It’s rather like Pascal’s wager.
A would-be prophet has a vested interest in predicting that the end of the world will not take place at any given time. Why? Because if it doesn’t happen, he will be right. If it does, no one will be around to congratulate him for his foresight.
Of course, it doesn’t really work that way. If you predict that the world is not going to come to an end soon, as likely as that is, it’s not very exciting news, and no one is going to be terribly interested.
Hence the thirst for apocalyptic. “Apocalyptic” is the term theologians use for the genre of apocalyptic writings that is, those purporting to reveal the secrets of the end of time. It got its start in Judea in the second century B.C., when an anonymous author wrote the book of Daniel to predict an evil end for Antiochus IV Epiphanes, a Hellenistic king of Syria who set up an altar and possibly a statue to Zeus in the Temple in Jerusalem. To the Jews, this was an unthinkable abomination.
The book of Daniel, which made its way into the Bible, proclaimed that this “abomination of desolation” (Dan. 11:31, 12:11) portended the end of time and the coming of a Messianic kingdom. It didn’t. What happened was that the Jews rose up under the priestly clan of the Maccabees, drove out Antiochus, and set up an all too human kingdom in Judea that lasted for about 200 years. Nevertheless, the book of Daniel kicked off a genre that has remained extremely popular up to our time.
Probably the greatest example is the book of Revelation (not “Revelations,” by the way). In fact its Greek name, Apokalypsis (which simply means “revelation”), bestowed its name on the whole genre. The origins of Revelation are rather vexed, but the theory that makes the most sense to me is one advanced by a British biblical scholar named Margaret Barker. She says the book was written, probably in Aramaic, around 68-70 A.D. (What we have in the New Testament is a Greek translation, in extraordinarily bad Greek; the Aramaic original is lost.) Taken literally as a prophecy, Revelation suggests that the Jewish rebellion against Rome, begun in 66 A.D. under the Emperor Nero (by far the most likely candidate for the “Beast” whose number is 666; Rev. 13:18), would bring about the end of time. Revelation was thus a commentary on, and prophecy about, events that were unfolding as it was written.
Jesus seems to be making a similar prediction in what is known as the Apocalyptic Discourse or the Little Apocalypse in the Gospels (Matthew 24, Mark 13, Luke 21). Here Jesus appears to be prophesying that the Romans will invade Judea and that this will bring about the end of time.
Did Jesus really say these things? Any number of books have been written and Ph.D.s earned in the endless and ultimately frustrating discussion of what in the Gospels Jesus really did or didn’t say, and it would be impossible to go into this issue here. I’m simply saying that this is the most literal and unprejudicial reading of the texts as they appear.
At any rate the biblical prophecies did not come true. The rebellion ended in complete disaster for the Jews the Temple in Jerusalem was sacked in 70 A.D. and the victorious Romans practically depopulated the entire area-and time itself continued to march along more or less as usual.
Apocalyptic predictions were not limited to the political fate of Judea. After Christ’s resurrection, his disciples were convinced that he would return imminently. In the first book in the New Testament to have been written, 1 Thessalonians, the Apostle Paul attempts to reassure his pupils who are worried about what happens to their loved ones who die before Christ returns. Paul tells them, “The dead in Christ shall rise first: Then we which are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air” (1 Thess. 4:16-17). This, incidentally, is the source of the notorious Rapture theory. But Christ did not return, and the church grudgingly had to accommodate itself to the world around it.
One could go on in a more or less continuous chain from the first century to the present. There is no generation, practically no year, for which the Second Coming has not been forecast. As the Christian world approached the portentous year of 1000 A.D., expectations of the Second Coming were so rife that some property deeds were written to remain in force only to that date. Seventeenth-century Judaism was convulsed by the appearance of a figure named Sabbatai Zevi, who had much of the Jewish world convinced he was the Messiah until he was captured by the Turks; the sultan threatened him with death unless he converted to Islam. Sabbatai converted, proving to most (though not all) of his followers that he was not the promised redeemer. In 19th-century America, a New York farmer named William Miller made elaborate and highly factitious calculations from Daniel and Revelation to prove that Christ would reappear between March 21, 1843, and March 21, 1844. The faithful gathered on the hilltops waiting for the Lord to appear, but he didn’t. The disappointed followers regrouped and eventually gave rise to several denominations of Adventists. Later in that century, a Pittsburgh haberdasher named Charles Taze Russell produced a somewhat better date 1914 and his followers, known as International Bible Students, greeted the outbreak of World War I in that year as sign that their leader’s calculations were correct. But despite the quasi-apocalyptic horrors of the war and its aftermath, time did not end. Russell died in 1916, and his followers, who renamed themselves Jehovah’s Witnesses in 1931, have since had to come up with other dates that seem likely to them, if not to anyone else.
Late in the 20th century, prophecy-mongers fixed on this verse by the 16th-century French magus Nostradamus:
“The year 1999, seven months,
From heaven will come the great king of fright,
To revive the king of the Angolmois,
Before, after March, to rule with happiness.”
Here are some samples of what Nostradamus’s interpreters said about this prophecy: “gloomy prediction of the coming of the Third Antichrist in July, 1999”; “a King of Terror descending from the skies in July 1999”; “1999, the seventh month (July 1999), a great frightening chief will come by the path of the skies.” But July 1999 passed without any great event. If one wants to be excruciatingly generous to Nostradamus, one might interpret “seven months” to mean after seven months have passed, which would bring us to August 1999, but the only major disaster to happen that month was a severe earthquake in Turkey. As grievous as it was for its victims, it didn’t involve any “king of fright” coming down from the skies.
Presently the date of choice is 2012. The concept of 2012 as a crux in human history owes its popularity to José Argüelles. He is best-known as the chief herald of the Harmonic Convergence of 1987, an event in which millions of people received or attempted to receive galactic energies that, Argüelles contended, were streaming to the earth and awakening a higher consciousness. But 1987 was only a prelude, said Arguëlles. The key date is 2012 specifically December 21, 2012, the end of the Mayan Long Count. According to John Major Jenkins, author of Mayan Cosmogenesis 2012, the Mayan calendar, with its numerous and almost incomprehensible reckonings of cycles within cycles (including a “Long Count” spanning 1,872,000 days or some 5,129 years), points to a key juncture: the time when the point of the December solstice aligns precisely with the center of the galaxy. Another figure who pointed to 2012 (for quite different reasons) was the late psychedelic guru Terence McKenna. (For more details on these predictions, keep an eye out for my article on 2012, to appear in the March-April issue of New Dawn magazine.)
What is going to happen in 2012? Since these prophecies are not Christian, there is no talk of the Lord’s return. One view is that there will be a mass awakening of consciousness that will take humanity to a new level. One researcher into things Mayan, Carl Johann Calleman, author of The Mayan Calendar and the Transformation of Consciousness (who, for various reasons, puts the date a year earlier, in 2011), contends, “It will simply not be possible not to be enlightened after October 28, 2011, or at least from a certain time afterward when the new reality has definitely manifested.” Others hint that the actual fabric of time will mutate into a newer, higher, 2.0 version of itself.
What is one to say to this? As we’ve seen, predictions of the end of time are practically as consistent and reliable as the calendar. And yet if science is any remotely plausible guide to the truth, the universe has been chugging along for some 13 billion years and does not show any immediate indication of changing its tune. It’s true that philosophers sometimes point out the problems of reasoning about the future on the basis of the past. As Bertrand Russell wrote, “the man who has fed the chicken every day throughout its life at last wrings its neck instead, showing that more refined views as to the uniformity of nature would have been useful to the chicken.” Even so, philosophers, like the rest of us, usually seem to act on the premise that tomorrow will come just as today has.
The usual riposte to these objections is that we are living in unique times, that the pressures and challenges that humanity faces are unlike those human beings have ever had to face. So they are. But so they are for every generation. Every generation faces new challenges and pressures. Every age believes it is a new age, and every age is right.
Despite the jocular tone of this essay, I do have a serious purpose in mind. For several generations now, there has been a call for a new religious impulse, one that is faithful to the human experience of the sacred while cognizant of advances in human knowledge, one that retains the central ethical values of the human race while discarding those that are merely the result of superstition and prejudice. I too believe that unless such an impulse comes into play on a large scale, we face, not the end of time, but a dismal future in time as we know it. But in order to reach this goal, the first thing we need to discard is the habit of apocalypticism the belief that we can sit around and wait for the end of the world to solve our problems for us. This belief has caused much of what has been most specious and baleful in Christianity and Judaism (and no doubt Islam) from their earliest times to the present, and we hardly stand to gain by importing it into a new spirituality, whether or not this importation seems to be sanctioned by the Mayans or other indigenous cultures.
And yet the belief in or rather the need for an end to time is not wholly false or misguided. In fact, I would argue, it has a core of truth in the spiritual aspirations of the human mind. Each of us does have an urgent and pressing need for an end to time. But it is not an end in literal sense, as if we could say, “December 21, 2012 will be the last day in history.” (Indeed? What comes next?) The need lies in the urge to transcend time, to overcome it, not in the false eternity of endless time but in transcendence. Practically every mystical tradition alludes to this state. One description of it that I’ve recently come across is in Man: A Three-Brained Being, a study of G.I. Gurdjieff’s teachings by Keith O. Buzzell. Buzzell writes: “From this [transcendent] perspective, consciousness in its most pure’ or elemental state, has no specific content (there are no images imbedded or appearing within the awareness). It is simply a state of awareness, not of awareness-of anything.'”
As paradoxical as this description may sound, most people with any extensive experience of meditation will find it familiar enough. This freedom from awareness of “specific content” would of course include the awareness of time. I strongly suspect that the human mind has a basic need to make regular contact with this state, whether the person in question is a Buddha or a businessman, and that much of the discomfort and disaffection in modern life comes from our failure to do so. For those who can free themselves in this way, time not only can end but does end in the genuine timelessness of eternity, even if such experiences eventually subside, leaving us to immerse ourselves again in the stream of events. Waiting for a literal end of time may be nothing more than a muted and unconscious longing for this liberation.
Barker, Margaret. The Revelation of Jesus Christ: Which God Gave to Him to Show to His Servants What Must Soon Take Place. Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 2000.
Buzzell, Keith O. Man: A Three-Brained Being: Resonant Aspects of Modern Science and the Gurdjieff Teaching. 2d ed. Salt Lake City: Fifth Press, 2007.
Pinchbeck, Daniel. 2012: The Return of Quetzalcoatl. New York: Tarcher Penguin, 2006.
Russell, Bertrand. The Problems of Philosophy. New York: Barnes & Noble, 2004 (1912).
Smoley, Richard. The Essential Nostradamus. New York: Tarcher Penguin, 2006.
Copyright ©2007 by Richard Smoley
Image by Reynard Karman, used via a Creative Commons license.