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In popular usage, the word apocalypse refers to a cataclysmic event that results in the devastation or utter destruction of humanity. However, the technical use of the term is reserved for a genre (or type) of literature found in the biblically based religious traditions (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam). Examples of this literature surface in times of anxiety, when a community is experiencing great change or persecution. The authors use evocative imagery and stock literary techniques to encourage their readers to remain true to the faith as the day will soon come when God will intervene and restore order. On that day the faithful will be rewarded, and the wicked will be punished. Apocalypses receive their name from the Revelation (apokalypsis in Greek) of John, found in the Christian New Testament. However, the Revelation of John is not the only apocalypse, nor is it the first.
Scholars who seek the origins of apocalyptic literature look to the writings of two sixth-century B.C.E. Jewish prophets: Ezekiel and Zechariah. Writing at the time of the Babylonian Exile (587-538 B.C.E.), when the Jerusalem Temple had been destroyed and many of the residents of Judah (southern Israel) had been deported to Babylon, the authors of these texts describe ecstatic visions in which they are transported to the throne of God and shown that the current tribulations will end and Israel will be restored to peace and prosperity. The Judahites were indeed returned to their homeland.
In the second century B.C.E., writers drew upon the techniques of Ezekiel and Zechariah to describe new visions to provide hope for their readers. The book of Daniel and the noncanonical 1 Enoch, both written in response to attacks on Jewish culture by the Syrian king Antiochus IV Epiphanes (ca. 175-164 B.C.E.), are the first true apocalypses. These texts are similar in form to Ezekiel and Zechariah but include additional literary techniques that are used in later apocalyptic texts such as Revelation. These techniques include pseudonymous authorship (the visionary, and thus the narrator of the text is a legendary figure of the past); an other-worldly journey (the visionary is taken on a journey through the heavens and/or to the throne of God); an overview of history (from the beginning of time to the period of the visionary, followed by detailed "prophecies" of the recent past from the visionary's time to the time of the book's composition, and then a set of ambiguous prophecies of the real author's own future); eschatology (descriptions of the "end time" when God will destroy the author's and his community's enemies and bring about a new age of peace and prosperity); elaborate imagery (angels and demons proliferate, and various kings and kingdoms are represented symbolically as composite beasts); and a promise of personal salvation (those among the community who have died will be rewarded for their faith in the afterlife). All of these techniques, though often misunderstood by modern readers, can be found in other literature of antiquity. Their general use, then, ensured that readers of the time would be able to "de-code" an apocalypse, and see in it a plea to remain faithful until the time when God will bring an end to the current tribulation.
The influence of apocalyptic literature extended into the first-century C.E. when several charismatic preachers called on God to rid Judea (formerly Judah) of its latest rulers: the Romans. One such preacher was John the Baptist who, the New Testament gospels tell us, criticized the Judean aristocracy and warned of a "wrath to come" (Matthew 3:7; Luke 3:7). John was executed, but before his death he was able to groom an apparent successor in Jesus of Nazareth who, borrowing imagery from Daniel, spoke about "the Son of Man coming in clouds" (Mark 13:26) at the end of the age. The apocalypticism of the Jesus movement carried over into letters written by the apostle Paul (ca. 50-65 C.E.). In these letters, Paul describes the resurrection of Jesus as the "first fruits" of a general end-time resurrection of the faithful.
Apocalytic literature continued to develop in Judaism after the beginnings of the Jesus movement. Texts found among the Dead Sea scrolls, such as the War Rule, provide evidence of first-century Jewish apocalyptic thought.
As Christianity gradually separated from Judaism, Christians encountered persecution and martyrdom for their beliefs and actions. Faced with the possibility of losing adherents, Christian writers employed the apocalyptic genre to strengthen the faith of their community. Revelation, for example, is believed to be a response to the persecution of Christians under the emperor Domitian, and the noncanonical Apocalypse of Peter, with its gruesome tour of Hell, was written, most likely, to prevent Christians from joining the Jewish revolt of 135-137 C.E.
Apocalyptic expectations temporarily waned after the persecution of Christians ceased in the fourth century. But Muhammad, the seventh-century founder of Islam, drew upon apocalyptic motifs when he warned the citizens of the Arabian city of Mecca that their behavior would be punished on the forthcoming Day of Judgment. Shi'i Muslim groups make particular use of apocalyptic ideas. Seeing themselves as the object of persecution by the Sunni majority, Shi'i Muslims wrote that the rightful leader of the Muslim community will return to establish universal justice and usher in the Day of Judgment.
Even though apocalypses focus on events close to the time that the text was composed, many contemporary readers continue to see in them indications of the coming "apocalypse." Such apocalyptic expectation reached its height during the Cold War. At that time, anxieties about worldwide nuclear destruction led Christian preachers and authors (such as Hal Lindsey, The Late Great Planet Earth, 1977) to seek relief in apocalyptic texts, and inspired filmmakers to draw upon and transform apocalyptic motifs to craft biblically based horror films (such as The Omen series). When anxieties about the Cold War ceased, apocalyptic ideas receded, although today some Christian denominations-most notably Jehovah's Witnesses, Seventh-Day Adventists, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (Mormons), and the Worldwide Church of God-retain a strongly apocalyptic worldview, as do the occasional radical apocalyptic (or "millennial") groups such as the Branch Davidians of Waco, Texas. However, these groups have always been in the minority. The norm has always been to create or focus on apocalyptic literature as the need arises, in response to times that challenge a community's capacity to hope.