In every year of the calendar, for ages and ages, up to and including this year, there have been religious persons convinced that the end of the world is coming soon. People in numerous religions have held this view. But the end never comes.
Believing in an imminent end of the world begs for interpretation.
I would possess a high degree of vanity if I thought the end of the world would occur during my life span. The whole panoply of world history comes to an end in my life. That would make me pretty special indeed. It also means my worldview would be dramatically and cataclysmically affirmed as the correct interpretation of all things. It would mean too that I’d likely not endure a dram of pain via dotage and death.
Every few decades true blue end timers rid themselves of possessions, quit jobs, travel to remote spots, and wait—because the end is coming next Tuesday. Then Tuesday comes. Then Wednesday comes, every time.
But why must ‘the world’ come to an end for a religious person? Isn’t it enough that your own singular life comes to an end? If you are so desirous to see the other world, to see God, to see predeceased loved ones, you may do so any day through the portal of death. You needn’t take the entire world with you.
Keep in mind that the end of the world idea is a literary invention. Gifted ancient writers—using numerous literary devices like verisimilitude, allegory, image, hyperbole, metaphor, and symbol—dreamed it up.
As with so many other opinions emerging from a misunderstanding of religious literature, end of the world belief is yet another instance of readers lacking literary sophistication, because the end of the world in religious literature is not really about the end of the world at all.
In religious literature, stories about the beginning of the world—etiology—are not really about the actual beginning of the world. Stories about the end of the world—eschatology—are not really about the actual end of the world.
Origin stories are not about the past at all. They are not eyewitness reportage, they are not history, and they are not diary entries detailing actual bygone events. Similarly, end-time stories are not about the future at all. They are not predictions, they are not vaticinations, and they are not crystal ball visionary statements.
If religious stories of beginnings are not about the past, and if religious stories of endings are not about the future, then what time period are these stories about?
The answer is that these stories are really about the present—any present. The stories are fictive efforts offered as instructions for a present moment.Religious stories of beginnings often describe utopias past—perfect places that serve to indict any present moment as morally inferior and needing correction. These utopias did not exist in the past. There was no Eden. But as fictional stories of a perfect past they serve as utopic indictments of the present.
Religious stories of the end of the world often describe horrific dystopias—morally tainted places that serve to indict any present moment as risking the slick slope to ethical oblivion. Depictions of these dystopias are instructive fictions, not windows on actual future events.
Literalizing these stories misses the point of their literary art. The authors who conjured these stories knew they weren’t depicting actual events and never intended the stories to be taken literally.
This does not mean there will never be a literal end of the world.
There will be.
The literal end of our world is seven billion years out, timed to the dramatic convulsions of our sun, at which time the other brother planets—Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn Uranus, Neptune—will also meet their end.
Ten billion years of existence will have been a good run for Mother Earth, who will have kept all our remains to herself, bequeathing them to a beneficent furnace called sol, solle, sonne, zon, sun, and a thousand other names.
In the meanwhile, we humans can make the moral most of our mere-near century of oxygenated existence, and in the years we draw breath we can love other sentient beings who overlap our time on earth, and we can value the present with a view to the future and a consideration for the past, and we can laugh (tenderly) at all those presuming to see an end where there can only be more beginnings.
[Note: A religious person can accept all of this because none of it troubles other world beliefs, or afterlife beliefs, or reincarnation beliefs. The other world has been up and running for eternity past and marches on to eternity future. And a long-lived planet with long-lived humans need not disturb the other world’s human residents, who’ve been entering that other world at least since Cro-Magnons padded Europe in bearskin socks and smocks thirty thousand years ago. For those with afterlife beliefs, Earth’s inhabitants can continue entering the afterlife for hundreds of thousands of years, perhaps for millions of years, perhaps for billions of years. For those who believe in reincarnation, reincarnation can continue in perpetuity, with souls skipping from one dying solar system to a near or far star.]
Featured image ‘Supernova Explosion’ by NASA Chandra via Flickr