The Study Of The History Of The End Of The World, Part 1

Deep within their hearts and minds, a significant number sense that the world is careening towards something that is both catastrophic yet wondrous all at the same time. Not exactly sure of what that is, many attempt to get a handle on this feeling of apprehensive expectation by conceptually referring to the stimuli and data provoking this emotional response as “the End Times”. With advances in technology just as likely to make our lives more complicated as convenient, it is understandable for contemporary man to assume that this is the first era in the history of the species to experience this particular variety of spiritual distress. However, the perspective of history shows how this cognitive distress is nothing new but has been an inherent component of Western civilization derived from that tradition's Judeo-Christian foundation even among segments of it that would no longer directly identify with that particular set of religious presuppositions.

In “The Last Days Are Here Again: A History Of The End Times” Richard Kyle begins his analysis by starting off with a definition of a few of the terms vital for understanding this particular area of theological study but which are often muddled as a result of their similarity (18-23). The first term defined by Kyle is “apocalyptic” or “apocalypse”. He defines that as a body of literature unveiling a divine secret in a manner that presents a catastrophic narrative describing a cosmic struggle between good and evil that often concludes in a decisive battle or deterministic series of events. Kyle proceeds to make a distinction between the terms “apocalyptic” and “eschatological”. In his use of the term, Kyle defines eschatology as “a study of the last things” of which the apocalyptic is a subset concerned more with impending doom.

Kyle is also careful to make a distinction between apocalypticism and millennialism. He does note that there is often overlap between the two. However, not all professing apocalypticism necessarily believe in millennialism and not all millenarians are apocalypticists. For example, theologians professing a postmillennial return of Christ do not usually believe in apocalypticism. Instead such exegetes believe conditions will improve gradually with the Second Advent occurring only after a near complete Christianization of the world. Adherents of certain forms of secularist catastrophism such as the nuclear freeze or environmentalist movements warn of an impending doom but do not necessarily foresee a desired golden age coming about afterwards should the horror that they warn against actually transpire.

A primary question raised is what is it about Western civilization that makes those steeped in it --- be they explicitly religious, secular, or somewhere along this spectrum --- susceptible to apocalyptic thinking? The first factor leading to the allure of an apocalypse is the pervasive insistence throughout Christian theology that Christ will indeed one day bodily return to Earth. Thus, at its heart, the Christian faith is by definition a millennial religion. For whatever reason in the goodness of His providence, God decided it was best to reveal in His word more of a symbolic outline of the conditions surrounding the return of His Son rather than detailed specifics.

Often it is the as[iration of man to desire more knowledge than he was intended or even capable of handling. That has resulted in those drawn to these particular passages of Scripture referring to the consummation of all things often undertaking an attempt to fill in what the human mind might perceive as gaps in our understanding. Such can serve a role if it draws the believer into a close study of the revered text for the purposes of deepening the understanding of the God supernaturally inspiring these works. However, the result can be deleterious if the outcome of that study is the confusion and unnecessary fear that often surrounds apocalyptic speculation if basic presuppositions such as no man knowing the day or hour as stated in Matthew 24:36 are not adhered in the rush to discover what is believed to be some new prophetic insight.

The second factor that can lead to an undue emphasis on the apocalyptic is the philosophy of history underlying much of Western thought. Such is derived from Christian assumptions, in particular those relating to the doctrine of Christ's return and those events leading to the commencement of eternity. Of the Western linear view of history, Kyle writes, “Rather, history moves from one event to the next until it reaches its final goal (22).”

While this view allows for repetitive themes and patterns, unlike the cyclical philosophy of history more characteristic of Eastern religions, the Judeo-Christian model does not hold to what amounts to a reincarnation of events as well as people. Instead, history will come to a decisive conclusion in the final judgment. Interestingly, though the intentions were far from Christian and the attempt to reach its goal marked by disastrous carnage, Communism also adapted a linear conception of history with the system's ultimate goal a classless utopia after the establishment of such all conflict would ultimately cease.

The scholar focusing upon this area of theological study most also note the distinction between the “apocalyptic” and “eschatological”. In his use of the term, Kyle defines eschatology as “a study of the last things” of which the apocalyptic is a subset concerned more with impending doom.

Kyle is also careful to make a distinction between apocalypticism and millennialism. He does note that there is often overlap between the two. However, not all professing apocalypticism necessarily believe in millennialism and not all millenarians are apocalypticists. For example, theologians professing a postmillennial return of Christ do not usually believe in apocalypticism. Instead such exegetes believe conditions will improve gradually with the Second Advent occurring only after a near complete Christianization of the world. Adherents of certain forms of secularist catastrophism such as the nuclear freeze or environmentalist movements warn of an impending doom but do not necessarily foresee a desired golden age coming about afterwards should the horror that they warn against actually transpire.

By Frederick Meekins

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