Of the twenty-seven canonical books in the New Testament, the book of Revelation (the Apocalypse of St. John) is perhaps one of the most debated and controversial due to its apocalyptic content. The end of time has been a matter of debate since the dawn of man itself, it seems. Since at least the late 2000s BC, men and women have declared the end of the world time after time, perhaps the most recent attempts have been by Harold Camping last year, with the forthcoming date of 12-21-12 frightening many individuals. Comparing different perspectives over the course of history can give us a clearer perspective on how major events can shape our perception of the end of the world. This is not to say that the world will not end, nor is it a negation of the idea that it will end as described in Scripture, but Scripture itself and our understanding and application of it are two radically different things. For example, we consider a 2nd century Palestinian Christian, a Christian under the Nazi regime in World War II during the 1940s, and finally a 21st century Christian contemplating the apocalypse.
By the 2nd century in Palestine, the destruction of Jerusalem has already occurred, the Jewish nation has dispersed more so than before, the Christian community is facing ever-increasing persecution, and bewilderment grows concerning the time of Christ’s return. Persecution directly prior to the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70 evidently led some Christians to go underground, as exemplified in the Cappadocian Christians who created underground settlements to hide from the Roman persecution. With heightened persecution during the reign of Nero, followed by the destruction of Jerusalem in the 1st century and the Bar Kocchba rebellion in the first half of the 2nd century, the Christian community was not immune to such events. These would evidently have influenced their understanding of the end times, so much so that early Christians believed they were enduring the actual Tribulation. In the aftermath of the 1st century, Christians began to reconsider whether or not Jesus was actually returning “very soon” (Revelation 22:20) on our time or on His time.
A very real threat was still dominant at the time: Rome. Christians and Jews began to refer to Rome as “Babylon,” more often after AD 70, though the “name-calling” occurred prior to AD 70 as well. In the 2nd century, the Jews and Christians would have been well aware of the parallels to the Babylonian captivity and burning of Jerusalem in 586 BC, hence why Rome was called “Babylon.” In fact, it seems apparent that some early Christian interpreted the Babylon in John’s Revelation as Rome itself. Given the power and influence of Roman rule in Palestine, of course, this is not unexpected. Other Christian sects came to be formulated, such as Gnostics, Ebionites, and others, which brought in further interpretations of the end times. As the perception of 2nd century Christians does not determine the veracity of Scripture, it is not undermining for the Christian, so to note that 2nd century Christians living in Palestine may have taken the 666 (or 616) reference to refer to Nero is not uncalled for. In fact, there was a rumor (called the Nero redivivus myth) that Nero had not actually died in AD 68, and would one day return to lead the Parthian armies from the east. Evidently, coming out of the persecution under Domitian, 2nd century Christians would have still considered Nero to be a possible Antichrist.
In Revelation 16:12 we read, “The sixth angel poured out his bowl on the great river Euphrates, and its water was dried up to prepare the way for the kings from the East.” In 2nd century Palestine, the Euphrates river was considered the border that separated the civilized world from the barbarians beyond it, so the Christian would likely have taken this to refer to Barbarian rulers. We then come to Armageddon (16:16), the hill of Megiddo. The site itself has been the location of many major battles in history, and likely would have been understood in this context. It is from the 2nd century that we find many Martyrologies. As such, this increase in Christian persecution very likely would have influenced the apocalyptic view of many believers, and led many to believe that they were living in the end times.
During the 1940s, a Christian under the Nazi regime would have viewed his era as the end of days, and writings survive that indicate that this is so. The apocalyptic imagery vividly portrayed in John’s Revelation came alive before the eyes of the men and women in the 1940s. The death camps like Auschwitz, the inhuman treatment of the Jewish Diaspora, the usage of the atomic bomb, the increase in mechanized warfare and other deadly technological developments also led to a rise in the belief that the final days had come. With the buildup of daily headlines produced during the war, the radio broadcasts and the reports from the front, the apocalypse had apparently arrived. One cannot blame this generation for such a view; never before in human history had such a war occurred and so much been at stake. Surely there had been great wars and battles of antiquity, from the Peloponnesian Wars to the Trojan War, but none quite like World War II. It seemed as though the end had surely come, and many held that Hitler was the Antichrist.
The 1940s had come and gone, and the end never showed up. In the 21st century, the apocalyptic view is perhaps more widely thought about due to the mass media propagation of ideas such as the 2012 doomsday or the Nostradamus prophecies (which coincidently appear to say that the world would end in the late 1990s). Programs dedicated to the end of the world are constantly seen on channels such as the History Channel, which leads not only to further panic but also further spread of doomsday prophecies and stories. With each passing generation the end of the world is thought to be imminent. To the Christian living in the 21st century, deciding what to believe in light of Scripture is not always easy. For example, for those who believe in a "rapture," such as Jerry Jenkins and Tim LaHaye's wildly popular Left Behind series posits, they find "evidence" for their worldview.
An example of this is the death of the Two Witnesses (possibly Elijah and Enoch or Elijah and Moses), “For three and a half days many from every people, tribe, language and nation will gaze on their bodies and refuse them burial” (11:9). Logically, they ask how could so many people view these bodies unless so many are already in Jerusalem? This worldview would argue that this is better understood if the bodies are displayed on television (a public display of the victory of the “Messiah”). Now, due to historical research, some Christians hold that the events detailed in Revelation have already come to pass and have little to no relevance for us today. But for other believers, the board is set, the pieces are moving, and Christ’s return is at any moment though he tarries for more souls. The book of Revelation and its interpretationding has taken on a new meaning as the centuries pass by, but if Scripture is to be taken seriously (as one would contend), the end will (eventually) be nigh, Jesus will return and usher in the New Kingdom. Regardless of the viewpoint, John’s final words echo down through the ages on the mouths and minds of many a believer, “Amen. Come, Lord Jesus…”