World Cultures General Glossary
Eschatology

   Eschatology is the religious study of the end of the world (Greek: eschatos : end, logos : meaning, study, reason); most, but not all, religions narrate human history as oriented in some way towards an end point. Some religions, such as Zoroastrianism, Christianity and Islam, are more or less characterized as eschatological religions, that is, these religions see the purpose and meaning of history as oriented towards some end point. In these religions, the entire universe will be properly balanced and disposed only at this end point, when both good and evil will assume their proper place and change and history will no longer take place. In the European tradition, Christian eschatology has had a profound influence on both history and the development of the modern world view. In particular, the character of modernity as future-directed is a direct inheritance and secularization of the Christian orientation to the end of time. In Christian eschatology, the universe is a finite place temporally, that is, the history of creation has a beginning and a definite end. In fact, in foundational and early Christianity, the universe is a very small place as far as time is concerned; for Jesus of Nazareth announces that the end of time will be seen in "this" generation, that is, the generation contemporaneous with Jesus. Since the beginning of time goes back only a hundred or so generations, that means all of history occupies for both the foundational and early Christians a mere two or three thousand years. It's hard to appreciate how this affected the early Christians, for they lived quite literally believing that the end of time was taking place around them. John of Patmos, a Greek religious hermit, wrote an entire work (Revelations ) about the events of the end of time and seems to have been talking primarily about contemporary events. Whether you accept this or not, the early Christians lived in fear, even hysteria, about the end of time; Paul spends some energy in his epistles trying to calm people down.


   This end of time will bring, as it does in Zoroastrianism, a final disposition of human history in which evil is vanquished and the good and the evil are separated. It's important to realize that in both Zoroastrianism and Islam, time will continue; the universe will simply exist in a state of equilibrium. This seems to be the case for foundational Christianity, though very little if anything is said about the nature of the universe after the end of history. The early Christians eventually theorized that the end of history meant the end of time itself so that all change and duration would come to an end once evil is vanquished and the universe is properly disposed. Whatever the case, in these three religions the universe is seen as somehow incomplete or imperfect and is headed towards a final completion and a final perfection.


Enlightenment Glossary
Capitalism
Progress
   In European thought, when pre-Enlightenment and Enlightenment thinkers divide areas of knowledge, such as physics, history, economics, etc., from religious considerations, the Christian world view becomes secularized. When the Christian eschatological world view is applied to history, all meaning and value in history is located in the end of time, that is, all history, whether it be the history of nations or the history of an individual, is read as future-directed. But when religious considerations are taken out of European theories of history, the end of time is also removed. What's left is a future-directed theory of history without a specific end goal; this theory of history was called progress. When applied to economics, progress produces the capitalist theory of economic growth; when applied to biology, it produces the theory of evolution.


   Not all religions are as ruthlessly focussed on the end of time as Zoroastrianism, Christianity, and Islam; although some religions and cultures have narratives concerning the end of time, they aren't, properly speaking, eschatological religions. The Mayans, for instance, believed that the end of time would occur after an enormous number of cycles of eons. In the Dresden Codex (Book), the end of time is preceded by a nearly endless cycle of twelve and a half million days (thirty-four thousand years); this eternity of cycles finally ends in the drowning of the earth by the rain serpent, the sun, the moon, and the old goddess. Properly speaking, the meaning of history for the Mayans lies more in the repetition of cycles than in the orientation of history towards an end point.

Richard Hooker



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1996, Richard Hooker
Updated 10-8-97