Apocalyptic and Millenarian Thinking

‘Apocalyptic thinking’ is a term that usually refers to thinking about the end of the world or a great catastrophe that completely changes the way humans live. Historically this has tended to be seen in religious terms related to the end-point of a divine plan for creation. ‘Millenarian thinking’ is linked to apocalyptic thinking but refers to a period of time when humans live in a hoped-for peaceful “Golden Age”, sometimes before a divine judgement and cataclysm takes place.

These two ways of thinking can help teachers of religion and worldviews to make sense of religion and belief. They are a fundamental but often overlooked aspect of many traditional religions, and are evident in secular and political thought. They can be helpful cross-cultural reference points for teaching about religion and belief.

To gain a better sense of apocalyptic and millenarian thinking it is helpful to look at examples. In Christianity an example would be teachings about the expectation for divine rule and perfect loving relationships between all people. In Judaism and Islam examples are the expectation of a future saviour. In more recent times, the “Y2K” bug and worries about environmental degradation can also be thought of apocalyptic ways of thinking.

In an explicit form this way of thinking seems to be more common in the Abrahamic religions, but is also identifiable in, for example, the cosmic cycles of flourishing and destruction in Hinduism and Buddhism. It is also evident in ideas about cataclysmic disasters caused by natural forces (like a devastating asteroid impact on the earth) or by humans (for example through the use of nuclear weapons), and many political and revolutionary movements include ideas about an idealised future state of society.

 The Centre for Critical Study of Apocalyptic and Millenarian Movements (CenSAMM) encourages and promotes high quality critical and academic research into apocalyptic and millenarian movements, and supports ways to extend public understanding of the field – including through our present major project the Critical Dictionary of Apocalyptic and Millenarian Movements (CDAMM).

CDAMM is an online encyclopaedia of articles about religious and secular instances of apocalyptic and millenarian thinking throughout history and across cultures. It emerged from an awareness of apocalypticism and millenarianism as important themes in religion that also have a significant presence in all sorts of ways in wider and popular culture. Despite being so common, movements and ideas in this area can often be misunderstood and it can be hard to find reliable information about them, our response to that was to produce an authoritative and accessible (and free!) resource about these themes and movements.

All our writers are emerging or established academics with research expertise in the topics they are commissioned to write on. Some, like Eileen Barker (Children of God, written with Sarah Harvey) and John Collins (Millenarianism in Ancient Judaism), are long-established distinguished professors in their fields, others like Ellie Fielding-Redpath (Far Cry) and Damian Cyrocki (Mariavites), are early-career scholars opening up new areas of research and study. Generally, articles are about individual movements (for example, Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, or Nation of Islam) or individuals (like John the Baptist, or Kimpa Vita), but we also have articles on important themes (from Gender to UFO Religion), and broader introductory articles on fundamental topics (like Apocalypticism and Armageddon). The Dictionary presently has around 75 articles, and it will keep on growing as we commission new writers to develop new topics.

CDAMM can support teachers in their developing subject knowledge. It provides a wide-ranging (and growing) resource for information about a great diversity of movements and belief systems across time and cultures. It has a great search function and browsing topics broken down by period, tradition and geography. Every article has a clear summary introduction and then goes into detail about its topic – so it is useful for a quick refresh or a more developed read.

It is of course important to be sensitive to the fact that the topic may have direct personal relevance to pupils in ways that may not be obvious or that they have not disclosed. And, while they are very common, some of the ideas are regarded as unconventional or controversial. However, despite this warning, apocalyptic and millenarian thinking is an important strand in today’s world and well worth understanding.


Alastair is Director of Studies for Theology, Religion, and Philosophy of Religion at the University of Cambridge, and an Academic Director at the Centre for the Critical Study of Apocalyptic and Millenarian Movements in Bedford.

See all posts by Dr Alastair Lockhart