Do we live in the end times? Not more than usual.
As long as there's been a world, people have been predicting it would end.
As early as 90 AD, Pope Clement I was warning that the Last Days were at hand.
Columbus thought we would hit the end in 1658, but he always thought you'd come to the end of things sooner than you actually did.
In 1806, the Prophet Hen of Leeds laid eggs that stated “Christ is coming,” leading to widespread panic, but it turned out to be a hoax.
In 1883, Joseph Smith told the crowd at a meeting, “Fifty-six years more and it will all be over.”
Just this May, perennial prophet Harold Camping was predicting an End to It All.
And yet, here we are. It’s almost disappointing.
I learned most of this from the program of “A Bright New Boise,” a show about the dubious delights of apocalyptic living currently playing at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company in the District.
Apocalypse — followed by anticlimax — is in the air, these days. It's in our presidential ads, it's in our movies, it's on our stages and in our headlines. A giant world-ending comet was expected to strike. It disintegrated before impact. In Zanesville, Ohio, lions roamed the landscape. Then the police department shot them.
For months, Harold Camping predicted we'd go out with a bang on May 21. But then — not a bang, but a whimper.
Camping now says, “the end is going to come very, very quietly probably within the next month . . . by October 21. Probably there will be no pain suffered by anyone because of their rebellion against God .”
“Fool me once, shame on me,” the saying goes. “Predict the apocalypse incorrectly to me on two separate occasions, and if I keep listening to your radio show, I may well be some sort of moron.” (I may be paraphrasing slightly.)
Yet Harold Camping retains listeners. We have a weakness for the idea.
The trouble with the end is that it never comes. It’s like Godot, or the Generic Republican Candidate, or the cable guy during the specified time window when you stayed home from work.
Dorothy Parker said it best in her poem “The Flaw in Paganism.” “Eat and drink and laugh and lie/Love, the reeling midnight through./For tomorrow we shall die!/(But, alas, we never do).”
Replace “eating and drinking and laughing and lying” with “driving around the country in a van proclaiming that the Apocalypse is due on the twelfth of May” and you've got most End Times movements in a nutshell.
“Why not? It’ll be over soon enough!”
This is similar to the logic a taxicab driver once used to proposition me, but that is beside the point.
It’s strange how the lack of an apocalypse leaves us almost disappointed. “May didn’t pan out,” we say, sighing. “But Harold Camping's Snooze-Button Apocalypse is due this Friday, October 21. And failing that, 2012 is mere months away! And if all else fails, the sun is bound to swallow up the earth eventually, leaving nothing but a few cockroaches with Rebecca Black's single ‘Friday’ stuck in their heads.”
But there’s something else about the apocalypse. As “A Bright New Boise” suggests, The End is strangely comforting. If you spend your days working at a Hobby Lobby and your nights sleeping in your car, as the play's protagonist does, the idea that the world is about to be engulfed in darkness and the Lord will return to loose the fateful lightning of his terrible swift sword comes almost as a relief. It absolves us of responsibility — not for our actions, but for their consequences.
Life is, generally speaking, somewhat anticlimactic. It was once solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short. Now, for most of us, thanks to advances in medicine, it’s just the first four. And there are a minimum of eight more Republican debates to go.
No wonder we’re eager for the apocalypse.
“Ah, but the Apocalypse is due in 2012!” has been an underlying assumption of congressional budget discussions for years.
“We don’t need to reach consensus as a supercommitee,” the members whisper. “We just need to stave off disaster and decide whom to sacrifice to Quetzalcoatl so we’ll be spared.”
It’s certainly a good excuse to eat and drink. Diet? Please! What if the world ends? Pass the muffins.
But as “A Bright New Boise” points out, we know the ending already. The ending is that there is no ending.
Friday will be here before we know it, bringing the usual disillusionment. But apocalypses are like buses. If you missed the last one, there will be another one along soon enough.