Does Judaism Believe in the Ragnarök (aka The Apocalypse)?
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Marvel Studios

With the release of the third 'Thor' movie this weekend, let's contemplate the end of the world.

End of Days, Armageddon, Doomsday, Cataclysm, Apocalypse, Ragnarök. The end of the world as we know it has many names and interpretations across many cultures and religions. Fire raining from the sky, terrible monsters crawling out of a pit in the earth, seas boiling, a death toll somewhere in the billions, if not the decimation of all of humanity. Sounds pretty scary, right? I mean, it’s not called “the end of the world” for nothing.

 

With the release of Marvel Studios’ “Thor: Ragnarök”, the funniest and most satisfying of their movies to date, I wanted to delve into whether or not Judaism (as a culture and religion) believes in some version of the terrifying Apocalypse propagated by other cultures around the world. But first some context, especially since our collective history is so intertwined with that of Germanic belief, for better or worse. 

 

Ragnarök is a term from Norse mythology that refers to a great battle on earth, which would end in the death of the great Norse deities like Odin, Thor and Loki as well as the destruction of the entire cosmos. Following said battle, it is thought that the world would begin anew, fertile and ready to be repopulated by one man and one woman. This pre-Christian “prophecy” tells of Asgard being sacked by an army of giants while the great wolf, Fenrir, consumes the universe in his mighty jaws before the land sinks below the ocean only to rise again later.  

Since the days of the Vikings, the concept of Ragnarök has been used in pop culture as a placeholder for general doomsday scenarios. For instance, Project Ragna Rok is the name of a top-secret military endeavor undertaken by the Nazis in Mike Mignola’s “Hellboy” comics in an effort to turn the tide of the war in favor of the Third Reich via occult methods. With the third “Thor” movie, however, it seems the concept has circled back to its humble Norse roots with Thor (Chris Hemsworth) attempting to prevent the end of days at the hands of Hela (Cate Blanchett), the goddess of death. 

 

Now, let’s circle back to our original question: Does Judaism have its own version of the Ragnarök? As with anything in our belief system, it’s complicated and if you studied Gemara in day school, like I did, you know exactly the level of difficulty I’m talking about.* The simple answer is yes and it’s actually called aḥarit ha-yamim, or the end of days, several times in Tanach. 

 

When it comes to the Jewish faith, the most widespread idea of “the end of the world” is that of the Messiah, a descendant of King David who will help lead the Jews out of exile, return them to Jerusalem and rebuild the Beit Hamikdash. In addition, there is the idea that deceased individuals will come back to life in what is known as Techiyat HaMetim—what form or age they will inhabit is up for endless debate. However, before this golden Messianic age arrives, there is to be a great war between good and evil (Gog and Magog are the peoples who will wage war against the Jews), which involves a giant sea monster, a massive ox and ends in the eradication of wickedness for all eternity. According to the Talmud, the time preceding this conflict will be marked by great social and economic upheaval as well as great suffering. 

 

 

A lot of this is laid out in the Book of Ezekiel, which is a rare piece of prophetic-semitic literature that talks about the scary facets of a normal doomsday scenario: fire and brimstone raining down from the sky, massive earthquakes, crumbling mountains and toppling cliffs as every living creature (from fish to birds to man to insects) shudders in fear in the face of God’s wrath as He destroys the enemies of the Jews and makes His presence known to all peoples. 

 

Like I said, it’s complicated and only a surface-level summarization of Judaism’s take on the End of Days. Even so, it’s one of the more optimistic takes on the Apocalypse compared to something like Ragnarök, which is about the total erasure of everything in existence. Ancient texts like Ezekiel have the ability to make one uneasy in their foretelling of a total upheaval of everything we know and hold dear in modern society, but they also promise a brighter future of harmony among all peoples, in which the inherent evils of man are wiped from existence.

 

And for all of its laugh-out-loud comedy, crazy aliens, synth-poppy score from the founder of Devo, and excellent use of Led Zeppelin's "Immigrant Song", and badass Valkyries, "Thor: Ragnarok" has a similar message that the end doesn't have to be so bleak after all. 

It should be noted that this is all from a traditional perspective and that the idea of Messiah differs among the varying denominations of Judaism.

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