The idea that at some point in the near future the world, or even time itself, will cease to exist is a central concept in many religious traditions. Modern secular society typically shrugs when confronted with end-of-time prophecies. However, even the secular society cherishes its own doomsdays scenarios. Why is the idea of an impending end-of-the world so attractive? To what extent does it determine our view on the world? What does it tell us about our idea of our position in the world, and what about our concept of time?
Wednesday, December 20, 2006
... the world might end as well. At least according to Pastor Harry from Philadelphia. After careful study of biblical texts he concludes that the tribulation will start on or before June 12 2007. He also predicted earlier this year that either the Antichrist would reveal himself to the world via simulcast television before June 6 2006, or he, Pastor Harry, would reveal the identity of the Antichrist on his radio show on June 6 2006. The latter did indeed happen.
Not all predictions were equally successful. The pastor, for example, predicted that two events would take place simultaneously on August 22: First, Iran would attack Israel, and second, Iran would be destroyed by an earthquake. Apparently, the start of the tribulation was postponed, and this led him to the new prediction for next June. Alternative dates on offer are 2012, when the Mayan calendar stops, or 2028, exactly 80 years after the foundation of the state Israel.
A less colorful and more serious apporach to the rapture can be found on raptureready.com, run by Todd Strandberg. It contains in addition to a rapture index (currently standing at 162) reports and pictures from the 15th national pre-tribulation conference, and even useful information for those of us who will be left behind after the rapture. According the webpage they share a view similar to the one popularized in the Left behind book series.
Pastor Harry and Todd Strandberg are just two proponents of two of the many different eschatological views present in Christianity. There is a wide range of different views and interpretations of biblical sources. There are idealist, futurists, preterists, and historicists. This refers to whether the biblical prophecies are believed to be metaphorical, or if they are believed to describe literally events that took place in the past, or will take place in the future, or if they describe the entire history of the church, symbolically. Different views can also be classified as amilleniallists, pre-, mid-, and post-millenialists, and of course dispensational, covenantal, and theological.
If we abstract for a moment from details of biblical interpretation, we see that most interpretations have a negative view of the future - thing are going downhill before the second coming - while some expect humanity to gradually improve. Especially the first view combines the negative outlook with cataclysmic events or even a final battle of good versus evil.
Christianity shares the concept of an impending end with the other monotheistic religions. There is a strong Jewish messianic tradition, which is the base of Christian tradition. It predicts the bodily resurrection of the dead, once the state of Israel has been restored, its enemies overthrown, and it is able to live in peace with its neighbors. At this stage the messiah will come to lead Israel into a messianic age. However, there does not exist a single interpretation of these prophecies, and opinions differ on whether they are literal predictions or merely metaphorical, and also on the Utopian nature of the messianic age.
Islam also contains very detailed prophecies about the day of judgement, called Qiyamah. The final days will be preceded by the return of Mahdi, the redeemer and guide, who will unify Islam, overthrow the enemies, and create a Utopian, just society. Also in this tradition there are various interpretations. While it is common in Sunni tradition to assume that the coming of the Mahdi is an event of the future, it is common in Shiite tradition to believe that he is living, but has not yet revealed himself.
The big monotheistic religions do not have the monopoly on the apocalypse. The Native American Hopi, for example, predict a Purification Day after a time of decline and war. In Norse mythology the end of the world, Ragnarök, will be marked by an epic battle of the gods, which will be preceded by Fimbulwinter, a succession of three winters without summer and a time of war.
Some claim that even Buddhism and Hinduism have end-of-the-world myths. Buddhism predicts that his teachings would be forgotten within 500 years, and that a second Buddha would come, called Maitreya, who rediscovers Buddha's teachings and unifies the world. However, the advent of the Maitreya does not mark the end of the world, since in Buddhist cosmology time is believed to be cyclical and infinite. Hinduism has a similar view of time, where four different ages are follow each other infinitely, alternatingly in descending and ascending order. Opinions differ on whether we are currently in the age of darkness, Kali Yuga, or already in the next age, Dvapara Yuga.
Eschatological beliefs may not be universal to all humans, but at the very least they are widespread. And they are also to a certain extend influential. It might be an absurd idea to assume, for example, that recent events in the middle east are signs of a prophecy. However there exist a sufficient number of people who subscribe to this view. It is said that about 30% of all American believe that we are living in the end times. But even if only 5% view turmoil in Babylon as part of a greater divine plan, it may make a difference, at least at he polls.
Americans are not alone. Just like George W. Bush is believed to cater to the religious right, Ahmadinejad is believed to cater to groups who believe that the coming of the Mahdi is nearby. And the idea of the rise of the last Caliphate is also present in the teachings of many militant Islamic groups.
If we step back from questions about the influence of end-time-prophecies in the political realm, one has to wonder why they seem to strike a chord with many individuals. While the impending end of the their own life seems to be highly undesirable, they have no problems imagining that the entire world will cease to exist in the near future. People enjoy the prospect of an eternal life for themselves, and embrace at the same time the view that the world has to end soon.
It is fair to assume that many end-of-the-world myths were initially meant to explain the world and the principles that govern it. They can be seen as complement to creation myths. Just like a story, the world itself should have a grand finale. End-of-the-world myths can therefore just be viewed as pre-scientific attempts to explain the course of the known universe. An the imagery used in these stories draws on historic experience of that time with whatever can put an end to things on a large scale: war, fire, disease, earthquakes and meteorites.
The end-of-the-world is not only appealing because it explains the universe or the course of history. Unlike modern theories of the big crunch or the big chill, it offers comfort for the present.
An immanent end of the world, for example, can help to deal with the fear of death. It avoids the fear of a lonely death, because everything and everybody will go as well. There is no uncertainty about where you or your soul will go; the end of the world takes care of these questions. Even if people do believe in an eternal afterlife, they still prefer the easy way out of life, also known as rapture or judgement day, without actually dying.
An imminent end of the world does not only help with the final moments of life, but also help to make sense of grave injustices, war, famines, and disasters. They areafter all part of the (second) most significant event in history. And in addition it gives a person the opportunity to take part and play a role in this event, and can thus help to define a meaning for his life. Likewise, there are probably many other levels on which the belief in an imminent end-of-the-world gives comfort to the individual in his present day life.
However meaningful the end of the world might be for the universe as whole, and for an individual as a person, end-of-the-world myths and prohecies are also very powerful tools. As suggested in a previous posting, there are currently three or even four main actors on the world stage that draw support from groups with strong eschatological beliefs. And this is by no means a unique situation if we look at history.
If a movement wants to gather support for its aim, it helps - regardless of whether is pretended or sincere - to increase the significance of the aim. And winning the last and decisive struggle in history is probably the most significant aim. People are called to fight the "war that ends all wars", after which a just or perfect society will emerge. We leave it up to the reader to come up with examples.
The idea of an end, preceded by a cataclysmic event or an epic battle is such an attractive concept that it appears in all kind of contexts. In its positive version it presents it self as: We just have to take the corner, which won't be easy, but then everything will pan out nicely. In its negative form it goes like this: If we don't change our ways we are all doomed. Confronted with a serious problem, it is very appealing to present it as a doomsday scenario. This ranges from problems such a bird flu, to the Y2K bug, to climate change, to the demographic crisis, to work place reform. An exception would probably be full scale nuclear war which is justifiably a realistic doomsday scenario.
The long tradition of eschatological beliefs has had a noticable impact on the way we see the world. This is in particular the case when we look at the interprations and theories of history. Probably the best known example is historical materialism by Marx, who explained history as a succession of stages, interpersed with revolutions, which will ultimately lead to final stage in which the class struggle will have been resolved. Other examples are Hegel's philosophy of history, and more recently Fukuyama's theory on the end of history.
A very basic reason for the appeal of eschatological beliefs or interpretations of history might be that we - this means, however not exclusively, western society - are used to, and trained to think with, a linear view of time. It is assumed that everything has a beginning and an end, that the beginning and the end are distinct, and that time moves only in one direction. There is no way back. Alternative views of time may be more difficult to comprehend for us, even though remnants of a cyclical view, in the form of calendars and clocks, are still present.
An alternative view of time may have the same explanatory power, however, it may determine the extent to which a view of the world or life feels natural to us. Existentialism, for example, is very compatible with a linear, finite view of time. Life has a beginning and an end, and it is important to make sure that you made the most of it at the end. If we would view life as a cycle, from non-existence to non-existence, this idea may strike us as alien or awkward. The beginning and the end are essentially the same, and as such the end matters as much to our actions as the beginning.