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The Clash of Eschatologies

The Role of End-Times Thinking in World History

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?”

Zoroaster prophesied that a virgin-born savior would usher in a resurrection of the dead, final judgment, and climactic battle between good and evil, followed by a state of absolute perfection.

In 1993, the political scientist Samuel P. Huntington published a highly influential paper in Foreign Affairs on “The Clash of Civilizations,” followed by a book of the same title.2 The central idea was that past epochs of human history have been marked by qualitatively different kinds of struggles. For example, the Cold War was driven by an ideological clash between communism and capitalism. With the fall of the Iron Curtain in 1991, some scholars declared the “end of history:” Western liberal democracy defeated the ideology of Reagan’s “Evil Empire,” and this marked an irreversible transformation of global politics. In response, Huntington argued that the terminus of ideological clashes between world superpowers has merely catapulted the world into a new phase of clashing “civilizations,” which he defines as “the highest cultural grouping of people and the broadest level of cultural identity people have short of that which distinguishes humans from other species.” Such identities are determined not only subjectively (through individuals’ self-identification) but also according to objective features such as language, history, customs, institutions, and religion, the latter of which Huntington described as the “most important.”

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INTERNET PORNOGRAPHY SPECIAL SECTION: IS PORNOGRAPHY BAD FOR YOU?; How Porn Is Messing with Your Manhood; Skeptical of Porn Skeptics; Hazards of Herbal Medicine: Lessons from Aristolochia; What is Sexual Orientation?; Did a Teenager Discover an Ancient Mayan City on Google Earth?; Paleo Diets and Utopian Dreams; Does AA Work? Alcoholics Anonymous, 12-Step Programs, and What We Really Know About Substance Abuse Treatment; The Clash of Eschatologies: The Role of End-Times Thinking in World History; Nightmares from the Id: The Neurophysiology of Anomalous Psychological Experiences; Terror Attacks that Never Were; Electromagnetic Fields and Parental Panics: A Case Study in How Science Can Bring Comfort; REVIEWS: Who Invented Science?; Science and the Creation of the Modern Mind; Heaven Is Not For Real; When Scientific American Put Psychics to the Test; JUNIOR SKEPTIC: MammothMysteries! Part One. The Hidden History of Mammoths and Mastodons