By now, you’ve probably heard that the world is scheduled to end on December 21, 2012 according to an ancient Mayan calendar that’s stirring up a whole lot of panic.
Despite expert proclamations that the world will NOT end this month (including one from NASA), there’s a growing movement of “preppers” actively preparing for the end of the world as we know it (personally, I’m preparing to hear a whole lot of R.E.M.)
So why is the Mayan calendar’s 12/21 end date causing such a ruckus across the globe, while Yucatán is busy organizing a Mayan cultural festival that runs till 12/22? Well, the Mayan calendar prediction is just so darn specific. Usually doomsday predictions are more along the lines of “when evil triumphs over good” — which is left open to quite a bit of interpretation. It’s a whole lot easier to get riled up over a particular date.
But why are people preparing for the end of the world if, you know, the world will cease to exist and it won’t matter how many Twinkies and gas masks you stockpiled? Well, it has to do with how you define the end of the world. Eschatology (basically, the study of the end of the world) is defined in the Oxford English Dictionary as “the part of theology concerned with death, judgement, and the final destiny of the soul and of humankind” — and how you view these events depends a great deal on your religious and/or cultural background.
It seems to me there are three main definitions of the “end of the world” that affect your decision to prepare, or not to prepare: 1.) A cataclysmic event (maybe a meteor?) that causes a period of drawn-out chaos before life ceases to exist on earth; 2.) An event (perhaps a battle between good and evil) that will mark the end of the world and your assumption into Heaven; and 3.) A light switch-style event — the world existed, now it doesn’t. If you believe in 1 (and maybe even 2), you’re more apt to prepare for the end.
Interestingly, two of the major words we use in our language to describe the end of the world (armageddon and apocalypse) both stem from the Christian tradition. The word armageddon comes from the New Testament — it’s “the place where the kings of the earth under demonic leadership will wage war on the forces of God at the end of history.” Today, we think of it as a movie starring Ben Affleck … and a general cataclysmic event that precipitates the end of days.
But this concept of a battle between good and evil marking the end of the world is in line with Hindu and Buddhist eschatology, too — the idea that we’ll reach a state of moral decline that looks something like The Hunger Games before the whole world gets destroyed …. so a new world can be created with a blank slate. What this destruction and rebirth looks like varies across traditions, but the concepts are metaphorically very similar.
The word apocalypse also stems from a Christian end-of-world story, although we use it today to be synonymous with a world-ending cataclysmic event. Many Christians believe in a post-apocalyptic Rapture — that is, “the final assumption of Christians into heaven during the end-time according to Christian theology,” which is quite different from how Eastern religions conceptualize the end of the world.
A common thread in eschatology, however, is that the “end” is rarely all that finite. Sure, some traditions are more pessimistic or optimistic, but there’s usually a next chapter: Heaven, a new world, or a rebirth after a battle between good and evil destroys most life on earth. We bring these hopes and fears to how we view the supposed “prediction” of the Mayan calendar. But there are scholars of Latin American civilizations who believe that the 2012 “end” date was simply the end of a cycle on one calendar — it would be marked by celebration, and another cycle would begin. In other words, the world isn’t ending on December 31, 2012 just because that’s where your calendar ends.
So while December 21, 2012 isn’t doomsday after all (because, hey, we’ve been wrong about this plenty of times before…), the Mayan calendar offers a chance for reflection. Why is it that so many people seem convinced we’ve reached the age of ultimate moral decay? What extreme weather events have transpired recently that make us fear that the end is near? And since the world isn’t ending in the next few weeks, what can we do to make sure we don’t hasten along its demise?