Why Is the End of the World Such a Big Deal?

I’ve got a new essay today in Obit that takes the new 2012 movie as an occasion for a reflection on why folks are always so eager to proclaim the end of the world: “You Broke It, You Bought It.”

Though the word “apocalypse” now is usually taken to mean a world-ending calamity, the original Greek word strictly translates as “revelation.” This meaning is as relevant today as when the New Testament’s last book was promulgated with the word as its title. The havoc wrought matters less than what it reveals. Because there’s only our one world, predicting its end is the ultimate jackpot in the contest for Truth. Whoever is right about how the world ends is probably right about other important things as well. Foretelling the apocalypse is an audacious attempt to assert the universality of a particular tradition and its beliefs.

I’ve found this stuff more and more worth thinking about lately as a way of exploring the imaginary dimensions of the climate crisis. What kinds of ends of the worlds have cultures imagined previously? What will the end of our world really be like?





6 responses to “Why Is the End of the World Such a Big Deal?”

  1. […] Why Is the End of the World Such a Big Deal? | The Row Boat by … […]

  2. Fr. B

    Just a quick question: Do you have any (reputable of course) sources for the apocalyptic hopes or fears of Christians in the 10th century? It would make sense that, since the Book of Revelation says that Satan would be chained for 1000 years, people would have been concerned that he was about to be released. Still, I wonder if that indeed was the mood in Western Europe at that time. Let me know if you know where to find such information.

  3. Good question—this is something I’ve heard and read a number of times. From what I’ve been able to come up with, it certainly wasn’t a ubiquitous idea. And, given my subsequent hypothesis that religious date-setting is more likely to come from minorities than the majority, I wouldn’t expect it to be.

    As for sources on the Internet, this article gives a nice overview of the scholarly opinion, which has gone back and forth on whether the year 1000 was really such a big deal. For one thing, dating systems were not yet consistent, so different communities would have placed the turn of the millennium at different times. Quoted there, Bernard McGinn, a leading scholar of medieval religion (my big mistake at UCSB was dropping out of his class), describes the general mood this way:

    Exaggerated emphasis on the turn of the millennium, or indeed any specific date in the list of the many at some time identified with the end during the five centuries between 1000 and 1500, tends to minimize the pervasiveness of apocalypticism throughout these centuries. Medieval folk lived in a more or less constant state of apocalyptic expectation difficult to understand for most of us today.

    That, in addition to the Britannica article on eschatology from that period, suggests that indeed there were people out there claiming this, that or another thing. But I don’t think a case can be made that the whole medieval world was united about one particular date, nor is that a claim I made. Yes, some people got worked up about it or dates around it, just as they get worked up about other dates.

    Perhaps it was irresponsible of me to add to the hearsay that the year 1000 was particularly special. What I meant by it was to show that there is a pattern here, a consistency, an apocalyptic habit in the (especially) Christian (and post-Christian) consciousness that rears its head from time to time.

  4. One source for more on year 1000 apocalypticism is the work of Richard Landes of Boston University.

  5. Daijaranae

    im in the 9th grade should i care?