By Ian McEwan
The Guardian, May 31, 2008

Edited by Andy Ross

We are well used to reflections on individual mortality. We confront our mortality in private conversations, in the familiar consolations of religion. And we experience it as a creative tension, an enabling paradox in our literature and art: what is depicted, loved, or celebrated cannot last, and the work must try to outlive its creator.

Estimating the nature and timing of our collective demise, the end of civilisation, of the entire human project, is even less certain. But in the face of that unknowability, there has often flourished powerful certainty about the approaching end: the end of life on Earth, the end or last days, end time, the Apocalypse.

Contemporary apocalyptic movements, Christian or Islamic, appear to share fantasies of a violent end, and they affect our politics profoundly. The apocalyptic mind can be demonising. And the apocalyptic mind tends to be totalitarian. Moments of unintentional pathos arise as the future is constantly having to be rewritten, and the old appointments with doom and redemption quickly replaced by the next.

No student of the Christian apocalypse could afford to ignore the work of Norman Cohn. His magisterial The Pursuit of the Millennium was published 50 years ago and has been in print ever since. This is a study of end-time movements that swept through northern Europe between the 11th and 16th centuries, generally inspired by the Book of Revelation.

What strikes the reader of Cohn's book are the common threads that run between medieval and contemporary apocalyptic thought. First is the resilience of the end-time forecasts. Second, the Book of Revelation spawned a literary tradition that kept alive in medieval Europe the fantasy, derived from the Judaic tradition, of divine election. Christians, too, could now be the Chosen People, the saved or the Elect. Third, there looms the figure of an apparently virtuous man, risen to eminence, but in reality seductive and satanic, the Antichrist.

Finally, there is the boundless adaptability and fascination of the Book of Revelation itself. When Christopher Columbus arrived in the Americas, he believed he had found the Terrestrial Paradise promised in the Book of Revelation. He believed himself to be implicated in God's planning for the millennial kingdom on earth.

Five centuries later, the United States can show the world an abundance of opinion polls concerning its religious convictions: 90 percent of Americans say they have never doubted the existence of God and are certain they will be called to answer for their sins, 53 percent are creationists who believe that the cosmos is 6000 years old, 44 percent are sure that Jesus will return to judge the living and the dead within the next 50 years, and only 12 percent believe that life on earth has evolved through natural selection without the intervention of supernatural agency.

Belief in end-time biblical prophecy, in a world purified by catastrophe and then redeemed and made entirely Christian and free of conflict by the return of Jesus in our lifetime, is stronger in the United States than anywhere on the planet and extends to the very summits of power.

To the secular mind, the polling figures have a pleasantly shocking, titillating quality. One might think of them as a form of atheist's pornography. But it might be worth retaining a degree of scepticism about these polling figures. For a start, they vary enormously. One poll's 90 percent is another's 53 percent. From the respondent's point of view, what is to be gained by categorically denying the existence of God to a complete stranger with a clipboard?

Furthermore, the mind is capable of artful compartmentalisations. In one moment, a man might confidently believe in predictions of Armageddon in his lifetime, and in the next, he might pick up the phone to inquire about a savings fund for his grandchildren's college education or approve of long-term measures to slow global warming. Or he might even vote Democrat. In Pennsylvania, Kansas and Ohio, the courts have issued ringing rejections of Intelligent Design, and voters have ejected creationists from school boards.

Still the Book of Revelation, the final book of the Bible, and perhaps its most bizarre, remains important in the United States, just as it once was in medieval Europe. The book is also known as the Apocalypse. We should be clear about the meaning of this word, which is derived from the Greek word for revelation. Apocalypse refers to the literary form in which an individual describes what has been revealed to him by a supernatural being.

The scholarly consensus dates Revelation to AD 95 or 96. Little is known of its author beyond the fact that he is certainly not the apostle John. The occasion of writing appears to be the persecution of Christians under the Roman emperor Domitian. The general purpose quite likely was to give hope and consolation to the faithful in the certainty that their tribulations would end, that the Kingdom of God would prevail.

The end has not come, and yet no one is discomfited for long. New prophets set about the calculations, and always manage to find the end looming within their own lifetime. There is a hunger for this news, and perhaps we glimpse here something in our nature, something of our deeply held notions of time, and our own insignificance against the intimidating vastness of eternity. We have need of a plot, a narrative to shore up our irrelevance in the flow of things.

Frank Kermode proposes that the enduring quality, the vitality of the Book of Revelation suggests a "consonance with our more naive requirements of fiction". We are born, as we will die, in the middle of things. To make sense of our span, we need what he calls "fictive concords with origins and ends." What could grant us more meaning against the abyss of time than to identify our own personal demise with the purifying annihilation of all that is.

Islamic eschatology from its very beginnings embraced the necessity of violently conquering the world and gathering up souls to the faith before the expected hour of judgment. It is partly a mirror image of the Protestant Christian tradition, partly a fantasy of the inevitable return of "sacred space", the Caliphate, that includes most of Spain, parts of France, the entire Middle East, right up to the borders of China.

More recent secular apocalyptic beliefs include the certainty that the world is inevitably doomed through nuclear exchange, viral epidemics, meteorites, population growth or environmental degradation. When they are presented as unavoidable outcomes driven by ineluctable forces of history or innate human failings, they share much with their religious counterparts.

Two other movements provide a further connection between religious and secular apocalypse. The genocidal tendency among the apocalyptic medieval movements faded somewhat after 1500. The murderous tradition emerged in the European 20th century transformed, revitalised, secularised, but still recognisable in what Cohn depicts as the essence of apocalyptic thinking: "the tense expectation of a final, decisive struggle in which a world tyranny will be overthrown by a 'chosen people' and through which the world will be renewed and history brought to its consummation".

The will of god was transformed in the 20th century into the will of history, but the essential demand remained: "to purify the world by destroying the agents of corruption". The dark reveries of Nazism about the Jews shared much with the murderous antisemitic demonology of medieval times. The Third Reich and its dream of a thousand-year rule was derived directly from Revelation.

Marxism in its Soviet form is a continuation of the old millenarian tradition of prophecy, of the final violent struggle to eliminate the agents of corruption. This time it is the bourgeoisie who will be vanquished by the proletariat in order to enable the withering away of the state and usher in the peaceable kingdom. "Ruthless war must be waged on the kulaks! Death to them!" Thus spoke Lenin, and his word became deed.

Today, prophecy belief, particularly within the Christian and Islamic traditions, is a force in our contemporary history, a medieval engine driving our modern moral, geopolitical, and military concerns. The various jealous sky-gods who in the past directly addressed Abraham, Paul, or Mohammed, among others, now indirectly address us through the daily television news.

Our secular and scientific culture has not replaced or even challenged these supernatural thought systems. Scientific rationality has yet to find an overarching narrative of sufficient power and appeal to compete with the old stories that give meaning to people's lives. Natural selection is a powerful and elegant explicator of life on earth in all its diversity, and perhaps it contains the seeds of a rival creation myth that would have the added power of being true, but it awaits its inspired synthesiser.

Reason and myth remain uneasy bedfellows. Rather than presenting a challenge, science has in obvious ways strengthened apocalyptic thinking. It has provided us with the means to destroy ourselves and our civilisation completely in less than a couple of hours, or to spread a fatal virus around the globe in a couple of days. Our spiralling technologies of destruction and their ever-greater availability have raised the possibility that true believers, with all their unworldly passion, their prayerful longing for the end times to begin, could help nudge the ancient prophecies towards fulfilment.

Consider the case of President Ahmadinejad of Iran. His much reported remark about wiping Israel off the face of the earth may have been mere bluster, but this posturing becomes more worrying when set in the context of his end-time beliefs. Not far from the holy city of Qum, a small mosque is undergoing an expansion. Within the Shi'ite apocalyptic tradition, the Twelfth Imam, the Mahdi, who disappeared in the ninth century, is expected to reappear in a well behind the mosque. His re-emergence will signify the beginning of the end days. Ahmadinejad is extending the mosque to receive the Mahdi, and has reportedly told his cabinet that he expects the visitation within two years.

Or consider the celebrated case of the red calf. On the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, the end-time stories of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam converge in ways that are potentially explosive. For the Jews, the Mount is the site of the First Temple, destroyed by Nebuchadnezzar in 586 BC, and of the Second Temple, destroyed by the Romans in AD 70. According to tradition, the Messiah, when he comes at last, will occupy the Third Temple. But that cannot be built, and therefore the Messiah will not come, without the sacrifice of a perfectly unblemished red calf.

For Muslims, the Mount is the site of the Dome of the Rock, built over the location of the two temples and enclosing the very spot from which Mohammed departed on his Night Journey to heaven. Any attempt to bless a foundation stone of a new temple is seen as highly provocative for it implies the destruction of the mosque. The Christian fundamentalist contribution to this volatile mix is that Jesus will return at the height of the battle of Armageddon, but his thousand-year reign cannot begin until the Third Temple is built.

And so it came about that a cattle-breeding operation emerges in Israel with the help of Texan Christian fundamentalist ranchers to promote the birth of the perfect, unspotted red calf. In the tight squeeze of history, religion, and politics that converge on the Temple Mount, the calf is a minor item indeed. But the search for it illustrates the dangerous tendency among prophetic believers to bring on the cataclysm that they think will lead to a form of paradise on earth.

Periods of uncertainty in human history, of rapid, bewildering change, and of social unrest appear to give these old stories greater weight. It does not need a novelist to tell you that where a narrative has a beginning, it needs an end. Where there is a creation myth, there must be a final chapter. Where a god makes the world, it remains in his power to unmake it.

That much we can understand or politely pretend to understand. But the problem of fatalism remains. The precarious logic of self-interest that saw us through the cold war would collapse if the leaders of one nuclear state came to welcome mass death. The words of Ayatollah Khomeini are quoted approvingly in an Iranian school textbook: "Either we shake one another's hands in joy at the victory of Islam in the world, or all of us will turn to eternal life and martyrdom. In both cases, victory and success are ours."

Ultimately, apocalyptic belief is a function of faith. Luminous inner conviction needs no recourse to evidence. It is customary to pose against immovable faith the engines of reason, but in this instance I would prefer that delightful human impulse, curiosity, the hallmark of mental freedom. Organised religion has always had a troubled relationship with curiosity.

It is scientific curiosity that has delivered us genuine, testable knowledge of the world. This knowledge has a beauty of its own, and it can be terrifying. We are barely beginning to grasp the implications of what we have relatively recently learned: that our planet is a minute speck in an inconceivably vast cosmos, that our species has existed for a tiny fraction of the history of the earth, that humans are primates, that the mind is the activity of an organ that runs by physiological processes, that there are methods for ascertaining the truth that can force us to conclusions which violate common sense, that precious and widely held beliefs are often cruelly falsified, that we cannot create energy or use it without loss.

As things stand, after more than a century of research in a number of fields, we have no evidence at all that the future can be predicted. If we do destroy ourselves, we can assume that the general reaction will be terror and grief rather than rapture.

AR  (2008) Curiosity trumps religious faith and leads us to scientific knowledge. Thank you, Ian, for that very British way to disarm the apocalyptic canon.