Last night I had the pleasure of partaking in an intimate discussion with Mantle friend Tony Johnson and others about the seeming necessity for humans to have narratives of judgment, rapture, and the finality of life on Earth. From time immemorial, humans have prognosticated and prepared for end times. And time and time again those prophecies of doom have failed to become manifest, leaving true believers scratching their heads, wondering how they could have misread the signals.
Our conversation, of course, took place in the wake of yet another failed doomsday prediction, this one from evangelist Harold Camping who predicted the end of times was supposed to occur on the evening of May 21. He's now reassessed, claiming the new day of judgment is October 21.
What is it that drives us to such predictions? And why is it that judgment day must be so cataclysmic? Imaginings of this day of reckoning seem to always include Mother Nature running amuck (earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, wicked storms, and lots and lots of fire) and general panic and mayhem amongst us mortals. "Doomsday" is the day of doom, of ill fortune.
Judgment day has to be a horrific event. As far as prophets are concerned, the best way to keep your band of followers hanging on your every word is to instill fear at near-panic levels. Afraid for their lives and threatened with torturous conditions that could last forever, followers will look to doomsayers for guidance as to how to avoid such terror.
Imagine another scenario, then, where judgment day is predicted to be a pleasant experience, where rainbows fill the sky and clouds burst forth with heavenly music, and everyone is lifted to heaven by hordes of butterflies whose delicate wings also tickle us, so that we ascend into the ever-after mirthufl and giddy. While many would approve of such a scenario, and might actually invest in the idea, there's no incentive for the masses to stop what they're doing and throw all their time, money, energy, and emotions at the Prophet of Good Times (versus End Times).
And so, because prophets need followers, the themes of fear, disaster, chaos, and hell-on-Earth run through their judgment day predictions.
That doesn’t address the question of why these narratives are needed. Whether or not judgment day is a happy or fearsome affair, the very idea of a judgment day is an interesting notion.
The answer, I think, is that judgment day narratives give us meaning.
In other words, if we are made aware of an endpoint (such as a specific date) or of a goal (such as living a Christian or “good” life), then we are given a sense of purpose. “I may not live to see that day of reckoning,” a believer may think, “but at least I know it is coming, and I can do something to further my people toward that day.” This awareness gives meaning to a life that—in many variations—seems otherwise unfair, unjust, difficult, tormenting, or pointless.
If you yank Judgment Day away from a religious believer, then you yank away a sense of self-identity. The loss of this meaning could usher in a terrible, frightening, and damaging existential crisis.
This judgment day narrative is not limited to the religious. Let us consider a secular or scientific judgment day scenario: the climax of an impending climate change crisis. Global warming doomsayers warn of a world that will one day destroy us, but not through a rapturous ascent to Heaven or descent to Hell, but rather by the smiting of Mother Nature. Herein, these predictions echo the religious versions, with hurricanes and tornadoes sweeping across the Earth, deserts expanding, rainforests disappearing, flood waters consuming coastal cities, and a new ice age smothering the planet in a bitter frost of retribution.
Or, one can consider the secular doomsday scenario that involves the destruction of life as we know it through the insane use of nuclear weapons.
The point is, for those who don’t subscribe to religious end times scenarios, other narratives provide viable substitutes. But to what end (so to speak)? Why? Just as above, these secular judgment day narratives give us meaning—some sort of ontological-teleological combo kind of meaning. Take that away ... more existential angst.
In other words, for those of us concerned with how humans treat the environment (e.g., polluting) or how we treat each other (e.g. war), a prophecy of a non-religious judgment day signals, “Hey. We’re better than this. We can do better than this. We should do better than this. We will do better than this.”
And if we don’t?
Well, who will be the judge?