Was the Apocalypse Predicted in History Before Now?

Ever since Jesus predicted the end, even before Revelation was written, Christians have worried and/or believed that the apocalypse was upon them. Several events were widely thought to herald the end of the world and were offered supposed biblical backing, but ultimately did not result in the apocalypse.

Alyssa Roat
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In light of COVID-19, it’s almost impossible to go on social media without encountering theories of doom and predictions of the apocalypse.

Is this part of the beginning of the end? Are there parallels in Revelation? Has the time come?

We’re not the first people to ask these questions. It would be nearly impossible to cover all the times that entire societies thought they were facing the end of the world, whether from war, famine, plague, fire, or even heavenly disaster.

Christians often seem to be the first to jump to end times conclusions. Now, as always, there are those who have, what seem to be, a great amount of biblical evidence to back up their claims. Are they right this time?

To take our current situation into a better perspective, let’s consider some of the major times in history when Christians thought the end was upon them.

Many New Testament Christians Thought the End Was Nigh

The time of Jesus’ return was not an uncommon source of questioning in the early church. Jesus had said He would return, and many interpreted that as soon. In fact, they began to worry about when Christians died before Christ returned for them what would happen (1 Thessalonians 4:13). However, Paul assured these Christians that those who had died would rise in Christ.

Writers like Paul reminded readers to continue living their lives in a way that honored God, not sitting and waiting for Christ’s return. Paul writes in 1 Thessalonians 5:1-2, “Now, brothers and sisters, about times and dates we do not need to write to you, for you know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night.”

Eventually, the early Christians realized that Christ’s return might be quite a while in the future — though they may not have come close to guessing just how far away that future would be.

The Rise of Islam Was Thought to Herald the End

In the 13th century, Pope Innocent III built an argument for a fifth crusade on the logic that the rise of Islam heralded the beginning of the end. In a papal bull in April of 1213, he wrote,

A son of perdition has arisen, the false prophet Muhammed, who has seduced many men from the truth by worldly enticements and the pleasures of the flesh… we nevertheless put our trust in the Lord who has already given us a sign that good is to come, that the end of this beast is approaching, whose number, according to the Revelation of Saint John, will end in 666 years, of which already nearly 600 have passed.

With Muhammad as the antichrist, Pope Innocent III proclaimed a Second Coming in 1284. Unfortunately, the pope died in 1216, long before he could see his prediction come to pass — or rather, not come to pass.

Plague, Famine, Economic Spiral, and War — The 14th Century End of the World

The 14th century in Europe was one crisis after another. Changes in climate resulted in devastating crop failures, especially with the growth of monoculture, causing 11 years of what was called “The Great Famine,” the effects of which would be felt long after its beginning in 1311.

The Famine, as well as the rise of Mamluks, Ottomans, and Mongols, hurt trade. Population rose, but farm technology didn’t grow with it. Farmers and lords alike defaulted, and major Italian banks collapsed.

Rural folk moved to cities when farms struggled, overwhelming city structure and resulting in crowds of beggars, food riots, and factional violence, while urban crowding resulted in dysentery, cholera, tuberculosis, and more.

War raged in all corners in what was the most war-torn century to date — Germans vs. Italy, Germany vs. Germany, Catalans vs. Greece, Aragon vs. Sardinia and Granada, Leon-Castile vs. Muslim Spain, the French vs. the Burgundians, the Hundred Years War, the War of the Roses, the Ottomans vs. the Byzantines, North African rivalries, and so much more.

But the worst of all was the plague. The Black Death that ravaged 14th -century Europe has had no precedent, nor has a pandemic so terrible ever risen again since. Modern scholarship indicates that as much as 60% of the population of Europe was wiped out.

The plague traveled fast, and most who caught it died within three days. Death ships drifted, crewless. Pits were dug as mass graves, filled as quickly as they could be dug. An Irish monk, describing the situation in 1349, wrote that he was leaving the record “in case anyone should still be alive in the future.”

The art and writing of the time reflected morbidity and much speculation about the nearness of the end times. It would take hundreds of years for population levels to return to normal.

And yet, even this was not the end of the world.

The Great Fire of London and the Number of the Beast

In Revelation, the number 666 is associated with the beast (Revelation 13:18). Because of this, there were theories that the world would end in 1666. After the outbreak of the “Great Plague” in 1665-1666 — another outbreak of the bubonic plague, believed to have killed a sixth of London’s population — the city of London went up in flames September 2 to September 6, 1666.

The fire destroyed over 13,000 homes, 87 parish churches, St. Paul’s Cathedral, and practically all of the City of London inside the old Roman city wall, leaving tens of thousands homeless. Plague and fire seemed straight out of Revelation.

Yet, once again, the world didn’t end.

No One Knows the Time

Halley’s Comet. World War II. The Atomic Age. Y2K. The Mayan Apocalypse of 2012. Not to mention the hundreds of individuals, cult leaders, and movements who have also predicted the end.

It seems to be in our human nature to panic and cling to cries of doom and gloom. This is especially a response in times of local or global turmoil.

However, the Bible is clear that when the end does come, it will be unexpected and unpredictable. Paul said that it would come like “a thief in the night” (1 Thessalonians 5:2).

Jesus, on earth, said that even He did not know. “But about that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father” (Mark 13:32).

Trying to predict the end, then, is fruitless. We cannot know.

Be Awake and Sober

Panicking and speculating are the opposite of what the Bible tells us to do.

Instead, we are told to live lives of readiness, behaving in a manner that would be fitting the return of Christ. In Luke 12:35-48, Jesus likens this to servants awaiting their master’s return. They don’t know if their master will return at midnight or midday, but the wise servants conduct themselves well in their duties, so they are ready whenever he returns.

Note that the wise servants are not panicking and worrying about when the master will return. We are not to worry, but instead to be ready at all times by doing the will of God. In 1 Thessalonians 5:6, Paul charges the believers to be “awake and sober.”

In the fear that followed the advent of the atomic bomb, C. S. Lewis offered timely words on living in fear of the end:

In one way we think a great deal too much of the atomic bomb. “How are we to live in an atomic age?” I am tempted to reply: “Why, as you would have lived in the sixteenth century when the plague visited London almost every year, or as you would have lived in a Viking age when raiders from Scandinavia might land and cut your throat any night; or indeed, as you are already living in an age of cancer, an age of syphilis, an age of paralysis, an age of air raids, an age of railway accidents, an age of motor accidents.”

In other words, do not let us begin by exaggerating the novelty of our situation. Believe me, dear sir or madam, you and all whom you love were already sentenced to death before the atomic bomb was invented: and quite a high percentage of us were going to die in unpleasant ways…

This is the first point to be made: and the first action to be taken is to pull ourselves together. If we are all going to be destroyed by an atomic bomb, let that bomb when it comes find us doing sensible and human things… not huddled together like frightened sheep and thinking about bombs. They may break our bodies (a microbe can do that) but they need not dominate our minds (“On Living in an Atomic Age” (1948) in Present Concerns: Journalistic Essays).

What Does This Mean?

We can’t control when the end comes. We can’t even predict it. However, there is one thing we can do: Be faithful followers of Christ regardless of the situation. And that is what we have been called to do.

Other Doomsday Predictions:

The Smithsonian: Ten Notable Apocalypses that (Obviously) Didn’t Happen

History.com: Apocalypses that Weren’t

Britannica: 10 Failed Doomsday Predictions

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Alyssa Roat studied writing, theology, and the Bible at Taylor University. She is a literary agent at C.Y.L.E., the publicity manager at Mountain Brook Ink, and a freelance editor with Sherpa Editing Services. Her passions for Biblical study and creativity collide in her writing. Her debut novel Wraithwood releases Nov. 7, 2020. She has had 150+ bylines in publications ranging from The Christian Communicator to Keys for Kids. Find out more about her here and on social media @alyssawrote.


Originally published April 28, 2020.