Sunday, April 17, 2022

The Study Of The History Of The End Of The World, Part 4

 The early modern period roughly from the time of the Reformation up approximately to the time of the First World War could probably be considered an era of apocalyptic ambiguity. For it was during this time that interest in the Millennium and the End Times ebbed and flowed. It can also be observed that, though there was was a great deal of similarity in terms of the eschatological thinking of this particular era, such speculation was still characterized by noticeable variation with no single interpretation coming to predominate for the most part.

In light of phenomena such as the flagellants, the Taborites, and even Savonarola's exhortations against the corruption of the establishment, it was only a matter of time before more widespread movements erupted hoping to bring about needed ecclesiastical and political change. As has been repeatedly seen, when such disruption occurs the spiritually inclined are prone to conclude that what they are experiencing could very well be history's last hurrah. The discontent simmering beneath what appeared to be the unified Christianity of medieval Europe boiled over in what became known as the Protestant Reformation. The movement instigated by Luther and extended by other preeminent theologians such as Calvin and Knox assured the development of the modern perspective by nothing short of reconceptualizing the relationships between God, man, and the Church. Yet in terms of eschatological reflection, the mainstream of Protestantism did not go very far in breaking new ground.

Despite the divergences in Lutheran and Reformed theology, these outlooks were in agreement that the Antichrist was not so much a particular individual but rather the institution of the papacy. In regards to prophetic events such as the Millennium detailed in Scripture, most mainstream Protestant theologians tended to either allegorize these as symbolic depictions of the cosmic struggle between good and evil or to equate them with events in the past that had already transpired. Many of these leaders and thinkers believed that the world was now at the point where Satan had been released from the Pit with all that needed to be awaited was for Christ to appear to usher in eternity (Kyle, 62).

If the primary luminaries of Protestant thought offered an uninterested or detached analysis of the Apocalypse and the End Times, those considered to be along its fringes and lower classes provided interpretations considerably more passionate. Of those categorized as belonging to the more radical wing of the Reformation, Kyle writes, “In general, the radicals felt that the Lutheran and Zwinglian reforms did not go far enough. Of these diverse groups, the Anabaptists and the Spiritualists generated the most notable apocalyptic upheavals (58).” For the most part, the Anabaptists were in agreement that the persecution they endured at the hands of both Catholics and other Protestants was a sign that Christ's pending return was drawing nigh. As typical of that movement, most of its leaders such as Menno Simmons and Jacob Hutter urged quietist resignation before these events as they unfolded in God's due time. However, there arose among the ranks of the difficult to categorize ecclesiastical drifters and unaffiliated a number of rabble rousers that would give religious nonconformists as well as eschatological speculation a bad name for years and decades to come.

The first of these figures was Thomas Muntzer. Whereas most Reformation luminaries prided themselves on limiting the scope of their pronouncements to the revelation contained within the pages of Scripture, Muntzer believed that the Holy Spirit spoke directly to him as God's instrument for purging the ungodly. Muntzer saw his opportunity to stoke apocalyptic upheaval in what became known as the Peasant's War. Ultimately, Muntzer's assurance that this early form of class warfare would result in the Millennium proved to be idle but destructive bluster, resulting in his beheading at the hands of victorious German princes.

Adding to the sort of confusion that can often turn students off to the study of history, the next outbreak of noticeable apocalyptic violence occurred in the city of Munster. In the interim, Melchoir Hoffmann along the lines of a theory similar to that espoused by Joachim of Fiore argued that the third age of history was dawning with Christ soon to return to establish his kingdom in Strasburg. When such predictions did not transpire, his followers --- known as Melchiorites --- shifted focus to Munster.

Yet unlike Hoffmann who was content to peacefully await the Apocalypse and the Second Advent, Jan Matthys advocated the use of force in turning Munster into a theocracy. Both Protestants and Catholics mobilized to address the threat, eliminating Matthys in the confrontation. However, his successor Jan Bockelson proved to be even worse, proclaiming himself to be the Messiah and advocating polygamy (Abanes, 185-186). Before it was all over with, the extremists were executed, Anabaptists not even involved discredited as subversives, and both mainline Protestants and Catholics leery of where eschatological speculation might lead those susceptible to its promises.

With the practitioners of established respectable religion barely wanting to touch the subject of the End Times for years and decades to come, that area of theology became the provenance of a variety of thinkers that could only be described as bizarre at best and downright kooky at worst. Perhaps one of the most renowned individuals falling into this category was none other than Nostradamus. Born to a Jewish family that converted to Christianity, Michel de Nostredame was a physician that developed an interest in astrology and the occult.

The prophetic works of Nostradamus were compiled into ten books called The Centuries, each consisting of one hundred, four line verses known as quatrains. The staying power of Nostradamus and his prophecies can no doubt be attributed to the fact that most were so nebulous that they could be interpreted in any number of ways. Kyle also observes that Nostradamus probably ranked among the first in viewing the cataclysm of the End Times not so much as a result of divine intervention or judgment but rather as the outcome of secular forces (64).

For the most part, millennial and apocalyptic thinking became increasingly detached from Scripture. Interest in these topics was, if anything, sparked more by the assorted social upheavals occurring at the time. Kyle writes, “English millennialism peaked in the ... 1640's and 1650's. Millennarian ideas may have been more widely circulated during the English Civil War than at any time or place in history. Social, political, and religious forces all combined to produce this millennial explosion (66).”

This spirit was embodied by a movement known as the Fifth Monarchy Men. Deriving their name from the Book of Daniel as the kingdom of God that would end all earthly empires, Fifth Monarchists believed that the golden age would commence in England and spread across the Earth as Cromwell's army would destroy the Papacy and the Jews returned to the Holy Land to drive out the Turks (Kirsch, 175-176). The faction's aspirations never materialized and British millennialism became increasingly eccentric. For example, the “prophetess” Joanna Southcott became convinced at the age of 64 that she was to give birth to the second Jesus Christ in 1814. Oddly enough, physicians confirmed that her body did display signs of pregnancy, However, the child never materialized and she passed away by December of that year.

France was little different in linking political upheaval with speculation about the End Times. Attention there focused upon the French Revolution and the Napoleonic aftermath. In light of the anti-religious violence of that period, a number feared that such signified the commencement of the Tribulation. Those prone to such a perspective postulated that Napoleon was likely the Antichrist. Others such as Suzzette Labrousse did not necessarily fear or condemn the Revolution as negative but embraced the chaos as signs of God's pending reign (Kyle, 71).

It was not until John Nelson Darby that millennial and apocalyptic thinking was once again imbued with a degree of theological respectability and wrest from the hands of those so worked up into a fanatical froth that resulted in psychosomatic pregnancies convincing enough to trick the physicians of the day. Darby was born into an Anglo-Irish family and ordained as a minister in the Church of Ireland. Darby would eventually join the Plymouth Brethren under which he would devise a system of prophetic interpretation that would come to be known as Dispensationalism.

Darby espoused a form of futurism believing that events described in prophetic portions of Scripture such as Revelation were yet to transpire. Borrowing loosely from Joachim of Fiore, Darby hypothesized that God dealt in different ways with His people during particular eras in history. As such, Darby emphasized a distinction between those portions of Scripture pertaining to the future of Israel and those pertaining to the Church. In so doing, Darby was able to provide a system of eschatological interpretation that acknowledged that the return of Christ was imminent in the form of a rising to meet Him in the clouds known as the Rapture while conceding a complex series of events such as the assorted judgments foretold needed to take place before Christ would return in the sense to establish His earthly kingdom.

By Frederick Meekins


Abanes, Richard. End-Times Visions: The Doomsday Obsession. Nashville, Tennessee: Broadman and Holman Publishers, 1988.

Kirsch, Jonathan. A History Of The End Of The World: How The Most Controversial Book In The Bible Changed The Course Of Western Civilization. San Francisco, California: Harper Collins Publishers, 2006.

Kagan, Donald, Ozment, Steven and Turner, Frank. The Western Heritage Since 1789 (Fourth Edition). New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1991.

Kyle, Richard. The Last Days Are Here Again: A History Of The End Times. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Books, 1988. Hanover, New Hampshire: University Press of New England, 1996.

Ladd, George. The Blessed Hope: A Biblical Study of The Second Advent and The Rapture. Grand Rapids, Michigan: WM. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1956.

Thompson, Damian. The End Of Time: Faith and Fear in the Shadow of the Millennium.