If you are reading this, you somehow escaped the predicted end of the world yesterday. It was not the first of its kind. In 1956, sociologists Leon Festinger, Henry Riecken, and Stanley Schachter infiltrated an end-of-the-world cult to see what would happen when the doomsday date came and went (When Prophecy Fails, University of Minnesota Press). The prophet (“Mrs. Keech”) and her hard-core loyalists did not despair; they just returned to the books to calculate better.
This week’s prophet is Harold Camping. His specific May 21 date may be idiosyncratic, but millions of Americans expect the world to end with a “rapture” that will transport believers to everlasting salvation and leave everyone else behind for a cataclysmic war to the end. The idea goes back to nineteenth-century Nelson Darby (1800-1882), who divided world history into eras of special divine dispensation, the last of which is in process now. Believers differ in details, but if you doubt that this is, in general, mainstream doctrine all over the United States, check out the best-selling “Left Behind” novels that portray the rapture and the cataclysmic “tribulation” (the accompanying wars) that follow, to see what everyone else is reading while you are reading this. As of this writing, they have sold over eleven million copies!
Ironically, Christian fundamentalists like Camping deny a big bang at the beginning of time and affirm it at the end: they have the big bang backward.
Belief in a sudden and violent end to history is not just a consequence of biblical literalism – in fact, it is anything but literalism. The May 20 full-page warning in USA Today placed by “Timehasanend. org” cites I Corinthians to the effect that, “No man… not the angels… nor the son” knows “that [final] day and that hour.” It then takes great pains to disprove the literalism of that. “The son” cannot mean Christ because I Corinthians also tells us, “The spirit of God knows all things.” Surely Christ is coterminous with the Son. But Satan is widely called “son [of perdition]”; hence “the son” who does not know the final day and hour must be Satan! That’s not literalism; we Jews call it midrash.
So biblical inerrancy alone cannot explain the attractiveness of big-bang endings. More significant is the psychological discomfort people have with the alternative: no end in sight. It takes courage to persevere in the drudgery of history. Until modern times, Jews too universally expected God to bring time to an end with a passion. Rabbis warned against reckoning the end.
Modernity funneled messianic expectations into faith in human progress. God wouldn’t end it all, but humans might. Triumphalist Reform rabbis like David Einhorn (1809-1879) suspected that history was finally cranking down to its end, with a messianic era right around the corner. Rationalists today are less sanguine, but they apply the kabbalistic doctrine of tikkun olam to social justice, with the faith that we just need to work harder at moving history along: that’s all.
I am all for social justice, but do we really think a thousand or even a million social action projects will some day break the back of evil? Even this contemporary form of historicist hopefulness seems hard to hold. And it is dangerous, since unreal expectations are easily dashed and dashed expectations produce apathy. Recall the lessons of When Prophecy Fails. The real insiders to the cause, the true believers (as it were) went back to the books to revise predictions. But the movement rank and file abandoned the whole enterprise. And that is what will happen to social justice, if we promise more than it can deliver.
There is no big bang ending: not by God and not by us. If scientists are right, entropy is going to win: some tens of billions of years from now the stars will burn out but a darkened lifeless cosmos will continue, as galaxies go on endlessly expanding into the void anyway — without us in it.
That does not mean we should give up making life better in the meanwhile. It does mean that we should revise our theology to make the personal good we do sufficient satisfaction in and of itself. There may indeed be moral progress even within the entropy, but it doesn’t matter. All we need to know is that we have been thrust into a world where people are tortured, starved, and suffering, and we have the capacity to relieve their anguish: one by one.
This is no world-altering messiah waiting in the wings to save us. It is not even a messianic movement of the masses taking to the streets or to the ballot boxes. But it is all we’ve got; and it is enough.
The day after May 21, the world is still spinning; we are still on it; and there is no big bang in sight. There is just you and me, armed with goodness and the ability to help. It is “little-bang messianism.” And we are the messiahs.