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The End of the World as We Know It

By Jason Silverman
Trinity College Dublin
June 2012

Few topics raise more controversy within the guild than eschatology. I have already thrown my salvo into the debate;1 here I would like to speculate more on the modern reception of biblical eschatological ideas and the reasons for different interpretations of them. I am also not concerned at present with millenarianism or the rhetorical power which apocalyptic discourse can lend to charismatic leaders. Rather, the present essay explores the underlying reasons for the divide in kind between readings of contemporary events in relation to biblical themes, even among people who otherwise share many eschatological beliefs.

I recently participated in a conversation in which a person pointed to several disturbing news items, wondering whether or not these were signs of the impending apocalypse.2 Their reason for viewing them as such was Jesus’ reference to signs of the times (Matt 16:3; Luke 21:25–6). Granting that terrible things have happened all throughout human history and will no doubt continue unabated into the future, it is worth some discussion why particular events repeatedly provoke speculation as to the end of the world among some (and perennial skepticism among others). The old canard that such dire expectations are due to distress or deprivation does not hold water.3

It is true that certain strains of North American Protestantism make an industry out of slotting the news into their dispensational schemes,4 but the sensibility crops up in wider culture as well. Several scholars have seen the origin of this phenomenon in the 1970s publication of Hal Lindsey.5 However, the tendency to interpret current events as portentous is widespread through history, not solely post-1970s America. Humans have a tendency to seek patterns in events. Pattern-identification requires paradigms, and thus the kinds of patterns people see are related to the paradigms within which they operate. In the west, the most prominent paradigms have been variants of Christian eschatology.

There is a fairly thoroughgoing conflation of the ideas of teleology (purpose, goal) and eschatology (completion, ending) in Second Temple Judaism and Christianity, one which is often taken for granted in modern culture (and by biblical scholars too).6 This confusion, among the Anglophone world at any rate, is partially facilitated by the double meaning of the English word “end” (both as goal and finish).7 Religion often takes for granted the idea that the world is meaningful (or has a telos), but this is not the same as saying that the world must therefore be leading towards a predetermined end which is also the consummation of its meaning. The Judeo-Christian eschatological tradition, however, has thoroughly combined the two ideas. This perhaps lends impetus to the kind of speculations about the particular meaning of specific events which are “signs of the times” calculations. If there is overall purpose, there must be purpose in the details, too (which line of reasoning fits well with some of the more “sapiential” aspects of the apocalypse genre as well).8

However, not everyone who holds to a form of Christian expectation is inclined to repeatedly seek signs of the end. In fact, there seem to be two distinct kinds of people who, while sharing similar basic eschatological expectations, interpret events entirely differently. On one hand, some seem to interpret as if the apocalypse is perennially imminent, while on the other, some think the arrival of the apocalypse is a rather extraordinary claim requiring extraordinary evidence. What accounts for the difference in these two approaches?

This question is essentially the problem of different perspectives and whether one can mediate or move between them; in this respect, I am thinking in terms of Kuhn’s “paradigm shift” or Kierkegaard’s “leap.” Landes has characterized our divide as one between pessimists and optimists,9 but that does not seem to be appropriate. The idea of the apocalypse—so bound up with ideas of salvation and judgment as it is—is too ambiguous for fitting into such categorizations.10

An answer could perhaps be found in socialization—people who are surrounded by others expecting the eschaton could be expected to be more likely to interpret events as signs. Conversely, those who are surrounded by eschatological skeptics will be less eager to understand events in such a manner.11 Nevertheless, even those who one might expect to be eager to interpret the signs of times are often quite wary of such speculations themselves.12 An answer in terms of community is not wholly satisfactory either. Differences on whether to interpret current events as signs of imminence appear even within communities.

I do not have an answer, though having a suspicion that there is a complex interplay of theology, personal psychology, and sociological setting at play. Nevertheless, these hard-to-quantify factors have no small influence on the import and method an individual uses to interpret events in reference to eschatology—presumably for the authors of the original apocalypses as much as for their modern interpreters.

In my opinion, there are elements in both kinds of responses—signs-of-the-times and skeptical—which should be noted.

The skeptical response often fails to heed how much the biblical texts do in fact make claims on historical events being signs of heavenly workings. This trend is not limited to the apocalyptic and eschatological texts but is a mainstay of the classical prophets and even in the narrative cycles. Since eschatology is inherently interpretive, once it is adopted as a principle, it will tend to affect all other interpretations of history. When people point to the biblical text as precedence for the interpretation of catastrophes (whether as generic judgment or eschatological sign), they do so with a strong textual (and Christian) precedent.

On the other hand, signs-of-the-times speculations often betray a failure to own up to complicity in the evils seen, as individuals and as communities. Rather than ask hard questions about values and contemporary systems, they can take self-righteous satisfaction that every one (else) will be judged. Rather than question whether one’s life supports systems rife with materialism, narcissism, and irrationality, one wastes ingenuity on complex eschatological semiotics to soothe oneself with an appearance of wisdom. Blame deferral is a human tendency found in many contexts even without eschatological paradigms, but the power of the apocalyptic rhetoric which usually accompanies eschatology probably makes it easier and more appealing to use.

Ultimately, the question of why some people interpret events as part of an eschatological scheme and others do not is part of the general humanistic conundrum that is human finitude. Overall, however, I think it is important to take seriously the way the biblical texts interpret history and predicate eschatology—including ancient equivalents to our eschatological calculators and skeptics—and consider what that means for all those who read them today, scholarly, or otherwise.


1 See, specifically, Jason M. Silverman, Persepolis and Jerusalem: Iranian Influence on the Apocalyptic Hermeneutic (LHBOTS 558. London: T & T Clark, 2012), 10–12, 217–219, 237. In short, I argue that eschatology must be distinguished from more mundane forms of future expectation and that it is an inherently interpretive concept.

2 These were the recent mutilations of a lover in Canada, the current economic recession, and several more personal crises.

3 E.g., Hanson, Paul D. The Dawn of Apocalyptic (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1975); Eugene Weber, Apocalypses (London: Hutchinson, 1999), 198. For a recent critique, e.g., Aberle, David F. “A Note on Relative Deprivation Theory as Applied to Millenarian and Other Cult Movements,” Pages 7–12 in The Sociology of Religion. Vol. V: Religious Movements (Edited by Malcolm Hamilton. London: Routledge, 2007).

4 A useful overview of various such expectations in the 20th century is available in Eugene Weber, Apocalypses (London: Hutchinson, 1999), 193–222; Mark S. Sweetnam, “Tensions in Dispensational Eschatology,” 173–192 in Kenneth G. C. Newport, and Crawford Gribben, eds. Expecting the End: Millennialism in Social and Historical Context (Waco, TX: Baylor Univ Press, 2006).

5 Crawford Gribbon, “After Left Behind—the Paradox of Evangelical Pessimism,” pages 113–130 in Kenneth G. C. Newport, and Crawford Gribben, eds. Expecting the End: Millennialism in Social and Historical Context (Waco, TX: Baylor Univ Press, 2006), 114; Sweetnam, “Tensions in Dispensational Eschatology,” 180.

6 Scholars also tend to conflate these concepts, e.g., Marc Brettler, “Cyclical and Teleological Time in the Hebrew Bible,” pages 111–128 in Time and Temporality in the Ancient World (Edited by Ralph Mark Rosen. Philadelphia: Univ of Pennsylvania, 2004), 111.

7 Bull, Malcolm. “On Making Ends Meet,” pages 1–17 in Apocalypse Theory and the Ends of the World (Edited by Malcolm Bull. Oxford: Blackwell, 1995), 1–2.

8 Scholars have much debated the importance of prophetic and wisdom traditions for the apocalypses. For a recent discussion, see Benjamin G. Wright, III and Lawrence M. Wills, eds. Conflicted Boundaries in Wisdom and Apocalypticism(Symposium. Atlanta: SBL, 2005).

9 Richard Landes, “Millenarianism and the Dynamics of Apoclayptic Time” in Kenneth G. C. Newport and Crawford Gribben, eds. Expecting the End: Millennialism in Social and Historical Context (Waco, TX: Baylor Univ Press, 2006), 20, 23.

10 An interesting foray into this issue (and relations between pessimism, optimism, and hope), see Fraser Watts, “Subjective and Objective Hope: Propositional and Attitudinal Aspects of eschatology,” pages 47–62 in John Polkinghorne and Michael Welker, eds. The End of the World and the Ends of God: Science and Theology on Eschatology (Theology for the 21st Century. Harrisburg, PA: Trinity Press International, 2000).

11 Note Bankston’s comments on how choosing a community affects beliefs. Carl L. Bankston III, “Rationality, Choice and the Religious Economy: the Problem of Belief” Review of Religious Research 43, no. 4 (2002): 311–325.

12 12 E.g., Sweetnam, “Tensions in Dispensational Eschatology,” 183-6.