End of the World, Religious and Philosophical Aspects of

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End of the World, Religious and Philosophical Aspects of

Beliefs in the "end of the world" (loosely speaking, eschatology ), generally from a massive cataclysm, appear in many cultures, especially those with creation myths. Those who believe this "end of the world" is imminent, that is, apocalyptic believers, have produced a vast literature focused on the destructive nature of the "end" of the physical creation. By creating this "sense of an ending" these catastrophic scenarios knit up a culture's cosmogony in a great cycle of time during which creation "lives out" its allotted span. Because the physical world of time and space (Latin saeculum, which in French, siècle, means both "century" and "secular") are so concrete, the temptation to measure the length of the world's existence and hence to "date" its end has existed in all cultures. Nowhere, however, did this concern become more intense than in Western European culture, birthplace of modern notions of time and modern techniques of time measurement.

End-time calculations and great cycles

These "great cycles" generally take some combination of two forms: the circular and the linear. In circular cosmogonies, the most widespread variant, creation goes through cycles from origins to annihilation and then to a new beginning, repeating indefinitely. These cycles tend to be extremely long, measured in chronological units ranging from the Roman and Greek millennia (one thousand years), to the Babylonian sar (3,600 years), to Hindu kalpas (8.64 billion years). From such cycles, people looked upon the yearly cycle as a microcosm and celebrated the completion and new beginning of a cycle as a "myth of eternal return." Greek philosophical thought leaned heavily toward cyclical cosmologies in which everything repeated, or even replicated exactly, the details of the previous cycle ad infinitum.

In the less common linear cases, the current cycle receives a teleological significance, rendering it unique among ages, or even making it the only created age. Thus the "end of the world" becomes an ultimate moment in a divine scheme. In monotheism, with its typically moral focus, the "end" brings a Last Judgment in which the good receive their reward and the evil their punishment. This radical shift from circular to linear time sometimes involved equally significant shifts from viewing the passage of time as a declining process to a progressive one, looking forward to a golden age. Characteristically, adepts of these linear, moral schemata tended to shorten the time separating the present from the "end of the age," thus intensifying the imminence of judgment.

In both linear and cyclical cases, the future end of the world had more than merely conceptual significance to various degrees, depending on what trends these schemata attributed to the cycle, and where they placed the present in the larger process. The most prominent approach viewed the cycle as one of monotonic declension from a golden age to the current (worst) age. Often these schemes placed the present time toward the middle of the final age. In the most extreme case, Hindu scriptures (e.g., Surya Siddhanta ) place the beginning of the last and most debased cycle, the kaliyuga, in 3102 b.c.e., placing the present in the early millennia of that yuga, and the cataclysmic "end" some 420 millennia away. The final conflagration in these scenarios often appears as both a destructive and a purging flame that wipes out impurities and reunites creation with eternity. Greek and Roman ideas of these cycles appear in most philosophical schools (Pythagorean, Platonic, Stoic), although the associated cycles are measured in chronological units taken from Babylonian astronomical calculations, but significantly reduced. Drawing on the second-century b.c.e. Babylonian astronomer Berossos's 12,960,000-year cycle, the Roman statesman and author Cicero (10643 b.c.e.) dated the magnus et verus annus (the great and true year) to 12,954 years.

With more careful astronomical observation, calculators in antiquity increasingly tried to measure more precisely both the yearly cycle (that inelegant 365.242199 days) and the greater cosmic cycle from creation to end of the world, thus wedding cosmologies of religious importance to measurement and calculation of time. In both the case of the (liturgical) year and the (apocalyptic) cycle of the age, this attention to time played a major role in religious passions attached to the celebration and innovation of collective rituals, and from there in cultural identity formation and the widespread emergence of new religious movements that proliferated throughout late antiquity. This close connection between temporal measurement and religious beliefs and behaviors also participated in a crucial shift from cyclical to linear models and from distant to closer (more apocalyptic) end-times. These developments have a particular vigor in the Hellenistic intersection between the "scientific" spirit of Greco-Roman culture and the apocalyptic spirit of Jewish and Christian culture.

Whereas Chinese chronographers affixed a length of 23,639,040 years to a great (astronomical) cycle, and the Hindus attributed 4.32 million years to a single mahayuga, Near Eastern and Mediterranean cultures measured in the more restrained millennia and counted ages within a cycle by sevens (planets) or twelves (zodiacal signs). Among the many variants, the six- or seven-thousand year cycle proved most popular and found adepts in Mithraic, Mazdean, Jewish, and Christian circles. The marriage of astronomical cycles from Zoroastrian sources in Babylon to the linear eschatology of the exiles from the tribe of Judah (sixth century b.c.e.) produced the most vigorous strain of calculations of the approaching end. During the last quarter of the first millennium b.c.e., Jewish writers produced a rich and innovative literature of apocalyptic visions anticipating an imminent cataclysmic transformation of the world.

Theodicy and the Last Judgment in monotheistic eschatologies

For Jews and later for Christians and Muslims, end-time beliefs offered an answer to the monotheistic problem of God's justice (theodicy). These personal and morally charged visions looked forward to an imminent apocalyptic "Day of Judgment" that would separate out those evil people who will go to destruction and those good who will receive cosmic rewards. This intensified focus on justice and reward shifted some of the great-cycle thinking from that of the world's end to its continuation, here become a messianic age of peace and prosperity (millennialism). In any case, these eschatological beliefs, driven by a moral and social urgency, preferred shorter timelines. By the later Hellenistic age, Jewish and, still more avidly, Christian circles focused on a world cycle of a millennial week of seven thousand years. In this reading, which dramatically reversed the more pessimistic visions of the creation cycle, the current age was made up of six 1,000-year "days" of toil and travail, and looked forward to the advent, in the year-6,000 annus mundi (The year of the world [the year since creation]), of a sabbatical millennium, or thousand-year period of messianic peace where swords turn into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks.

Calculations of the imminent apocalyptic advent of a messianic age, based on prophetic signs, astronomical calculations, chronologies (especially based on Daniel) proliferated around the turn of the common era. Despite the invariable failure of such calculations, believers (in Islam they are known as the exact men ) continued to engage in them, posing serious problems for those who tried to control the unpredictable explosions of strange behavior that accompany apocalyptic beliefs that "the end is at hand." One rabbi, reflecting on the catastrophes brought on by those who prematurely announce the end, cursed those who calculate the end (Sanhedrin, 97b), and Augustine of Hippo (354430) commanded these types to "quiet their busy fingers," that is, stop counting (The City of God, 18.54.2).

The desire to "date the end" became especially vigorous in Christianity, which, from an early age (c. 100 c.e.) openly associated the apocalyptic moment with the chronological date of 6,000 annus mundi. Early-third-century chronographers produced the first widely accepted Christian era, annus mundi, calculating the years since creation based on figures in the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible, at significant chronological variance with the Masoretic Hebrew text). These chronographers located the incarnation at 5,500 annus mundi, their present at 5,700, and the advent of the sabbatical millennium for 6,000 (500 c.e.), some three centuries off. This open and explicit textual commitment to a date, even though at the time it might have seemed far away (though not to Hindus), wedded both computus (Easter dating) and chronology to apocalyptic expectations and encouraged a peculiar Christian obsession with dating that intensified at the approach of various end-time dates (500 c.e.; 801 c.e.the second "year-6,000" annus mundi ; 1000/1033 c.e.; 1260 c.e.; 1500/1533 c.e.; etc.). A "fever of computation," as one modern historian has termed it, appears repeatedly in the scriptoria of medieval Europe (5001500) and marks one of the most striking aspects of Renaissance science and historiography.

End-time beliefs and scientific thinking

Western notions of the end of the world have paradoxically provided fuel for scientific developments, irresistibly urging people to "date" the end as accurately and imminently as possible on the one hand, and invariably producing failure on the other. For example, motivated by his concerns about the approach of the next "year-6,000" annus mundi (801 c.e.), the English historian and theologian Bede (c. 673735) worked intensively on problems in chronology and, among other things, solved the problem of the Easter cycle: 532 years (de temporum ratione, On the reckoning of times), a feat that had escaped the computists of antiquity.

The obsession with measuring the end never abated, not even with the advent of a supposedly more rational age. Repeatedly chronographers (including Isaac Newton) computed the end, and repeatedly they were wrong. Each failure, however, produced a sharper, more extensive knowledge of chronology and the calculations of time, making time measurement one of the distinguishing obsessions of the West. Thus, precision time measurements, one of the hallmarks of all scientific and historical work, may well be the unintended consequence of failed apocalyptic calculations, which left in their wake a religious disappointment and refined the tools for time measurement now available for other uses, a process that evolutionary scientists call exaptation.

At another level, the constant failure of cataclysmic eschatological scenarios gave increased credibility to more millennial notions of a redeemed and transformed physical world. The Western fascination with "progress" and the "new" draws much of its inspiration from a notion that the future held not decay and destruction but renewal and rejoicing. This fairly unusual cultural optimism, where one sought to transform the world rather than date its end, whose most striking early expressions are primarily (though not exclusively) biblical, played a central role in the emergence of modern science, especially in the earliest centuries of the printing press.

Similarly, the failure of apocalyptic expectations may have contributed to a de-enchantment or a demystification of the ways in which Westerners have "read" the universe. No religious belief is more subject to "objective" disconfirmation than eschatological calculations, especially the specific, apocalyptic ones. These beliefs tend to excite a state of exegetical arousal, in which all observed phenomena become part of a coherent and urgent pattern of meaning. With the collapse of expectations, a cognitive dissonance ensues, which generates a wide range of behavior, some of it increasingly grounded in a focus on neutral "observation." After the immense disappointment of the Joachite year 1260, the Franciscan monk Salimbene (c. 12211288) wrote in his Chronicle : "I have sworn to believe only what I see with my eyes." The difference between Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe's interpretation of the nova of 1572 as a sign of the imminent Parousia (the Second Coming of Christ), and his assistant Johannes Kepler's more clinical treatment of the 1604 nova, illustrates the kind of de-eschatologizing shifts that such failures of expectation might inspire. Furthermore, this renunciation of eschatological schemata, forced by repeated and quite precise failures, may have contributed over time to the emergence of nonteleological notions (such as inertia and evolution), that have proved so fruitful in scientific inquiry.

Beliefs in the "end of the world" also played a villain's role in the persecution of scientific thinking in the medieval period. One of the major conflicts for philosophers who sought to reason about the nature of the universe concerned whether the cosmos, the physical universe, was created (and hence had an end) or eternal. Drawing on Aristotelian works, some philosophersmost notably the Arab philosopher Averroës (Ibn Rushd, 11261198) and the Flemish philosopher Siger of Brabant (d. 1284)argued that the physical world was eternal. This contradicted the eschatological claims that, with their lurid threats of coming punishment for evil deeds, played a critical role in the moral education of Christian and Muslim societies. This builtin friction between rational (scientific) and revealed (theological) approaches to the physical universe provoked the repression of philosophical inquiry in the Arabo-Islamic world (and perhaps also in rabbinic Judaism). In Latin Christendom, however, despite determined efforts in inquisitorial circles to eliminate such teachings (most famously in Paris in the 1260s to 1270s, with the attacks on Siger of Brabant and the "Latin Averroists"), these dissident forms of thinking persisted and developed.

Ironically, after having hindered scientific thought for centuries, the medieval framework has, in some sense, returned to modern scientific cosmology, including both a creation (Big Bang) and some sort of cosmic destruction (either of the Earth when the sun goes nova, or of the entire universe). Of course the periods of time involved are immensethe universe is about ten to twenty billion years old, or, in Hindu cosmology, about three to five kalpas (4.32 billion years). Even the period left to our solar system (five billion years) makes any imminent framework for apocalyptic beliefs impossible, thus driving a scientific wedge between the monotheistic pair: the end of the world and the Last Judgment.

The ironies of modern technology of destruction

Unfortunately, what becomes conceptually inconceivable (the natural end of the world any time soon) has reappeared in a new form of unnatural ends, especially the threat of nuclear weapons and other technological agents of mass destruction. This ironic and extremely dangerous relationship of technological development to end-time beliefs is best understood within the context of millennialism, but expectations of the end of the world also play a significant role. Briefly in Western Europe, where these beliefs have been especially widespread, each disappointed expectation of God's intervention in human history seems to have inspired believers to take on more and more of the task of bringing about the apocalypse (from passive to active apocalypticism), repeatedly driving technological innovation well beyond the limits of what necessity demanded. Already in the later thirteenth century, Roger Bacon (c. 12201292), a younger contemporary of Salimbene and a fellow Franciscan, argued that science would provide an apocalyptic defense against the Antichrist, allowing the Church to spot the Antichrist's deceptive miracles, which he will perform using scientific techniques.

In particular, the awesome power of the atomic bomb inspired end-time imagery from one of its inventors, the American physicist Robert Oppenheimer (19041967). As he watched the first test bomb explode, he thought of a line from the Bhagavad Gita: "Now I am become death, the shatterer of worlds." Moreover, the arming of these weapons in the United States occurred in Amarillo, Texas, where a community of "pre-millennial dispensationalists" (passive cataclysmic apocalyptic) believed that in so doing they advanced divine plans for the time of the "tribulation." At the turn of the third millennium in a period of rapid and penetrating globalization, more active cataclysmic apocalyptic groups like the Japanese Aum Shinrikyo and the Muslim Al Quaeda have tried to make the use of these weapons of mass destruction a focus of their "redemptive" violencedestroying the world to save it. At the approach of 2000, astronomical warnings and popular films (e.g., Michael Bay's Armageddon and Mimi Leder's Deep Impact ) depicted the Earth threatened by an extinction-level catastrophe, with the destructive power of modern science then arrayed in defense of human beings. Thus, while many Western Europeans may have awaited the end of the world in anno Domini 1,000 only to be disappointed, after the year 2000, when most intellectuals no longer believe in a God who intervenes in history, humans live, perhaps permanently, in the shadow of their own ability to destroy themselves, their own humanly wrought end of the world.

See also Eschatology; Millennialism


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