A philosopher explains why humans secretly like believing the end of the world is near

Just the beginning.
Just the beginning.
Image: Reuters
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Bad news, humanity—we’re finished. We’ve had a good run but the recent election of US president Donald Trump may just signal the end of civilization as we know it. Or at least, that’s what some journalists are suggesting. And hey—maybe they’re not just being paranoid: Trump is an erratic, impulsive narcissist and his chief adviser, Steve Bannon, is a well-documented clash-of-civilizations millenarian who has advocated for wars with Iran and China. One or both may have been compromised by Russian intelligence agents. At this point, even some of Trump’s biggest supporters, such as Peter Thiel, are investing in doomsday bunkers in locations like New Zealand and the Pacific Northwest.

A pop-philosophical investigation into the nature of Apocalyptic rhetoric suggests that—perversely enough—it is typically motivated by a sort of wishful thinking. At the very least, the belief that humanity is fast approaching doomsday offers the believer an excuse to opt out of current unpleasantness, an excuse to avoid thinking about what happens if the world doesn’t suddenly end. As the writer Megan Nolan recently put it, “Believing that you’re living through the end of history/civilisation is the abso heighth [sic] of narcissism and everyone should stop it.”

In the West, most Apocalyptic rhetoric can be traced back to Judeo-Christian tradition. The frenzied allegory of the biblical Book of Revelation—the text from which the term derives—is written in the tense of present and the not-too-distant future. “Seal not the sayings of the prophecy of this book,” author John of Patmos writes, “for the time is at hand!” Indeed, from its earliest beginnings, Christian culture has often been driven by the belief that all this earthly existence stuff was fleeting. For centuries, a fairly steady stream of prophets and sects have been predicated on the idea that they, uniquely, had knowledge of the date when life on earth would cease to exist as we know it.

For example, some early Christians predicted that the Apocalypse would occur in 500 AD, using a formula based on the dimensions of Noah’s Ark. For Pope Innocent III, the end was going to come in 1284, 666 years after the rise of Islam (evidence that Islamophobia isn’t exactly a new invention either). In 1844, the Baptist Millerite sect experienced an event that quickly became known as “The Great Disappointment” when, having made extensive preparations for the world to end on October 22nd, the world stubbornly persisted.

Most famously, the dawn of the second millennium AD is supposed to have seen a wave of Apocalyptic hysteria sweep across Europe. Modern scholars now believe these apocalyptic tales are apocryphal. But only because people in 999 AD were no more hysterical about the Apocalypse than they were in any other Medieval year. As The New York Times reported: “Were there religious terrors and overwrought expectations of the Final Judgment in the year 999? Absolutely. And also in the years 899, 1199, 1299—you name it. One might as well turn the question around and ask, ”How could it have been otherwise?”

While Christianity may not dominate Western culture the way that it did a few centuries ago, the Apocalypse remains a cultural touchstone. We’ve successfully secularized the End Times. From nukes to asteroids, from the Y2K bug to the 2012 phenomenon, from the sun exploding to swarms of self-replicating nanobots expanding to cram up every last molecule of creation, there is no shortage of theories predicting how the world is going to end. Even pre-Trump, the belief that the end-times were imminent was a pretty popular one: In one 2012 poll, some 22% of Americans said that the world is going to end in their lifetime.

If religion isn’t the only force driving this apparently perennial belief, what is? It may seem a little counterintuitive, but from a philosophical standpoint, a significant number of human beings actually want to be living through the end-times. Indeed, they find the idea that the Apocalypse is about to occur comforting.

Just look at the Book of Revelation. Scholars are divided on this point (of course)but the most popular narrative holds that Revelation is the fantasy of a persecuted, marginalized early form of Christianity. Its vision asserts that an act of divine intervention is imminent. This intervention will grant the righteous eternal bliss, while shattering the world of their oppressors and condemning them to hell. At its very origins, the Apocalypse seems little more than an extreme act of wishful thinking.

Critically, though, once the Messiah has returned, all of the various contingencies and complexities of human life will come to an end, too. Everything will become settled, certain, definite. There will be nothing anymore, of course, but that Great Nothing will be cozy and familiar.

Trump opponents may not be publicly praying that the world ends in a nuclear catastrophe—or at least, not one of his creation. But there remains something ideologically similar here. If Trump’s various spiralling-out-of-control excesses and injustices do lead to the end of the world, then Americans no longer have to think about all the incremental damage his policies might be causing right now. By extension, we don’t have to kill ourselves trying to protect immigrants or the environment or the public school system. Why bother with the small stuff in the face of a disaster at once completely absolute and maximally extreme?

This, ultimately, is why we need to be careful of our doomsday rhetoric. At any given time there are all sorts of horrible disasters that could occur as a result of human incompetency—or cruelty. At times, the list feels quite overwhelming. But allowing ourselves to get drawn into the hysteria is also a subtle way of giving up. At some point perhaps the total annihilation of the human species will become an imminent possibility—and then we ought to think very carefully and seriously about how to prevent it. But in 2017, it’s likely that fixating on the worst-case scenario is little more than a comforting distraction.