The idea of an impending ‘doomsday’ or ‘the end of the world’, is one that has long captivated, as well as horrified, the human mind, and it continues to do so today, perhaps on a larger scale than ever before.
While many religious chronologies (e.g. Hindu, Mayan, Babylonian) are composed of endless cycles of time, often with repetitive cycles of destruction, by fire, flood, etc., the Apocalypse, in contrast, envisions a linear concept of time leading up to a single, dramatic conclusion.
When we find ourselves thinking along that particular line, we’re drawing upon a distinct cultural sources; the Persian religion of the prophet Zoroaster, and the astrology of their hereditary priesthood, the Magi.
Within the vast body of Persian religious literature, there lies an ancient astrological eschatology in which time is divided into millennial ages, each ruled over by successive signs of the zodiac. All the great events and turning points in human history: the rise and fall of dynasties, kingdoms and empires, the appearance of great prophets and the revelations of new religions, all unfold in timely order within Persian astrological millenarianism, culminating in the ultimate battle between good and evil at the end of the world.
Persian Zoroastrianism and specifically, Zurvan Zoroastrianism appear to be the specific contexts in which these ideas originally arose.
These ancient Persian beliefs remain current today within Christianity, Islam, Judaism, the Baha’i faith, and the New Age movement, fueling contemporary dialogues on the Apocalypse, the millennia, the astrological world ages, the final battle at the end of the world, and all manner of messianism and soteriology.
As the Persians were the dominant culture in the ancient near east for nearly one thousand years, incorporating most of the ancient world at one time or another within their vast Achaemenian, Parthian, and Sassanian empires, it is not surprising that their culture and religion has such widespread and continuing influence.
What is surprising is our modern ignorance and neglect of it.
Persian culture made a significant impact on 2nd Temple Judaism when the Persians repatriated the Jews from their Babylonian captivity (538 BCE). The Persian emperor Cyrus the Great, whom the prophet Isaiah refers to as a ‘messiah,’ (Isaiah 45:1) ordered and funded the Jews’ return, providing the resources and the protection necessary to rebuild Jerusalem and begin the restoration of the temple, at least, according to the Bible (Ezra, Ch. 1-3). After his death, the temple was completed under the direction of Cyrus’s successor, Darius the Great (approx. 517 BCE). The born-again Jerusalem colony remained an integral part of the Persian Empire for the next two hundred years, until the coming of Alexander the Great.
As the tiny Judean nation struggled under the domination of the Greeks and the imposition of Hellenistic religion, the Persians remained Judea’s staunchest political and religious allies. Following in the wake of the tragic Greek occupation came an even fiercer enemy: Rome. By the time of Christ, Judeans were enthralled in what would ultimately prove to be fatal resistance against Rome, fighting with the support and backing of the Persian Empire to the East.
Persian apocalyptic and messianic fervor fired the revolutionary cults that brought forth men like Jesus Christ, John the Baptist, and their contemporaries. Thus, Persian ideas found their way into the very bedrock of early Christianity.
Persian religion also found its way into the very bedrock of Islam, which is every bit as apocalyptic as Christianity, if not more so. As it is, Persian eschatology continues to shape events in our post-modern world, particularly where East and West collide in the volatile Middle East.
We don’t hear much about the astrology of the apocalypse anymore, but the Persian apocalypse was perfectly astrological in origin. Every stage of creation, from the beginning through to the bitter end, was timed to planetary and zodiacal specifications. The Magi were famous throughout the ancient world – or notorious, depending upon whose side you were on, for their unique brand of political and religious astrology. Their astrological messianism held out the promise of hope and liberation to oppressed people everywhere, in the expectation of the coming of a heaven-sent savior king.
While the Persians believed in infinite time and space, they also believed that our world, as we experience it, is but a brief aberration, occupying a very limited space and time. The Persians envisioned the world as a battle ground between the forces of good and evil. It was deliberately called into being to house this ongoing, life-or-death struggle, and everything in this world is on one side or the other.
Everything good in the world was created by their good God, Ahura Mazda, to be enjoyed by mankind, the crown of his creation.
The adversary, the evil god, Ahriman (Angra Mainyu) deliberately tried to spoil Ahura Mazda’s creation by proliferating his own evil, obnoxious creatures. Everything that is a source of pain and suffering in the world was his work, and he delighted in perpetually confounding Ahura Mazda, and torturing his creation.
The standoff between the two will play for a limited time only, for it is destined to culminate in the greatest battle of all time, at the end of time, when Good will conquer evil forever. Then, the good creatures of Ahura Mazda will be resurrected into a purely good life in a purely good world, where they belong. Ahriman and his evil creatures will be condemned to a place more in keeping with their own nature.
Sound familiar? All of these themes were described in unabashedly astrological detail, and their influence on developments in Jewish, Christian, and Islamic eschatology is hard to ignore.
The Persians and their Magi were inspired by such ideas about the origin of finite time from infinite time, with its arrangement into millennial ages ruled over by the signs of the zodiac, and with its eschatological culmination in the ultimate battle between good and evil. Their astrology was not in any way separate from either the cosmogony or the eschatology; instead it permeates the entire theology in a surprisingly holistic manner. The good God created the material universe with an implicit astrological order that is there to assist him in his ultimate defeat of evil and to help keep track of exactly when that will come about.
In all of this is revealed a complete theological system which rationalizes many of the traditional rules of astrology (still used by practicing astrologers today) while continually weaving all the astrological considerations into the ongoing and ultimate battle between good and evil.
So from the pages of the Persian Pahlavi texts, there arises an astrological eschatology in which time is divided into millennia which are ruled over by the signs of the zodiac. The revelations of new religions and the appearance of great religious leaders are also linked to this astrological millenarianism, both in the original Zoroastrian concept of World Saviours and in later Islamic millennial extrapolations. Zurvan Zoroastrianism appears to be the specific context in which these ideas arose, and subsequently influenced later developments in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.
But if the Persian religion was the original source, why is it so rarely credited, especially within contemporary monotheism? It's no secret that Judaism, Christianity, and Islam each claim their own unique source in divine revelation, and that tends to discourage extensive historical or sociological analysis.
Perhaps the strongest arguments for the priority of the Persian ideas are derived from context. The ultimate battle between good and evil only becomes necessary within the Zoroastrian context. There, the apocalypse is implicit within the creation and consistent with the whole body of religious teachings.
On the other hand, the problem of the existence evil and its ultimate resolution is entirely tacit in early Judeo-Christianity. The role of the devil and his true origins are never fully explained, but rather, only hinted at in disparate pieces of folklore that have no real theological authority or consistency. Much is made of the serpent in the Garden of Eden, of the angel blocking Balaam’s path, of Job’s accuser, or of apocryphal tales about the fall of Lucifer, but there is nothing in canonical Judeo-Christian scripture that specifically explains who Satan is, where he got his demons, or why he is so necessary. We call that "the problem of evil." In comparison with Zoroastrianism‘s incipient dualism, it looks more and more like a cut-and-paste job.
For a more intensive examination of the development of the astrological apocalypse within the Avestan and Pahlavi texts, please go to: Astrological World Ages