Why do most people associate the word “apocalypse” with end-of-the-world events? What does apocalypse really mean in relation to biblical prophecy?
[From the March/April 2014 issue of Discern.]
The popular narrative often shows a collapsed civilization. The planet has become a wasteland of crumbled buildings and motionless cars. Millions of bodies are scattered about. Radios and televisions are silent. The power grid is gone, and all appears dark.
But then, like Noah and his family stepping off the ark, a few survivors who took refuge in underground shelters slowly make their way to the surface to rebuild the earth. As they stumble through the smoke and rubble, they begin to gather in small groups, searching for meaning in their now-shattered world.
Novels and films with such doomsday scenarios abound. When most people hear the word apocalypse, it engenders an immediate association with great devastation on the earth that leaves only a remnant of survivors to carry on the human race.
Stories about the end of the world have fascinated people throughout human history, and today science fiction movie theatrics can create the vivid imagery of nuclear explosions and leveled cities, catastrophic loss of human life and zombies roaming the streets in the aftermath.
(See our related articles “Post-Apocalyptic Fiction and Fact” and “Zombie Movies: What Do They Get Right?”)
While history shows that humanity in general has a penchant for bringing much suffering, the world is not destined to end this way. Please read on.
Religious apocalypse or meaningless apocalypse?
Author Daniel Wojcik wrote, “Until recently, the end of the world has been interpreted as a meaningful, transformative, and supernatural event, involving the annihilation and renewal of the earth by deities or divine forces. During the last half of the twentieth century, however, widespread beliefs about a meaningless apocalypse have emerged and now compete with traditional religious apocalyptic worldviews” (End of the World as We Know It: Faith, Fatalism, and Apocalypse in America, p. 1).
In other words, a more contemporary use of the word apocalypse describes meaningless mass destruction.
The age of potential annihilation
Over the past 60 years or so, interest in the end of the world has dramatically increased. But why such a fascination with the destruction of society?
According to Wojcik, “The creation and proliferation of nuclear weapons, in particular, have fundamentally altered contemporary apocalyptic thought, fueling fears of global annihilation and evoking widespread fatalism about the future of humanity” (p. 1).
The dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan, in August of 1945 helped promote the idea that civilization as we know it could end by an apocalyptic disaster. This fairly universal human concern is one major reason for the popularity of apocalyptic movies and novels.
Added to that, scientific research is often dramatized by media portrayals of other risks to humankind. These include the gradual destruction of the environment, mega-storms, volcanic eruptions, solar storms, global ozone depletion, widespread famine and incurable strains of diseases.
These are real concerns, but they also help feed fatalistic fears that the world might end by one or more of these causes.
Expecting an apocalyptic disaster
A February 2020 YouGov poll reported, “Nearly three in 10 (29%) US adults think it’s likely that there will be an apocalyptic disaster in their lifetime.” What did they think would be the most likely cause of an apocalypse?
- Global pandemic, 19 percent.
- Climate change, 19 percent.
- Nuclear war, 17 percent.
- Judgment day, 13 percent.
- Something else, 5 percent.
- Worldwide revolution, 3 percent.
- Zombies, 2 percent.
- Alien invasion, 1 percent.
In a 2012 Ipsos poll conducted in 21 countries and involving 16,000 adults, one in seven (14 percent) agreed with the statement “the world will come to an end during my lifetime.”
While there are many potential global hazards, the world is not destined to end this way.
Apocalyptic themes and the fascination with biblical disaster
In the United States interest in apocalyptic themes in Bible prophecy is integral to the worldviews of many evangelical Christians. Such widespread interest in apocalyptic disasters in recent decades is indicated by the success of best-selling books on the subject.
Wojcik holds up Hal Lindsey’s 1970 book The Late Great Planet Earth as an example of works appealing to those interested in biblical end-time prophecies (p. 37). It became the largest-selling American nonfiction book of that decade (New York Times Book Review, April 6, 1980, p. 27). By 1991 more than 28 million copies of the book had been sold (Los Angeles Times, Feb. 23, 1991).
Apocalypse etymology: it originally meant revelation
Though the word apocalypse has come to have doomsday overtones, it’s interesting to note what it originally meant. According to Dictionary.com, the English word apocalypse comes from the Greek word apokálypsis, which simply means “revelation,” and is equivalent to apokalýptein, meaning “to uncover, reveal.”
In religious contexts it is usually a disclosure of something hidden, like knowledge or understanding.
Bible prophecy reveals that humankind will come to the very brink of self-destruction. At that point, Jesus Christ will return to put a stop to humanity destroying itself.In the Bible the Greek word apokálypsis refers to the book of Revelation, which was given to the apostle John. The book of Revelation is Jesus Christ’s unveiling of events to His servants (Revelation 1:1). What is revealed is a series of major events that lead to the end of this present age, including Christ’s return to the earth.
Apocalypse in the Bible: What will happen to planet earth?
The Bible is the only absolutely reliable source for learning the fate of planet earth. Within this divinely inspired book, God reveals His plan for humanity through His servants, the prophets (Amos 3:7).
God has given an outline in the Scriptures of troubles that will intensify in the end times because of the increase of many evils in societies around the globe (2 Timothy 3:1-5; Revelation 6:1-7). To understand what is prophesied, see our article on this subject: “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse: What Are They?”
Bible prophecy reveals that humankind will come to the very brink of self-destruction. At that point, Jesus Christ will return to put a stop to humanity destroying itself (Matthew 24:22).
The world will not end with some cataclysmic, apocalyptic event, leaving just a few human beings wandering aimlessly in a struggle for survival without law and order. Thankfully, this is not the final outcome that God has in store for planet earth!
The good news of the Apocalypse
When Jesus Christ returns to earth, He will forcefully put down all opposition and establish the Kingdom of God. This will be the start of 1,000 years of global peace, prosperity and abundance. This Millennium of joyous, meaningful existence is a stark contrast to the apocalyptic scenarios imagined by many today. While there are difficult times ahead, God tells us the future is very bright!
To learn more about what is prophesied to occur at the end of this age, please see the section on end-time prophecy on this Life, Hope & Truth website.