Although one can reasonably claim on historical evidence that stranger things have happened, it is nonetheless discomforting that across the world birds drop by the thousands from the sky and fish arrive dead to the shores. The adjective commonly invoked by these at-present inexplicable events is biblical — a word I saw in relation also to the Australian floods. (An aside: given the post-diluvian Noahic covenant, is not a contemporary flood better described as anti-biblical?) Add to this the many wars and rumours of war, the 1948 re-constitution of Israel, a resurgence of Twelver eschatology, the proliferation of nuclear weapons, the Mayan calendar — which I’m told ends on December 21, 2012 and, by this mere fact, apparently marks Doomsday — and the re-emergence of Harold Camping, and you have good material for End Times speculations. And this is only a partial list.
One name for this business is “eschatology,” or the study of the end. Never mind that the end of the world has been predicted many thousands of times and over many thousands of years, eschatology persists. I recall Carl Sagan, near the end of his life, being asked if he regretted anything, to which he answered: Yes, I’ll never know how the human story ends. We all have this curiosity, I think, for there can be no doubt that one day the story will end. This is all that we know as certain, which yields ample space for speculation.
And what speculation there is. Most religions provide an account of the End, and there are materialist prospects also, for example end of times ponderings on the environmentalist fringe. While end of times narratives can be impressively detailed, replete of anachronistic geographies and arcane texts in dead languages, most remind me of the Woody Allen rendering, ”two nations will go to war, but only one will win.” Then there is the matter of life imitating art, of the self-fulfilling prophesy in which the thing happens because religious persons insist that it has been “foretold” and therefore must. Much of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict (at bottom a product of strident attachments to textual pronouncements) is of this character, and so there is in our time a great deal of effort organized, for examples, around the attainment of Greater Israel, the yielding of red heifers, and the building in Jerusalem of the Third Temple.
Looking at biblical eschatology today, one may infer the following points and characteristics common to most, if not all, pronouncements:
- the end is near
- a terrible and final war, between good and evil, will be necessary
- do not trust science and secular knowledge: these will lead you astray
- false prophets will appear and mislead many
- there will be many signs
- the end times will be a period of general distress and calamity
- moral depravity will be common
- the great bulk of humanity will suffer and die, as they deserve to do
- all of the above will occur according to the plan and will of God
With many thousands of religious fundamentalists, and perhaps tens of thousands worldwide, committed to the articles of their respective faiths, the above list must be seen as leading to certain outcomes. Peace will be seen by such persons as against the divine plan, and conflict will be looked upon with approval. Thus it will be necessary to thwart anything which tends toward co-existence and peace and stability, and to incite hate and violence and distress whenever possible. The September 11 attacks were intended to bring about a war in Mesopotamia, under the assumption that America would retaliate, thereby provoking a universal Islamist uprising. The current “culture war” in America may also been seen as issuing from the assumptions listed above.
It seems a heightened concern with the end times is going to be a feature of our age, as are the sociopolitical stresses and conflicts which issue from this concern. But here I have employed a euphemism, for it is not so much a “concern,” as it is a fanatical pursuit with which we must in coming days contend.