In honor of the Rapture today, let’s explore some varieties of end-of-the-world scenarios. [And just in case you have no idea why so many people are talking about Judgment Day today, here’s a good article.] Here’s my compilation, from Abrahamic to Nordic to anything else I find. Pick your poison and enjoy the End of the World (cue announcer’s voice) happening today only! This is a once in a lifetime event you don’t want to miss!
The “Big Three” religions (Christianity, Islam, Judaism) tend to share very similar versions of the end of the world/apocalypse. You’ve got the fire and brimstone, the Four Horsemen (though I think those are mainly associated with Christian versions), the Final Judgment, and the ascension of the righteous and the believers to heaven while all the non-believers and heathens go on their merry way to Hell. Most people in the world are at least familiar with this version, even if they don’t believe in it, so I’m not planning on spending a lot of time on it here.
Though in Muslim belief, there is the figure of Isa, son of Mary (basically Jesus), who is a prophet and son of God. He will return at the time of God’s appointing and aid the Madhi, or the redeemer of Islam who, along with Isa/Jesus, will rid the world of wrongdoing, injustice, and tyranny. There is also the belief in an antiChrist-type figure and the subsequent defeat of his followers (cuz of course the good guys can’t lose).
Judaism’s version is fairly different in some ways. The Messiah is not divine, but a human physically descended from the Davidic line. He will rule and unite the Jewish people and usher in a Messianic era of global peace and prosperity. This is NOT Jesus. The Messiah redeems Israel in the End of Days scenario.
In Nordic culture, Ragnarok was the ending and rebirth of the world. In the apocalyptic story, there are first a series of three winters, during which there is a great deal of fighting, with brother killing brother and such and there is the breakdown of kinship and family bonds (very important to Nordic society). Then there is another series of three winters unbroken by any summer (the Nordic landscape was very binary–they didn’t get much in the way of spring or autumn).
Then the wolfs which constantly chase the sun and moon at last catch them and swallow them, making the sun and moon disappear. The stars will disappear and the earth will shake so violently that the mountains fall, and Fenrir the Wolf is able to escape his bonds (he was bound by Tyr).
Next comes all the big players. The Midgard serpent is released from the shaking earth and attacks. The serpent sprays venom into the air and sea and attacks at the same time as Fenrir attacks the heavens and the ship Naglfar (made from human nails of the dead) is released from its moorings. Loki also breaks free from his torture and joins the side of the serpent and Fenrir, against the gods. From the splintered heaven rides the “sons of Muspell,” led by Sartr, who break the rainbow bridge leading to the gods’ domain and prepare to fight the gods. Yggdrasil (the World Tree) shakes and everyone is afraid.
The gods awake and Odin goes for council to Mimir’s Well and Mimir. The gods engage in battle against the host. Odin fights Fenrir, who swallows Odin whole and alive. Thor fights the Midgard serpent and kills him, but the serpent poisoned Thor, resulting in his death. Tyr fights the hound Garmr and both die. Freyr fights Surtr but fails because he lacks his sword, which he once gave to his messenger Skirnir. Odin’s son Vidar kills Fenrir, but too late to save Odin. Loki fights Heimdallr and they kill one another. Surtr covers the world in fire and it all burns up in a huge mess of flame.
The good side to this End of the World story is that the world is reborn from the destruction. There is no ascension of the good or destruction of the wicked–it’s a divine battle that results in the death of the world in order for it to be reborn. The earth returns from the sea, and crops grow. Odin’s sons Vidarr and Vali survived and Thor’s sons, Modi and Magni, also survived and possess his hammer Mjolnir. Arising from Hel come Baldr and Hothr. These gods captain the new, reborn world and help the two surviving humans, Lif and Lifthraser, whose descendants will repopulate the world. The sun has a daughter, who follows the same path as her mother and the reborn world once again has a source of light and heat.
Similar to the Nordic idea, the Hindi idea of the end of the world results in the world’s rebirth or regeneration. According to Hindu tradition, Shiva dissolves the world and the universe but Brahma regenerates everything to begin anew. The regeneration occurs at the end of the current age, called the Kali Yuga, which is the last of four periods or ages that make up current time. Kalki, the tenth and final Avatar of Vishnu, is the last incarnation and he will end the current age. When at the end of the Kali Yuga there is no religious belief any more and the world is run by evil men, the Lord Kalki will appear. He will ride his divine horse, Devadatta, over the world and kill all those who dare to pretend to be kings–which probably means those who are wicked or evil and engage in harmful activities. When he’s done, Kalki will resume his Vishnu form and return to heaven, and from there the Kali Yuga will be over and Shiva and Brahma then play their part.
*I believe I have this section right, but I had some trouble finding good sources. I apologize if I have something incorrect.*
Greeks and Romans and Celts
Classical mythology (Greeks and Romans) did not have an end-times story. Sure, there are plenty of instances of the gods fighting and of various things being reborn or regenerated, but there isn’t a future prophecy or description of either the gods fighting a huge battle (like the Norse version) or of a resurrection myth that results in the destruction of the world some time in the future. This is because the Greeks and Romans had a different world-view than other religions of the world. The Celts also did not have an end-of-the-world story.
Many people have heard of the 2012 apocalypse. This comes from the Mayan calendar. In the Popul Vuh, the only surviving records of Mayan belief and story that we have, the gods created three different and distinct worlds, all of which failed. They then created a fourth world, which succeeded, and in which humanity was placed. The fourth world is theorized to have a time limit on it and would result in a fifth world; however, there are many, many different theories and counter-theories about this. We are unable to tell which is true Mayan belief and which is not. The Fifth World theory shows up in a number of Native American mythologies.
Native American Beliefs
The Navajo, like the Maya, believe that there were three worlds before this one before humans arose and settled in the fourth world. I was unable to find if there is a specific apocalyptic myth, but there is the possibility of a fifth world arising when the fourth world ends, however that end may come about. [By the way, Navajo mythology is incredibly interesting, I highly recommend the Dine Bahane.] Although a few Native cultures had world-ending myths, many more apparently did not. I think this is due to the fact that these cultures simply had a vastly different world-view compared to the views of the Abrahamic or Hindi traditions. Like the Greeks and Romans and Celts, the Native religions just didn’t seem to see the world as able to end in fire and brimstone or an Apocalypse scenario. That’s just my theory, of course, and I could be wrong. If you’re interested in Native American mythology, I recommend this website: First People.