End of the World?

In my home growing up, we had a glass-top coffee table in the living room, and tucked away underneath was our family Bible. I was five years old when I opened it up, out of curiosity. What was this huge book doing in the middle of the living room, in a place of pride, although I never saw anyone ever read it? More to the point: would there be pictures? And there were. This Bible happened to feature illustrations by the great French artist and engraver Gustave Dore, and I fell in love. I can still feel my sense of wonder from all those years ago. The Creation of Light. The Ten Commandments. Scenes from Jesus’ ministry. Paul’s words from First Thessalonians, come alive: “For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of an archangel, and with the trumpet of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air.” I saw it.

And it triggered something in me—especially pictures like this last one, portraying the End of the World, the Apocalypse. I was only five, but I got what the pictures were saying. The world I lived in was a world of limitation and despair—I knew this first hand from my family—but total transformation was possible. Power existed that was too vast for me to even imagine. And it both scared me and thrilled me, in exactly the way that writer Richard Bach puts it: “What the caterpillar calls the end of the world, the master calls a butterfly.” The End of the World scenes made me feel like the caterpillar and the master, all at once. I was so moved by it all that, one day while I was out playing, I looked up at the sky, and it was a sky full of clouds somewhat similar to the Gustave Dore illustration entitled the Last Judgment, in which there are tiers of clouds, and God and Jesus are at the top, and angels fly down from above, and great rivers of souls stream upwards to heaven or downwards to hell. The clouds in my sky reminded me of the clouds in the picture—and then for an instant, I thought I saw the two merge. The Last Judgment, happening right now! Angels flying and souls streaming and God and Jesus above it all—RIGHT NOW in my Peace River, Alberta sky! All there! But then, in the exact moment I blinked, all gone. Nothing had happened, and everything.

Ever since, I’ve wondered about that moment. Overheated imagination? Hallucination? Nothing remotely like it has ever happened since (well, I DID hallucinate that the Falcons would go all the way to the Super Bowl this year). But I come away from it all with a sincere appreciation of something that the comparative mythologist Joseph Campbell once said: “Mythology is no toy for children. Nor is it a matter of archaic, merely scholarly concern, of no moment to modern [people] of action. For its symbols (whether in the tangible form of images or in the abstract form of ideas) touch and release the deepest centers of motivation, moving literate and illiterate alike, moving mobs, moving civilizations.” Moving this five year old. “All the gods,” says Joseph Campbell, “all the heavens, all the hells, are within you”—and my first lesson in this came from a family Bible, tucked away underneath a glass-top coffee table.

It just won’t stay tucked away. That’s the point. The Apocalypse is a myth not in the sense of being false but rather in the sense of expressing an ageless human yearning for total transformation. “There is something in the soul that cries out for freedom,” says Martin Luther King, Jr. We are born with a feeling for this, and it’s triggered again and again by stories and symbols we encounter in culture. All the gods and monsters and heavens and hells. And when they grow stale, we invent others. Like 2012. Or Zombies. (Zombies, you may know, are wildly popular these days. More than any other monster, they signal that the apocalypse is at hand.) The myth just never ends, because it’s part of our DNA. So the real question becomes, How can we take this myth seriously without merging the story we happen to be reading at the time with our here and now lives? How can we stay connected to the myth without being possessed by it? That’s what I want to talk about today. The myth of the End of the World.

It’s definitely not restricted to the Christian Bible. That’s the first thing we want to know. In the Buddhist tradition, for example, we have a version of the End Times that envisions people as acting in increasingly bad ways. According to the Cakkavati sutta, people used to be wise and ethical and actively tend to their spiritual development, and because of these “skillful means,” their life spans were immensely long—80,000 years! But when things started to sour, life spans started to decrease. Now it’s only 100 years or so, but the story sees even more decrease, until the normal life span becomes 10 years. At this point, says the Cakkavat sutta, humanity will have degenerated to the point that people hunt one another like game. However, a few people will take shelter in the wilderness to escape the carnage, and when the slaughter is over, they will come out of hiding and resolve to reverse the course of things. They will make for a new start, and slowly recover the wisdom and ethics and spiritual development techniques that had been lost over the ages. The story ends with human life spans gradually increasing until they return to what they had once been: 80,000 years.

Note here something that is characteristic of Eastern eschatologies, or theories of the ultimate destiny of humanity. Eastern visions of this are characteristically cyclical, because time is cyclical. Birth, growth, decay, death, and rebirth go on forever. Buddhism’s Cakkavati sutta sees humanity hit rock bottom, but then comes renewal, and the cycle begins again. Hinduism tells an even more expansive story. When the system of universe declines to the point that it is fatally dysfunctional—good and evil irredeemably out of whack with each other—the god Shiva in its aspect of Destroyer will dissolve the universe, but only to smooth the way for the creation of a new universe and new possibility. There is no End to everything here. Ultimate destiny is cyclical in nature.

It’s very different from what we see in Western versions of eschatology. In the West, time is like an arrow. One way, one direction. Clear beginning, clear end. Take Zoroastrianism’s version of the myth, as told by Unitarian Universalist writer Doug Muder: “[T]he whole world is a battleground, and there is a war going on all the time. It started thousands of years ago, and it’s going to last for 12 thousand years altogether. And this is the war between Good and Evil, between the Army of Light led by Ahura Mazda and the Army of Darkness led by Ahriman. Everybody has to choose to join one side or the other, and this is the most important choice you make in your whole life: Are you going to fight on the side of Good or the side of Evil? The war is destined to go back and forth, and at times it will look as if Ahriman is going to win. But no matter how bad things look, you shouldn’t be fooled and go over to join the Army of Darkness. Because at the end of the 12 thousand years there will be one final battle, and the forces of Light will defeat the forces of Darkness once and for all. And all those who signed on with the Army of Light and fought for the Light in that great battle will be rewarded.” That’s the story. Note that there is nothing cyclical in this version of ultimate destiny. The arrow of time moves relentlessly forward, to an end.

You might have also noticed something else about this story. Major echoes with what we find in Jewish and Christian apocalyptic traditions. The struggle of God and his Messiah against the Antichrist. Satan and his demons. There is a reason for this. Zoroastrian writings, which originally came from Persia (now Iran), are hundreds of years older than any Jewish and Christian texts, and they traveled, they spread. Says Jonathan Kirsch, author of A History of the End of the World, “the birthplace of the Apocalyptic idea, and much else that we find [in Judaism and Christianity], may have been ancient Persia rather than the Holy Land.”

Now let’s pause here for a moment. What world mythology affirms is our ageless yearning for total transformation. Even as the stories telling it are many, and different, the basic underlying theme is the same, and universal. Whether time is cyclic or time is an arrow. Whatever the heavens and hells look like, or the gods and monsters involved. The underlying theme is just as Dr. King once said: “There is something in the soul that cries out for freedom.” There is something in the soul that can’t help but express the yearning in big dramatic symbols.

Perhaps this explains the compulsion to pronounce new end time prophesies and predictions, even though every prediction from the past has been proven wrong, and every time, the world has refused to end. Every time. And yet, undaunted, new prophets arise. Just more evidence that what’s driving things is in our blood, our DNA.

Let’s run through a brief history of this. Stay within Western tradition. Jesus in the Gospel of Mark, saying, “If anyone says to you, ‘Look, here is the Christ!’ or ‘Look, He is there!,’ do not believe it. But of that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” In other words, don’t fall into the temptation that you can know when the world will end. Don’t fool yourself into thinking this. Don’t stop living and don’t stop caring because it’s all going to end tomorrow or next week or on December 21, 2012. Don’t. This is Jesus talking! But who listens to Jesus? The history of Christianity is littered with people trying to crack the code of the book of Revelation and merging their lives into that book’s storyline. They make solemn predictions, and they are never right. Paul around 49CE, telling fellow Christians to get ready. It’s going to happen soon. And it doesn’t. Decades later, someone authoritative writes in Paul’s name so as to do some damage control, says “Now concerning the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our assembling to meet him, we beg you, brethren, not to be quickly shaken in mind or excited, either by spirit or by word, or by letter purporting to be from us, to the effect that the day of the Lord has come.” That’s damage control. Paul was wrong.

But it doesn’t stop the predictions. Something in the soul cries out for freedom. Such events as wars, conflicts, injustices, weird weather patterns, environmental disasters—levels of evil and wickedness in the world that, from our vantage point, honestly seem to be worse than ever before, in all of history—all cry out to be seen as signals that the end is coming. The inner vision of total transformation has us in its grip. Has possessed us. Won’t let go.

The gods and monsters within won’t be denied. We say, This time, of course, all will be different. In 1553, Michael Stifel, a German mathematician, mounted the pulpit in Martin Luther’s church to announce his calculation that the end times would begin promptly at 8am on October 19, 1533. Two hundred years later, English preacher George Bell mounted his pulpit to announce his calculation that Jesus Christ would descend from heaven to earth on February 28, 1763. Less than one hundred years later, American William Miller announces that the End will take place on October 22, 1844. This time, this time, all will be different. Of course.

Now, we deal with predictions surrounding December 21, 2012, which is said to be the end-date of a 5,125-year-long cycle in the Mayan Long Count calendar. Some predict that it will usher in tremendous social and spiritual transformation, all positive. Others envision the entire mantle of the earth shifting in a matter of days, perhaps hours, changing the position of the north and south poles, causing worldwide disaster. Earthquakes rocking every continent, massive tsunamis inundating coastal cities. The ultimate planetary catastrophe. All this, and more, despite the fact that the Harmonic Convergence of 1987 was supposed to usher in a major energy shift powerful enough to change the global perspective of humankind from one of conflict to one co-operation. (I don’t think we got that memo.) And then there was the year 2000, and people like Charles Berlitz, predicting flood, famine, disaster. Says astronomer Ann Martin, “No one who’s writing in now seems to remember that the last time we thought the world was going to end, it didn’t” Then she says, “There doesn’t seem to be a lot of memory that things were fine the last time around.”

But this is exactly why Joseph Campbell says that “Mythology is no toy for children. […] Its symbols … touch and release the deepest centers of motivation, moving literate and illiterate alike, moving mobs, moving civilizations.” Forget the past, full speed ahead. The soul is crying out.

Jonathan Kirsch describes the days leading up to October 22, 1844: “As the glorious day approached, the Millerites prepared to greet Jesus Christ when he descended from heaven to the soil of the New World. They spurned the petty concerns of the old earth in preference to the new one that seemed so close at hand: ‘Some left their jobs, boarded up their businesses, confessed to unsolved crimes, sold their farms and everything they owned, and let their crops go unharvested’ writes historian and theologian Timothy P. Weber, ‘so that they could spread the word of Christ’s coming and meet him with clean consciences and free of debt.’ The most ardent true believers donned white ‘ascension’ robes and gathered on rooftops and hilltops all over the Burned-Over District of western New York and elsewhere around America to greet the Lamb of God as he descended from heaven on a cloud. The great day turned out to be a Great Disappointment, as historians have dubbed it. ‘Our fondest hopes and expectations were blasted, and such a spirit of weeping came over us as I never experienced before,’ recalled a farmer named Hiram Edson, one of the disappointed Millerites. ‘We wept and wept, till the day dawned,’ And their skeptical friends and neighbors did nothing to console them in their grief: ‘What! Not gone up yet? We thought you’d gone up! Aren’t you going up soon?’ one scoffer was heard to say.” That’s the story from Jonathan Hirsch, and I share it so as to get into the issue of how to stay connected with the End Time myth without being possessed by it, without merging the version of the End Time story we happen to be reading with our lives here and now.

First of all, I believe that simply ignoring the myth is not healthy, which, I suspect, is the strategy underlying the cynicism of the people who scoffed at the Millerites. “What? Not gone up yet?” Again and again, we need to know that everyone has the myth in them. I learned this first-hand when I was five. The Gustave Dore pictures triggered a yearning that I was born with, and gave it expression and form. An expression and form that undeniably would have been very different had I grown up Buddhist or Hindu. Today, the same people who scoff at True Believers might find themselves diving right into books like Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, or Stephen King’s The Stand. In one, an unknown disaster has wiped out most of humanity, and father and son journey through the wastelands of a dying world. In another, a plague sweeps through America killing almost everyone, leaving only a handful of survivors. Books like these and so many others, movies, television shows, on and on—all have the power to touch us the way they do only because the myth lives within and primes us to respond the way we do. What unites us, whether we are True Believer or not, is our common humanity. We all are capable of feeling the horror of ultimate endings—and we all long for new beginnings too.

Yet the longing can be mishandled. Literalized. Reified. St. Augustine knew this a long time ago. St. Augustine was perhaps the single most influential theologian of the early Christian church, writing in the 5th century CE, and he believed Jesus when he cautioned people not to speculate about when the End will come. That’s why St. Augustine argued for giving the Book of Revelation only a spiritual interpretation. The great battle it envisions is an allegory for “the moral conflict within each person and in the Church in general.” If there’s any code in it to crack, it’s that. But when you start reading the book as a literal roadmap to your world in the here and now, you end up like the Millerites on October 22, 1844, on rooftops, or hilltops, wearing your white ascension gown, and you’ve given up your life, you’ve checked out. Or even worse, the imagery of endtime prophesy stirs up such powerful angers that you start waging cosmic war yourself. You literally see yourself as a soldier in the Army of Light, and you declare total warfare, total jihad, against the Other with whom you disagree—for you see that Other as inhuman, as part of the Army of Darkness, and there can be no compromise, no quarter. It will happen whether or not you believe in God. “Mass movements,” says sociologist Eric Hoffer, “can rise and spread without belief in a god, but never without belief in a devil.” Unitarian Universalists can go overboard in their zealousness as much as anyone else. At bottom is the Zoroastrian myth of cosmic battle between Good and Evil. And at bottom of THAT is the myth that is in our hearts, that we are born with, that predisposes us to yearn for the possibility of total transformation, that is our soul crying out for freedom.

As for how we can best live this myth: I believe it has been illustrated for us by the people of Egypt in these last several days. Says President Obama, “We saw mothers and fathers carrying their children on their shoulders to show them what true freedom might look like. We saw a young Egyptian say, ‘For the first time in my life, I really count.  My voice is heard. Even though I’m only one person, this is the way real democracy works.’ We saw protesters chant ‘Selmiyya, selmiyya’ – ‘We are peaceful’ — again and again. We saw a military that would not fire bullets at the people they were sworn to protect. And we saw doctors and nurses rushing into the streets to care for those who were wounded, volunteers checking protesters to ensure that they were unarmed. We saw people of faith praying together and chanting – ‘Muslims, Christians, We are one.’ This,” says President Obama, “is the power of human dignity, and it can never be denied.  Egyptians have inspired us, and they’ve done so by putting the lie to the idea that justice is best gained through violence. For in Egypt, it was the moral force of nonviolence — not terrorism, not mindless killing — but nonviolence, moral force that bent the arc of history toward justice once more.”

“There is something in the soul that cries out for freedom.” When we are possessed by the myth of the Apocalypse, the cry for freedom becomes distorted into a compulsive habit of decoding the book of Revelations or ancient Mayan texts or something else for clues about when the world will end—and when the world doesn’t end, that’s OK, “this time it will be different.” Or the cry for freedom means you wait on a hilltop or rooftop somewhere, you step out of your life, you give up. Or the cry becomes viciousness and brutality—you literalize the myth, you project the devil on someone or something else, you fight a cosmic battle. All this and more happens when the possesses us. But if we can stay connected to it in healthier ways, it can energize us with the feeling that we are meant for better things, that no matter how bad things are and how stuck they seem, it’s not the end of the story, and transformation is always possible. It’s the energy that flows through songs we sing, like Wake Now My Senses, or We’ll Build a Land—and we take this energy, and like the people of Egypt, full of passion, full of joy, nonviolently, we work to make this world a better place, we bend the moral arc of history in our time towards justice.