Longing for the End Times

According to Schweitzer, Jesus believed he was living in the end times. So did the early Christians. So did the Essenes. And the Zoroastrians. And they probably weren’t the first.

So did Mohammed. And many European Christians as AD 1000 approached. Various of the fringe Christian sects in England during the 1600s did too, along with many of the European Anabaptists. The Adventists arose out of a similar belief, as did the Jehovah’s Witnesses. And uncounted fringe sects in the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries.

And then we get the secular end-timers, who worry about the War to End Everything, or the death of nature.

We tend to regard all of the people who believed they were living in the end times as blips in a more pedestrian history, exceptions to the rest of us who believe things will go on pretty much as usual for the foreseeable future. But that’s a lot of exceptions to a rule which becomes less and less convincing as we enumerate them. What if apocalypticism is the natural human condition, rather than a blip?

Science fiction writers have a term for it: “if this goes on…” Of course, it’s their job to be imaginative, to reason beyond their evidence. But why do they get such satisfaction out of writing (and the rest of us out of reading) various scenarios for the end of the world as we know it, mostly arising from an extrapolation of current trends?

Dunno about the rest of you. But I write TEOTWAKI stories for the fun of it. James Blish made a career of drafting scenarios for how the world ends. So, arguably, did St. John the Diviner, perhaps to alleviate the boredom of living on Patmos before the invention of solitaire. Why is dreaming the apocalypse so much fun?

Maybe it’s just the ultimate exercise of imaginative power. (“Ah Love! could thou and I with Fate conspire, To grasp this sorry Scheme of Things entire, Would not we shatter it to bits—and then Re-mould it nearer to the Heart’s Desire!”)

During the Cuban Missile Crisis, when many of us believed we were on the edge of some dumb cluck dropping The Bomb, I had occasion to interview a bunch of people for a magazine article. One of them was William Alfred (playwright, professor, and devout Catholic.) When I asked him whether he believed we were on the edge of Judgment Day, he pointed out that Judgment Day will come sooner or later for all of us, and the possibility of its happening to all of us at once really didn’t make that much difference to any individual. He was talking, of course, about the relationship between the General Judgment and the Particular Judgment. But he was making a psychological point as well as a theological one. Knowing one is going to die means living in one’s own end times. For young people (as we were during the Cuban Missile Crisis), that’s profoundly offensive. Young people all believe in their own immortality, and anything that threatens it is disruptive to the entire order of the universe as young people know it. Maybe the only way most young people can grasp their own mortality is in the context of everybody else’s. By the time they get into the home stretch, they know better. They/we are mostly pretty sure both that their/our lives are approaching the end, and that the world will go on pretty much the same way it is now without them/us. Maybe that’s the defining characteristic of coming of age—the ability to imagine the world surviving us.

Jane Grey

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