Updated: Jul 14, 2019
In seminary I studied Eschatology, which is a theology concerned with the final events of history, or the ultimate destiny of humanity. It's common in these conversations to hear the term "end times," which is a future time-period described variously in the eschatologies of several world religions (both Abrahamic and non-Abrahamic), which believe that world events will achieve a final climax. The Christian version includes a fantastical end to the world with Armageddon, a gathering of armies for an epic battle between good and evil during the end times.
All the major religions offer narratives of apocalypse and cataclysm, of the end of the present world order, generally as a prelude to some new state of things. This view is especially evident in the Abrahamic faiths, of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. At their most simplistic, apocalyptic narratives can offer sweeping condemnations of the existing world order, and potent stories of secular doom and final cosmic rescue.
There are at least three ways that religion's apocalyptic narrative sabotages human civilization:
1. The illusion of inevitability leads to passivity.
The idea that the world's apocalyptic ending is certain means that people falsely think that our destiny as humankind is fixed and out of our hands. In other words, if it's all going up in flames anyway, why try? It would be futile to work toward building a world of peace, harmony and workability if we already know we are on a collision course with Armageddon. Karl Marx wrote, "Religion is the opiate of the masses." Marx was pointing out that religion's purpose is to create illusory fantasies for the poor. Economic realities prevent them from finding true happiness in this life, so religion tells them that this is okay because they will find true happiness in the next life. Lest we think of this purely as solace for human misery, it can also weaken people's resolve to confront their human conditions and injustices. As Seneca wrote, "Religion is regarded by the common people as true, by the wise as false, and by the rulers as useful." Narratives of impending doom can have the same effect. If we know it is certain that human civilization is careening toward ultimate destruction, why bother?
2. The illusion of divine conflict and intervention leads to abdicating ownership and responsibility.
There is no cosmic drama between good and evil. The disharmony and chaos in the world corresponds to the disharmony and chaos within ourselves. It was quite inventive to come up with a separate personality, Satan, to blame and scapegoat for our problems, which lets us off the hook from taking responsibility for the discord all around us.
Our world is messed up for only one reason and it has nothing to do with Satan and demons and spiritual warfare and diabolical forces from the netherworld. Our world is messed up because we have messed it up. The pain and suffering of our world we have afflicted upon ourselves. Likewise, the solution and remedy is not God swooping in to save the day. The solution and remedy is you and me... us. The salvation, healing, and transformation of our world is not going to fall down from the sky, but will have to be worked out through the human spirit.
The reality is this:
We are responsible for the mess of the world. There is nothing and no one to blame except ourselves.
God is not going to fix it.
Praying for divine intervention is not a solution.
We don't have to cause suffering in the world. We are free to choose differently.
We are capable of living lives of goodness.
Until we do, expect nothing to change.
3. The illusion of sides is thwarting the only hope we have.
The apocalyptic narratives are all about sides: God versus Satan; the righteous versus the wicked; the saved versus the damned; us versus them, etc... Religion keeps the game of separation, division and discord going, and this will be what kills us all if we don't stop, and realize that we are one human family and either we figure this shit out together or we all sink on the Titanic. Martin Luther King, Jr. got it right, "We either learn to live together as brothers (and sisters) or perish as fools." Religion has made us all fools. There is no "them." There is only "us." We are all Homo sapiens, one human family.
Nobody is born Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Catholic, Protestant, etc. People are born human and are slowly conditioned by narratives of race, religion, gender, nationality, etc. to be less than human. The identity narratives tell us whom to love and whom to hate; and whom to befriend and whom to fear. That's not a recipe for long-term survival.
The basic religious idea of apocalypse is that there's a cosmic divine plan unfolding and will ultimately come to a head in a cataclysmic showdown between good and evil when God's judgement will punish the wicked, reward the righteous and wipe the slate clean (insert flames, destruction, meltdown, horror, hideous beasts, lake of fire, etc). In my view, this apocalyptic narrative is false, destructive, and prevents progress.
Some days I worry that religion's apocalyptic narratives may have us careening toward a self-fulfilling prophecy. The word "apocalypse" actually means to unveil what is hidden. The answer is not up in the sky and caught up in some grandiose fantastical drama. Everything we need to know to save ourselves is hidden inside our human spirit, and the lessons learned and skills acquired from occupying this planet and evolving as a species for the past 200,000 years. We don't need divine intervention, we need a human awakening.