End-of-the-week ruminations on the end of the world.
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The stubborn persistence of the planet is the best argument against apocalyptic prophecy. End-times predictions have a 0% success rate, and often when doomsday doesn’t come, their prophets lose all credibility. Everyone laughs at the mention of Paul Ehrlich’s name, for example, ever he assumed the robes of secular sage and predicted overpopulation and mass starvation in the 1970s and 1980s.
Horrifying signs that seem to herald the downfall of civilization haven’t brought an apocalypse. Stalinism, for example, came and went. ABC’s The View has aired for fifteen years without drawing down fire from Heaven.
Christians are also specifically warned about end-times predictions. “No one knows about that day or hour,” says Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew, “not even the angels in Heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” He didn’t add, “Except for that one time I accidentally let it slip to a bunch of Mesoamerican pagans that practiced human sacrifice. My bad on that one.”
So why do people keep making these predictions? And why do we believe them?
Probably for the unglamorous reason that we feel small. For all the boisterous claims of modern science, we really don’t understand very much about the universe, other than that we owe our existence to an enormous and seemingly impossible act of creation by either God or nature. It’s not hard to believe that an equivalent act of destruction could occur. And when it does, we want it to have meaning. Better yet, we want to know it’s happening before anyone else.
Skeptics like to sneer that prophecy seekers are delusional. Are they? The world’s major nations have nuclear weapons pointed at each other. Nature is a consistently lethal force that’s beyond our control. At least ten genocides that killed 1 million people or more took place last century. If you accept that humanity is capable of incredible destruction, wondering about the end of the world doesn’t seem all that crazy.
Which brings us back to Malachy. Some of his pope descriptions seem alarmingly accurate. John Paul I, listed as “From the midst of the moon,” died after one month, or moon cycle, in office. John Paul II, “From the labor of the sun,” was both born and laid to rest on days when solar eclipses occurred. Even Benedict XVI, “Glory of the olive,” derives his namesake from St. Benedict, the crest of whose order contains an olive branch. And Pope Benedict is seen as a unifier of the Church, extending olive branches to the Eastern Orthodox and the Society of Pope Pius X.
So are we all doomed? That, as President Obama would say about everything except speechifying, is above my pay grade. I’ll fall back on the Church’s skepticism over the Prophecy of the Popes, and take solace in the apocalypse’s 0% attendance rating.
But I still have that quintessentially human tight stomach. It’s hard not to worry…just a little bit.
Photo courtesy Patricia Drury.
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