Doomsday: Primer of Possibilities


Published by the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists

Being storytelling animals, we strive to transcend the present moment, to locate our fleeting lives within the context of a dramatic narrative that explains the pattern and purpose of time, the beginning and end of life. The mythic imagination envisions life as a journey that moves from an origin to a destination, from an ancient once upon a time to a someday beyond the horizon.
Eschatological visions of the end,theories of the ultimate destiny of the world, come in a dazzling array — religious and secular, apocalyptic and gradual. Broadly speaking, eschatological thought has two foci, one that emphasized doomsday, judgment and destruction and the other that focuses on the utopian vision of a golden age beyond ordinary history in which a redeemed humanity will dwell in peace.

To cite a few of the classical varieties:

By 1500 BCE the Zoroastrians, developed an elaborate eschatology that prophesied a cosmic battle between the righteous and the wicked ending with a last judgment in which sinners were punished before the world was purified and suffering and death eliminated.

Buddhist eschatology features an automatic final judgment that establishes cosmic justice. Each individual’s karma determines the realm into which he or she will be reborn.   The consequences of our deeds are visited on us through many incarnations until we, finally become wise and compassionate. What goes round, comes round. The cosmos at large also passes through endless cycles of creation and destruction and each age is graced with a new Buddha who shows the way to reach enlightenment and escape from the endless wheel of death, rebirth and suffering. The historical Buddha Shakyamuni is only the latest in an endues line of Buddhas stretching into the past and future.

Jewish eschatology is linear rather than cyclical, focusing on a historical vision —the return of exiles to the Holy Land, the defeat of enemies and the rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem. At some point in the end time, the Messiah will appear and become the king of Israel.  Following the battle of Armageddon when God will intervene to save the Jews from the the forces of Magog, there will be a millennium in which holiness and worldwide peace will reign.

Islamic eschatology centers on the appearance of the Mahdi, a messianic figure, who Shi’i Muslims identify as the Hidden Iman, who will put an end to the suffering of Muslims, brings justice to the world. Surprisingly, Jesus also makes an appearance in the end time. According to the Qur’an, Jesus will return,destroy the antichrist (sometimes identified as George W. Bush) The Mahdi, who may be alive at this moment, will complete the spread of Islam and the establish the Calaphite.

None of these eschatological visions are overly strange to anyone acquainted with the history of mainstream Christianity. The Western world has been coming to an end since its birthday in `1 AD, the date that marks the beginning of the life, death, resurrection and expected second coming of Jesus. Most biblical scholars believe Jesus expected some apocalyptic event to usher in the Kingdom of God. In Mark 13, he warns his disciples of a coming time of tribulation, wars and rumors of war, a time when the sun will be darkened and the moon will not give her light. Only then will the Son of Man come on a cloud of glory and angels gather the elect from the four corners of the earth. Although Jesus refused to give an exact date he tells his disciples: “This generation shall not pass, till all these things be fulfilled”

Throughout Christian history apocalyptic expectations of an imminent end of the world have waxed and waned.  The millennial years, 1000 and 2000 were widely favored dates for the beginning of the apocalypse. Joachim de Fiore, whose theory influenced Hegel and Marx, argued that history was divided into three ages, the age of the father, the age of the son, and the age of the spirit. He predicted this final stage of history would begin between 1200 and 1260. Catastrophic events, such as the black death in 1348 or the Cuban missile crisis, regularly trigger panic and the expectation that doomsday is dawning.

What seems to utterly baffle the press and members of the liberal intelligencia is the discovery (repeated every few years) that a vast number of modern Americans, many in high places in government, still believe in the apocalypse and expect the immanent return of Jesus. A few statistics:
In a recent Time/CNN poll, 36% percent of all Americans believe the Bible is God’s word and should be taken literally, 59% percent believe events predicted in the book of Revelation will come to pass. Of those who believe Armageddon will happen, 47% believe the Antichrist is on earth now, 45% believe Jesus will return during their lifetime.

The schedule of events surrounding the second coming varies according to apocalypse buffs.

Most probably, the Antichrist will seize power and life on earth will be a living hell for those who remain. The good news for born again Christians is that Jesus will come again briefly and gather His children to be with Him!  This Rapture will be accompanied by thunder, lightening, earthquakes, meteors, and other special effects. The graves of the saved will be opened and the saints of the Lord will be transformed and levitate through ceilings and out the sunroofs of BMW’s and meet the Lord in the clouds. Family members will be snatched up from the dinner table, pilots  plucked from their planes, lovers interrupted midcourse. Nonbelievers will be left behind.

On the late, great planet earth, the horrible wrath of God will be poured out upon the Antichrist and his forces. For those left behind, it will be a time so terrible that the Bible says men will “seek death but be unable to find it”. This tribulation will last for seven years, more or less, and will involve a terrible war—Armageddon.  Most people on earth will die. God’s wrath  and judgment against non believers will be poured out over mankind and the earth at this time.

At long last, the millennium will arrive. Christ will come for a third time and rule over the earth for 1000 years and usher in a golden era of universal peace.  Following the millennial reign, history will end and there will be a new heaven and a new earth.

If this all sounds like a bad Bruce Willis movie, or something staring Arnold in his previous incarnation, before we scoff too loudly, we might consider  some of the secular  eschatological visions that, unarguably, have been responsible for more death and destruction in the 20th century than the minor mischief caused by religious visions of the end.

Of the three great mythic-political systems that promised an end to ordinary history and the dawning of utopia, the communist dream of a classless society and the fascist vision of a thousand year Reich resulted in the death of millions before the collapsed. The jury is still out on the American version of the myth of progress. But things are not looking good.

Americans it seem are profoundly schizophrenic, split between expecting Jesus to return and simultaneously placing their hope in the coming triumph of liberal democracy and the market. In this land of TV evangelists and Wall Mart fundamentalist and modernity cohabit.

For a majority of Americans the religious foundation for a glorious future has been replaced by the secular myth of progress. The new Prime Mover we expect to lead us into the global empire of milk and honey is not God but a conglomerate composed of Technology–Markets-Corporations–Governments–Military. The promised alabaster city undimmed by human tears has gradually morphed into the Mall of America.

The best part of the triumphant future promised by the
evangelists of progress is that it is already here! The end of history has arrived. In a now famous book The End of History, Francis Fukuyama argued that liberal democracy is the final form of government, and the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution. In the last century it has conquered all its rivals —  monarchy, fascism and communism.

“If we looked beyond liberal democracy and markets, there was nothing else toward which we could expect to evolve because they are the only political system that satisfies individuals desire for recognition and dignity. Hence the end of history.”

Of course, there are rearguard movements  such as Al Qaeda that are profoundly threatened by liberal democratic values.  But time is on the side of modernity because it has created the only viable civilization in which people actually want to live.

What should we make of this secular eschatology?  Are we the new messiahs ushering in the final stage of evolution, the harbingers of the secular Utopia toward which all human life has been struggling through the dark eons of history. Are we the last men, the expected ones, the culmination of the dialectic of history?

There are, it seems, some flies in Fukuyama’s ointment. The nostrum he suggests– technology-democracy-markets–is creating wealth for the few and dis-ease for the many. The medicine has potentially lethal side effects. Progress and Doomsday may be inseparable siamese twins !

It is not difficult to suggest a threat index that signals the approach of a secular doomsday without rapture.

Nuclear proliferation. Since 1945 the nuclear club has grown from l to 9 with 10 to 20 more nations and an unknown number of terrorist groups bidding for membership. Numberless fingers on nuclear buttons in a volatile political climate marked by the practice of jihad and suicide bombing makes a holocaust seem highly likely. Doomsday with a bang. Destruction without redemption for the good, the bad, the innocent and the guilty.

Unregulated consumption of petroleum and other resources necessary to fuel an ever expanding global market economy and provide for the needs of increasing population portends
increased pollution of the environment and unchecked global warming. A projected world population of 9 billion by 2042,  all of whom feel entitled to the American style of consumption, threatens environmental catastrophe, a world ending not with a bang but a whimper.

Extinction could also happen as an unintended consequence of biological weapons, bio-genetic engineering gone haywire or the uncontrollable spread of plagues such as AIDS or avian flu.

In a brilliant and disturbing article “The Slow Apocalypse: A Gradualistic Theory of the World’s Demise” Andrew McMurray argues that the four horsemen of the modern apocalypse—arms proliferation, environmental degradation, the crisis of meaning, the malignant global economy— are already riding roughshod over the earth. The bomb has already fallen.The stealth apocalypse is well under way and the advanced nations lack the collective will to acknowledge and do anything about our precarious situation, He concludes that our hyper-complex civilization may be nothing more than an evolutionary blind alley. “Who” he asks “says the human presence on this earth was ever sustainable.”

Has the secular vision of an impending doomsday  finally stripped us of hope and left us with nothing but clear eyed despair? Are science, technology and the global economy driven by an insane creativity we are powerless to harness? Clearly, we have failed to wrestle with the demonic possibilities of science and technology that  Robert Openheimer foresaw when he warned, following the explosion of the first atomic bomb, that “physicists have known sin; and this is a knowledge which they cannot lose.”

Are there religious and theological concepts that can speak meaningfully to the present peril without invoking the phantasmagorical apocalyptic vision of the Christian right?

From the beginning of the Christian era,apocalyptic eschatology has existed alongside realized eschatology, a view that the kingdom of God is not a future event but a new spiritual reality that is present in the heart of ordinary history. This  view is central to the Gospel of John and to the
Gospel of Thomas in which the disciples ask Jesus when the kingdom will come and he replies: “It will not come by watching for it…. Rather, the father’s kingdom is spread out upon the earth, and people do not see it.” 113

These days the advocates of realized eschatology tend to call themselves progressive Christians and they easily make common cause with liberal Jews, Muslims and Buddhists. Their emphasis is on the social gospel — the struggle for justice, for an end to poverty, and the elimination of nuclear weapons. Unlike the hardcore apostles of doomsday, they believe humans have the power to mold and transform the future. We are free to do a new thing because the God of creation has placed the fate of the earth in our hands.

One of the more hopeful recent developments is a new ecological awareness among evangelical Christians who are beginning to react to the crisis of our age by becoming green–advocates for creating a sustainable way of life. If “the earth is the Lord’s and the fulness there of…” they reason, Christians have an obligation to prevent the desecration of the creation.

Any theory , religious or secular, that views doomsday as a fate we cannot avoid is a counsel of despair that serves to justify a resignation of responsibility. Neither the supposed intervention of the deus ex machina to bring history to an end, or the supposed iron laws of economics and power-politics that suggest nuclear war and ecological destruction are inevitable, should be used as an excuse to do nothing. The  end of the story of human history has not yet been written.

Some years ago, the New Yorker ran a cartoon that pictured a long haired, bearded prophet wearing a sandwich board on which was written: “The world is not coming to an end! You will have to learn to cope.”   Not a bad maxim for troubled times.