News & Current Affairs

September 9, 2008

Why the fascination with the end of the world?

Why the fascination with the end of the world?

Artists impression of asteroid hitting earth, placard and mushroom cloud from French nuclear test

A huge particle accelerator experiment is about to start and a tiny group of people believe it could spell the end of the world. But why are we so obsessed with the possibility of apocalypse?

The world will end. That much is a certainty. But it may not be soon. And in all probability it will not come to a shuddering, fiery, boiling, cataclysmic end on Wednesday this week.

THE LARGE HADRON COLLIDER
At Cern on French-Swiss border
One of biggest and most expensive experiments in human history
Critics say micro black holes could be created, that could swallow the earth
Cern says any black holes will evaporate quickly and harmlessly
Effects will be less than cosmic ray collisions in atmosphere
LHC collisions could shed light on creation of universe
First beam on Wednesday
First collision later in year
Action ongoing at European Court of Human Rights to stop experiments
LHC Kritiks lead opposition

That is when the Large Hadron Collider on the Swiss/French border has its first full beam. The collider is a giant particle accelerator which, by smashing one particle into another, will tell us amazing things about the birth of the universe, scientists hope.

But there are a small but significant group of naysayers who worry that the LHC is not 100% safe. Opponents say it is possible the collider could produce micro black holes and dangerous “strangelets”, and that catastrophic effects from these cannot be ruled out.

In this worst case scenario the earth could very well have had its chips.

However, the consensus of physicists is that the collider is perfectly harmless. Micro black holes would vanish almost instantaneously.

But when you see a headline in a newspaper that says “Are we all going to die next Wednesday?”, one can’t help but wonder at our fascination with the idea of the end of the world.

FAILED PREDICTIONS
Jehovah’s Witnesses have predicted end several times, but have stopped
Millerites predicted end of world for 22 October 1844 – day known to followers as Great Disappointment
Edgar C Whisenant wrote 88 Reasons Why the Rapture Could Be in 1988 – followed up with predictions for 1989, 1993, and 1994
Argentinian goalie Carlos Roa gave up football in anticipation of end of world in 2000
Hal Lindsey in 1970’s The Late, Great Planet Earth linked end of world to the EU

Whether you refer to it as eschatology (religious theory of the end of the world), millenarianism, end time belief, apocalypticism, or disaster scenario, it is one of humanity’s most powerful ideas, and it goes way back.

“It is a very ancient pattern in human thought. It is rooted in ancient, even pre-biblical Middle Eastern myths of ultimate chaos and ultimate struggle between the forces of order and chaos,” says cultural historian Paul S Boyer, author of When Time Shall Be No More: Prophecy Belief in Modern American Culture.

“It is deeply appealing at a psychological level because the idea of meaninglessness is deeply threatening. Human societies have always tried to create some kind of framework of meaning to give history and our own personal lives some kind of significance.”

And although end of the world thinking crops up in many religions, those in the West are probably most aware of Christian eschatology. In the early days of the church it was taken as a given by many believers that the Second Coming and the end of the world were imminent.

Child holds placard

The concept of the world ending is key to mainstream Christianity

Mainstream Christianity moved away from this type of thought, but large numbers of believers returned to it at various times.

“It isn’t just the lunatic fringe, it’s an integral part of all Christianity. But [in mainstream Christianity] it is put into perspective that it may happen ‘one day’,” says Stephen J Hunt, a sociologist of religion and author of Christian Millenarianism: From the Early Church to Waco.

“But certain groups and movements believe it is in their generation. They are saying we have got the truth and nobody else has.”

Cataclysmic scenarios

There have been many groups that have predicted the end of the world, or Tribulation, or Rapture, dealt with it not coming to pass and then issued new ones.

Jehovah’s Witnesses have issued predictions about cataclysmic scenarios that have manifestly failed to come to pass, only ceasing predictions of the end in recent years. Failed predictions seem not to have alienated core believers. Indeed, it is denied by some that specific predictions – as opposed to speculation based on scripture – have ever been made.

RELIGIOUS AND SECULAR
“End of world” concepts include:
Destruction of planet
Extinction of human race
Significant change in situation of human race
Secular scenarios include:
Catastrophic climate change
Asteroid or comet strike
Massive nuclear war
Destabilisation of earth or moon orbit
Religious scenarios include:
Islam refers to “last judgement”
Some Buddhists believe in disappearance of Buddha’s teachings
Christian end of world linked to second coming of Jesus
Hindus believe in cycle of ages
Zoroastrians may have had first codified end of world theory

No such luck applied to the 19th Century Millerite sect, led by William Miller. He didn’t just predict the end would be soon. He nailed the day – 22 October 1844. As the day neared the sect’s popularity snowballed, with thousands of newspapers sold. Only one thing was able to derail the movement’s popularity – the safe and unexpected arrival of 23 October 1844. The failure of the world to end was known as the “Great Disappointment” and followers left in droves.

“The current prophecy popularisers are much shrewder,” says Prof Boyer. “They say no man knoweth the day or the hour, but it’s coming soon.”

Carlos Roa thought he kneweth the hour. The Argentinian goalkeeper, best known for his penalty heroics against England in the 1998 World Cup, refused to countenance a new contract at Real Mallorca as the year 2000 approached because he believed the world was going to end and he needed to prepare. When it didn’t he was soon donning the gloves back in Mallorca.

And for all it is easy to mock those who have tried and failed, thinking about the ways the world might end, or the timing, may be fulfilling a basic human need.

Edition of The End is Nigh

Eschatology is of interest to both academics and curiosity hunters

“It comes down to an issue of power,” says Michael Molcher, editor of the magazine The End is Nigh. “What you get during times of particular discontent or war or famine or during general bad times is a rise in apocalyptic preaching and ideas.

“It is a way for people to control the way their world works. The one thing we can never predict is the time and manner of our own deaths.”

The great periods of millenarianism – Europe around the year 1000, the English Civil War, the Industrial Revolution on both sides of the Atlantic, and the 20th Century – have been periods of intense turbulence. Putting an eschatological spin on current events is extremely tempting.

“A lot of fundamentalists are what we call ‘sign watching’. If there’s another tornado in Florida it must be a punishment,” says Dr Hunt.

Sometimes the links to the temporal world can be tortuous to say the least. A common theme on the fringes of Christian millenarianism is a revived Roman Empire led by the Antichrist and consisting of 10 European nations. The theme is drawn out from the description of a beast with 10 horns in the book of Revelation.

THE TERMINOLOGY
Eschatology: Religious theory of the end of the world
Millenarianism: In Christianity, belief in coming of thousand year golden age linked with second coming of Christ
Apocalypticism: Belief based on end of present world order
End time: The end of the world or the end of the current age

It was historically linked to the EU, but now there are 27 members attention has shifted to the 10-nation Western European Union.

And these end times beliefs seem easily to find their way into popular culture. The Left Behind series of novels have sold millions and cinema-goers have happily trooped in to see three instalments of the Omen.

But it is wrong to say that belief that the world could be about to end is entirely confined to religious people. When the Cold War was going on, the likely culprit was nuclear weapons, at the moment it might be a catastrophic climate change scenario that leaves the world intact, but humanity gone. And Mr Molcher’s favourite prediction of recent years involved a woman who was convinced that Chinese plans to build a base on the moon would throw its orbit out and send it hurtling towards earth.

Seventh Day Adventist next to poster for exhibition on the end of the world

Many religious groups have made more than one prediction

And end of the world believers, whether religious or not, have one thing going for them. The world will, one day, end.

And there are still plenty willing to name a date.

Preacher Ronald Weinland’s book 2008 – God’s Final Witness, predicts that the US will be destroyed within two years.

Sadly anybody wanting to find out more by e-mail receives an automated response. One can only assume he is too busy preparing for the end that is nigh.


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1 Comment »

  1. This is like the kids in Weird Science who hope to make a hot babe from a doll! Only for these folks that hot babe is a black hole capable of swallowing the earth.

    Oh well…one man’s cosmic vortex is another man’s cyber-babe.

    Comment by DysfunctionalParrot — September 9, 2008 @ 8:40 pm


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