Where the earthworms stopped, a world had ended. The telltale sign was an eight-inch-deep layer in the geological record at a site in present-day Syria called Tell Leilan. As reported in Nature earlier this year, archaeologists digging there “found a buried layer of wind-blown silt so barren there was hardly any evidence of earthworms at work. … Something [had happened] that choked the land with dust for decades, leaving a blanket of soil too inhospitable even for earthworms.”
The culprit, the archeologists concluded, was climate change: a century of drought 4200 years ago that plunged much of the inhabited world into chaos. Before, the region surrounding Tell Leilan had been the wheat-growing breadbasket for Mesopotamia’s cities; then it became a dustbowl. The drought toppled the Akkadian Empire, one of history’s first superregional states, which collapsed amid famine and civil war. Formerly thriving urban centers, including the Tell Leilan site, were abandoned. A mass movement of climate migrants swept southward, where conditions were less severe; in a move many today may find familiar, the southern cities erected a border wall. It would be three centuries before Mesopotamia returned to a measure of stability. Meanwhile, the same drought, known as the 4.2 kiloyear event, seems to have devastated societies elsewhere too. It has been linked to civilizational collapse in the Indus River Valley and in Egypt, where the Old Kingdom succumbed to anarchy as the Nile’s water level dropped by five feet.
What happened to the Akkadians could well be what’s about to happen to us. The effects of climate change already show eerie parallels to the aftermath of the ancient drought. Newly unpredictable weather in Central America has caused crop failures and upended traditional agriculture, accelerating migration to cities and the United States. Supersize wildfires regularly devastate homes from Portugal to Australia to California. Extreme heatwaves in heavily populated areas of India and the Sahel have grown more frequent, with temperatures that may soon become lethal to human beings.
All this is only the beginning of what awaits us and our grandchildren, climate scientists warn, even if carbon emissions fall substantially. Nor does today’s environmental crisis stop with weather. Biologists fear that animal and plant species are dying out at a rate comparable to that of the five mass extinctions that have occurred in the 3.7 billion years since life first appeared.
In the face of what many see as a mortal threat to life on earth, some have taken to extreme acts of protest. On Earth Day this year, Wynn Bruce, a fifty-year-old from Boulder, Colorado, burned himself to death outside the US Supreme Court, which was considering the legal validity of certain federal restrictions on carbon emissions. A friend and fellow Zen adherent told reporters that his decision to self-immolate was a “deeply fearless act of compassion” to protest government inaction on climate change.
Still, I can’t help but wonder if Bruce wasn’t also driven by a sense of dread and desperation that is far more widely shared. A worldwide 2021 study of sixteen- to twenty-five-year-olds reports that four out of five young people are fearful of the future of the climate, with 59 percent “very” or “extremely worried.” While a decade ago “eco-anxiety” was still a novel diagnosis, today psychologists are in increasing demand by those seeking therapy for debilitating fears about the threat to the planet.
More significantly in the long run, climate fears are one reason that people are having fewer children, at a time when most wealthy countries report a below-replacement fertility rate. For example, in a 2018 survey asking childless adults in the United States why they hadn’t had children, 33 percent cited “worries about climate change” and 27 percent “worries about population growth.” Whatever the reasons or circumstances for childlessness at an individual level, the society-wide retreat from childbearing runs counter to the most basic biological imperative: to bring the next generation into existence. Failing to do so seems to bespeak a despair about the future, for which plenty of reasons can be found beyond the climate.
Indeed, from another point of view, this pessimism may not be pessimistic enough. Concerns about global warming will prove superfluous in the event of nuclear war, a peril that few people under forty had spent long considering before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Like a revenant from the Cold War, it has now returned as a real possibility. Millions of lives, and perhaps civilization itself, could be snuffed out in a matter of hours simply because of the desperation of one autocrat in Moscow. In that case, future archaeologists sifting through the geological layers of present-day London or Manhattan might well find radioactive dust and, presumably, no earthworms.
One way or the other, one day Homo sapiens will go extinct, with or without our help through carbon emissions or nuclear war, and the game will be over. At least that is what current scientific models foretell. Perhaps it will be at the next round of global glaciation, predicted in a hundred millennia or so, but if not, the end will come when increased solar radiation kills off plant and animal life (perhaps in 600 million years), or at the latest when the sun balloons into a red giant and gobbles up the inner planets (7.5 billion years). The end of the solar system likely imposes a hard cutoff, even in the case that Peter Thiel’s dreams of life extension work out or Elon Musk’s plans for Martian colonies prove doable. Not even techno-futurism, it seems, can save us.
The truth, however, is that few of us are that troubled by any of these end-of-the-world scenarios, even if we intellectually acknowledge them. That’s why those who take them with a literalness we don’t – self-immolating protesters; hammer-wielding peace activists denting nuclear submarines and then serving long prison sentences – may command a certain awe, but also repel. The attitude of most people, even the sympathetic, might be summed up by tweaking Augustine’s prayer: Lord, make me care about the end of the world, but not yet.
Yet there is one kind of End Times that we can’t avoid taking seriously sooner or later: the end of our personal world. Every child eventually learns that dying isn’t something only other people do. For me the moment when this outrageous fact hit home found me in a dentist chair. The dentist was chiding me, a college freshman, about a broken tooth (lesson for the kids: don’t open beer bottles with your canines). “You’ll need these teeth another seventy years,” she said, meaning to emphasize the long life that lay ahead of my jaw and me. Her words had the opposite effect. “Just seventy years?” I wanted to shout, though the dental dam made that impossible. Age nineteen is probably late for this kind of basic arithmetic to sink in, but it did then: just a few more decades for me, then the gravedigger scene from Hamlet. When I told my mother, a family physician, she responded as someone who has stood at dozens of deathbeds. “Time you realized,” she said. “Flesh decays.”
One response to the inevitability of the flesh decaying is a kind of nihilism. The blogger Freddie de Boer eloquently lays out this case:
We’re born in terror, we exist for no reason, we experience confusion and shame as children, we busily prepare ourselves for lives we don’t want or can’t have, we are forced to take on the burdens of adult responsibility, we compromise relentlessly on what life we’ll pursue, we settle and settle and settle, we fear death and ponder our meaninglessness, we experience the horrors of aging, and when we die the only comfort we have is that we aren’t conscious to learn that there was never any heaven or God to give it all meaning.
Looked at this way, meaninglessness is the fate even of good people who live enviable lives. Recently a woman I’ve known since early childhood died at age eighty-eight, surrounded by her children and dozens of grandchildren and great-grandchildren. She was a genuine matriarch, loved by hundreds of people beyond her family thanks to an extraordinary lifetime spent in outreaching care and service. A thousand people stood around her grave as we buried her. Yet much as she will live in our memories, as the old saying goes – and she truly will – all those who remember her will also die, and her memory with them. Even having many biological descendants doesn’t count for much beyond a single lifetime – to one’s grandkids’ grandkids, after all, one will be only a very distantly related stranger.
“Teach me that there must be an end of me, and that my life has a finish, and that I must leave it,” wrote the Psalmist, in words set to haunting music by the agnostic Johannes Brahms in his Requiem. “How utterly vain are all human beings, who live as if they were safe! They walk about like a shadow, and give themselves much trouble to no purpose; they gather up, and do not know who will get it.” Brahms’s music, which uses Luther’s German translation of the Hebrew, culminates in the repeated, despairing question: “Wes soll ich mich trösten?” What comfort do I have to look to?
The paradoxical answer that ancient Judaism gave to such despair was a promise: the promise of doomsday. The coming “Day of the Lord” is a repeated theme of the Hebrew prophets, from Amos in the eighth century BC to the Book of Daniel in the second. (Similar prophecies appear in Zoroastrian scriptures around the same time.) On that day, the prophets declared, God would come to visit his people, taking vengeance on oppressors both foreign and homegrown and establishing lasting justice and peace. Wrath would be followed by renewal – for Israel, and perhaps for all of humanity as well, even the entire cosmos. The Book of Isaiah foretells how the natural world itself will be restored with the arrival of “new heavens and a new earth”; God will “swallow up death forever” and “wipe away the tears from all faces (Isa. 65:17; 25:8).”
Isaiah is not speaking of “the end of the world,” notes the scholar N. T. Wright. Rather, he is foretelling a future in which God’s good creation, far from being destroyed, is transformed and renewed. This is what the “end of the age” meant to Jesus and his early followers, including the author of Revelation, who concludes his book with a majestic elaboration of Isaiah’s prophecy. According to this vision, our own death is not the end after all, nor will scientific predictions of human extinction ultimately come to pass. “See, the home of God is among mortals. … He will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.”
This hopeful anticipation of the future isn’t what most people associate with prophecies of doomsday. On the contrary, the Day of Judgment as commonly received in Western culture is primarily about terror – the Dies Irae whose woes are detailed in the Latin Mass for the Dead: “That day, day of wrath, calamity, and misery, day of great and exceeding bitterness, when Thou shalt come to judge the world by fire.” In paintings such as Michelangelo’s Last Judgment in the Sistine Chapel, it is the abject fear of those rising to be judged and the agony of the damned that seize the viewer’s attention and remain longest in the memory, not the happiness of the blessed.
So it’s understandable that when describing the threat of large-scale catastrophe, whether from climate change or nuclear war, people often end up reaching for a biblical word that evokes the end of the world most forcefully: apocalypse. Thus we have apocalyptic novels (from Mary Shelley’s The Last Man to Walter M. Miller Jr.’s A Canticle for Leibowitz to Cormac McCarthy’s The Road); apocalyptic movies (On the Beach to Melancholia to Don’t Look Up); and apocalyptic sects (Jim Jones’s People’s Temple to the Branch Davidians to Aum Shinrikyo). For all the variety of these examples, the common thread of this way of thinking about apocalypse is: the end is nigh, and it will be bad.
But “apocalypse,” in the New Testament, does not mean “the end of the world” any more than Isaiah’s prophecies do. The English term derives from the first word in the last book of the Bible, the Revelation of John, where its meaning is “unveiling.” What is being unveiled in this book? The world as it really is, and as it will be. Human events, in the original apocalyptic view, are more than just the ebb and flow of purposeless occurrences. What drives them forward is neither the individual will nor material determinism, but rather the battle of spiritual forces of good and evil, of which political structures and social movements are merely manifestations. Not that the individual is powerless or unimportant – John’s Apocalypse pointedly challenges its readers to choose which side of the cosmic struggle they will join, and rules out lukewarmness as an option (“Would that you were either hot or cold!”). Its claim is rather that there’s a winnable war to wage. Revelation is thus one extended argument against nihilism; it insists that there is a God who gives it all meaning.
Admittedly, this book of unveiling is, in words of the scholar Christopher C. Rowland, “paradoxically the most veiled text of all in the Bible.” Far from giving us a straightforward account, it offers instead a succession of cryptic sayings and fantastic images: angels, horsemen, plagues, many-headed beasts, a lake of fire, a cube-shaped city. Whatever sort of unveiling the book may represent, it isn’t the disclosure of a timetable.
That hasn’t stopped generations of pious futurists from trying to read it like one. Indeed, much of Christian history might be told as a story of calculations of doomsday dates, followed by inevitable disappointments. One of the reasons Augustine wrote his masterpiece The City of God in AD 426 was to counter a popular end-times theory focused on the year 500; when that year came and went, people set their hopes successively on 801, 1000, 1033, and so on, up to the present day. (According to the seventeenth-century Anglican divine James Ussher, whose biblically based chronology of the earth proved widely influential, the eschatological millennium would dawn in 1997 – just in time, had it happened, to prevent Vladimir Putin from becoming president of the Russian Federation.) In parallel to arithmetical predictions, major disasters were interpreted as heralding the end: the sack of Rome, the fall of Jerusalem to Muslim armies, the Black Death, the Thirty Years War. Repeatedly, the last days would fail to materialize, and a new generation would set to work scratching out revised due dates.
This awkward history has tended to give apocalypse an unsavory reputation. But all such decoding projects stem from a basic misunderstanding of Christian scripture. The Book of Revelation itself rejects any attempt to use its words to predict the time of the end: “I will come like a thief!” it quotes Christ as exclaiming. This striking phrase echoes similar disclaimers in the letters of Paul and Peter (Rev. 16:15; 1 Thess. 5:2,4; 2 Peter 3:10), as well as Jesus’ emphatic statement in the Gospels: “No one knows the day or the hour.” Radical uncertainty is ours to live with.
Back when the Covid pandemic still felt fresh, it was briefly popular to speak of “these troubled times” – for example at the beginning of business emails, as a signal to the recipient that one was aware that this particular invoice or complaint wasn’t really that important, given all the truly bad things that were happening.
Though such phrases quickly became tedious, they point to an attitude it would be wise to cultivate. The times are troubled; they almost always have been. Our troubled times are (probably) not the end of the world – but they may be manifestations of the plagues that Revelation describes as being poured out on humanity. That in itself, strangely enough, is reason for hope.
The word apocalypse appears in several key places in the New Testament apart from the Book of Revelation. It appears, for example, in Paul’s Letter to the Romans (Rom. 8:19-25), though English speakers often don’t realize it when reading a translation. “The creation waits with eager longing for the revealing” – the apocalypse – “of the children of God.” Paul continues:
The creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.
These lines describing a cosmic rebirth (“labor pains”) abound with a surplus of meaning that has inspired countless pages of commentary. One thing at least is clear: This apocalypse – our own apocalypse, to borrow Paul’s language – promises that there is an afterward to the fact of death. While the sufferings of the present time are real enough, the final word on humanity, and on the earth itself, will not be meaningless extinction. Even our bodies have a future, Paul says, though they will be transformed in a way that remains mysterious. The resurrected Jesus – a flesh-and-blood person who in the Gospels eats a meal, breaks bread, and roasts fish at a lakeside campfire – is proof and pioneer of what resurrected humankind will be.
The Talmud tells how one of Paul’s contemporaries, Rabbi Yohanan Ben Zakai, used to say: “If you have a sapling in your hand and they tell you ‘The Messiah is coming!’ first plant the sapling and then go to greet him.” In the interim of the ages, as the universe’s great Sabbath approaches, humankind has work to do. Plant the sapling; tend the earthworms; welcome the children given to you; hope. The times may be troubled – but beyond them, there’s a future to eagerly await.