Resisting Pagan Eschatology

The sun turns black, earth sinks in the sea,

The hot stars down, from heaven are whirled;

Fierce grows the steam, and the life-feeding flame,

Till fire leaps high, about heaven itself…

Much do I know, and more can see

Of the fate of the gods, the mighty in fight.

Poetic Edda

The end of the world has fascinated men since its beginning. From the warning about eating the forbidden fruit (“You shall surely die.”) to the lead-up to Noah’s flood, down to the predictions of impending societal collapse due to (name your preferred catastrophe here), apocalyptic thinking occupies our attention.

Our passion for understanding the end is not mere intellectual fodder – we were made to consider our end (Ps. 90:10, 12). Our hearts are restless, desiring the rest of God, but never fully receiving it. Our anticipation drives our attention toward that end. When we see the disorder of the world, we know it is destined for better things. This is where our eschatology comes alive.

Usually when we talk about eschatology, we’re referring to the various millennial views, e.g. postmillennialism, amillennialism, etc., which lead-up to the final judgment. Despite differences in how we get there, Christians are historically united in their belief of the final restoration of all things in Christ. The hope of resurrection and the new creation (1 Cor. 15, Rev. 21-22) pits Christian eschatology against its dark pagan counterpart.

Yes, pagans too have an eschatology. We see it in works like the Poetic Edda, the collection of Norse myths largely compiled by Christians.[1] We have to dig through the Marvel universe to get a glimpse of the real Norse myths.[2] This collection of ballads and stories, all in poetic form, gives us a glimpse into a unique Northern world. We read of gods, dem-gods, dwarves, and men who live and die brutally, with a type of honor that should only be admired from a distance. At once harsh and beautiful, the Edda was a significant influence in the works on artists like J.R.R. Tolkien, Richard Wagner, and Ezra Pound.

As moving as some of the stories are, the final battle, known as Ragnarok, ends poorly. The gods are besieged by their enemies and forced to make a final stand. Though heroic in battle, treachery in their own ranks and the superior strength of their enemies proves too much for them. As the gods fall, the powers of chaos (giant wolves and a leviathan) overwhelm the rest of the world and the cosmos falls apart.

Contrast this with the Christian battle of Armageddon (Hebrew, “Har-Meggidon”), in Revelation 16:16, and referred to in Revelation 19. This site has significant history among the Jews, being the place where Barak and Deborah defeated Israel’s enemies and where King Josiah was killed. Traditionally, Armageddon is understood as the final battle between the righteous and the wicked.[3] The saints are led to victory when Jesus comes riding a white horse. He and His angels defeat the beast and false prophet, casting them into the lake of fire. In the next chapter we read of the saints on earth besieged by Satan. When it looks like they will be engulfed, God sends fire to earth and defeats them. Finally the devil and his angels are cast into the lake of fire forever, after which comes the final judgment, new heavens, and new earth.

The point is that the Christian story has a positive view of the end, regardless of how God brings it about. Unlike the Norsemen, we serve not only the Creator but the Savior of the world. Whereas the gods of ancient myth can only die for their own honor and are defeated, our Savior gave his life to save His people and redeem His creation. His sacrificial death accomplished what no one else, mythic or otherwise could – brought an end to the old world and the beginning of a new one.

This message of hope is sorely needed. Ever since the film The Matrix came out, the terms “blue pilled” (those who blindly go along with the culture and ignore its incongruities) and “red pilled” (those who choose to see the world as it really is, with its problems, injustice, and corruption surrounding us) have become popular.[4] Today the term “black pilled” has become popular. These are people, usually conservative, who see how corrupt our governmental, corporate, and technological overlords are. Seeing no escape from the dissolution of society, they yield to despair.

But their despair is not because they see correctly. It’s tied to the wrong eschatology. Modern man is captive to a pagan view of history that offers no hope beyond this life. It is best summarized by the atheist economist John Maynard Keynes, who said an economic crisis demands immediate solutions because “In the long run, we’re all dead.”

Christians must reorient the world to the proper eschatology or what C.S. Lewis called the “true myth.” Our story is one of hope in life and resurrection after death. This was the hope that stirred our fathers and mothers to take the gospel to other lands, to suffer martyrdom, to serve the poor, to build churches, monasteries, and villages in the midst of chaos, to perfect their crafts, and to aid the sick and infirmed. It’s not based on getting the right leaders in office, the proper technology in place, or the right corporations into or out of town – though all of those can help the process. It refuses to swallow the black pill of cynicism. Our call is to walk joyfully in faith as we pursue God’s kingdom and tell His story. It’s really no different than Christians from any past age: continue in work, prayer, and pointing others to the hope of glory.  

[1] The fact that Christians were the most significant preservers of stories, whether pagan or Christian, says much about the conserving nature of Christianity.        

[2] Movies like Thor rewrite the characters, giving them Christian morality to make the stories acceptable to modern sensibilities.

[3] Viewing this location as a metaphor for God’s assembled people is standard among postmillenialists (James Jordan, R.J. Rushdoony, David Chilton) and amillennialists (William Hendriksen, Meredith Kline, G.K. Beale).

[4]The story of The Matrix is also based on pagan eschatology, but from Greek myths rather than Norse.

Matthew Carpenter is a husband, father, humanities teacher, and pastor of Trinity Reformed Church in Huntsville, Alabama. He has written for Front Porch Republic, The Imaginative Conservative, New Focus, and others publications.