Winter 2010

Philosophy and Ideas

2012: The End of the World (Yet Again)?

Peter Nathan

The year 2000 came and went. If we flash back for a moment, we’ll recall that in the lead-up to 2000, chaos was predicted to envelop our computerized and electrified civilization. It was called Y2K: a simple flaw in computer software design was supposed to bring about the end of the civilized world. Power stations, telecommunications, bank accounts, billing processes were all supposed to grind to a halt or be thrown into a state of chaos. 

But it never happened. Instead, the end of 1999 and the beginning of 2000 is best remembered for the stupendous displays of fireworks in principal cities of the world, many of them televised and shared with viewers in all nations. The specter of doomsday was a phantom.

A decade later, where are we? Wars are being fought in Iraq and Afghanistan using sophisticated computerized weaponry. A languishing global economy is desperately trying to revive itself. The Internet is an indispensable part of life for the majority in the Western world and even for a considerable number of individuals in the developing world. And we are being told about another approaching doomsday.

If we are to believe the latest hype, December 21 or 23, 2012, is when the world will really come to a climactic end. This time the fear has been sparked by an interpretation of the ancient Mayan calendar, furthered by numerous books and documentaries. And it has spawned, perhaps predictably, yet another Hollywood disaster movie.

The supposed cataclysm of 2012 may appear to be corroborated by some sources, ranging from economics to science. That’s not to say that 2012 is necessarily central to their concerns; in some cases, it’s just a convenient peg on which to hang their hat as they rally support for other pet theories.

But does the Mayan calendar really speak of an end of the world, or is it just the end of one calendar cycle—a recurring event according to Mayan reckoning? Those who have studied the calendar and the culture that developed it dismiss the entire end-of-the-world prediction as a misinterpretation of the data: they say that it doesn’t speak of an end per se but of a new beginning. 

Still, the Mayan calendar is not the only source of current apocalyptic angst. The words of Nostradamus also figure heavily into the latest prognostications. In fact, an Internet search on “Nostradamus 2012” yields nearly 1.5 million hits. Nostradamus wrote on religious themes; indeed, the 2012 theme has become a phenomenon for the New Age movement and thus a religious event.

But the 16th-century seer’s writings, recorded in quatrains, or poetry in four-line format, are flexible enough to support any of several apocalyptic scenarios that are being put forward today. One Web site that provides resources and background material for those interested in 2012 offers this evaluation of Nostradamus: “He is best known for his book Les Propheties. . . . Many of his prophecies dealt with disaster such as plagues, earthquakes, wars, floods and the coming of three antichrists. However his predictions are vague and people tend to apply his words to many situations.”

It’s an appropriate comment. People have often used Nostradamus to bolster their own predictions, though so far his mystical verses have proved most accurate when superimposed onto past events.

Doomsday's Pull

So why are so many drawn in, or at least intrigued, by apocalyptic hype every time a new theory emerges? Average people of all descriptions tend to be at least somewhat interested in speculating about future events and the possible demise of civilization as we know it. Banking on this inclination, Slate magazine (August 7, 2009) offered a chance to “choose your own apocalypse.” Offering 144 scenarios, they asked readers to weigh in on how “the greatest of the world’s great powers,” America, would most likely fall.

And let’s be realistic: not all end-time scenarios are completely far-fetched. For example, one of the phenomena that have been linked to 2012 is a polar shift, and astronomers say that this could certainly occur in the foreseeable future. But with our current knowledge, such an event can’t be linked to any specific date; nor, more importantly, does it portend disaster (see “Turning the World Upside Down”).  With regard to the economy, calamity could occur at any time, before or after December 2012, if a rash action by the government of some major power triggers a collapse of the global financial system. But we can only speculate about the timing or even the results.

In a way, the 2012 hype is only the very tip of an iceberg, in that interest in “the end” is not a new phenomenon. For Western civilization, the roots lie deep in Judeo-Christian aspects of eschatology—the study of “the end” or “the last.” For millennia, writers and sages have foretold the end of the world, and the Bible contains some of the oldest and best known of these accounts.

But such a study is not the exclusive preserve of the Judeo-Christian culture. The ancient Greeks also discussed the end of the world, though for them it was in the domain of philosophy, whereas in Judaism, Christianity and Islam it was always a religious and theological matter. Moving farther afield, we find that Buddhism has its own variety of eschatology, whereby a person escapes the restraints of the physical to attain an ultimate state of Nirvana. 

In the 21st century, we find all these ideas melding together. It is as though something in the human genome makes us understand that all is not right with the human condition; we witness, incessantly and with glaring detail from even remote parts of the earth, the suffering and death that are so much a part of life. We just know that some change needs to take place for humanity to accomplish its rightful place in the universe.

Bill T. Arnold of Asbury Theological Seminary, writing in the Oxford Handbook of Eschatology, addresses this unhappiness from the perspective of the Old Testament prophets: “Such a conviction that the intrinsic depravity of the present world will someday be overturned results in an eschatological ethic, calling upon God’s people to live faithfully to the covenant and the righteousness enjoined by the prophets.”

But people in the 21st-century developed world are surely not driven by such mystical ideals as are contained in the writings of the prophets—are they? As unlikely as it may seem, such appears to be the case. In fact, James Cameron’s latest blockbuster movie, Avatar, appeals to some of these Western sensibilities. It speaks to the fact that humanity is not satisfied with its role within the cosmos and the handling of its responsibilities. Analyzing Cameron’s movie in a December 21, 2009, New York Times op-ed column, Ross Douthat observed: “Religion exists, in part, precisely because humans aren’t at home amid these cruel rhythms [of suffering and death as a part of nature]. We stand half inside the natural world and half outside it. We’re beasts with self-consciousness, predators with ethics, mortal creatures who yearn for immortality.”

Perhaps another way to put it is that humanity stands above the rest of creation and recognizes that it is to some degree responsible for it, a role with which even the earliest biblical record of human life agrees (see, for example, Genesis 2:15). It reinforces a concept broached by David Novak, a rabbi and professor in philosophy at the University of Toronto. Speaking of Jewish eschatology, he suggests: “It might well be concerned with the final realization of both human and divine hopes for each other.”

What Have We Learned?

Lessons of the past should help us evaluate and temper ideas such as those surrounding 2012.

The writings of the Jewish people bear witness to the frailty of human judgment in such matters. In the late Second Temple Period, beginning shortly before the start of the current era, numerous groups scoured the Scriptures seeking to understand the timing of the Messiah’s coming, and thus the end of the age, based on prophecies recorded in Daniel.

Roger T. Beckwith, who wrote Calendar and Chronology, Jewish and Christian: Biblical, Intertestamental and Patristic Studies, sets out the scenarios developed during that time and recorded in various extra-biblical writings. The potential timing of the event ranged from 10 B.C.E. to 240 C.E., a span of perhaps seven or eight generations. All the predictions focused on the same prophecy—Daniel 9, commonly referred to as the 70-weeks prophecy—but they used different dates for the starting point. Not surprisingly, therefore, they reached different dates for the conclusion, when the Messiah would appear to deliver the nation.

The whole exercise disappeared within mainstream Judaisms, however, when Hadrian banned Jews from Jerusalem following the Bar Kochba revolt in 132–135 C.E. That revolt was actually motivated in large part by Messianic expectations and claims. But with Jerusalem no longer accessible to Jews, the fulfillment of the prophecy as then understood appeared to lose context. How could it be fulfilled when Jerusalem had been taken from them?

Apart from Kabbalah, the mystical branch of Jewish study, attempts to chart the coming of the Messiah are now largely lost. It is not that Jews don’t believe in it anymore, but their belief is tempered by an appreciation that they can’t establish the timing of the event. This has not prevented some Jews from claiming Messiahship themselves (for example, Sabbatai Zevi, 1626–1676) or, now that Jerusalem is again the center of the Jewish world, attempting to precipitate events to bring about the appearance of the Messiah.

Most Jews, of course, rejected Jesus Christ as the Messiah. Those who did follow Him came to understand after His death that He would return to the earth at some future time. But He warned His followers not to be caught in debates over the timing of His second coming. Matthew and Mark recorded Jesus’ words in their Gospels, to the effect that no human being could know the day or time of His return. Jesus continued by showing His disciples what was important as they waited: they were to focus on honoring God and treating one another with godly respect and with a sense of responsibility for each other (Matthew 24:36–51; 25:1–46; Mark 13:32–37). This reinforced concepts previously established by the prophets, as noted by Asbury’s Bill Arnold.

Sadly the lesson has been learned by too few of those who have claimed to be Christ’s followers. Some at the time of the Protestant Reformation, discarding Roman Catholic notions of the church as the kingdom of God, and possibly learning from certain Jewish kabbalists, set the scene in Western society by once again fixing dates for the end of the world. From the late 16th century onward, many Christians, especially those of Puritan or Calvinistic leanings, have actively sought to establish that date. It need hardly be pointed out that all attempts so far have failed miserably.

Regular readers of Vision will appreciate that we accept the Bible as the Word of God. Accordingly we understand that an end-time apocalyptic event will happen in the future, and that it will heal the rupture that occurred between the Creator God and His creation. The timing of that event is not given to human understanding, but the responsibility of people who await it is clearly spelled out.

History shows, however, that humanity wants to know the particulars of the event on its own terms, without considering the demands placed on us by our Creator. To such people, the Bible issues a warning: it will occur at a time when they least expect it (Matthew 24:44; Mark 13:33).

Come December 2012, the proclaimed end will most likely turn out to be just like all the other ends of the world that people have predicted over the centuries. Meanwhile, aren’t our energy and attention better devoted to caring for what we have been given and to treating one another as we would treat ourselves and as God treats us?