It feels like we’re going through a particularly turbulent period of human history – what with the Covid-19 pandemic, the war in Ukraine, the technological upending of human relations and let’s not forget climate catastrophe on the horizon.
It is no surprise then that the Rapture Index – yes, there is such a thing, measuring “end-of-time activity” – has hit 188. This, according to its evangelical Christian creators, is “fasten-your-seatbelts” territory, and just one point off an all-time-high reading from October 2016 (recorded shortly after the Brexit vote and on the eve of Donald Trump’s election as US president).
Predictions of the end of the world are, of course, notoriously unreliable. One of the most famous was James Ussher’s forecast that Armageddon would arrive at noon on October 23rd, 1997, exactly 6,000 years since creation, according to the Church of Ireland archbishop’s calculations.
But even if you laugh off such cosmic speculation, it is tempting to contemplate that the end is nigh. Tempting, that is, if you live in a society immersed in the Abrahamic traditions of the Torah, the Bible or the Koran.
It is a more western bias to place ourselves at the centre of the natural world
“The sense of living close to the end of history is, I think, a legacy of the western religions,” says Judith Wolfe, an expert in eschatology – that branch of human thinking concerned with the end of the world.
“Unlike the eastern religions, Judaism, Christianity and Islam share a belief in history as a story: a narrative arc with a beginning and an end. The world was created by a loving God, who brings his creative purposes – the joy of his creatures – to fulfilment, even amid human darkness and confusion. Important to this world view is that individual human lives and history as a whole are linked: both are filled with ambiguity and strife, but look forward in hope to salvation and fulfilment; both reach that salvation only through judgment and transformation.”
In Hinduism, all life goes through birth, life, death and then rebirth in an endless cycle known as samsara. It is a more western bias to place ourselves at the centre of the natural world – as though our fortunes determine the ultimate fate of all creation.
But is there a deeper psychological instinct at play – a human impulse to believe that one is living in exceptional times?
Whether or not this instinct is “universal”, Wolfe replies, “it’s certainly a human impulse to find solid ground to stand on when we feel the ground crumbling around us”.
She adds: “In times of intellectual, social, political, economic and natural crisis, we need ways of making sense of a nonsensical world. In such a situation, eschatology can give us a framework for sense-making by making us ask about the ‘last things’ or ‘ultimate things’. If we don’t ask these questions consciously, we tend to reach for the coping strategy of giving ultimate significance to things that aren’t ultimate: much of today’s tendency towards radicalisation and near-religious fervour for – often conflicting – ideologies is at heart a frantic search for solid ground.”
So thinking about the end of the world is not necessary a negative thing. In Christianity it is bound up with the Last Judgment, an event that looms over us – literally in the case of Michelangelo’s fresco in the Sistine Chapel – to remind us to get our act in order, or to prepare for the second coming of Christ.
Faith in God's reckoning can lead to some strange views within evangelical circles. Days after Russia's invasion of Ukraine, American televangelist Pat Robertson came out of retirement to assert that Russian president Vladimir Putin was acting on a divine plan. "You can say, well, Putin's out of his mind. Yes, maybe so," Robertson said. "But at the same time, he's being compelled by God … And God is getting ready to do something amazing and that will be fulfilled."
People often reach for apocalyptic expectations in response to destruction that only a God could save us from
The idea that negative world events are reaching an imminent climax seems to depend on a vengeful God rather than a loving God. Does Wolfe agree? “The ‘end times’ are often associated with suffering, upheaval, conflict, catastrophe,” she says.
“This terror is not usually imagined as the result of God’s wrath, but as the climax of the human capacity for evil and destruction. In fact, people often reach for apocalyptic expectations in response to witnessing such horrific destruction that only a God could save us from it. Of course, apocalyptic expectation also includes expectation of judgment, but that is often a matter of hope as much as fear: a matter of faith that however much evil may prevail unpunished in the world, there will, at the last, be justice for the oppressed and release for the abused.”
Capacity for destruction
Wolfe is one of a number of leading theologians and metaphysicians who are gathering in Maynooth this week to debate the future of Christian thinking at a three-day conference.
Organiser Philip Gonzales of St Patrick’s Pontifical University says: “If history has taught us anything it is our unimaginable capacity for destruction and violence, along with our desire for power and mastery. The Christian apocalypse beckons us to acknowledge and move away from this dark reality of the human heart.” Whatever existential threats exist, “God is love and inherently non-violent”, according to Gonzales.
But does eschatology have any real place in a scientifically literate society? We don’t need to consult the Book of Revelation when we have climate scientists telling us what factually awaits us if we fail to tackle global warming. And in the longer term, the consensus among cosmologists is that the universe will keep expanding for trillions of years until it ends in a “big rip”, a “big crunch” or some other weird event.
Can Christian eschatology be married with such scientific forecasts or is it a case of having to choose one or the other?
“Humans now have in their power possibilities of destruction that were, in the past, restricted entirely to literary or religious fantasy,” says Wolfe. “More than ever, we feel, like Goethe’s Sorcerer’s Apprentice, that we have unleashed dark powers which we can no longer reliably control or restrain. In this situation, more than ever, we face the question whether ‘this is it’: whether, if total destruction really comes, there is anything to hope for.
Religion does open a horizon of hope – that God's good purposes run deeper
“Religion doesn’t, or shouldn’t, be a substitute for personal and corporate responsibility; it shouldn’t lull people into inaction or wishful thinking. The biblical authors see humans as having responsibility for the Earth, as being accountable for their stewardship to God himself. But religion does open a horizon of hope: a faith that our own greed and destruction are not the deepest truth about the world or about our lives – that God’s good purposes run deeper.”
Prof Judith Wolfe is among the speakers at The Future of Christian Thinking conference at St Patrick’s Pontifical University in Maynooth on April 28th-30th