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Comment 19

2012, Revelation, and other End-of-the-World Mayhem

December 01, 2009

Aristotle labeled this sort of thing a need for catharsis, but it seems that we humans feel a recurring urge to indulge in fantasies about the destruction of the world as we know it, though one hopefully to be replaced, after an appropriate amount of ruination, by something better. Almost 2000 years ago, longstanding Jewish apocalyptic imaginings gave rise in early Christianity to what would prove to be the most enduring of those fantasies, the New Testament Book of Revelation. It is often overlooked that Revelation concludes with a scenario of renewal (in terms of the Christian sect’s own triumph), but only after 20 chapters of blood-drenched cataclysm. Revelation, however, was not alone, especially in Jewish tradition, and the ancient world had other expressions of cyclical overthrow and renewal. Because ordinary human beings tend to feel powerless to bring about the changes needed to correct the problems and injustices that are perceived to plague most times and places, many take refuge in anticipating that the Deity they believe in will do it for them, or that the world is innately structured to undergo its own periodic rise and fall and cleansing transformation—the more violent the better, as an expression of our frustration and impatience.

The latest craze in end-of-the-world fantasies is following the same pattern, at least in some of its popular expression. It would seem that the Mayan calendar reflecting that culture’s cyclical philosophy of time and evolution envisioned a renewal point which is located just around our own corner: December 21, 2012 to be exact. The Mayans probably did not envision apocalyptically destructive prodigies of nature and the collapse of much of humanity’s own handiwork (the scant sources we possess are unclear), but this has been no check to popular entertainment and imagination. The film “2012” gleefully destroys all manner of things natural and man-made, and December 22 three years hence will supposedly have us all living in places like ruined underground parking garages, ruthlessly protecting our families and whatever food supplies we have managed to scrape together. I suspect the Mayans were more subtle and sophisticated than that. New Age thinking leans toward expectations of some form of spiritual transformation, a “global consciousness shift.” Would that it might be so, as we could use a shift in some of our approaches to life and the cosmos, though hopefully without some of the more extravagant fancies of New Ageism.

We in the Christian west have come out of a two-millennia-long culture involving an expectation of the end of the world with the return of the Jesus of the Gospels, an event envisioned as entailing a good degree of horror and havoc, not all of it inspired by Revelation. The Gospels, expanding on current apocalyptic expectations in sectarian Jewry going back to the prophets of the Babylonian Exile who first promised that God would soon arrive to re-establish his people in the land of Israel, have Jesus prophesying an end to the world with many woes and tribulations. Mark, the first fashioner of that prophecy, was written early enough (near the end of the first century) that such an End-time was deemed to be virtually imminent, although later Gospels began to hedge their bets and allow that no one really knew exactly when it was going to happen. Many are still waiting and, like others before them, are convinced the End will occur in their own time.

When Christianity became triumphant and the Roman empire slid into barbarism, ruined and unstable times accentuated the urge to believe that the world was a lost cause and that the return of Christ would transform everything. Unfortunately, despite an era of enlightenment and scientific and intellectual progress, that view still persists in much of the Christian evangelical heartland of North America and other places. (From Ronald Reagan to George W. Bush, American Presidents—seconded by a significant portion of Congress—have mostly been men who believed that the end of the world could well occur in their lifetimes.) A film like 2012 may be looked upon by many as harmless entertainment, but it still feeds into the deep psyche of our traditional cultural outlook that this world we live in is inherently defective, unimportant and worthy of destruction, and something beyond our control and direction is going to bring about its passing so that, again, some agency outside our control and direction will replace it with something better, whether in this dimension or in a supernatural one.

But pessimism and nihilism never accomplished anything, just as beliefs in a personal God or Savior have never contributed one iota to human progress, and have frequently proven an impediment. (The conviction by a group of old celibate men behind Vatican walls that God does not approve of birth control is proving truly catastrophic for the fate of the planet.) The world is our responsibility alone, as emergent intelligent lifeforms within evolving nature. If it comes to an end, even an apocalyptic one, it will be our own fault, because we have not the courage to embrace and take control of our own destiny, to abandon outdated, counterproductive and intellectually baseless hindrances to maturity.

One of those baseless beliefs has been the anticipated return of a Jesus who in reality can be shown to have never existed. The realization that the Gospel figure of a god-man on earth was originally a fictional symbolic character, and that early Christians like Paul believed only in a heavenly Christ, is one of the emerging insights of our modern era, and may in itself bring about significant change and renewal, though hopefully not an apocalyptic one. The movement known as “Jesus Mythicism” has become an idea to be reckoned with, one advocated not only by myself. The 1999 publication of my original book, The Jesus Puzzle, has had a substantial impact on the legitimacy of the no-Jesus idea, but I would now recommend the new and much expanded version just published, Jesus: Neither God Nor Man, which offers an unprecedented in-depth case (some 800 pages) for the non-existence of an historical Jesus. Initial reviews have been enthusiastic and it is now being made available on For more information, see the advertisement on The Jesus Puzzle website.

If by late 2012 the idea that Jesus never existed has gained a significant foothold in popular and even scholarly consideration, it may be true that the Mayans were indeed on to something.

Earl Doherty