Cycles and the Advent of the Messiah

  January 07, 2024   Read time 6 min
Cycles and the Advent of the Messiah
A unifying motif in speculative millennialism, and a converging point of the absolute and the relative in this mode of thinking, is the concept of cyclical renovation. Imagining the End, whether a literal or allegorical annihilation of the physical world, necessitates a chaotic jolt to facilitate a new beginning.

Millennial currents, except perhaps for the most “pessimistic” and doctrinally inarticulate, subscribe to one form or another of cyclical rebirth so as to place the convulsions of the End in a broader, and humanly more tolerable, scheme. Such apocalyptic deconstruction is not an entirely aimless or nihilistic process. While it often reflects the violent aspirations of the persecuted and the deprived, it also guarantees the continuity of the human race in celestial or terrestrial forms; be it the timeless bliss of an otherworldly paradise or in the post-apocalyptic reality. Such reality adheres to postponed prophecies and anticipations but also may attempt to build an earthly community on the perceived celestial model. Isma'ili messianism offers at least two examples of post-millennial community: the tenth-century Qarmati state of Bahrain and the Nazari Isma'ilism of the Alamut after the declaration of the Resurrection (Qiyamat) in 1164.

The Babi movement in Iran after the conference of Badasht in 1848, which declared the end of the Islamic dispensation, may also be viewed as post-millennial; a spirit that in many ways continued to shape the zeitgeist of the Baha'i Faith during Baha'ullah’s time. Of post-millennial trends in Judaism one example is the Sabbatean Donmeh, the crypto-Jewish followers of Sabbatai Zevi of the seventeenth century. Among several Christian examples in recent times we may note the emergence of the Seventh Day Adventists after the collapse of the Millerite movement in 1844.

Inevitably, all apocalyptic currents subscribe to some form of symbolism, for it is difficult, even for strict literalists, not to read some level of allegory into admonishing prophecies of the Hebrew Bible, the terrifying imagery of the Book of Revelation, or the warnings of the Qur'an and the hadith. At least in early Christianity, even St. Augustine’s post-millennial doctrine, which denied the possible occurrence of an earthly apocalypse, could not be argued without resorting to some metaphorical devise. Yet literal interpretations of the End are more likely to adhere narrowly to a sequence of prophesized events and to identify all heroes and villains in an apocalyptic scenario.

Symbolic interpretations of the End, in contrast, are more likely to acquire a historical perspective, reading a hidden moral drama behind the textual description and seeking an imaginative, and even progressive, view of the future. Here the End paradigm is consciously employed to justify a doctrinal break with the existing “orthodoxy.” The divinely consecrated orthodoxies, whether the church, the shari'a, or the Talmudic law, are considered timeless and eternal and can not be perceived as terminable except with the occurrence of an apocalyptic End.

The theme of progression (or regression), associated with symbolic interpretations of apocalyptic texts, views cyclical phases of human history as purposeful movements in time in either forward or backward directions. The metaphor commonly employed in apocalyptic literature, such as in Zoroastrianism, is that of a tree, reflecting both a seasonal cycle and a gradual growth at the turn of each cycle; hence spiral turns. The effectiveness of the tree metaphor, which also is manifest in the Book of Daniel, is in the fact that movement in time could be seen either as a process of maturation and strength or, alternatively, regression toward eventual, though distant, demise. In either case, this spiral movement in time was distinct from the notion of immutable cycles often upheld by ancient Mesopotamian, or Egyptian, cosmologies whereby the eternal renewal of the time cycle does not result in any progression or regression.

The myth of the four kingdoms in the Book of Daniel (chapters 4 and 7), and its Zoroastrian and Greek versions, mourns the eclipse of a golden age, symbolized by the golden branch, to be followed at later cycles by depreciated ages of silver, bronze (or iron), and clay. Such a conception of time, presumably representing the metallurgical revolutions of ancient times, denotes nostalgia for a golden past, contempt for the degenerate present, and a gloomy future. This regressive view of history, however, is not entirely devoid of potentials for a dynamic, and even forward-looking, future. The end to the age of clay eventually comes with conflagration of the entire material world and reconstruction in the golden age. As late as in the Bab’s Bayan in nineteenth-century Iran, we encounter the “tree of the truth” conceptualizing a progressive revelation within the context of the past and future prophetic cycles.

The act of cosmic reconstruction revolves around the figure of a human savior. The rebirth (farashkart), an essential notion of Zoroastrian eschatology, is firmly tied with the advent of a charismatic figure, who is probably the prototype for saviors in other religions of Middle East. The divine mandate and miraculous powers of the Saoshyant, who is of sacred origin, epitomizes the forces of good and leads the armies of his human and angelic supporters in a cosmic battle that ends with the destruction of evil and the reconstitution of the original and lasting order. In Judaism, the Day of the Lord (yum adunay) similarly commences with the advent of a messianic savior, the Mashiah, and culminates in the salvation of the People of Israel from the yoke of slavery. The Christ’s Second Coming, which initiates the parusia, brings about the millennial era (or ends it, according to the post-millennialists doctrine), and in Islam, especially in Shi'ism, the appearance of the Mahdi initiates the process of the great revolt (khuruj) culminating in the Resurrection (qiyama) and the Day of Judgment (yaum al-din).

In all these apocalyptic scenarios the power and charisma of the savior is countered with those of his arch opponent and mirror image. The Zoroastrian Ahriman (who is not humanly personified) is mightier than the Hebrew Bible’s Belial, the Christian Antichrist, and the Islamic Dajjal, yet they all in various degrees serve as the personification of evil, an agent whose enormous deceptive capacity and whose tyranny and terror run supreme at the outset of the apocalyptic chaos before being eventually vanquished in the hands of the savior and his army.

Not surprisingly, apocalyptic messianism through the ages has been the genesis of new religious currents and a predominant mode of prophetic expression. Jesus’ own call for salvation and the birth of Christianity could not be fully explained without the apocalyptic spirit that consumed the Judeo-Hellenistic world of the first century. Nor can the essence of Muhammad’s early mission be fully understood without the apocalyptic admonitions, the foreseen calamities, and the terror of the Day of Judgment, apparent in the early suras of the Qur'an. In more recent times, Luther’s call for reforming the Catholic Church, Sabbatai Zevi’s claim to be the Jewish messiah, Sayyid 'Ali Muhammad the Bab’s claim to be the Shi'i Mahdi and the evolution of his movement into the Baha'i Faith, Joseph Smith’s Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-Day Saints, and other American indigenous religions should be seen as a conscious fulfillment of the messianic role conceived on ancient biblical and Zoroastrian models.

Messianic prophets emerge not only in a milieu of apocalyptic expectations, but their doctrinal unfolding and course of action tend to re-enact the apocalypse. In time, the movements they initiate tend to evolve in conjunction with the dynamics of their surroundings and in response to the whims and wishes of their supporters. There is a gradual shift from being precursors and agents to being the savior who fulfills the scriptural prophecies. As a millennial manifestation, a savior may preside over a new dispensation and consciously engender a new religious system that even crosses the ancient biblical divide between prophethood and divinity.

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