Encyclopedia of the Literature of Empire - Mary Ellen Snodgrass 2010



A mystic literature of disclosure, apocalypse ranges beyond PROPHECY and VISIONARY LITERATURE to alle - gorical visions of the end of time. Dramatizations of the earth's annihilation often employ imaginative beasts and supernatural forces, elements of the Hindu WISDOM LITERATURE in the BHAGAVAD GITA (ca. 200 B.C.) and of The War of the Sons of Light against the Sons of Darkness and The Vision of Michael, two of the DEAD SEA SCROLLS completed in an Essene enclave in Palestine in 27 B.C. Another surge of last days occurs in LEO TOLSTOY'S WAR AND PEACE (1869), which satirizes Russian peasants for declaring Napoleon Bonaparte to be the Antichrist.

Biblical Apocalypse

The New Testament book of Revelation (A.D. 95), also called the Apocalypse of John, thunders with wrath and condemnation and tells of celestial justice and recompense for victims. The subjects are probably defiant Christians persecuted by the Roman Empire and forced into worship of the emperors Tiberius between A.D. 14 and 37, Caligula for the next four years, Claudius until 54, and Nero until 68. A new round of torments under Septimius Severus aroused the wrathful prophecy of the Carthaginian essayist TERTULLIAN, author of Apologeticus (The Apology, ca. A.D. 198). His proChristian polemics picture the Roman Empire as the beast known as the Antichrist.

Scriptural interpreters surmise that the book of Revelation, full of futuristic phantasms, is also an ecstatic form of PRISON LITERATURE written during the reign of Domitian. The putative author is John the Divine, an inmate of a penal colony on Patmos island, southwest of Ephesus. Based on Old Testament prophecy, the vision dramatizes a battle between good and evil after the descent of a glorious messiah. Superstition links seven candles, candleholders, lamps, and stars to the light shed by the first Christian churches at Ephesus, Laodicea, Pergamum, Philadelphia, Sardis, Smyrna, and Thyatira. Orchestrating thunder, lightning, hail, and an earthquake, John sweeps into a resounding doxology: “Holy, holy, holy, Lord God Almighty, which was, and is, and is to come” (Revelation 4:8). In anticipation of the second coming of Christ, John links the Messiah to the Israelite empire and the Davidic line, which claims the truest light, “the bright and morning star” (Revelation 22:16).

Islamic Apocalypse

In the KORAN (A.D. 633), the holy book of the Islamic Empire (622-1258), no sinner escapes punishment in the afterlife. A surreal vision of the earth's demise and the opening of graves dominates Surah 100. The return of the dead to sit under Allah's judgment takes on terrifying extremes of galloping horses and eternal damnation for materialists. A promised requital to lovers of luxury pictures a cluster of moths, a metaphor for a fluttering emptiness. In Surah 7, believers refuse even the comfort of water to apostates, an image typical of desert literature.

Like the underworld tribunal in the Egyptian BOOK OF THE DEAD (ca. 1240 B.C.), Muslims anticipate the weighing of their sins on Allah's scales of justice and the condemnation of the corrupt to a fiery abyss. In Surah 21, the prophet Muhammad states, “We shall set up just scales on the Day of Resurrection, so that no man shall in the least be wronged. Actions as small as a grain of mustard seed shall be weighed out” (Koran 21:47). The second surah asserts, “God has set a seal upon their hearts and ears; their sight is dimmed and grievous punishment awaits them” (Koran 2:5). In the next surah, the text warns that apostates “shall become the fuel of the Fire” (Koran 3:10). By the time that Muslims possessed a standardized text, the Koran served as a spiritual guide to late seventh-century proselytizing in Persia, Turkey, and North Africa.


The Koran. Translated by N. J. Dawood. London: Penguin Classics, 2004.

Revelation. In the Holy Bible. Iowa Falls, Iowa: World Bible Publishers, 1986.