Religious prophets once reigned as authorities on the end of time, but fortunately their warnings were premature, and based on questionable evidence. Modern day scientists have taken up the cudgel, albeit with sounder evidence and considerably longer waiting periods. Unfortunately, the idea of apocalypse is not quite so dubious anymore.
The end of the world, postponed time and again for centuries, has a history of being reinvented that would fill volumes. In the distant past, religious prophets reigned as authorities on the end times, the last days before Judgment Day. They preached the inevitability — indeed necessity — of the total destruction that would follow the sounding of the judgment trumpet. Their spiritual descendants, today’s doomsday seers, mainly fundamentalist and survivalist groups, are less commanding or imaginative. They may not fill pews to overflowing with petrified congregants, but their dire warnings to repent before the final hour still attract a few lost souls or curious lookers-on.
In our times, scientists have taken over from the clairvoyant prophets. Vying with climate scientists, clearly in the ascendant as futurists, astrophysicists now reign as the pre-eminent oracles on the grandest of all grand finales. Looking far, far into the future, they see a catastrophic explosion that will pulverize our solar system — as definitive an end to our earthly existence as ever prophesied or imagined.
Somewhere between see-all prophets and know-all astrophysicists labour the comparatively modest poets. They too have stretched their imaginations on this treacherous premise of the end of life as we know it. Since versifiers prefer indirection to plain speaking, they sometimes use universal extinction as a pretext for musing on subjects closer to their hearts, namely human nature’s destructive forces and their impact on individuals — usually the poets themselves.
That such human forces — magnified by means of nuclear warheads, for example — could destroy our entire planet isn’t a theme poetry can adequately grapple with. An image of a billowing, searing mushroom cloud in a line of verse would only call attention to the futility of poetic sentiment. Poets may be too faint-hearted to embrace, as prophets and astrophysicists have, visions of universal destruction, the end of human time.
It’s impossible to chart a definitive path through the history of an idea with as many religious, mystical, metaphysical, artistic, and scientific variants as the end of the world. But even a freewheeling survey — while disregarding many often strangely beautiful apocalyptic depictions in words and on canvas — may shed a little light on its essence. It brings into sharp focus the devastating swerve from bygone expressions of the end times as thrust upon us by a supernatural, wrathful power to modern variants that follow from our own dark resourcefulness to destroy planet Earth and exterminate ourselves.
The religious visionaries of bygone days, the first standard-bearers of the world’s destruction, relied on writerly ingenuity to elaborate their story of the end times. The prophetic visions of John of Patmos in the final book of the Bible, Revelation, unfold like scenes of a play about retributive justice. The author’s prophecy is ferocious, unsparing. It features such apocalyptic creatures as a sea beast with seven heads (though curiously only ten horns). Death is depicted as an executioner spreading famine and plague while galloping about on a pale horse.
That horse is a reminder that for all the Christian prophet’s wild imagery, his imagination was nonetheless bound by the circumstances of his time, the first century AD. He couldn’t imagine the Grim Reaper riding a flying machine, for example. That would have increased his prophetic accuracy: in our day, air travel spreads plague more efficiently than ever before.
Subsequent religious prophets, as if privy to a divine playwright’s script more detailed even than the Book of Revelation, calculated an actual date for the end of the world. When that last day stubbornly failed to arrive on time, they had to work out a way to reschedule humanity’s demise. Undeterred from speaking for God by their failed prediction, they rewrote the sacred laws that rule the universe, and invented the end of days all over again.
Even in our century, doomsday predictors like Christian radio evangelist Harold Camping have set actual dates for Judgment Day. When the first date he set for the end of the world in 2011 came and went, he revised his prediction by six months, presumably after tweaking his mathematical calculations and reinterpreting the Biblical clues he claimed to rely on.
If, by means of their prophetic gift, seekers of the end of the world like Mr. Camping had once glimpsed the future as decreed by divine will, why not a second time? Who among Mr. Camping’s many hardcore disciples would have stood up to accuse him — or any other doomsayer with a calendar for that matter — of being a twenty-first century Socrates, the philosopher of ancient Athens sentenced to death for impiously creating new gods while not believing in the old ones? For them, postponing the apocalypse may well be the Almighty’s prerogative. Doomsday prophets themselves may have been relieved to dodge the end times to enjoy a divine extension to careers as chastisers of sinful congregations.
Religious prophets, ingenious and adaptable though they often proved, eventually had to reckon with the scientific revolution of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, which ushered in new ways of looking at the world and in fact predicting future events, even extraordinary ones like the timing of solar eclipses.
Careful observation and controlled experiments made it possible to look deep into the nature of things, oracle-like, and develop scientific theories. Religious prophets had to revise their predictions as time marched on and everyday life, with all its stubborn wickedness, carried on much as before. If scientists, parting ways with religion consciously or not, were sometimes as overconfident as the God-fearing visionaries, they at least had to discard—in view of physical evidence—cherished theories in favour of better ones.
In our time, we’ve offloaded the practice of divination to powerful supercomputers, bringing us ever closer to solving the world’s riddles. Faster and more efficient at predicting most likely outcomes, supercomputers allow us to peer into the future by crunching prodigious quantities of facts and figures. Complex models, updated and sharpened with near-instantaneous real- world data, project the consequences of global warming, for example.
Worst-case climate scenarios are nothing short of terrifying: extreme heat waves beyond the limits of human endurance killing the vulnerable in unprecedented numbers, accelerating and irreversible desertification, mega-fires year-round. Enormous advances in climatology and ever larger scientific data sets breathe new life into apocalyptic visions of global ecological destruction. If the end times loom today, it’s because we burn massive quantities of non- renewable resources, thanks to which the sun’s rays blaze ever hotter.
Like prophets, poets have presumed a deeper understanding of the nature of things. In the twentieth century, Robert Frost was as clear-eyed about human wickedness as John of Patmos was in the first. In his short end-of-world poem, “Fire and Ice” (1923), Frost assumes the prophet’s mantle. Beneath the poem’s matter-of-fact tone smoulders a preacher’s familiar admonitions about the catastrophic consequences of moral depravity. The destructive human passions most likely to trigger doomsday are desire and hate:
Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
From what I’ve tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire.
But if it had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
To say that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice.
Fire stands in for the world-demolishing power of evil desire, presumably in its abundant varieties: lust, avarice, covetousness, malice, thirst for revenge — the list goes on. Ice stands in for the second-best potency of hate and its own numerous varieties. Not surprisingly, Frost — or the oracular speaker of his poem, if you prefer — is partial to fire as the likeliest method for the world’s destruction. Ice is a serviceable backup. Frost’s poem recycles the ancient wisdom that fire is ideally suited to cleansing human wickedness. Poets and end-of-world preachers alike have preferred hellfire as a moral sanitizer. For centuries, fire has held on to its position as the quintessence of purification. Freezing to death, on the other hand, isn’t as widely endorsed a means of cleansing the soul of moral contamination.
Frost’s poem is a reminder that a feasible vision of the end times requires a terminal firestorm to do a proper job of ridding the world of moral depravity. A planetary deep-freeze that kills off every last living thing lacks the dramatic flourish of annihilation by devouring flames. A good blaze appeals to the end-of-world imagination more readily than a freeze-over or ice age — and not only because of fire’s intimate association with moral cleansing.
The last ice age ended about 9,000 years ago, part of a million-year cycle of spreading and retreating ice sheets. Human-driven global warming, climate scientists say, may delay the advance of the next ice age by a thousand years or more. In our current interglacial period, which has already lasted for 10,000 years, it’s easier to imagine a world on fire under a heat dome than one permanently frozen under mile-thick sheets of ice. Mr. Frost’s case for preferring fire over ice to usher in the end times is even stronger today than it was a hundred years ago when he wrote his poem. Human activity has postponed the next ice age, and pushed us closer to the fire line to face the inferno on the other side.
In the limited way that any poem can be reduced to a central point, “Fire and Ice” is about human vices as forces that lead, deservedly, to universal destruction. But unlike true believers in the end times, Frost didn’t really expect the world to perish. Like most poets, he hoped his verses would be admired in perpetuity.
Czesław Miłosz also took poetic advantage of the belief in an imminent apocalypse. Anti- doomsday and playful, his poem “A Song on the End of the World” (1944) offers a vision of how the world will endure. Instead of “lightning and thunder” and the “archangels’ trumps” ushering in the apocalypse, the last day of the world features “happy porpoises” jumping in the sea and “young sparrows” playing by a rainspout.
For centuries, poets have harvested the natural world for their images and metaphors. In the fanciful world of a poem, nature will prevail, and life will carry on as usual. The fisherman of Miłosz’s poem mends his net even on the day the world ends. In our time, climate-induced catastrophes, drought, famine, and disease, have made such all-will-be-well sentiments untrustworthy. Poetry is no bulwark against a rising tide of death and ruin. Unrelentingly exploited to the point of collapse, nature cannot provide the consolation, the path to self- discovery and growth, that the English Romantic poets of the nineteenth century taught us to pursue. Of course, they couldn’t have predicted our present climate emergency. Nature poetry past and present may serve only to remind us of a more innocent age — happy porpoises and young sparrows included — before mindless spoliation of the natural world had reached its current disastrous level.
Some poets today have tried to address the need to reset our relationship with nature. But the global scale of the threat, the inevitability of one devastating climate-driven crisis after another, calls into question the relevance of such efforts. What can figurative language, poetry’s lifeblood, offer but a vague consolation? The angry poems of the present sound like the end-of-world admonitions, remonstrances, and outrages of the old prophets backed up by the latest climatological data. The stark reality of the climate crisis — when real-time images of the thawing Arctic can pop up on our electronic screens — reduces poetry to little more than literary trimming.
Latecomers compared to their fellow end-time visionaries, astrophysicists estimate the sun will run out of fuel in about five billion years. Before reaching its expiry date, however, it will swell into a red giant, and, according to one astrophysical model, incinerate not only every trace of earthly life but every last pebble and pixel too. On the day the world ends, the sun, instead of rising in the sky as it has done since the dawn of human time, will explode, turning a once-nurturing habitat into an immense funeral pyre.
Incineration by means of a dying star’s raging fire of not just our planet but our entire solar system would achieve an unprecedented finality that earlier and comparatively milder apocalyptic visions could only hint at. Religious prophets planned some form of sacred renewal in the exultant aftermath of an apocalypse, a correction to moral corruption or injustice. For a new order to rise upon the ruins of the old, at least a blessed few had to survive to pick up the pieces. The righteous or virtuous would carry on.
An astrophysical apocalypse, on the other hand, would leave behind nothing but a vast cloud of dust. Scientists who study the life cycle of stars would likely disagree with the contention in T.S. Eliot’s poem, “The Hollow Men” (1925), that the world ends “Not with a bang but a whimper” — despite that poem’s nod to “dying stars.”
Today’s astrophysicists didn’t originate total planetary destruction by solar firestorm. Eighteenth-century scientists, satirized by Jonathan Swift in Gulliver’s Travels (1726), also considered that possibility with the benefit of Newtonian theory alone. In one of his voyages, Captain Gulliver encounters the Laputans who, like today’s astrophysicists, ponder the possibility that the sun will swallow up the earth. So obsessed are the sleep-deprived Laputans with impending doom that they greet one another in the morning with worries about the “sun’s health.” The Laputans stand in for the scientists of Swift’s time who anticipated today’s astrophysical scenario of total incineration by red giant, grappling for the first time in history with the possibility of human life as a transitory accident.
Whatever the differences between them, prophets, poets, climate scientists, and astrophysicists appear to agree that, as a destructive and cleansing force, fire can’t be beat. The absence of punishing flames in Miłosz’s end-of-world poem notwithstanding, fire has served as the sine qua non of the end writ large, as essential to ancient as to contemporary end-of-world scenarios.
A compelling vision needs more than just rampant fire, however. Prophets understood for centuries that a bona fide end has to appear on the horizon to generate panic and motivate the complacent or wicked. Maybe not next week — but soon enough that stockpiling cans of beans in underground bunkers makes survival sense.
Compared to religious prophets, astrophysicists are the laggards of the apocalypse. They’ve given themselves five billion years to collect ever more data and revise their models of Earth’s obliteration. Meanwhile, a way might emerge to survive the sun’s death throes on a new home in the far reaches of our galaxy. But a real-enough doomsday scenario has to amount to more than speculation about what might happen half way down the road to infinity. If the astrophysicists’ solar Armageddon is five billion years off, leaving behind a last will and testament still makes sense for now.
In our times, we need no astrophysicists — or prophets and poets — to goad the apocalyptic imagination. Doomsday scenarios are more plausible than ever before because human-driven mega-disasters occur more often than ever before. It’s a sign of the unprecedented magnitude and variety of the new threats we face that stopping the proliferation of nuclear weapons no longer tops our agenda as it did in the 50s and 60s. Nuclear weapons made it conceivable to destroy all organic life on earth. But the potential for nuclear conflict now stands alongside pandemics, bioterrorism, and crippling wide-scale cyberattacks in the reckoning of our chances for survival.
Surpassing all these threats, old and new, is global warming. If climatologists are the new futurists, they have nonetheless handed us an old-school ultimatum to mend our ways. We’ve entered an age of eco-catastrophic visions, a new saeculum of end-times prophecy. Which brings us back to the two essentials of convincing apocalyptic visions: out-of-control fire and urgency. Prophets of the end times had to rely on religious cravings or imaginations in overdrive. Today, the signs of planetary destruction play out before our eyes. There’s no need to consult a book of revelations or poke at animal entrails or examine avian flight to predict the future. We gaze into the hereafter, as into a crystal ball, on smartphone screens gleaming with apocalyptic light. Ferocious blazes reduce millions of acres to ash. Around the world, giga-fires have surpassed mega-fires in size.
Extreme heatwaves and prolonged droughts presage food and water shortages, social collapse, and armed conflict. Among those who understand the urgent need for swift action are today’s doomsday preppers. Some of them are as sure of the end times as the prophets ever were: they’ve been building underground bunkers and stockpiling food for years already. These survivalists are hedging their bets that we can cut green-house gas emissions in time to avert ultimate catastrophe. For these new apocalypticists awaiting the final day, the future lies beyond our control. At the root of every apocalyptic vision is a sense of impotence in a process of doom.
The prophets of the good old days didn’t have to calculate their chances of surviving the destruction of our planet by fossil fuels and raging fires. They didn’t have supercomputers to chew through immense quantities of climate data to show that the end-all of human achievement is to have called into question our continued existence on this planet-speck in the universe.
If dodging a self-imposed judgment day this time seems our greatest challenge yet, it’s because we’re now far better at predicting the future.