Picture this: you’re a clever Mesoamerican native with a proven talent for astronomy. It’s sometime in the first century BCE or CE, and you’ve devoted a huge portion of your life to creating an impressively accurate calendar for future generations. After you’ve come up with a very nice-looking calendar that projects around two thousand years into the future, you stop. You may be either bored (try this exercise at home and see how far you get before you need a mental health break), feeling lazy, ready to focus on other things, or you’re simply doubtful about whether people will still need your calendar 2,000 years from now.
Fast-forward to the year 2012 – your civilization has vanished, humanity has made some serious progress in astronomy, and there’s both a new science and a new religion that have replaced your sources for the calendar. And yet the date you choose to end on (you had to end somewhere) is producing enormous amounts of buzz in the media. Cue the “2012 Phenomenon”, an only half-tongue-in-cheek belief that the world will end in 2012, a belief largely based on the Mayan calendar’s ending. Why, people ask, would we believe in the Mayans’ end-date but not, for instance, their mythology?
Christian commentators are quick to scoff at this Neo-First-Century-Mesoamerican superstition – they heap on derisive critiques about “idolatry” or statements like, “you have to worship something – those crazy agnostics are just as religious as we are, but they’re so immature for believing in this Mayan stuff!” But these derisions miss the obvious fact that this is only the first secular (secular in the sense that few of the “2012” hawks ascribe to Mayan religion) manifestation of the end-of-the-world phenomenon. Undoubtedly, this apocalyptic mania was incubated and popularized by Christians.
From the early Church’s anticipation of Christ’s return within many of their lifetimes; to the Millerites’ Great Disappointment; to Hal Lindsey’s The Late Great Planet Earth, the best-selling nonfiction book of the ‘70s; Christians have always had a bias towards interpreting eschatological predictions as things that were occurring in their own lifetimes. I’m not interested in trying to adjudicate between pre- and post- millennialism here, nor am I trying to make a case for Antichrist as Domitian, Nicolae Carpathia, or anyone else who seems evil or unpleasant. Since “no man may know”, the really interesting thing about End-Times thought is the window it provides into human nature and psychology.
First, we could say that we’re profoundly narcissistic. Most Christians since the Rapture idea was popularized (beginning in 1827) have held a bias toward believing that it will happen in their lifetimes, towards believing that their age or generation was somehow a special one. It’s an absurd bias, statistically speaking, for all but the earliest Christians. But we are not statistical, perfectly rational creatures – emotions play a major role in all or judgments. It can hardly be a coincidence that almost all end-time predictions set the date for within the predictor’s lifetime. These fine emotional shadings, for whatever reason, want to make our time, generation, or ecclesial period exceptional.
Second, we have an extreme intellectual overconfidence in trying to ‘figure out’ the mind of God. Again, Matthew 24:36 is a strong Maginot Line against these predictions – even though the verse has been circumvented quite publicly (again, see “Great Disappointment”). People are often eager to sit down with, some historical charts, a Book of Daniel and sometimes a calculator to prove decisively when the world will end. It’s an overconfidence in service of the aforementioned narcissism: the meticulously calculated date usually ends up being both in the author’s lifetime and usually very, very soon.
Finally, there’s a strand of thought which ebbs and flows throughout recent history, one which views human beings as the agents to bring about the Second Coming. The reasoning goes like this: we must prepare the world for Christ; it is up to us. It is only when we create a near-perfect world, usually through political reform, that we can facilitate the Kingdom of God. This idea rests on the inveterate human need to earn God’s gifts and be continually in control. Its offshoot is often a secularized form of utopianism. Eric Voegelin called this school of thought “immanentizing the eschaton.” Geopolitically, the results of this kingdom-forcing on a large scale have been largely tragic (Voegelin himself was an exile from Nazi Germany, the most obvious target for his political theory).
Potentially the most helpful thing about eschatology is that it posits a world beyond our own, a coming transformation and renewal of everything into an unimaginable kingdom of God about which we know very, very little. Richard Bauckham wrote that the four ‘living creatures’ in God’s inner circle in Revelation 4 serve to heighten the mystery and unapproachability of God by keeping humans out of the center of things. Eschatology as a whole does this by relativizing all of our human hopes, desires, disappointments and expectations, with the word that “behold, I make all things new” (Rev 21:5). Here lies the grace of eschatology, and the fact it forces us to take our Bible codes and utopian agendas a little less seriously is (or should be) great comfort. While much of the end-times hype (yes, even on the Christian side) gives us yet another venue for self-assertion, self-reliance, and self-centricity, a responsible eschatology should produce the opposite.
Bonus: To hear NASA’s take: