In episode two of National Geographic’s The Story of God with Morgan Freeman, we are taken on a journey around the world to discover what people have believed about the Apocalypse — the end of days. While flipping channels on the TV, Morgan says that “every day things seem to get worse.” There is religious conflict, climate change, and everything can seem “apocalyptic.”
“But,” Morgan notes, “we have been predicting the end of the world for thousands of years…something about the drama of annihilation seems to grip us. Is it just human nature to worry and wonder about the end of days, or is it really coming?”
Will it be as many have imagined it, or is it all in our minds? These are the questions Morgan sets out to answer in this week’s episode.
First stop, Jerusalem — the place where three faiths predict the end of the world will occur. Jews are awaiting the day when the temple will be rebuilt by the Messiah. But this Messiah is not the one Christians wait for. Jews wait for a “man, a king of this earth will will bring peace among the nations, in this world.” And this messiah will not be divine. He will have a specific to-do list: reconstituting the Jewish state, bringing peace with the neighbors, and rebuilding the temple. The temple is central to Jews and their view of the messianic kingdom because it is to be the “crowning symbol” of the new world of justice brought by the Messiah.
But when Morgan looks at Jerusalem and its mixture of three religions in one place he finds it “hard to imagine peace coming.” And I agree with him. As long as we are fighting each other over land because we think our particular sky-being has given it to “us” and not to “them,” there will never be peace. We need to set aside these appeals to divine command and work together. Enough of my secular digression, back to Morgan’s journey.
Next he learns about the ancient Jewish cult called the Essenes. They lived a secluded life in anticipation of the coming apocalypse — which was to be a battle between the “sons of light and sons of darkness.” They believed their priests and angels would fight in their midst, and this battle would usher in the end of days. As Morgan notes, “they believed the end was imminent, and took precautions to be ready to meet God at any moment.”
Another Jewish sect sprung up in the early first century A.D. — the Christians. They too believed the end of the world was coming soon, and that belief in Jesus’ death and resurrection would prepare one for the end, guaranteeing one a place in heaven. Early Christians were not accepted in Roman society. They were seen as “godless” for rejecting the pantheon of Greco-Roman gods, and were, at times, brutally persecuted. For those being persecuted by the Emperor Nero, “judgement day couldn’t come too soon.” And who could blame them; if my sect was being hunted by the authorities and being killed in horrific ways, I would hope for an end too. But that doesn’t mean they were right; it doesn’t mean Jesus is coming back to save us. Simply wanting something to be true does not make it true.
Next, Morgan travels to New York to speak with a former high-ranking Islamist, Maajid Nawaz. Though most Muslims see their faith as a “religion of peace,” many extremist groups believe the apocalypse has already begun.
Maajid says that “it is important to distinguish between ‘Islamism’ and ‘Islam, a religion’.” He says that many Muslims are sold Islamism — the desire to impose Islam over the rest of society — as if it were the only version of Islam. He claims that groups like ISIS do not represent the whole of Islam and have “manipulated the prophesies to serve its own political ends.” Apparently, Mohammed only prophesied that the ancient cities of Constantinople and Rome would fall; but ISIS has translated that into modern terms of “the West.”
But what is it that fuels our desire to know the end? Morgan learns that psychologists can measure our reactions to stressful events, and they have determined that when we are able to predict or anticipate such events, we are able to cope with the scenario better than if we had no idea it was coming. It gives us solace to be able to anticipate what is to come.
But is it possible to predict the end? This question is left unanswered, and it is probably best to recognize that no one has correctly predicted it to this point. So why would we think someone could?
Morgan then travels to India where he learns that the idea that the world will come to an end is not universal among religions. Not all religions have a hope that “God will intervene in the world of men, pass judgement, and right the wrongs we see around us.” Religions such as Hinduism and Buddhism have quite different views of apocalypse.
Hindus believe that the world ends every few billion years, but then things begin again. Buddhists, however, do not believe in a violent end of the world. To them, enlightenment is the end-goal. And part of the path to enlightenment is through meditation. For Buddhists, “there is no end, only change.”
But with historic catastrophes like hurricane Katrina, and worsening climate change, should we fear a man-made apocalypse? This is something that, personally, I fear. I worry that it is too late to turn back the tides of climate change. I worry that secular values will be turned back by religionists who seek to destroy the advances in reason, rational discourse, freedom, equality, and humanism that have been made since the Enlightenment. But maybe these fears are irrational. Maybe we (the secular voices) will be heard and gain influence enough to keep humanity on the right track. Only time will tell.
Morgan ends by saying that we should reclaim the original meaning of apocalypse — “lifting the veil, enlightenment, a state of mind and heart that helps us see the truth. It is here and now.” This is something I can agree with. An apocalypse, an in-breaking of truth, freedom, and human well-being, here and now is something we should all be hoping and working for.
On that note, here’s to the “apocalypse.”
*** If you liked this review, check back soon for episode three ***
*** And if you missed my review of episode one, that can be found here ***