed saviour of Florence, which he ran as a millenarian theocracy for three years. During this time he clamped down on such horrors as tambourines and playing cards, all of which were tossed into large ‘bonfires of the vanities.’ Savonarola’s enemies conspired against him however and soon the Pope Alexander VI (aka Rodrigo Borgia) excommunicated him. He was burnt at the stake.

Less well-known is that Savonarola’s contemporary Christopher Columbus was also fanatical about the End Times. Upon his arrest in 1498 for hanging Spaniards on the new colony of Hispaniola Columbus implored King Ferdinand to release him because ‘…God made me the messenger of the new heaven and the new earth of which he spoke in the apocalypse of Saint John after having spoken of it through the mouth of Isaiah’ and he showed me the spot where to find it.’ Columbus wanted to use gold from the New World to finance an army to liberate Jerusalem and spent years toiling on a “Book of Prophecies”. In short, he believed he was God’s apocalyptic servant, whose discoveries had brought the End closer.

Shortly after Columbus died, Luther would open the floodgates of apocalypse when he translated the Bible into German. Anyone who could read was now free to interpret Revelation for himself. Catholics were not immune to this fervour- in the early 1700s the Jansenists, a product of the counter-reformation, irritated Rome with their frequent predictions of the End which lasted until the French Revolution, when the apocalypse went secular and the monasteries were closed.

But the extinction of the Jansenists did not cure Catholicism of its apocalyptic strain. In the late 1800s a man named Antonio Conselheiro attracted 20000 peasants to Canudos, a shanty town New Jerusalem located in the badlands of Brazil. He identified the new republican regime as agents of Antichrist and waged war upon them until his final defeat in 1897, three years shy of his own predicted apocalypse. Up in Canada meanwhile a certain Louis Riel (1844-85) declared that a New Age had dawned and that the papacy would soon move to Western Canada. It didn’t, and he was eventually hanged for treason.

Surprisingly enough, the era of the Atom bomb and total war was relatively quiet as far as Catholics and apocalypse are concerned. After 1500 years, had St. Augustine’s admonitions finally taken root? Well, that’s the thing about the End—it’s both volatile and unpredictable. You never know when a new outbreak of doomsday fever is coming. Happy New Apocalypse!

Originally published in the Catholic Herald, Dec 23rd 2011

This will close in 0 seconds