ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED ON 10/26/09
People haven’t always had a fascination with the end of the world. It’s not an inherent thing, it’s a learned behavior , but as with all the things we pick up and take for granted in our march through time, it can be damn hard to un-learn again. Particularly if you’re American: Americans have always been crazy for the end of the world. We love it. We always have, really.
Just to give a quick recap, once upon a time, in pagan days, the notion that the world could end was unheard of, and if someone had thought of it in a fever dream or something, it would have been considered ludicrous. How could such a thing happen? The world is eternal, after all! People come and go, but Earth Abides.
Insofar as we know, the first person to think up the whole concept of history being a timeline rather than an endlessly irritating cycle was Zoroaster, a thousand or so years BC*. His concept - revealed by God - was that history had a definite beginning, middle, and end, and that the world would end in a final battle between good and evil. God was also pretty emphatic that Mankind was important, and played a part in this final battle, a revelation that will have significance later on, as we shall see. The Zoroastrian religion quickly became the first real monotheistic faith, and the largest individual religion in the world, in a time when classical Greco-roman paganism was still trying to get on its feet. It was still doing well in the time of Christ, though it had passed its prime by then.
Judaism either borrowed this ‘end of the world’ concept from Zoroastrianism during the Babylonian captivity, or else they had already picked it up independently - I go back and forth on this one myself, and ultimately it’s a matter of faith. In any event, this notion was one of the major causes behind the First (66-70 AD) and second (133-136 AD) Jewish wars, and the Zealot movement. Christianity picked it up from Judaism, and of course Islam picked it up from Christianity. The Norse appear to have come up with the concept independently in their late pre-history when an environmental shift changed Scandanavia from a nice place to live to the frozen land it is today, and most of the population died.
The idea of an end to the world caught on like wildfire, and displaced the classical paganism fairly quickly. Why? A number of reasons, really: Paganism wasn’t meeting the needs of an urbane, educated, civilized, international people like the Roman Empire. And of course, if you feel the world might end any minute - as the Zealots and first century Christians were saying - there’s a strong self-preservation instinct to ditch the religion that isn’t working for you in favor of the new-fangled, far more dramatic and exotic one (Christianity), and get on the right side of this God who’s coming to physically put a stop to things. Particularly when there are signs and portents in the sky, and volcanoes burying cities and all…
The real reason I thin, however, is far simpler and subtler than that: If time is finite, then Man has meaning.
Think about it: Infinity, divided by any number is still infinity. No matter how long you live - a year, a hundred years, a thousand, a million, even - it’s still immeasurably insignificant against the endless flow of time. Humans have never been stupid, we knew this. We knew we didn’t matter in the grand scheme of things, not much more than a turtle or an ocelot: Death is the ultimate democrat, and in the end non of it matters a damn. Don’t believe me? Read Ecclesiastes, generally dated to the 6th century BC.
On the other hand, if time is finite, then *That* means that people actually do have some real meaning, no matter how small.
If you’re a centurion or a gladiator or a senator or a lowly whore, who doesn’t take some small comfort from the idea that their life adds up to something other than the big goose-egg? Mankind’s history is largely a quest for meaning, after all. So, in the end, the Zoroastro-Judeo-Christian-Islamic viewpoint won out in the west because it was inseparably, at root, humanistic: It told people that their lives matter, which is something paganism couldn’t - and still can’t - offer.
This is something that the left and the swishy new age types generally miss: