The weird appeal of apocalyptic thinking

(My latest book God vs. Darwin: The War Between Evolution and Creationism in the Classroom has just been released and is now available through the usual outlets. You can order it from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, the publishers Rowman & Littlefield, and also through your local bookstores. For more on the book, see here. You can also listen to the podcast of the interview on WCPN 90.3 about the book.)

Many people are scared of the thought of their own death. This is especially true of fundamentalist Christians who are terrified of going to hell and think that pledging allegiance to Jesus will save them from some horrible fate. They may say that they are confident that they are going to heaven because they are ‘saved’ but their obsession with this topic, their repeated groveling protestations to god about their unworthiness, and their constant appeals for forgiveness belie that confidence. They are too obviously trying to whistle away their fears.

Why is there this fear? After all, if there is one thing that we can be absolutely sure about, it is that we will die some day. And yet many people will refuse to contemplate it or make the necessary arrangements to ensure that everything is in order and that life goes on smoothly after they die. They just don’t want to contemplate the possibility of their own deaths.

But oddly enough, an apocalyptic event in which the world ends and everyone dies (say because of a nuclear winter or a meteorite collision or Jesus coming again) does not seem to frighten them as much as their individual deaths. In fact, down the ages there has been quite an interest in speculating on this topic.

In my series of posts on the age of the Earth, I said that the suggestion that the six days of creation recorded in the Bible meant that the world would end after 6,000 years was what may have spurred interest in calculating when this imminent end would occur. Ussher’s calculation of 4004 BCE as the year of creation made 1997 the 6,000th year and thus the year when the world would end. But since different versions of the Bible gave slightly different results, the exact year could not be pinned down and this was what was behind some of the apocalyptic thinking of people who thought that Rapture would occur sometime near the end of the previous millennium.

Of course, now there is a whole industry devoted to predicting the date of the end of the world, all of which have failed so far but that does not seem to deter the true believers. The beauty of theology is that it is infinitely malleable since it has no empirical basis. Your prediction of the end of the world not work out? No problem! Just change the interpretation of some obscure Biblical passage and you’re in the prediction business again. We just survived two predicted Rapture dates from this site of September 21, 2009 and October 21, 2009 (I didn’t tell you earlier to spare you needless worry), and now the latest end time date making the rounds, based on the reading of some Mayan calendars, is 2012 and credulous people are making some serious preparations.

So why is it that the idea of an apocalyptic end in which everyone dies does not seem as frightening as just your own death? I think that it may be due to the fact we don’t like the idea that the world will go on without us, that things will happen, people will have fun, new things will be discovered, and not only will we not be there to see and enjoy it, we will not even be missed. It is hard to accept the fact that the world will go on just fine without us.

I think that this sense that we will be missing out is what people don’t like to contemplate. Whereas if everyone dies at the same time, then nothing is going to happen after that and it does not seem so bad, though by any objective measure it is much worse.

It’s quite odd.

POST SCRIPT: The Great Disappointment

Stephen Fry talks about The Great Disappointment that occurred in 1844 when millions of people were sure that the world would end with Jesus’s second coming. It didn’t but some of the people who believed in were the ones who started the Seventh Day Adventists and the Jehovah’s Witnesses.

(Thanks to onegoodmove)


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