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People Have Always Been Obsessed with the End of the World

Since ancient times, art and fiction love to play in the fertile ground of the apocalypse, but it hasn’t always been healthy

The Four Horseman of the Apocalypse (Viktor Vasnetsov (in U.S. Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons))
smithsonian.com

It might seem like there's a whole lot of apocalyptic media out there right now, from pandemics, to zombie apocalypses, survivalist books and movies. But it turns out that the fascination with the end of the world isn't new. At The Conversation, Natasha and Anthony O’Hear argue that humans have used stories of the apocalypse for centuries for all sorts of purposes: to numb people from real-world crises like poverty and war, to push political agendas, and to promote hatred of certain groups.

In medieval times, for example, depictions of the Apocalypse were rife with antisemitism. The O’Hears write:

Jews featured heavily in apocalyptic depictions, as seen in some beautiful Anglo-Norman illuminated apocalypse manuscripts. Christ and his followers are depicted as medieval knights, while the forces of Satan are sometimes depicted as Jewish, as in the Lambeth Apocalypse of c. 1260. This sentiment culminated with the expulsion of the Jews in 1290.

Using the apocalypse to put down other groups was common. In Cranach the Elder’s illustrations for Martin Luther’s first German language Bible translation, Satan is linked to the papacy. And a 1795 cartoon by James Gillray shows the then-Prime Minister, William Pitt, as the Fourth Horseman of the Apocalypse, Death.

The Christian religion isn’t the only one to predict the end. Old Norse mythology held that a battle between the gods would be the conclusion of the Ragnarok, which some saw happening back in 2014. Some interpretations of the end of the Mayan calendar’s 5,126-year cycle said it would be the end of the world as well, in 2012. Fortunately these apocalypses, along with the one written at the end of the New Testament, have not happened.

Science, however, isn’t afraid to take an even larger view and predict the end of the universe. At least those timelines put the end quite a bit farther out, though experts are still debating the specifics. As astronomer Kevin Pimbblet writes for The Conversation, scientists are getting closer to figuring out how the universe may end — whether it’s through a slow stuttering halt to star production and a rise in the number of black holes or whether through a "Big Rip." That latter option is when the force of dark energy overcomes gravity and rips everything apart. Or maybe, a rare event like the formation of mini black holes could be the way the universe goes (but probably not).

In any case, it’s unlikely the end of the universe will be painful: If humans somehow avoid the end of the Earth and survive to the end of the universe, at least they probably wouldn’t even see it coming

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