The next time you’re feeling vexed about American voters’ inability to think clearly about energy dependence or global warming or just building a damned train tunnel from New Jersey to New York, remind yourself that 22% of Americans believe the world will end during their lifetimes. It’s hard to get people to participate in long-range planning when they’ve got their suitcases packed for the Rapture.
Everyone wants to live in interesting times, I suppose. No one wants to die for nothing, just like the other guy. Prophesizing the end of the world is good business and it always has been, whether you’re selling papal indulgences, Mayan crystals or King James Bibles. It was good for Adventist founder William Miller in the 1840s and it sells books to this day for Hal Lindsey. Lately, Glenn Beck has gotten into the apocalypse business and radio evangelist Harold Camping and his family are said to have made millions promulgating the End Times.
Lately I’ve been reading Elaine Pagels’ “Revelations: Visions, Prophecy & Politics In The Book Of Revelation.” The Book of Revelation is the exciting book at the end of the New Testament with the breaking of the seven seals, the whore of Babylon, the Four Horsemen, the beast with ten horns and seven heads, exploding volcanoes, and that 666 number of the beast. The whole apocalypse blow-by-blow calendar of events. It was written by a Jewish militant and follower of Christ exiled to the island of Patmos (off the coast of what is now Turkey) by the Romans in C.E. 90. John of Patmos was one of many Jews of that era radicalized and embittered by the slaughter of thousands of Jews and the destruction of the Great Temple at Jerusalem by the Roman army in C.E. 70.
If you had to boil the Book of Revelation down to its essence, it’s one guy ranting and raving about all the bad things that are going to happen to everyone–mostly Romans and traitorous Jews accommodating to Roman rule–who messed with God’s chosen people. John was born after Jesus’s death, but was greatly influenced by the writings of Jesus’s disciples, particularly Peter, Paul, and Jesus’s brother, James. Writing in C.E. 90, John would almost certainly have been aware of the grisly deaths met by all three. (Peter was crucified upside down; Paul of Tarsus was whipped and beheaded. James, regarded by many at the time as Jesus’s successor, was stoned by a mob before the Jerusalem Temple.)
What’s interesting about John is how contemporary all of his concerns were. He saw the tyranny of Roman rule as the rule of Satan on earth that must immediately precede God’s triumphant return. Much of his imagery–the whore of Babylon, the great horned beasts of sea and land, the dragon with seven heads–are thinly veiled renderings of Roman institutions. Even the number of the beast is based on a numerological system called gematria that ancient Jews used to assign a numerical value to each letter. Thus, 666 simply denotes the imperial name of Nero.
John, like many Americans today, was convinced that he was living in the End Times. He regarded the razing of the Great Temple as the sign that God’s vengeance was already at hand. He got this idea from Jesus, who addresses a crowd, in Mark 9:1, saying, “There are some standing here who will not die until they see the Kingdom of God having come with power … I tell you this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place.” These “things” are wars, famines, earthquakes, and the destruction of the Great Temple. Of the Temple, Jesus says to his followers, also in the Gospel of Mark, “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.”
Two thousand years later, the diehards are still waiting. Substitute the pending Iran War for the destruction of the Great Temple, switch going off the gold standard for the branding of 666, and have Barack Obama stand in for Nero. Nothing dims the true believers’ certainty that this time it’s for real. Everyone wants existence to mean something. Everyone wants to be redeemed. No one wants to consider the bleak truth, which is that we’re here for a short while and then we go away.
Another interesting thing about the Book of Revelation is that it was but one of many similar End Times tracts circulating in the early centuries C.E. When archeologists unearthed a hidden cache of ancient Christian writings at Nag Hammadi in Upper Egypt in 1945, they found the Gnostic gospels and dozens of apocryphal Books of Revelation, most very different from John’s version. Predicting the end of the world in graphic terms of God’s vengeance on the Romans was a popular pastime for Jews with a literary calling in the first century. It was a whole literary category, like spy thrillers are today. John’s version was the last book added to the New Testament, in the 4th century C.E.
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At night, when I’m trying to sleep, I imagine the world as it was before mankind’s anomalous and startling rise to prominence and how it will be after we’re gone. Nature unchecked and time unquantified. Days summed up in insect buzz, the falling of a few leaves, maybe a fox padding across a clearing at midday. All that uninterrupted stillness.
On the other hand, who is to say that mankind is our humble earth’s last catastrophic experiment with sentient life? Maybe some time in the far distant future, hundreds of millions of years from now, advanced crickets or telekinetic metallic oxides will rise to the top of the food chain and grow capable of altering the earth for good or ill.
And then, who knows? Maybe they’ll burrow down through the layers and layers of archeological time, stratum upon stratum, all the way down to a microscopically thin layer of sediment between the dinosaurs and the Great Era Of Dust, and find the fossilized imprints of cellphones and AK-47s and Happy Meal toys, and think to themselves Be careful of what you do and why. Your time, too, will come and pass away.
Related: The End Is Near