From the Executive Editor - Winter 2010

Originally printed in the Winter 2010 issue of Quest magazine. 
Citation: Smoley, Richard. "From the Executive Editor - Winter 2010." Quest  98. 1 (Winter 2010): 2.


Theosophical Society - Richard Smoley is editor of Quest: Journal of the Theosophical Society in America and a frequent lecturer for the Theosophical SocietyWhile we're on the subject of time, predictions of its end are abounding yet again. If you will permit me to leap into the quicksand of prophecy, I would like to say that I don't believe time is going to end at any point in the near future. Let me add that I don't believe that prophecies of our imminent annihilation based on the usual favorite sources are going to come true. After all, practically none of them have in the past. Remember Nostradamus's famous prediction: "The year 1999, seven months, / From heaven will come the great king of fright"? As it turned out, nothing of cosmic significance took place then.

Even the Bible's record is rather poor. Both the book of Revelation and the Apocalyptic Discourse in the synoptic Gospels (found in Matthew 24, Mark 13, and Luke 21), taken at face value, predict a Roman invasion of Judea followed by the end of the world. The Romans did invade Judea and laid it waste in a war lasting from ad 66 to 73, but the end of the world did not ensue. Cats, as the saying goes, continued to have kittens.

If prophecy's track record is so bad, why do people continue to believe in it? And why do they believe in it most when it is least credible"”predicting an end that is almost certain not to come, particularly in the lurid and fantastic ways that have been imagined? God is not, after all, a producer of grade B movies.

There seem to be several reasons for this strange quirk in our thinking. In the first place, apocalyptic expectation has become a habit in Christian culture, one that goes back to the earliest days of the faith. The oldest text in the New Testament, 1 Thessalonians, was written in response to some disciples of Paul's who were worried about what would happen to their loved ones who died before Jesus' return (which was due any day now). Paul's famous reply was "The dead in Christ shall rise first: Then we which are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds" (1 Thess. 4:16-17). This passage, by the way, is the source of the rapture doctrine beloved of fundamentalists.

Jesus did not come back soon, and eventually the Christian church had to settle down into a somewhat ungracious acceptance of the world as it was. But this habit of thought persisted, cresting at times of tension and upheaval, such as our own era.

Yet habit alone does not explain the persistence of apocalyptic expectation. Another part of the picture, I would suggest, is simple boredom. For many of us, life is humdrum. People go to work, pay their bills, and pursue their entertainments, all the while waiting for some deliverance from the everyday. If there is any genuine excitement, it is of the frightening variety"”an illness, the loss of a job, the death of a loved one. Vacations offer some relief but often make the return to the routine all the more oppressive.

In this context, the idea that the end is near and the upheavals of the present were foreseen long ago adds excitement to current events. And to contemplate the mountains melting and the moon turning to blood can provide a satisfying spectacle for the imagination, no matter how appalling such events would be in actuality.

Furthermore, an end to history provides a meaning to history. The Second Coming, if it were to happen, would give a shape to human destiny that is hard to find in social and political currents as conventionally understood. Expecting such an event also gives believers the comfort of knowing they are in the right, for everyone is sure that he or she is on the side of goodness and justice. Fundamentalists who look forward to the rapture are usually certain that they will be taken up in the first batch. It is always the others who will be left behind.

But the deepest impetus behind the thirst for apocalypse may have to do with what psychologists call displacement: the transfer of an unconscious fear onto a remote object so as to make the fear more manageable. Many believers may be unconsciously clinging not to the certainty of the Last Judgment but to its very remoteness and improbability. Focusing their hopes and fears on this unlikely outcome keeps them from thinking of an event that is not only likely but certain: their own deaths. By projecting their anxieties about death onto some ever-receding apocalypse, they are able to cope with them more easily (if less consciously). By contrast, contemplating your own death, not as an apocalyptic event with which you can play all sorts of mental games, but as a reality that faces you in a few decades at the most, is not only sobering but often terrifying.

Those with a grasp of esoteric teachings may be comparatively immune to these anxieties. The doctrine of karma removes the need for an end of time to set the scales of cosmic justice right, and the concept of reincarnation puts a single human lifetime in a broader and, shall we say, more forgiving context. Even so, some may feel a need to chew over secular versions of apocalypse, whether portrayed as environmental immolation or nuclear holocaust or for that matter the end of time as predicted by some indigenous traditions.

To me, it seems obvious: wars, plagues, famines, and cataclysms will continue to occur, just as they have for all of history. But prophecy will serve as no useful guide to what will happen. We will have to face the future armed, not with some cosmic timetable that tells us when to hide, but with the knowledge that, whatever comes to pass, we will be able to draw from ourselves the wisdom and strength to face it.

Richard Smoley

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