Some two thousand years ago, the disciples of Jesus of Nazareth asked the Son of God a question that has intrigued us all ever since: "What shall be the sign of thy coming, and of the end of the world?" (Matthew 24:3, King James Version). Many had asked that question before. And many more have asked the same, thereafter.
People in every generation have, since the beginning of time, wondered about this. Will the world literally end? If so, when, why and how? The most frightening of all is, when? Tonight, tomorrow, next year? Or, most preferably, after I’m gone. And it is not only the religious-minded who pose these all-important questions. In recent decades people from many walks of life have expressed concern about the possibility of the end of the world as we know it. Politicians, educators and scientists foresee the potential destruction of our world from a number of causes: nuclear warfare, environmental disaster, planetary pollution, killer diseases, collision with a comet or asteroid and, last but not least, overpopulation.
I see you raising eyebrows about the last two. No, these aren’t unlikely at all. Based on the increasing number of gigantic impacts of recent years, scientists believe that a collision between earth and a killer asteroid is almost inevitable.
What would be the result of such a violent encounter? An asteroid only a kilometer across would create cosmic havoc by impacting on the earth. The shock wave would flatten much of the United States. If it hit the oceans, the tidal wave it created could be a mile high, enough to flood most coastal cities on earth. No, this isn’t science fiction. In 1908, for instance, a meteor or comet exploded over a remote area of Siberia. Though it was relatively small, with an estimated diameter of only about 50 yards, it flattened 1,000 square miles of forest, felling 80 million trees. The energy released by that celestial missile is estimated to be about equal to that of a large hydrogen bomb. The resulting tremors were recorded as far away as London.
Misgivings on account of overpopulation are by no means exaggerated. There are grave worries of food shortages and, more importantly, acute shortages of drinking water. According to UN projections, the world's population is projected to increase by an extra 2.2 billion people by 2050. Food production needs to increase by 70% by some estimates. Increasing fertilizer use runs into severe problems on account of water shortages. Water tables are falling in agricultural regions around the world.
Increasing Nuclear Threat
Experts generally agree that, of all possible means of destroying humanity, nuclear weapons pose the greatest threat. Let me share with you a story about the secrets of the exotic nuclear world. When only half a dozen scientists including Einstein, Fermi and Rutherford knew that the nuclear energy can be harnessed to human use, they decided among themselves not to share the fact with politicians of the world lest it should be abused. Then came the Second World War. The non-Germans in the select group had a lurking fear that the Germans among them may pass the secret to Hitler and with that, Germany may be the first to develop an atom bomb. So, Einstein took the initiate to let Roosevelt know about it. Thereafter, there was no looking back. The result was Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Ironically, the German scientists didn’t breathe a word to Hitler about it.
And now the genie cannot be put back in the bottle. Consequently, the nuclear threat constitutes not a temporary, but rather an irrevocable global threat. Some sober scientists go even farther, saying that nuclear annihilation is inevitable. The Cassandra of despair was the late Carl Sagan, who wrote in Cosmos that “the development of nuclear weapons and their delivery systems will, sooner or later, lead to global disaster”.
With the Cold War over, the probability of all-out nuclear war between countries has lessened for the time being, but the continuing addition of more nations to the nuclear club ratchets the threat rather than diminish it.
If North Korea has successfully developed nuclear weapons— there are indeed strong indications that it has done—the nuclear club of nations now totals 10 i.e., India, Pakistan, South Africa, Israel and North Korea besides USA, Russia, UK, France and China. More than 50,000 nuclear weapons exist in the world, many in dangerously unstable places, most importantly in Pakistan and Israel. No one dares dismiss the idea that some terrorist groups, if they can get their hands on nuclear devices, will indeed use them in pursuit of their deadly aims.
Realists among public figures share a deep concern that Armageddon may occur sooner than later. Ronald Reagan’s defense secretary, Casper Weinberger, observed: "I believe the world is going to end—by an act of God, I hope—but every day I think time is running out" (quoted by Reginald Stackhouse, The End of the World , 1997, p. viii). French president Valery Giscard d'Estaing too had his misgivings. Former U.S. vice president Al Gore speculated in Earth in the Balance on the longevity of the world: "Two world wars, the Holocaust, the invention of nuclear weapons, and now the global environmental crisis have led many of us to wonder if survival . . . is possible"
Indeed, experts from many fields share the concern that we could see the end of civilization as we know it. These concerns have created an age of anxiety, especially in a world where so little seems certain anymore.
Such criticism is justified to a point. Doomsday predictions have abounded for centuries; date-setters have been wrong many times. The problem with most of these prognostications was that, though well intentioned, the specific chronological details were the ideas of men who badly misinterpreted information in Scripture.
Is there a source to which we can go for reliable information? There is! That one reliable source is the Bible—what it really says. Many people today have a vague idea that the Bible says something about the end of the world. Does it? Most certainly!
The End of an Age
Although we do not know the time, one thing we know for sure is that the Bible prophesies the end of the world as we know it. But what does that mean?
When Jesus' disciples asked Him about "the end of the world," they weren't talking about "world" in the sense of our physical planet, the earth. The Greek word used is aion, from which we get the English word eon. The two mean essentially the same thing — an age, an epoch, an era.
Regardless of when it occurs, there will be people who express disdain even as the very time approaches. No matter how difficult things look; some will assure everyone that man has everything under control. Tragically, such assurances will do nothing but provide a false sense of security, leading people to foolishly continue to trust in human ability rather than in God.
Whatever lingering doubts I had about the impending end of the world were dispelled when I read about the signs of the coming of Dajjal as ascribed to Hazrat Ali. (Dajjal, in case you’re not familiar with this common Arabic word, means “deceiving”. Al-Masi? ad-Dajjal, with the definite article al- (“the”), refers to “the deceiving Messiah”.)
People will stop offering the prayers
Dishonesty will be the way of life
Falsehood will become a virtue
People will mortgage their faith for worldly gain
Usury and bribery will become legitimate
Imbeciles would rule over the wise
Blood of innocents would be shed
Pride will be taken on acts of oppression
The rulers will be corrupt
The scholars will be hypocrite
There will be no shame amongst people
There would be no respect for elderly people
With rogues and rascals at the helm of affairs in every walk of life, so self-obvious are the signs that I needn’t mention their daily manifestations.
The non-Abrahamic faiths have more cyclical eschatologies regarding end time, characterized by decay, redemption and rebirth. In Hinduism, end time is foretold as when Kalki, the final incarnation of Vishnu, descends atop a white horse and bring an end to the current Kali Yuga. In Buddhism, the Buddha predicted that his teachings would be forgotten after 5,000 years, followed by turmoil. A bodhisattva named Maitreya will appear and rediscover the teaching of dharma.
Don’t Worry Be Happy
Since I don’t know when everything will come to an end if it has to, what should one do to tackle with these nagging thoughts? A highly pragmatic friend of mine gave priceless advice. “Have you forgotten, Old chap, Bobby McFerrin’s celebrated song "Don't Worry, Be Happy"?”
No, I haven’t. But I’m told the man who coined this catchy slogan was the self-styled mystic-saint Meher Baba. He, like all our saints and gurus, had more followers abroad than in India. Whenever someone took to him his tale of woes, he would patiently listen to him and then say: “Do your best and thereafter don’t worry. Just leave it to Him and feel happy that He has taken over.” Wonderful arrangement! When his followers from abroad narrated similar worries, Meher Baba abbreviated the message and cabled: “Don’t Worry: Be Happy.” (Those unfortunately, weren’t the days of the internet and instant Email.)
My worry doesn’t disappear with that. Suppose He also fails to come up with a Solution. Then starts the new round.
Beating the Deadline
Overwhelmed by dark prophesies I woke up on Thursday, December 21 and lived the day as if that was the last day of my life. Not too sure when the day may end, and with it this lifespan, I had my drink of the day with breakfast itself. Why wait till lunch? I had been told that the day marked the end of the 13th cycle of the ancient Mayan calendar that would herald the end of the world.
Nothing happened till late night. So, I had another drink to call it a day—a momentous day. Worries about a looming apocalypse are nothing new. I’ve lived through them before — from Nostradamus to Ashtgraya to Y2K end-of-the-world prophesies. I turned to the wise for explanation. They tell me the Mayans never, in fact, spoke about the end of the world. They merely used their ‘Long Count’ calendar (like our Vikrami samvat) to mark the end of each b’ak’tun, a cycle of 144,000 days. (The concept is like our Yugas). Thank goodness, Mayan thought 13 to be an auspicious number and the completion of their 13 b’ak’tuns was a significant date which turned out to be 12/21. From 22nd starts the 14th b’ak’tun and a new cycle begins. The rest is hullabaloo in the true Hollywood style.
Nonetheless, whenever I wake up in the middle of the night and cannot go to sleep again I start thinking about life’s journey: how it begins and how it moves to its inexorable end. Is it equally true of the planet we live on and have spared no effort to pollute and degrade it? When did life begin? And how and why did it begin? Who was it who set the cycle in motion? Will it come to end? And if so, when? Thinking men have pondered over these mysteries since time immemorial.
Isn’t it great that perhaps the first human beings to mull over these profoundly subtle thoughts were our ancestors, who composed the beautiful hymns of the Rig Veda. If you want to savor one them, read the following and keep pondering over:
The Creation Hymn of Rig Veda
There was neither non-existence nor existence then.
There was neither the realm of space nor the sky which is beyond.
In whose protection?
Was there water, bottlemlessly deep?
There was neither death nor immortality then.
There was no distinguishing sign of night nor of day.
That One breathed, windless, by its own impulse.
Other than that there was nothing beyond.
Darkness was hidden by darkness in the beginning,
with no distinguishing sign, all this was water.
The life force that was covered with emptiness,
that One arose through the power of heat.
Desire came upon that One in the beginning,
that was the first seed of mind.
Poets seeking in their heart with wisdom
found the bond of existence and non-existence.
Their cord was extended across.
Was there below?
Was there above?
There were seed-placers, there were powers.
There was impulse beneath, there was giving forth above.
Who really knows?
Who will here proclaim it?
Whence was it produced?
Whence is this creation?
The gods came afterwards, with the creation of this universe.
Who then knows whence it has arisen?
Whence this creation has arisen
- perhaps it formed itself, or perhaps it did not -
the One who looks down on it,
in the highest heaven, only He knows
or perhaps He does not know.
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