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The Clash of Eschatologies

BY PHIL TORRES

THE WORLD IS GOING TO END. We know this because cosmology tells us so: in some 5 billion years, our planetary home will be sterilized and then swallowed whole by the Sun, which will expand outward into the solar system as it turns into a red giant. Long after the sun burns out, the universe itself will sink into an eternal state of maximal entropy—the terminal “heat death” of the cosmos, marked by an irreversible “big freeze”—at which point energy will be uniformly distributed throughout space. In with a bang, out with a whimper: that is the epitaph of the cosmos.

Millennia before empirical science yielded this dismal futurology, however, humans invented stories about how our weary world of sin and suffering will come to an end. The genealogy of end-times, or “eschatological” belief systems can be traced back at least to an ancient Persian named Zoroaster who founded the religion that bears his name. According to the grand narrative of this tradition, cosmic history is divided into three or four epochs, each lasting three millennia. The culmination of earthly affairs will involve a virgin-born Savior who ushers in a bodily resurrection of the dead, a Final Judgment of humanity by God, and an Armageddon-like war between Good and Evil. This narrative likely influenced subsequent eschatologies associated with Judaism, Christianity, and Islam—and it’s for this reason that Zoroaster is arguably the most influential individual in all of human history.

Beliefs in end-times stories have shaped innumerable human events—some of great historical sig nificance—across the vast expanses of cultural space and time, up to the present. One might argue that eschatological convictions have been a kind of hidden force throughout history, shaping the curriculum vitae of civilization in subtle but nontrivial ways. As historian Paul Boyer suggested about the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, there’s a “shadowy but vital way that belief in biblical prophecy is helping mold grassroots attitudes toward current U.S. foreign policy.”1 The truth is that this phenomenon isn’t hidden at all, it’s simply ignored. I suspect that many scholars find the notion of “prophetic beliefs about the future affecting human actions in the present” too undignified to waste their cognitive resources on. Yet this is precisely what must be done, if we are to understand the perennial questions of “How did civilization get here?” and “Where is it headed?”

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