History Is Full of Apocalyptic Fiascos
We have already mentioned the Calabrian abbot Joaquim of Fiore (1132-1202) who conceived a system based on biblical numerology, the importance of the number 12 (12 tribes, 12 apostles) and the symbolic representation of animals and places. By relying on these assumptions, the book of Revelation and certain passages in the gospel of Saint Matthew, Joaquim came to the conclusion that the End of Times was due to take place in 1260, with Saladin as antichrist.
The announcement had some collateral damage and the chronicles of the time speak about large processions of flagellant penitents touring Italy in the years prior to 1260, convinced that the party was really over and leaving people awfully frightened by the self-inflicted lashes, blood, and lamentations; without a doubt a disgusting and sordid spectacle, completely superfluous in a life full of hardships of its own. Fortunately for us now alive, Jesus Christ did not appear in 1260 and although the congregation of the Spiritual Franciscans, formed by inspiration of Joaquim, corrected the date to 1290 Jesus didn’t show up again and the order dissolved.
In the Mind of a Medieval Christian
Although it may seem difficult and contradictory from today’s point of view, the state of expectation for an immediate apocalypse that originated in the days of Paul of Tarsus persisted for centuries and the slogan “repent for the end of the world is near” remained quite strong. The main priority for medieval Christians was salvation and the concept of apocalyptic imminence was pervasive in everything they did. The believer was in a constant state of suggestion and any natural disaster or astronomical phenomenon filled their hearts with fear.
It is not easy to live permanently in a state of fear in front a threat that is not fulfilled, and perhaps that is why superstition made easy prey on the “common” Christian and the worship of relics flourished everywhere, since it was believed that, in front of the unexplained postponement of the much-vaunted second coming, proximity to these sanctified tokens could lead to salvation. Relics came to configure almost an industry in the medieval economy and they were subject to commerce and trade between nations. If a rich country today is the one that has natural resources in abundance, in late middle age a rich country was the one that had relics in abundance. There was even a sort of “ranking of the relics”, the closer to Jesus the better, and genuine “wars” of relics took place, kind of “mine are better than yours, so my nation is better than yours”.
But while the common people had the relics as their only resource, a new and brilliant strategy for approaching salvation in a more comfortable way began to develop among the wealthy classes: the purchase of bulls, waivers and indulgences. At first sight this is a clear conceptual involution against the offer of widespread eternal life unrelated to status made by made Paul in the early days of Christianity. The idea that the payment of a certain amount of money can help putting a person in a better position in the race for salvation seemed to contradict Christian spirit. At first, church hierarchy only accepted penance as a form of payment, but little by little it diversified into more varied means, such as service in the crusades or hired penance, until finally money was also accepted.
But alongside these miseries of daily life, signs and omens of the apocalypse continued to emerge. A nova discovered by Tycho Brahe (1546-1601) in 1572 was also interpreted as a possible sign of the second coming, as if it were a new Bethlehem star.
After Lutheran Reformation and within the frame of the cruel and hateful religious-political 30 year war (1618-1648) millennialism began to take shape within the protestant world, prophesizing the imminent second coming, followed by the 1000 year kingdom and the final judgment. The theologian Johan Alsted (1588-1638) performed a new calculation and got 1694 as the true year for the second coming. Fortunately he was wrong.
An important phase within the apocalyptic plan is the return of the Jew to Israel and their conversion to the true faith, which is supposed to be the prelude to the End of Times. That is why the French revolution, the Napoleonic period and the subsequent invasion of Egypt and opening of Palestine were also given the consideration of pre-apocalyptic events, with the role of antichrist reserved this time for Napoleon Bonaparte.
Always within the protestant orb, the 18th and 19th centuries were witness to the birth of an eschatological variation that reflects on the possible influence the behavior of the faithful can have in the second coming, and finally leads to two different currents that could be described as follows:
- The imminence of the second coming must be supported from down here by the proper behavior of the faithful and the right church’s preparation for the great event. This introduces the fresh idea that perhaps Jesus is hesitant to return because we are not behaving in an adequate manner and will be a crucial factor in the appearance of Adventists a little later.
- A movement called Zionist Protestantism appears and starts lobbying for the return of the Jew to Palestine as an element that could trigger or at least help resolve Jesus hesitation on his return to Earth. This rather curious idea is going to inspire directly or indirectly new schisms and currents of thought. One of them called “British Israelism” ends up by planting a very dangerous idea in the minds of some Anglo-Saxon Christians (dangerous in the practical sense of collateral damage) which is that the chosen people of God are not the Jew but the Anglo-Saxon, alleged descendants from the lost Hebrew tribes that came to the British isles after the first diaspora.
Preparation of the Church for the Second Coming
Henry Drummond (1786-1860), English banker and politician, was vice-president of the Jewish Society and co-founder (with his friend Edward Irving) of the Irvingit Church, which postulated an imminent second coming and an accelerated preparation of the church for the event. He organized annual meetings to discuss the chronology of the second coming, reaching conclusions about a possible return of Jesus Christ between the years 1843 and 1847.
Joseph Wolff (1796- ?) was a Jewish German convert, and a militant of the protestant Zionist cause, and he’s also the subject of a very famous anecdote. He made a trip to the United States in 1837 and managed to speak in congress where he told president John Quincy Adams (1767-1849) that we should better prepare because the second coming of Jesus Christ would take place in 1843. It seems that President Adams had no problems admitting that indeed the second coming could happen soon, but made it clear that, in any case, 1843 seemed too soon to him.
And now we get to the year 1843 and we have to mention the Adventist Great Disappointment, but as this is one of the apocalyptic failures with more emotional impact and genuine feelings we leave it for the next article.
- Video presentation for “The End of Times” series on Area Subliminal YouTube Channel
- This article is also available in Spanish “Decepciones Apocalípticas I (5 de 8)“
References:Messianic Revolution. David S. Katz and Richard H. Popkin. Ed. Hill and Wang 1998. New York. http://www.amazon.com/Messianic-Revolution-Religious-Politics-Millennium/dp/0809068869