“I told my therapist I was having nightmares about nuclear explosions. He said don’t worry it’s not the end of the world.” – Jay London

The way the world ends?
The way the world ends?

With our luck, the apocalypse will probably be ushered in by some cosmic disaster that we don’t see coming and can’t do anything about such as extinction-sized asteroids, supervolcano eruptions, gamma ray bursts, collapse of the vacuum, black holes, or solar superflares.  Of course, these days, when folks talk about the Armageddon, they are usually referring to the biblical one.  You know, the four horsemen and the second coming of the guy you see hanging from all those crosses.  The Book of Revelation laid it out pretty nicely what with the orderly breaking of seals, the seven signs, and all that cleansing flame and fire.  Innumerable hours of History Channel airtime have been devoted to looking for the signs of the Christian apocalypse, and interpreting current events in light of the big one.  Not to say there aren’t other apocalypses afoot, but they have thus far been lackluster.  The Mayan “End of the Fifth Cycle” was supposed to result in massive earthquakes and skeleton monsters called the tzitzimime killing us all, but it passed by without even a dip in the stock market.  Ragnarok came and went.  I thought it would have been noisier.  So here we are waiting for the next apocalypse, but fear not those of you with an eye for the eschatological – there are plenty of ways the world is predicted to end, and not all of them involve the return of a Jewish carpenter.  Plenty of religions predict our inevitable doom, and it’s important to look at a sampling of who to look for, should one of our many mythologies turn out to be true.

If you want to keep an eye out for the Hindu apocalypse, you’re looking for a gentleman named Kalki, the final incarnation of Vishnu, arriving on a white horse and holding a blazing sword.  Hinduism has been around a long time, emerging from Iron Age India some 3500 years ago, so they’ve had a lot of time to think about this.  “It has been already stated that the duration of the present (kali) yuga is 432,000 years, of which 4,979 years have been gone through. At the expiration of the remaining period, the Kalki Avatára will appear as a sign of the dissolution of the mundane system. A new world will then spring up, phoenix-like, out of the ashes of the former, and a new Satya Yuga will be ushered in. “On the approach of Kalki,” says M. Sonnerat, in his voyages, “the sun and moon shall be darkened, the earth tremble, and the stars fall from the firmament; that, then the serpent Ananta, (or infinity, on which Vishnu reposes,) from his thousand mouths, shall vomit forth flames which shall consume the spheres and all living creatures” (Tagore, 1880, p127).  The good news, as with most eschatalogies is that in the end we wind up in a world of peace and enlightenment, but first a whole lot of people have to get massacred.  The Vishnu Parana, written somewhere around 300 A.D., details the end of our era.

When the practices taught in the Vedas and institutes of law have nearly ceased, and the close of the Kali age shall be nigh, a portion of that divine being who exists of His own spiritual nature, and who is the beginning and end, and who comprehends all things, shall descend upon earth. He will be born in the family of Vishnuyasha, an eminent brahmana of Shambhala village, as Kalki, endowed with eight superhuman faculties, when eight sun’s (represented by 8 solar deities or Vasu who lord over  DhanishtaNakshatra) will together shine over the sky. By His irresistible might he will destroy all the mlecchas (Barbarians) and thieves, and all whose minds are devoted to iniquity. He will reestablish righteousness upon earth, and the minds of those who live at the end of the Kali age shall be awakened, and shall be as clear as crystal. The men who are thus changed by virtue of that peculiar time shall be as the seeds of human beings, and shall give birth to a race who will follow the laws of the Krita age or Satya Yuga, the age of purity. As it is said, ‘When the sun and moon, and the lunar asterism Tishya, and the planet Jupiter, are in one mansion, the Krita age shall return (Vishnu Purana, Bk.4, Ch. 24).

Now, I always thought of Taosim (appearing in 4th Century B.C. China) as a pretty mellow philosophical, ethical, and religious tradition with a great deal of appeal for surfers and stoners (not exactly mutually exclusive categories, but go with it), and while the ineffable “Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao”, surprisingly, does seem to be able to tell us how it is all going to end.  The man you’re looking for is Li Hong, who will rise again (we don’t have a good enough description to get a sketch artist), and mark the beginning of a rather unpleasant cleansing of evil from the earth.  According to the Taoist work Taishang dongyuan shenzhou jing (literally translated as “Most High Cavernous Abyss Divine Spells Scripture”, but more commonly referred to as the “Divine Incantations Scripture”), an army of ghosts and death await us.

The Dao says: From now on, for those who accept this Divine Incantations Scripture, thirty thousand celestial elite troops will protect you.  Convert all the unenlightened day by day on behalf of all the living.  If the unenlightened persist in their confusion and ridicule people who do good, Heaven will send epidemic ghosts to kill these people.  Souls of such people will enter the three evil paths of rebirth, with no prospect of egress…In sexagenary years 18 and 19, eighty million great ghosts will come to annihilate bad people (Taishang dongyuan shenzhou jing trans.  Chan and Adler, 2013, p407).

Note that those who are subject to confusion or deign to make fun of Taoist beliefs will be facing an epidemic of spectral nastiness bent on destruction.  Apparently, just like the Christian messiah, there has been a long list of historical personages claiming to be Li Hong, and usually in the context of some sort of political and social upheaval.

From the Han period onward, Li Hong (whose name is often written as a pun) emerged as the pre-eminent Chinese messiah.  Expectations focusing on his coming gave birth to a messianic and millenarian tradition that reached its climax during the turbulent period of the Six Dynasties, when the main Taoist movements prophesied Li Hong’s Parousia.  The apocalyptic scriptures produced by these movements describe the messiah’s advent.  Li Hong was expected to descend to earth in a renchen year (the twenty-ninth of the sexagesimal cycle) to usher in the reign of Great Peace (taiping) in an entirely renewed universe, cleansed of all traces of evil and inhabited only by the initiated and the immortal “seed people” (zongmin) (Pregadio, 2013, p639).

The popular ancient Iranian religion of Zoroastrianism (from roughly the 6th Century B.C.), and the big religion of the Achaemenid, Parthian, and Sasanian empires, says we should be watching for the last of the Saoshyants (Avestan for “one who brings benefit”), who will herald the final “purification” of the universe called the Frashokereti.  The good news about the Frashokereti is that both the righteous and the wicked dead are resurrected, but the wicked are first cleansed of their evil before being allowed to move on to eternal bliss.  The bad news is that cleansing probably hurts a lot.

The reward and punishment assigned to the souls of the righteous and the wicked is to continue till ‘Frashokereti’ or ‘Farshogard,’ the renovation of the world when the whole creation is to start afresh, or ‘Ristakhez,’ i.e. resurrection of the dead. This event is to be synchronous with the end of the present cycle. Then will arise the last of the Saoshyants. He will consummate the work of purifying and regenerating the world and completely removing every evil effect of the work of Angromainyush. All the souls of the wicked will be brought out from, hell, and will be purified. The souls of the righteous too will rise and there will be brought about ‘Ristakhez,’ i. e. the rising of the dead, the resurrection. Thenceforth the world will enter upon a new cycle, free from all evil and misery, ever young and rejoicing. All souls will be furnished with new bodies called ‘ tan-i-pasin,’ the future body, and will commence a life of ineffable bliss. “Then he (the Saoshyant) shall restore the world, which will (thenceforth) never grow old and never die, never decaying and never rotting, ever living and ever increasing and master of its wish, when the dead will rise, when life and immortality will come, and the world will be restored at (God’s) wish” (Barucha, 1893, p23-24).

How do you indentify the Saoshyant?  I’m glad you asked, since the Zoroastrians make it a little easier on us.  He’s going to be born to someone named Vîspataurwairî, will emerge from Lake Kansava carrying some sort of epic fiery weapon, and will be accompanied by a host of divine entities, such as Haurvatat and Ameretat.  Lake Kansava, some scholar’s believe, equates to the swamps near modern Hamun in Outer Seistan.  That doesn’t help you much, does it?  It’s a little area somewhere between Iran and Afghanistan, although the “Outer” part has traditionally signified the part that is in Afghanistan.  I hope somebody has got a listening post up, since it’s not like all hell is breaking loose in that part of the world as we speak.

Buddhism is not historically known for involving a lot of death and destruction, in fact ranking up there with Taoism (there were heavy cross-influences) as a relatively serene theology.  I mean yeah, they do tell you that life is suffering and all, but they’re not out there starting holy wars about it.  So as not to be left behind in predicting our ultimate destruction in flame and fire, the Buddhists also have a notion of an ultimate apocalypse where the world has to first descend into iniquity and violence before a chosen few can bring about the advent of a sort of heaven on earth.  In this instance you should be looking out for the Buddha Metteyya.  Metteyya (or Maitreya, depending on who you ask) is going to appear on earth teaching the pure dharma, which reportedly most everybody will have forgotten by then.  He’ll be wearing a stupa headdress, the jewels and clothes of Indian royalty, a ceremonial scarf tied at his waist, and will be holding a “wheel of life” resting on a lotus.  In addition there are a few signals that his arrival are imminent, the most prominent being the oceans decreasing in size.  Of course anarchy and violence reign before he shows up, and only those few smart enough to wait it out in the forest are likely to be around to see everything turn out okay.

And for those of a ten-year life-span, there will come to a “sword-interval” of seven days, during which they will mistake one another for wild beasts.  Sharp swords will appear in their hands, thinking:  “There is a wild beast!” they will take each other’s lives with those swords. But there will be some beings who will think: “Let us not kill or be killed by anyone!  Let us make some grassy thickets or jungle-recesses or clumps of trees, for rivers hard to ford or inaccessible mountains and live on roots and fruits of the forest.”  And they will do this for seven days. Then at the end of the seven days, they will emerge from their hiding-places and rejoice together of one accord, saying:  “Good beings, I see that you are alive!”  And then the thought will occur to those beings:  “It is only because we became addicted to evil ways that we suffered this loss of our kindred, so let us now do good!…And in the time of the people with eighty thousand-year life-span, there will arise in the world a Blessed Lord, an Arahant fully enlightened Buddha named Metteyya, endowed with wisdom and conduct, a Well-Farer, Knower of the worlds, an incomparable Trainer of men to be tamed, Teacher of gods and humans, enlightened and blessed, just as I am now…’Then King Sankha will re-erect the palace once built by King Maha-Panada and having, lived in it, will give it up and present it to the ascetics and Brahmins, the beggars, the wayfarers, the destitute. Then, shaving off hair and beard, he will don yellow robes and go forth from the household life into the homelessness under the supreme Buddha Metteyya (Cakkavatti-Sihanada Sutta 21-26).

Of course we can’t neglect the Christian apocalypse.  They’ve spent so much time fleshing it out, after all.  It’s by far the trickiest in that Satan is going to impersonate the returned Jesus, and the only way you’re going to be able to tell the difference is that he’s going to arbitrarily change the day of the Sabbath from Saturday to Sunday.

As the crowning act in the great drama of deception, Satan himself will personate Christ. The church has long professed to look to the Saviour’s advent as the consummation of her hopes. Now the great deceiver will make it appear that Christ has come. In different parts of the earth, Satan will manifest himself among men as a majestic being of dazzling brightness, resembling the description of the Son of God given by John in the Revelation. The glory that surrounds him is unsurpassed by anything that mortal eyes have yet beheld. The shout of triumph rings out upon the air, “Christ has come! Christ has come!” The people prostrate themselves in adoration before him, while he lifts up his hands, and pronounces a blessing upon them, as Christ blessed His disciples when He was upon the earth. His voice is soft and subdued, yet full of melody. In gentle, compassionate tones he presents some of the same gracious, heavenly truths which the Saviour uttered; he heals the diseases of the people, and then, in his assumed character of Christ, he claims to have changed the Sabbath to Sunday, and commands all to hallow the day which he has blessed. He declares that those who persist in keeping holy the seventh day are blaspheming his name by refusing to listen to his angels sent to them with light and truth. This is the strong, almost overmastering delusion (White, 1941, p624). 

I’m not trying to make you paranoid.  Okay, well yes I am, but the point is that unless you are confident that your god can eat everybody else’s god, you’ve got a whole lot of apocalypses to worry about, and quite a cast of characters to keep track of if you want to be prepared.  Interestingly, we don’t even really need a divinely inspired apocalypse anymore, since as a species we are perfectly capable of enacting all the horrible stuff on the apocalyptic menu without supernatural intervention.  German poet Heinrich Heine correctly observed, “Wild, dark times are rumbling toward us, and the prophet who wishes to write a new apocalypse will have to invent entirely new beasts, and beasts so terrible that the ancient animal symbols of Saint John will seem like cooing doves and cupids in comparison”.  Of course, it never hurts to know what you should be looking for, even if the worst never comes to pass.

Bharucha, Ervad Sheriarji Dadabhai. A Brief Sketch of the Zoroastrian Religion & Customs: An Essay Written for the Râhnumâi Mâzdayasnân Sabhâ of Bombay. Bombay: the Duftur Ashkara Oil Engine Printing Press, 1893.
Chan, Wing-tsit and Adler, Joseph.  Sources of Chinese Tradition: Volume 1 From Earliest Times to 1600.  New Yor: ColumbiaUniversity Press, 2013.
Pregadio, Fabrizio.  Encyclopedia of Taoism.  Routledge, 2013.
Tagore, Sourindro Mohun, 1840-1914. The Ten Principal Avatáras of the Hindus: With a Short History of Each Incarnation and Directions for the Representation of the Múrttis As Tableaux Vivants. Calcutta: the author, 1880.
White, Ellen Gould Harmon, 1827-1915. The Great Controversy Between Christ And Satan: the Conflict of the Ages In the Christian Dispensation. Mountain View, Calif. [etc.]: Pacific press publishing association, 1941.