THE BLOG
07/29/2016 03:58 pm ET Updated Jul 30, 2017

What is the End of the World ?

Every year of the calendar, for ages and ages, up to and including this year, there have been religious persons convinced that the end of the world was coming soon. People in numerous religions have held this view. But the end never comes.

It would disclose a high degree of vanity in me were I to announce that the end of the world would occur during my life span. If the whole panoply of world history comes to an end in my life, that would make me pretty special indeed. It also means my worldview would be dramatically and cataclysmically affirmed as the correct interpretation of all things. It would mean too that I'd likely not endure a dram of pain via dotage and death.

Every few decades true-blue end-timers rid themselves of possessions, quit jobs, and sometimes travel to remote spots to wait--because the end is coming 'Tuesday.' Then Wednesday happens. Every time.

But why must the world come to an end for a religious person? Isn't it be enough for my own singular life to come to an end? If I am so desirous to see the otherworld, to see God, I may do so any day through the portal of death. I needn't take the entire world with me.

As with so many other opinions emerging from religious literature, end-of-the-world belief is yet another instance of readers lacking literary sophistication.

The End of the World is Not Really About the End of the World

Keep in mind that the end of the world idea is a literary invention. Gifted ancient writers, using literary devices like verisimilitude, allegory, imagery, hyperbole, metaphor, and symbol, dreamed it up.

In religious literature, stories about the beginning of the world are not really about the actual beginning of the world. Stories about the end of the world are not really about the actual end of the world. In fact, origin stories are not about the past at all: they are not eyewitness reportage, they are not history, they are not diary entries detailing actual bygone events. Similarly, end-time stories are not about the future at all: they are not predictions, they are not vaticinations, they are not crystal-ball visions.

If stories of the beginnings are not about the past, and if stories of endings are not about the future, then what time period are these stories about? The answer is that these stories are really about the PRESENT--any present. The stories are fictive efforts offered as instructions for the present moment.

Religious stories of beginnings often describe utopias past--perfect places that serve to indict any present moment as morally inferior and needing correction. These utopias did not exist in the past. (No Eden.) But as fictional stories of a perfect past they serve as utopic indictments of the present.

Religious stories of the end of the world often describe horrific dystopias--morally tainted places that serve to indict any present moment as risking a slick slope to ethical oblivion. Depictions of these dystopias are instructive fictions, not windows on actual future events.

Literalizing these stories misses the point of their literary art. The authors who conjured these stories knew they weren't depicting actual events and never intended the stories to be taken literally.

The Real End of the World and Its Religious Use

The actual end of the world is seven billion years out, timed to the dramatic convulsions of our sun, at which time other planets--Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn Uranus, Neptune (and Pluto?)--will also meet their end. Ten billions years of existence will have been a good run for Mother Earth, who will have kept all our remains to herself so as to bequeath them to a beneficient furnace called Sol, Solle, Sonne, Zon, and a thousand other names.

A long-lived Earth need not trouble the otherworld, the other side, heaven, hell or any place in between. The otherworld had already been up and running for eternity past, which is quite a bit longer than the ten billion years allotted to earth, and the otherworld marches on into future eternality. As to the otherworld's human residents, they've been entering the otherworld since Cro-Magnons padded Europe in bear socks and smocks thirty thousand years ago. And earth's inhabitants can continue entering the otherworld for hundreds of thousands of years, perhaps millions. The otherworld, existing perhaps 'outside of time,' is not diminished by earth's longevity.

The religious use of the literal end of the world, seven billion years from now, includes the following piece of advice: Make the moral most of your mere-near century of oxygenated existence, and in the years you draw breath, love the other sentient beings who overlap your time on earth, and value the present with a view to the future and a consideration for the past, and laugh (tenderly) at all those presuming to see an end where there are only more beginnings.


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