The Ancient Roots of Doomsday Prophecies

How it Ends: The Ancient Roots of Doomsday Prophecies and End of the World Beliefs


Hollywood’s obsession with the End of Times is not over yet – Armageddon, Deep Impact, Doomsday, Legion, Thor: Ragnarok and 28 Days Later, are just a few of the blockbusters, out of hundreds, that deal with mankind’s demise. And now, yet another apocalyptic film is set to be released. ‘ How it Ends ’ imagines how a sudden societal collapse could occur in the modern U.S. as a result of a geological apocalypse. But man’s obsession with the end of the world is not a new one. 

Doomsday prophecies are as old as recorded time.  For as long as humans have existed, there has been a fear of an apocalypse or ‘end of times’, when the gods wish vengeance upon their people, when humans pay for the sins of their fathers and forefathers, and when the demons of the world rise up and devour all that is good.  Prophecies of the end of times stem from the mythologies of civilizations past: the Norse story of Ragnarök, the tale of Noah and the Flood, and the Biblical apocalypse.  Though these civilizations are all thousands of years in the past, the same fear that drove them to make these myths—the fear of the unknown—continues to haunt the human race today.

Supposedly, the earliest prediction of the end of the world came from the Assyrians, a powerful Mesopotamian culture that lasted for roughly two thousand years.  A tablet was found dating back to sometime between 2800 and 2500 BCE that bears the first known prophecy of the end of days.  According to the translation, it claims that the earth was in its final days in those years, and that the world was slowly deteriorating into a corrupt society that would only end with its destruction.  Though it is not known who wrote this inscription, and where specifically the tablet came from, it is a fervent example of how far back in human history apocalyptic prophecies world began.

An Assyrian Tablet from 2800 BC bears the first known prophecy of the end of the world.

An Assyrian Tablet from 2800 BC bears the first known prophecy of the end of the world. Photo: Assyrian Tablet from Nineveh, northern Iraq. Credit: The British Museum

In Norse mythology, Ragnarok is a series of apocalyptic events that will define the end of the world, where giants of frost and fire will together fight the gods in a final battle that will ultimately destroy the planet, submerging it under water. According to the legend, the world will resurface, the surviving and returning gods will meet, and the world will be repopulated by two human survivors.

The downfall of the AEsir

'The downfall of the AEsir'. The heavens split and the 'Sons of Múspell' ride forth upon the AEsir at Ragnarö. The Norse apocalyptic battle, Ragnarok. ( Wikimedia Commons )

Numerous other prophecies have appeared throughout history pertaining explicitly to the mortal fear of the ‘Second Coming of Christ’ —the belief that a day will come when humankind would be judged for all of their sins, and Christ would battle the Anti-Christ, Satan, and a False Prophet in the biblical Armageddon. The Four Horsemen, traditionally named War, Famine, Pestilence, and Death, will ride during the Apocalypse. Most, if not all, prophets claimed that preceding the enormous battle would be the Rapture, where the purest of humankind would be removed from the Earth before the battle between Christ and the Anti-Christ.  The expectation of this event and the fear of what would happen to humankind during it called for various people from numerous religious and ethnical backgrounds to try to predict the event so those alive could prepare for what they believed was an inevitable end, and so those soon to be born could be taught to live a pious life to survive such an ending.  The belief in Armageddon and the Rapture primarily stems from the Bible and biblical translators and interpreters, however the cryptic and symbolic language used in the text creates quandaries about the appropriate date and time of the so-called Second Coming.

Four Horsemen of Apocalypse

Four Horsemen of Apocalypse, by Viktor Vasnetsov. Painted in 1887. ( Wikimedia Commons )

It was also feared for a long time that the year 1000 AD would be the end of the world.  Y2K created the same type of millennia fear, as it was assumed that the '00 of 2000 would be misread in computers as 1900 and create a bug that would force all technology to fail, causing worldwide confusion and tremendous destruction.  New millennia, years ending in '99, and the beginning of new centuries have all been subject to doomsday prophecies in the past, and the present era is no exception to that.  Uncertainties about the future continue to plague the human race, such as the recent belief that cataclysmic events would transpire on or around 21 December 2012, a date regarded as the end-date of a 5,126-year-long cycle in the Mesoamerican Long Count calendar.

Mayan calendar on parchment.

Mayan calendar on parchment. Source: BigStockPhoto

More recently, there has been a doomsday theory put forward in relation to the four blood moons appearing in the twelve months between April 2014 and September 2015, which are said to be an indication of the end because such an occurrence is so rare.  Despite the advancement of the human race, and the technological tracking abilities at their disposal, new and unknown events and situation remain terrifying, leading many people around the world, known as ‘Doomsday Preppers’ to continue preparing for the ‘end of the world as we know it’, seeing such as efforts as a more ideal option than risking being blindsided.

It is clear that fear is the driving factor behind the prophecies of doomsday throughout human history.  The effort of mapping out the future—when the end will come, how the end will come, and who will survive it—is, and has always been, an attempt to outsmart circumstances that are not within human control and cannot be within human control.  Though many people know and understand this, it has never stopped humans from trying to predict the outcome.  It is safe to say that as long as life on earth continues to grow and thrive and even encounter devastating calamities, doomsday prophecies will continue to prevail.

Featured image: Depiction of Mayan Apocalypse. Source: BigStockPhoto


Boserup, Mogen, "Fear of Doomsday: Past and Present," Population and Development Review , 4.1, (March 1978), pp. 133-43.

Lemprière, John. Universal biography: containing a copious account, critical and historical, of the life and character, labors and actions of eminent persons, in all ages and countries, conditions and professions (E. Sargeant: BLANK, 1810).

Lewis, James R., "Doomsday Prophecies: A Complete Guide to the End of the World," Nova Religio: The Journal of Alternative and Emergent Religions 9.1, (August 2005), pp. 121-122.

Strauss, Mark. "Ten Notable Apocalyrses That (Obviously) Didn't Happen: Apocalyptic predictions are nothing new—they have been around for millennia," Smithsonian, November 2009.

Thompson, Damian. The End of Time: Faith and Fear in the Shadow of the Millennium . (University Press of New England: New Hampshire, 1997.)

By Ryan Stone


Tsurugi's picture

I was with you until you said academics spread their lies "for free". Not true, sir. Most academics are in fact well-paid, usually using public funds, i.e., taxes taken from everyone by goverments using threat of force.
And when those same academics write books, guess what? You still have to buy it....and pay tax on it.

Nothing is free. Ever. Anywhere. Everything has a cost, and not all costs are able to be measured monetarily.

Looking at this another way, we should have more suspicion of things disseminated "freely", not less. A lie is no good to its creator if he cannot tell it to anyone. It only can benefit him if he gets it out there. So he is more likely to spread it "freely", than someone who has something of true worth.

Anyway. Carry on.

Eschatology is a complicated area in the study of belief and religion. It's definitely not well served by a simplistic overview. Some of the comments have been insightful and interesting, though, with the exception of the usual conspiracy theorists. Isn't it odd how those nasty academics spread their evil lies for free but we have to BUY the books of people who apparently know the real truth? Nothing generates opinions thick with confirmation bias like the end of the world.

I think these comments are spot on. It is interesting to note that when one believes in something they will find evidence to support that belief. You or I might see a large forest fire believing first that every now and then areas of the earth get dry and are possibly ignited by man or nature. To others it's evidence supporting some structure of the beginning of a prophetic doom scenario. To me there is a level of distortion between ideas of an event and honestly I make judgements between them based on my preferred beliefs. I think most of revelations is a massive and collective distortion continuously reinforced and it would be nice if those ignorant ideas were discarded in favor of less limiting and fear driven notions.
Thanks to the poster who mentioned societies confusion between metaphor and taking things literal. Thank you for being aware.

Peter Harrap's picture

Apocalypses are records of visions from God. In the Apocrypha there are Apocalypses of Peter, Paul, and a couple of others. There's loads of them in other books and other religions as well

At the time they were written, they were generally understood as such, and you will notice that John "saw" in the past tense, all the way through, as he records the visions he declares come to him via the Holy Ghost from Jesus somewhere else.  John says so if you can be bothered to read what he says!!

He wanted what Christ had experienced and claims he got it. These revelations form a part of what meditation can get you, if you do as Jesus tells you to and leave everything and get involved 100% with getting to God. It is the end of Yoga. Yoga is NOT just gymnastics: Yoga means union with God, nothing less. Free and available to anyone so inclined

These revelations happen to whoever gets the favour of Almighty God, they have no more to do with material existence or physical history than does a film in the cinema, but like them they can contain, apparently, battles, Gods and all kinds of violent stuff- or they did in John's case .

THey are included to encourage you to both fear and flee our violent existence, and to concentrate your mind on ha Ha! the "end of the World"  which is what occurs after you renounce the world, as it is when each of us later dies.

The world ends FOR YOU when you die. ts a metaphysical joke like that daft one philosophers have when they ask you whether it matters that a tree has fallen in the forest. They ask whether the tree has indeed fallen if nobody was there to observe it.

Of course the tree fell and died, but the forest and the rest of Creation just carries on regardless.

You will die, they say, your death will come and your absence will not change anything.  Its what you do with your life that matters

An alternative vision could be that these apocalyptic tales are faint memories of past events, such as the Younger Dryas cataclysm or the Thera explosion. These warnings might well become couched in metaphor & distortion over time & attributed to the world of the spiritual &/or the supernatural.


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