What many get wrong about the end of the world
by Rich Robinson | July 18 2023
The apocalypse, or final end of the world, is understandably on the minds of many people as our planet gets doomsier and doomsier (I just coined that word! Do you like it?). Wildfires, first in California and now in Canada, have added to the gloom and doom. The East Coast particularly has been blanketed by smoke and orange skies.
New York’s apocalyptic skyline prompted an article in the Jewish magazine Forward on June 8 of this year1 (2023, in case you are reading this long after the fact). And the author (frequent Forward contributor Mira Fox) makes a pointed comment about the book of Revelation in the New Testament.
According to Fox, the images in Revelation are “all Christian”—namely, the four horsemen of the Apocalypse, the “mark of the beast,” and the end of life as we know it. She claims that the Jewish imagination about end times is very different and much more interested in positive visions of new life.
Pop quiz: Are these images Christian, Jewish, both, or neither?
Let’s start with what the Tanakh has to say.
Zechariah (according to our research, he was a Jewish prophet in the Tanakh) wrote this:
Again I lifted my eyes and saw, and behold, four chariots came out from between two mountains…. The first chariot had red horses, the second black horses, the third white horses, and the fourth chariot dappled horses—all of them strong. (Zechariah 6:1–3)
The (Jewish) writer of Revelation borrowed the image of the horses of different colors—white, red, black, and (maybe for variation) pale rather than dappled. But no doubt about it, these are not “Christian” images.
What about the events in Revelation that connect the horses “with sword and with famine and with pestilence and by wild beasts” (Revelation 6:8)?
Two other Jewish prophets, Jeremiah and Ezekiel, spoke of devastation in the same terms.
Though they fast, I will not hear their cry, and though they offer burnt offering and grain offering, I will not accept them. But I will consume them by the sword, by famine, and by pestilence.” (Jeremiah 14:12, emphasis added)
But I will let a few of them escape from the sword, from famine and pestilence, that they may declare all their abominations among the nations where they go, and may know that I am the LORD.” (Ezekiel 12:16, emphasis added)
Those are just a few of the Tanakh passages that have the same three-fold litany: sword, famine, and pestilence.
The writer of Revelation mashes up what the prophets say about the horses and the devastation, a not uncommon way to handle older traditions and meld them into something new.
So yes, these unsettling images are Jewish—and they come from our own book, the Tanakh. And since the writers of the New Testament were Jewish (maybe with one exception, and that is debated), what else could they have drawn on for their images except for the Tanakh and other Jewish literature of the time?
The Forward article goes on to contrast the “Christian” elements with “the Jewish imagination.” Though it does speak of Jewish apocalyptic visions similar to what is found in the above prophets, it goes on to say that “The Jewish understanding of the end of days is far more focused on a time of joy and life than a time of death and destruction.”
But hold your horses (white, black, or any other color). As the book of Revelation nears its end, it, too, paints an expansive picture of a time of joy and of life.
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God.” (Revelation 21:1–3, emphasis added)
The bolded part comes from none other than the Tanakh.
I will take you to be my people, and I will be your God, and you shall know that I am the LORD your God, who has brought you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians. (Exodus 6:7, emphasis added)
Christian? Jewish? Maybe the Tanakh and the New Testament have more in common than the Forward thinks. The entire Jewish messianic tradition includes scenes of devastation and renewal, destruction and upbuilding, war and peace.
Revelation may be “Christian” in that the author believed Jesus to be the Messiah (Christos in Greek), but that term is really anachronistic in the first century because the movement of Jews who followed Jesus was a part of Judaism. Not until later did “Christianity” become something separate from Jewish faith.
In other words, in the first century, anything that was “all Christian” was also “all Jewish”—the argument really came down to whether or not Jesus was the Messiah of Israel. But the images in Revelation—both the frightening and the hopeful—are Jewish all the way.
1. Mira Fox, “Smoke-filled skies evoke the Christian apocalypse—but what does Judaism say about the End Times?” Forward, June 8, 2023.