Winter 2001

Society and Culture

The End Was Nigh

John Meakin

The 1900s ended one year ago. But the world did not, despite much speculation to that effect. What didn’t people understand about the end of the world?

How quickly attitudes can change. Twelve months ago many people were in a state of anxiety and panic, fearing impending oblivion. We were approaching the end of a millennium. A plethora of books and articles addressed the issue. The end of the world was nigh, reflecting both religious and secular concerns for the future of society. 

For some 2,000 years there had been predictions of an imminent end—caused either by God or by natural events. But this time people were taking things more seriously, because science itself had joined the fray with its own extensive pick list of what we humans might do to ourselves.

The much publicized Y2K or millennium bug was perhaps the most urgent problem. It threatened to throw today’s digital world into unfathomable chaos as we all faced up to a little problem of computer dating. To everyone’s relief, this particular fear proved unfounded, thanks to—or perhaps in spite of—the estimated $600 billion spent to fix the bug that did not bite.

Adding to the unease, various religious groups focused on their interpretation of biblical prophecy and went into high gear—and high mountains with their food stores and guns—to await the apocalypse. Those expecting a secret rapture excitedly prepared for their removal from this earth. The Roman Catholic Church began its much heralded Jubilee celebrations, marking the supposed 2000th anniversary of the birth of Jesus Christ. They anticipated the flowering of a peaceful and more spiritual age led by the church. Meanwhile, New Age adherents predicted a paradigm shift—following unprecedented upheavals—to an enlightened, peaceful and love-filled Age of Aquarius.

Nevertheless, all apocalyptic predictions failed. And a year later, the end still looks unlikely to most people. With fears seemingly assuaged and forgotten, it is business as usual, with hardly anyone giving a thought to the concerns that dominated our attention a year ago.

Having apparently passed safely into a new millennium, our collective mood is more upbeat, positive and forward-looking. The world economy continues to boom. Globalization also continues, widening the prospect of increased prosperity for a growing number of nations. The International Space Station has accepted its first crew members, heralding a new era of space exploration. And advances in genetics and computer technology promise unprecedented improvements in life, work, health and human relationships. The world is at relative peace, and the future seems rosy.

So what was all the fuss about last year?

Hype and Glory 

There is something about human perceptions of “the end” that begs clarification.

The first thing to note is that the passing of the millennium is, of itself, of no great significance. It is an entirely arbitrary and artificial quirk of the calendar. Last year’s millennium celebrations, apart from being a year early, were actually based on an artificial construct stemming from peculiarities of the Gregorian calendar and modern social preferences: the fears and expectations about the world ending on January 1, 2000, were therefore groundless, based on nothing more than massive hype.

But does it really matter? Is it not enough that the world was united in joy and peace to usher in a notable—if subjective—date and, through the wonders of global television, to participate in celebrations the world over? Who can forget the Sydney Harbor Bridge and the Eiffel Tower, resplendent in their pyrotechnic glory?

Let’s consider the matter in a little more depth. According to Nathan Gardels, editor of New Perspectives Quarterly, “the turning of a millennium casts our concerns toward the ages, and the fate of civilizations” (At Century’s End, 1995, emphasis added). Even though most of us may have ceased to think in such terms, perhaps we should contemplate “the fate of civilizations.”

For most people, it’s admittedly difficult to think about questions of humanity’s collective fate. Our prosperous societies are largely sated; we are pampered by luxuries and awash in entertainment. That doesn’t leave us with much of a need to ponder deeply the direction of things.

Portents of the End 

For much of the 20th century there was a prevailing sense of crisis—of civilization unraveling, standards disintegrating, and accepted beliefs being overturned. Scientific progress unleashed intoxicating new idols. In its wake, the progressive excommunication of God, aided and abetted by the postmodern freedoms of deconstruction and relativism, left us without an anchor. Truths that had upheld former generations were undermined and denied.

The combined legacy of the 20th century left indelible scars on our collective psyche: the destructive nightmares of two world wars, the Cold War, economic depressions, famine, disease epidemics, climate change, environmental upheavals, earthquakes, genocide, nuclear weapons, moral collapse. It’s not surprising that people were attracted to what one author called “anxiety magnets” such as the predictions of Nostradamus, the total eclipse of the sun, the Y2K bug, and a host of other seemingly apocalyptic signs.

There is a “general view that our global problems are spinning out of control, whirling beyond the orbit of political remedy,” wrote freelance journalist Marina Benjamin. Summing up the last century, she stated: “If the twentieth century was swaddled in despair and dogged by evils throughout its adolescence and maturity, then in its old age, it appears to have descended into chaos. . . . Causes blur with their effects, events are confused with their media representations and everything seems impossibly interrelated: it’s like something Lewis Carroll might have invented. This hall-of-mirrors feel of late twentieth-century living has much to do with globalisation and mass communications, which appear to have shrunk the world only to multiply its contents, notably via a bewildering profusion of information” (Living at the End of the World, 1998).

Writing as the millennial anniversary neared, Damian Thompson likened it to “a giant magnet, drawing prophets everywhere into an apocalyptic force-field” (“Apocalypse Soon,” London Daily Telegraph, August 17, 1996).

Problems, Problems 

Many of the dire predictions of the last century have thus far failed to materialize. The anticipated global food shortage was averted via technology. The Cold War and its accompanying communist threat dissolved suddenly and without bloodshed. Predictions of social collapse and worldwide economic malaise proved inaccurate.

Many of the dire predictions of the last century have thus far failed to materialize. 

Nevertheless, these and other major problems have yet to be fully resolved.

For example, global warming continues at a quickening pace, creating a “slight” problem whose cause no one is quite sure about: experts insist that only a small change of the earth’s average temperatures is needed to produce drastic results. Meanwhile, a hole in the ozone layer—the size of America—gapes over Antarctica, the full significance of which scientists have yet to determine. And what will we do when, as some experts predict, world oil supplies run out?

European integration is heading for real challenges. Some fear the trend toward a federal European superstate. Predictions of a coming U.S. economic slowdown and the effect this would have on other nations is also cause for concern. The yawning North-South divide is as wide as ever, fueling discontent and demonstrations against the inexorable advance of capitalism.

The nuclear standoff of the Cold War may be over, but weapons of mass destruction have proliferated into other hands, adding to the fear of nuclear terrorism. Chemical and biological terrorism only increase our angst. AIDS continues its merciless cull of humanity, with almost the entire continent of Africa currently facing a massive death toll. Genetic engineering is raising increasing concerns that the very building blocks of life itself are being manipulated for commercial advantage.

And, overarching everything, human nature still hasn’t changed—yet the need for such change is more urgent than ever, as ethnic and religious conflicts amply demonstrate.

Will these and other problems yet lead to the end of civilization as we know it?

The End Is Coming 

Our search for answers leads us full circle to the unmistakable origin of the “end” question—the Bible. It teaches that human history has a clear beginning and will have a definite end. But what the Bible predicts about the end of human civilization may come as something of a surprise. That’s why one could say with some surety that the world would not end with the advent of the year 2000—an idea that rested on misinterpretation of the biblical message.

When Jesus Christ’s disciples asked Him about His return and the “end of the world” (Matthew 24:3, King James Version), their focus was not on the physical end of the earth and its civilization per se. They had in mind the end of the age of man’s rule (the Greek word translated “world” is aion, meaning “age”) and the commencement of a different age ruled by Jesus Christ as king, a reign identified elsewhere in Scripture as the kingdom of God.

In His reply, Christ described the many and varied conditions that would precede His return (verses 5–29). They included such things as deception, wars, famines, disease epidemics, earthquakes and religious persecution, all culminating in an unprecedented time of worldwide calamity. We have already experienced in the disastrous 20th century many harbingers of just such a calamity. But if we are to believe the prophecies of Scripture, there are many worse events yet to come.

If we are to believe the prophecies of Scripture, there are many worse events yet to come.

Jesus Christ’s return is characterized as taking place in order to save humankind from itself. “And unless those days were shortened, no flesh would be saved; but for the elect’s sake, those days will be shortened” (verse 22). Jesus Christ will return to this earth at a time of supreme trouble—to rule over it in peace, assisted by the resurrected saints, not to preside over its demise. The earth will be progressively restored and made beautiful, its problems dealt with and resolved. The expectation of Christ’s return is spelled out in the early New Testament record. The book of Acts says of God, “that He may send Jesus Christ, who was preached to you before, whom heaven must receive until the times of restoration of all things, which God has spoken by the mouth of all His holy prophets since the world began” (Acts 3:20–21).

The popular understanding, therefore, that the apocalypse or “end of the world” will usher in a foreboding time of universal destruction, when an angry God executes fiery judgment because of mankind’s sin, is wide of the mark. A closer examination of Scripture reveals an altogether more detailed and hope-filled picture.

Certainly the Bible shows that there is a horrendous time of worldwide human suffering to go through. Much of this is suffering we will bring upon ourselves by pursuing a wrong way of living. When God intervenes to decisively rescue humankind from the results of wrong living, it will entail an unprecedented time of upheaval and suffering as the returning Christ deals with human rebellion and misrule: “For the great day of His wrath has come, and who is able to stand?” (Revelation 6:17).

The Book of Revelation outlines a series of catastrophes, or plagues, that God Himself unleashes to bring a wayward humanity back under His control. But humankind will not easily relinquish its addiction to wrong ways of living: “The rest of mankind, who were not killed by these plagues, did not repent of the works of their hands, that they should not worship demons, and idols of gold, silver, brass, stone, and wood, which can neither see nor hear nor walk. And they did not repent of their murders or their sorceries or their sexual immorality or their thefts” (Revelation 9:20–21).

According to the Bible’s prophecies, these unprecedented events will reduce the world population to a fraction of its former levels—but they will not result in human extinction. We can be thankful that a merciful God will intervene to stop humanity from erasing all life from the earth, as it otherwise would succeed in doing. Once the world at large begins to obey God and His revealed way of life, a new age will blossom.

Troubled Transition 

If the world did not end in the year 2000, then it is also certain that “the end of the age” and the beginning of a peaceful millennial era—the promised thousand-year reign of Jesus Christ—likewise could not have begun with that specific date. Many biblical prophecies remain to be fulfilled before that event can take place.

Our worst fears, however, even if they were not fulfilled in the year 2000, do actually coincide with many biblical predictions. A time of unprecedented trouble is going to come, but no one can say exactly when it will be. Indeed, the Bible warns about its unexpected arrival at a time when things seem peaceful and settled (1 Thessalonians 5:1–3). We will know its general proximity by the occurrence of certain events that Jesus Christ outlined (see Matthew 24:15–22, 29–31).

The progression of man’s civilization will one day arrive at a point where the workings of human misrule, science, technology, economics, immorality, religion and war will culminate in one final conflagration. At that time God will intervene to prevent “the end” so that His plan for humankind may continue. The end is forestalled at that time, not because there isn’t an end, but because in the development of God’s plan for humanity it is not yet time for the end. When you think about it, what is missing from most end-time theories is an appreciation that it is God, not human beings, who will deliver us from the results of our own ways.

Finally, The End 

The Bible reveals that an end will indeed ultimately come—after the biblical thousand years of Christ’s earthly reign and the judgment that follows it (see Revelation 20): “Then comes the end, when He delivers the kingdom to God the Father, when He puts an end to all rule and all authority and power. For He must reign till He has put all enemies under His feet” (1 Corinthians 15:24–25).

That point may mark the end of physical human existence as we know it, but not the end of life itself. Revelation 21 and 22 go on to describe the next stage of God’s unfolding plan for His creation. So, even though we will one day reach the end of the historical development of humankind, it is actually not so much an ending as it is a new beginning.