WE LIVE, I WOULD CONTEND, in the era of the apocalypse, meaning the end of life as we know it. Whether one will soon come to pass, of that I am hardly certain, but that this era is populated with more apocalyptical possibilities than ever before offered to humankind, of that I am sure.
An apocalypse (Greek: Αποκαλυψις; "lifting of the veil" or "revelation") is a disclosure of something hidden from the majority of mankind. It is commonly understood as a catastrophic end to life on earth.
For the last several millennia we have been living in the "last days," with many expecting the imminent "end of the world" or the "end of the age" In the first century, many a Christian expected, and called for (Maranatha!) the return of Christ in their lifetime. The year 1000 A.D. was also widely expected to bring the Lord's return. (For the record, it didn't happen.)
But the meaning of imminent has long had a notable caveat in Christian eschatology, as the apostle Peter wrote in the first century: "But do not let this one fact escape your notice, beloved, that with the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years like one day." (II Peter 3:8)
So, any day now has meant any millennium now for the last couple of thousand years.
But imminent just got imminenter. You may or may not have read (I saw it on a billboard on I-40) but Judgment Day! is coming on May 21, 2011. (If you are reading this after that date, it probably didn't happen.) This is a prediction propounded by Harold Camping, the head of Family Stations, Inc., a non-profit, non-commercial Christian radio network. Camping also predicts that the End of the World is coming on October 21, 2011. (So, belated readers, if you missed out on Judgment Day!, perhaps you can still get in on this.)
But Mr. Camping is hardly alone in such predictions. New Age authors have great expectations for December 21, 2012, the end-date of a 5,125-year-long cycle in the Mesoamerican Long Count calendar, as calculated by various astronomical alignments and numerological formulae.
One New Age interpretation of this transition postulates that this date marks the start of time in which Earth and its inhabitants may undergo a positive physical or spiritual transformation, marking the beginning of a new era, or, alternatively, marking the end of the world. Suggested scenarios include the arrival of the next solar maximum, or Earth's collision with a black hole or a passing planet called "Nibiru." Take your pick.
One recent technological apocalypse, Y2K, didn't really turn out to be that apocalyptic. And the turn of the last millennium, dated variously December 31, 1999 and December 31, 2000, wasn't, in either case, really all that notable -- except as two chances to party down on New Year's Eve.
An older sign of the technological apocalypse, the Doomsday Clock, which once represented the threat of global nuclear war, has been ticking along since 1947. As of May 2011, this clock stood at six minutes to midnight. (It seemed much closer to me in 1962 when my classmates and I at Forest Hills Elementary were sticking our heads in our lockers as "nuclear fallout shelters.")
Since 2007, the Doomsday Clock has also reflected climate change and "new developments in the life sciences and nanotechnology that could inflict irrevocable harm."
As for global warming, I don't need to say much as the pages of every news outlet are filled with the intimations of imminent catastrophic climate change.
As for "life sciences" apocalypses, I remember reading when I was in high school Gordon Rattray Taylor's 1968 book, The Biological Time Bomb, which heralded the rise of biotechnology, and the possibility of its massively destructive impact on human life. The biological time bomb hasn't gone off -- but it is still ticking.
The chances of a nanotechnology apocalypse seem miniscule to me.
But even the ever-upward-looking astrophysicists are pessimistic -- long term. The universe, as seen from earth, eventually will go totally black, they say. To put a date on this end of the world, take the year "one" and add 200 zeroes.
Seriously, I have attended a number of funerals lately. So, I can say this confidently, the end of our age has always been imminent. So, consider that you may wish to live every day as though it were your last.
Gary D. Gaddy doesn’t think that “eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow we shall die” is really a good philosophy of life.
A version of this story was published in the Chapel Hill Herald on Friday May 20, 2011.
Copyright 2011 Gary D. Gaddy