For many people on this rock we call earth, the end of our existence isn’t just possible, it’s inevitable. The Apocalypse, The End Days, The Rapture, Ragnarok, The Kali Yuga or Yawm al-Qiyāmah. These terms provoke feelings of dread, anxiety and excitement among followers. But, while the names are very different, the details of how the world comes to an end are not as dissimilar as you would think.
Christianity, Islam and Judaism are three of the most practiced, and often linked, global religions. With over two billion disciples, Christianity is currently the most popular religion. In the United States, many religions fall under the umbrella of Christianity, including Baptists, Lutherans, Catholics, Protestants, Methodists and Pentecostals.
However, projections show that Islam, which is the second most favored faith with over 1.5 billion followers, is the fastest growing religion in the world. Estimates have it becoming as popular, if not more so, than Christianity by the year 2050.
Judaism may only have just under 14 million devotees, but its connections to the two most popular faiths in the world; along with its notoriety via successful Hollywood productions; has often kept it in the forefront of notable world religions.
Christianity, Islam and Judaism are often linked because of their shared prophets, the legends in their holy books (the Bible, Quran, and Torah, respectively), and the lands they originate from. This includes a common belief that the world will eventually end. For Christians it is dubbed the “End Times,” while Muslims call it “Yawm al-Qiyāmah” (which in Arabic means “Day of the Resurrection”). For Jewish disciples there is a belief in the return of the Moshiach, Hebrew for messiah.
All three share ideologies that there will be a time of “great tribulation.” Some of the events that will forecast earth’s doom include famine, plague, natural disasters, war and economic collapse. Islam and Christianity both have prophesies that an anti-Christ, or “ad-Dajjal”, will rise to bring about this horrific period in history. Judaism doesn’t share this view, though all three believe a new messiah (two are noted in Islamic texts, including Jesus) will return to bring about an end to the world’s torment, and it all will culminate in a “great war” between the forces of good and evil.
Once this war is over, the dead will rise, all faithful to Christianity and Islam will be judged and the righteous will go on to their respective versions of heaven. However in Judaism, the righteous will all follow this faith and be a part of a new heaven on earth.
None of these religions have a set date when this all will occur. Though, many believe that current world events are a prelude to the eventual “end of days.”
Though not a religion, one Central American culture did have a specific date when the world could come to an end. The Mayan calendars countdown clock ended on December 21st, 2012 at 11:11 UTC (Universal Time). The chronology dates back to 2000 B.C. and consists of three separate calendars. The third calendar, or “Great Cycle,” was believed to end with the destruction of the universe and creation of a new one. Fortunately for us, we are still here and the universe did not end three years ago.
Hinduism, and its over 950 million followers, has some similarities to the Mayans’ doctrines as Hindus also follow a chronology of cycles. The Kali Yuga is “part of the cycle of eras, described in Hindu scriptures.” And based off of the conversion of this cycle that began in 3102 B.C., the end times for Hindus (and the beginning of the “Golden Age”) was expected to occur on December 21st, 2012. In Hindu cosmology the universe is destroyed and re-created every four to eight billion years.
The Hindu belief system doesn’t have as grim a period of terror as the previous religions do. However it does note great mistreatment of the worlds people by “all kings,” and Hindus have their own returning messiah. Vishnu, who often saves the world from this time of tyranny, will return as a white horse. He will destroy the world and take humanity to a “higher plane” of existence.
There are other religions, long since passed, which have their own end time’s prophecies. The Egyptians and Norse Mythology are two popular sources for tales of the end.
To the Egyptians the god Atum, who rose from the waters of Nun as a serpent during the creation of the world, would return in his serpent at the end of time. A common emblem in Egyptian culture was of a serpent biting its own tail, which signified the word “eternity.”
For the people in the Scandinavian regions of Europe, Norse gods were the higher beings they honored. And they had their own apocalyptic story–“Ragnarok.” In this prophecy there would be a mighty war between the Aesir’s (the gods of Asgard) and the Jotuns (giants from the arctic realm of Jotunheim). During this battle the highly revered king of Asgard Odin, would battle a massive wolf named Fenrir. While his equally loved son Thor, would wage war with the gigantic serpent Jormungand. A snake who dwells in the waters that encircles the realm of Midgard, also known as earth.
This battle would wipe out most of humanity and the gods. However, two people will find shelter in the “sacred tree Yggdrasil,” which is dubbed the tree of life. They will survive this war and be the first to re-populate the new world formed from the ashes of the old.
For Buddhists and their 360+ million faithful, the end of life happens every day. The religion is without its apocalyptic tales and messiahs. The ideology is based on the concept that life is all about “impermanence,” that all attachments in life are impermanent. This doesn’t mean you disconnect yourself from the world. But rather if you come to terms with knowing that all things end, including your own life, it will reduce much of your daily suffering . One teaching from the Buddha states: “For consider the world—a bubble, a mirage. See the world as it is, and death shall overlook you.”
Religion can be a touchy subject for many people. But to get the thoughts of contemporary believers and non-believers alike we questioned 50 anonymous volunteers. When asked “Are you a religious person?” 29 of them said no. Yet, for the follow up question of “If you are, what religion and/or denomination do you adhere to?” several did select Catholicism and Christianity. Showing that, even if they aren’t devout, because of life experiences they still associate themselves with these faiths. The most popular answers for this same question were “Christianity” (15) and “Not Religious” (18).
When asked “do you believe in the End Times,” 27 participants answered “Yes. But I won’t live to see it.” nine of the individuals who considered themselves not religious also gave this answer.
The most interesting responses came when we asked “When you hear/read ‘End Times’ or ‘Apocalypse’, what comes to mind?” This question asked the volunteers to present their own unique answers. Four volunteers specifically noted “zombies.” Understandable, since most ideologies prophesize the dead rising from the grave. Also living in an era where television shows like The Walking Dead, iZombie and Z Nation are popular probably had some influence.
Below are some more examples of these unique responses:
- “Right-wing evangelical psychopaths.”
- “A cleansing of the earth and its human parasitic infection.”
- “I believe we will hear three trumpets sound three times and it will begin. Heaven and Hells war on Earth. And it hasn’t started because not every living person has chosen a side yet. Everyone gets a chance to reject or accept God while walking this Earth.”
- “The end of humanity.”
For almost as long as there has been an organized society there has been organized religion. And the common thread among them all is that, one day, the life we know will end. The question is, is it just good storytelling or a prophecy of the inevitable?