I’m writing this on the day the world did not end. Or at least it did not completely come to an end.
Dec. 20, 2012 was a day predicted to mark the “End of the World.” Allegedly the ancient Mayan calendar predicted the apocalypse on this date. Experts on Mayan beliefs say the native Mexicans looked forward to the impending change and foresaw the creation of a new, fresh world.
But the world seems no fresher today than it did yesterday morning. Or perhaps it seems just as fresh.
I’m a morning person. I generally wake up in an energetic frame of mind, before dawn. I love the beginning of the day. There is always something new in the first light of dawn.
Archaeologists say that the ancient Mayan people looked forward with an almost ecstatic anticipation to periodic renewals in the world, renewals that swept away the old order of things and created a renewed universe. It’s unclear whether the Mayans actually saw any significance in Dec. 20, 2012; but we do know they predicted specific occasions of universal renewal, and celebrated them.
Many others have predicted the Apocalypse, quite specifically. The Apostle Paul seems to predict, in the Christian Bible, that the human world would be destroyed – and renewed – while the Apostles were still alive. Several eminent theologians predicted, in the Third Century A.D., that in the year 500 A.D. Jesus would return and sweep away all the evil in the world. None other than the Catholic Pope himself, Sylvester II, firmly predicted the end on Jan. 1, 1000 A.D. Martin Luther didn’t think the world could continue as it was past 1600. Christopher Columbus predicted the Apocalypse in 1658. Puritan celebrity Cotton Mather said it was 1697, then 1716, then 1736 as each of his predictions failed to come true. Mather was, evidently, not a man to give up easily.
Neither was the famous American evangelist William Miller, the inspiration for the Church of Seventh-day Adventists, who pegged the date of the Apocalypse as April 28, 1843; then Dec. 31; then March 21, 1844; then Oct. 22, 1844. After his death his followers picked 1874. The Bible Student movement of 19th-Century America, and their successors, the Jehovah’s Witnesses, may have set some kind of record for persistence as they’ve predicted the end of the world, successively, in 1874; 1878; 1881; 1908; 1914; 1916; 1918; 1920; 1925; 1941; 1975; Oct. 2, 1984; then “before 2000.”
Many religious people, especially Christians, have been fascinated by apocalyptic visions. There’s even a branch of science dedicated to the study of the end of the world. It’s called eschatology, the “study of the end.”
Eschatologists have found descriptions of humanity’s final fate in nearly every major religion and thousands of small sects and cults. The Buddha is alleged to have described a steady decline in the quality of humanity. We are, purportedly, descended from giants who lived hundreds of thousands of years down to our present, inferior state. And we’re still deteriorating. Eventually, according to one Buddhist gospel, we’ll be a race of tiny people who have babies when we’re 5 years old and die by the time we’re 10. Then an apocalyptic renewal occurs and we get to start over.
Hindus also mark our progress according to the steady decay of the human moral fiber, but generally believe that the entire world is periodically reincarnated.
Muslims refer to the words of the Prophet Muhammad who purportedly said the “Day of Judgment” would be near when “honesty is lost” and “…leadership is given to people who are unworthy of it.” Sounds like pretty much any time.
Jewish rabbis teach that our current human era is ruled over by evil and predict the arrival of a new Jewish Messiah as described in the Torah by the prophets Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel. They prepare for the “End of Days” and the next era, which will be ruled by God.
Although the Christian Bible addresses the end times metaphorically through the visions of the Prophet Daniel and the Book of Revelation, there are only a few historical references to Christian apocalyptic beliefs before the year 1000. King William I of England inspired a nationwide mania for apocalyptic visions in 1085 when initiated his country’s first nationwide tax assessment, attempting to record the wealth of every English individual. His subjects referred to it as the “Doomsday Book,” apparently believing that rigorous taxation would precipitate the end of the world.
Lots of people still seem to feel that way, at least in the United States.
The prophets of doom really got specific in the middle of the 19th Century when the Industrial Revolution was gaining momentum. William Miller set it off with his predictions, in 1833, that the world had about 10 years left to run. An evangelist named John Nelson Darby invented the idea of a Christian “Rapture” in the 1830s, an event that removes true Christians to Heaven before the world ends. His ideas contributed to the prophecies – and the popularity – of hundreds of apocalyptic communities with numerous, specific, and so far erroneous, predictions of the end of the world.
The apocalyptic writings that have recently captivated more people than any other in history are not sacred gospels, at least not in the traditional sense. Since 1995 Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins have sold about 63 million copies of the “Left Behind” series of 16 novels about the period after the Christian Rapture – when all true Christians are transported to Heaven – and the Tribulation - when God renders His final judgment on humanity. The heroes of the books have one more shot at Heaven before The End, and they are battling the Antichrist. Six of the books have been on the New York Times Bestseller list, even though the list doesn’t count sales in Protestant Christian bookstores. At one point in 1998, the first four books in the series simultaneously held the top four slots on the bestseller list. Three movies have been made based on the series.
Clearly, humanity is fascinated by its own story and more specifically by the end of that story. That seems natural. But our fascination with the apocalypse and our conviction that it will occur soon seem to grow stronger as we, as a species become more successful.
As “Left Behind” author Tim LaHaye says, “We have more reason to believe (Jesus) will return in this generation than any other generation before us.”
So beginning with the dawn of the Industrial Revolution and up through the present day we seem to be developing a strengthening conviction that the end is near, in spite of the fact that we’ve been astonishingly prosperous over the same period of time.
If you were born at the beginning of the 20th Century you could expect to live about 31 years based on global averages. Today, around the world, the average human lifespan is over 67 years and in developed nations it’s over 80. A big reason for the expansion of average life-spans is the improvement in the health of babies and children. In 1900, 10 percent of American babies died before their first birthdays. Today’s mortality rate for children that age is less than 1 percent.
In 1820, 75 percent of human beings were desperately poor, living on the equivalent of less than $1 a day. Today, only 20 percent of us live in those dire straits and that number continues to fall. Some experts believe that we will have completely eliminated that level of extreme poverty by the beginning of the 22nd Century.
And the author Steven Pinker has compellingly described how violence has diminished across human history in his book, “The Better Angels of our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined.” He offers a battery of statistics. Murder rates have declined steeply. England in the 1200s recorded 24 homicides per 100,000 people. Now it’s less than 1 per 100,000. Even more recently battle deaths in wars across the globe have declined from 65,000 per year in the 1950s to less than 2,000 per year in the present decade. Nearly every imaginable index of cruelty and violence has declined across time. We’re kinder to animals (gambling on dogfights, cockfights and bull-baiting used to be hugely popular on every populated continent); kinder to people of different races and ethnicities; we are now generally opposed to slavery; and by and large we don’t let people beat their spouses or children, which is a comparatively new standard.
In pure biological terms we are stupendously successful. The human population has exploded over the past two centuries, from a little over a billion people when William Miller made his first apocalyptic predictions in the 1830s to more than 7 billion today.
So if we’re so successful, why are we so anxious?