Our Fascination With The End Of The World

As far back as 2800 B.C., the Assyrians warned that the end of the world was near. Mayans predicted the apocalypse for 2012. Jerry Walls of the Center for Philosophy of Religion at the University of Notre Dame talks about our ongoing fascination with the end of days.

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NEAL CONAN, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

And now this warning: "Our Earth is degenerate in these later days. There are signs that the world is speedily coming to an end, bribery and corruption are common, children no longer obey their parents, every man wants to write a book and the end of the world is evidently approaching." Ripped from the headlines? Well, only if they were published in cuneiform. The warning was inscribed on a clay tablet in ancient Assyria almost 5,000 years ago. Prophets have predicted that the end is nigh ever since, many with an exact date for their doomsday scenario. These days, some worry about December 21st, 2012, the last day on a calendar created by the ancient Mayans.

But if that is the last day, will it end in fire or ice, a call to judgment, the dawn of a new golden age, the complete destruction of the Earth or a shift into higher consciousness? Why are we so fascinated with the end, whether we call that annihilation, entropy or the apocalypse? Now is your chance to summon your inner Nostradamus. Based on your beliefs and your values, how does your world end? 800-989-8255 is the phone number. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can join the conversation on our Web site, that's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Later in the program writer Peter Mehlman confesses that he reported for jury duty but finagled his way out of serving through a trial. If that's your story too, email us; talk@npr.org is that address again.

But first, the end of days. You don't get to say that too often. Jerry Walls joins us from WSND on the campus of Notre Dame University where he is senior research fellow in Center for Philosophy of Religion. He's also the editor of the "Oxford Handbook of Eschatology." And thanks very much for being with us on the program today.

Mr. JERRY WALLS (Senior Research Fellow, Center for Philosophy of Religion): Thank you Neal. I'm excited to be here.

CONAN: Does every belief incorporate an end?

Mr. WALLS: No, as a matter of fact, if you look at Hinduism, Buddhism, these views hold that there is no end of the world in the sense that there is in Christian eschatology, Jewish eschatology, Muslim eschatology, but rather a perpetual cycle of the world being manifest, declining - being manifest, going on forever and ever. It's been that way forever and it will continue to be that way forever. So, the only sense in which they would talk about an end would be the end of an individual person. So, you have kind of personal eschatology but no end of the world per se in the same sense of Jewish, Christian, Muslim eschatology.

CONAN: And we throw that word eschatology around, what does that mean actually?

Mr. WALLS: It's a word that comes from the Greek work eschatos, which means end and it is the branch of theology that deals with the end of the world: death, resurrection, final judgment and the like.

CONAN: Nevertheless, with those exceptions noted, it does seem that leaves an awful lot for almost every other belief in human existence to...

Mr. WALLS: Including a lot of modern secular naturalists who think the end of the world is going to come when all of the energy runs out, all the suns burn out, they project the world - this Earth to come to an end, say, five billion years from now when the sun becomes this huge, you know, red thing and encapsulates the Earth and destroy all of, you know, carbon-based life around here. And 10 to the 12 years later, all of the stars are going to reach that fate. So, naturalistic science would give us a rather bleak, dismal picture of the end of the world.

CONAN: Entropy, I think, is the category that comes under.

Mr. WALLS: Yeah, not an exciting prospect, entropy.

CONAN: No. But I don't think anybody has worked it out to, you know, Tuesday, December 21st at 10:35 in the morning.

Mr. WALLS: No, I don't think the scientists have given anything that specific.

CONAN: Have you seen this new movie?

Mr. WALLS: I have. Quite interesting film actually, yes.

CONAN: And how closely does it follow the declarations of the Mayan calendar?

Mr. WALLS: Well, I'm not sure, you know, a lot about the Mayan calendar but that is, of course, one of the big scenarios involved in the movie. And it certainly depicts the universe going to hell in a handbasket - well, not the universe per se, but Earth.

CONAN: Our neighborhood.

Mr. WALLS: Yes, our neighborhood going up in flames, and all of the distress and destruction that would entail. And science, at the end of the day, saves the world. Well, doesn't save the world, but saves humanity because the Chinese have the foresight to build these technological arks, these massive, big steel ships which can absorb the tsunami. And some very fortunate people get into those arks, and thus the hope that the human race will survive.

CONAN: Well, that's - I guess, you didn't mean to give away the ending for those who haven't seen the movie.

Mr. WALLS: Oh, I shouldn't have done that! Alas, my apologies.

CONAN: Nevertheless, I think we can all...

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: �be sure that there will be another occasion for us to fork over $12 and buy a bucket of popcorn.

Mr. WALLS: Exactly.

CONAN: Does this actually embrace any particular eschatology as you're defining it?

Mr. WALLS: No. It is curious though, there's a kind of a mad, crazed - there is always a mad, crazed prophet in these kind of movies...

CONAN: Sure.

Mr. WALLS: �that seems to realize what is going on apart from everybody else who is clueless and oblivious and the like. And he cites several sources of this - the Mayans - he even says the Bible even got it partly right, you know. So, he cites several sources, so you have a wide range of beliefs being reflected in this movie. You have people who pray, you have who are skeptical about prayer, you have all these different viewpoints represented in different characters. But the Mayan is simply one of the sources of the prophet's apparent insight as to the world's coming to an end in the way it does.

CONAN: And we will draw no inference from the fact that the character who is the prophet who gets it more or less right happens to be a radio talk show host, so�

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WALLS: That's right. Up on the mountains, I think, up in Yellowstone Park, yeah, carries out these exciting, ecstatic, eschatological proclamations. Yeah, he's quite a character.

CONAN: Now, it has been - it seems to me the story of the beginning of the world almost demands a story of the end of the world, doesn't it?

Mr. WALLS: Exactly. The way you understand the beginning of the world determines whether and how you think the world will come to an end. Now, the religions I mentioned earlier - Buddhism, Hinduism - think the world is eternal - doesn't have a beginning. Christian, Jewish and Muslim theology, of course, believe the world did have a beginning, that it was created. And if you think the world was brought into existence for a purpose, for a reason, then there is a determined end by the one who brought it into existence. So, if you think a kind of blind, purposeless, you know, kind of Big Bang is the beginning of the world, then Mother Nature is going to destroy us all. It's all going to just peter out into oblivion. We got here by chance, by accident and the like, and the story is going to come down that way. If by contrast the author of the story is an intelligent being who brought us into existence for a reason, for a purpose, he is going to tell a different kind of story; a different kind of narrative is going to unfold, a different kind of ending. So, I guess, the question in many ways is: Is life a comedy? Is it a tragedy?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WALLS: And who are the ones telling the story? Who are the main players? Is it us, human beings? Is it Mother Nature? Is she the one that's going to write the story and end up being a cruel mother that, you know, destroys all of us, kills everyone at the end of the day? Is it a loving God, you know, or is it simply human beings have evolved and now they take over as the director of the story and they will determine how the story ends, and that is wide open?

CONAN: And in that category - we'll get to calls in just a minute - but in that category, who are the eschatological comedians?

Mr. WALLS: The eschatological comedians would be all of those who believe that the universe - the end of the story is going to come to a happy ending. So, again, Christian, Jewish, Muslim eschatology all would hold that truth, justice will finally prevail, that God's good purposes will indeed come to a successful end as we pray in the Lord's Prayer. Christians - it is interesting, we've just started the Season of Advent, you know, which is a word for waiting, in which Christians look forward to the birth of the Messiah, the coming of Christ. And the rest of the story is Christ has died, Christ has risen, Christ will come again.

So, the Christian story is the Prince of Peace will come at the end of the day that he will bring peace to the world, that his good purposes will prevail, that our deepest longings and hopes for meaning and satisfaction and happiness can and will be satisfied. Now, it's interesting, some views, you know, kind of have the idea that what it's all about is the cessation of desire, killing desire, and the like, that's how you finally experience, you know, Nirvana or release from the cycle of rebirth and the like, whereas these views would hold that our deepest and best desires are not to be eradicated or eliminated, but rather, they will finally be fulfilled at the end of the day. So that's a very comedic end of the story. And Dante, of course, wrote the great book "The Divine Comedy," and that's the ultimate expression of that picture.

CONAN: We're talking with Jerry Walls, a senior research fellow at the Center for Philosophy of Religion at the University of Notre Dame, author of "The Oxford Handbook of Eschatology." 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. How does your world end? Let's begin with Luke(ph), Luke with us from Boston.

LUKE (Caller): Yes.

CONAN: And how's the world going to end, bangs or whimpers, Luke?

LUKE: The Lewis Mumford view of it, I suppose, kind of a degradation of the whole society, where our civilization has reached its pinnacle, as it has over time. Every time a civilization reaches its pinnacle, it has to downfall and spread back out into a nomadic sense, where we'd all just go right back to our caveman time, searching for new technologies.

CONAN: Well, I can see that as sort of post-civilizational, but I guess it's not quite the end of the world. We would just be back to the hunter-gatherers we were, what, 15, 20,000 years ago.

LUKE: Yes, sir, absolutely.

Mr. WALLS: The latest decline.

CONAN: Go ahead, Jerry.

Mr. WALLS: Yeah, I was going to say: Is this the end of the world, or is it a decline inevitably to be followed by yet another rise into accomplishment and glory and the like? So kind of - some people have this view that there's this endless cycle of rise, decline, manifestation and the like, and again, it's not clear which the caller intended. Which of those did he intend?

CONAN: Luke, did you have a choice there? I think Luke has left us. Anyway. I think he just left us with a bang, rather than a whimper.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Now, there was - during the period since the end of the Second World War up until now, there has been an increased interest in all of this since man has the ability, should he fumble egregiously, to destroy the world himself.

Mr. WALLS: Right. That's part of what is so fascinating. I remember - my grandfather was a country preacher - and I remember him talking about some of the things in the "Book of Revelation" that were described there. He said he couldn't understand how those things could possibly take place, but once technology came into existence - television, mass communication, modern weaponry and warfare - all of those things that just seemed so hard to conceive suddenly seemed plausible. And so yes, I mean, given the enormous capabilities we now have for destruction, the notion that we could destroy the world, at least the planet Earth, seems very plausible. So that's a big part of why people are fascinated with it.

And the Second World War brought an end to a great period of optimism. I mean, well, the First World War did, too, but between the two of those wars, lots of people had their optimism just beat out of them completely. And they are thus very often stuck with a very bleak, pessimistic picture of how the world is going to end.

CONAN: At the movies, the end of the world comes with a giant asteroid or vindictive robots or nuclear armageddon. Here's your chance to summon you inner Nostradamus. What's your vision of the end of days? We'll get to more of your calls in a moment, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org.

We're talking with Jerry Walls, who edited "The Oxford Handbook of Eschatology." That's the study of the end of the world. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington, and we're talking today about the end of the world. Here's some emails that we've received, this from Paul(ph). I'm just waiting for the asteroid to hit. And then this from Linda(ph) in Charlotte, who channels T.S. Eliot's "The Hollow Men," not with a bang but a whimper. Caitlyn(ph) emails from San Francisco: I think one of my favorite end-of-days depictions is in "The Simpsons Movie," where they think they're going to die. Everyone in the church runs into the bar; everyone in the bar runs into the church, one of the funniest and most insightful scenes ever.

We're talking with Jerry Walls, who's a senior research fellow in the Center for Philosophy of Religion at the University of Notre Dame, editor of "The Oxford Handbook of Eschatology," and he's with us from the campus at Notre Dame University.

Jerry, in that book, you got to write the chapter on heaven.

Mr. WALLS: Yes, I did. I've also written a book about heaven, so yeah, heaven, hell. And I'm now writing a book about purgatory. So I've done a lot of thinking about those topics.

CONAN: And so where do you come down, the top, bottom or in the middle?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WALLS: I come down on the top, I guess, on all three of them. I believe in heaven, I believe in hell, and I believe in purgatory.

CONAN: It's interesting because we mentioned the broad stripes of Christian religion, Muslim religion, Jewish religion - that covers most of the believers in the world today. Obviously, Hindus and many other sects, Buddhists, too, but nevertheless, there are many different stripes of Christians.

Mr. WALLS: Yes, there are. Yes, there are.

CONAN: And each with their own vision of the end of the world.

Mr. WALLS: Well, that's one of the most fascinating things. The "Book of Revelation" has been subject to enormous differences in interpretation. There are people who think there will be a literal 1,000-year reign of Christ. There are those who think that's simply a symbol for the age of the church, which is going on right now. There are those who think that Christians and all true believers are going to be raptured out of the world before the great tribulation, the Antichrist and the like. You know, it's fascinating, Neal. I think the bestselling nonfiction book of the 1970s was a book of popular eschatology called "The Late Great Planet Earth." Now currently, there is a series of books called "Left Behind," a series of novels.

CONAN: Also great bestsellers, yes.

Mr. WALLS: Oh, phenomenal. I mean, it's amazing. So anytime someone comes out with an account of this that is interesting, fascinating and seems to tie into current events, seems to have some kind of a handle on how this is unfolding with respect to current world events, political figures and the like, it just - people by the millions, literally millions, buy into this. In fact, "The Simpsons" episode that you mentioned a while ago, there's an episode - I don't know if it's the same one - where Homer, you know, is worried about being left below. He doesn't get it "left behind," but I mean, it's even made its way into "The Simpsons." So it's amazing how the fascination with this continues in every generation. And yes, I mean, that eschatology is by no means the one that most scholars would hold and most great Christian traditions, but it has taken on enormous fascination in the larger public and convinces millions of people.

CONAN: It's a really good story, for one thing.

Mr. WALLS: It is a great story with high drama and lots involved. Now, the one - you know, I mean, any story that involves heaven and hell and ultimate salvation, damnation, is a great story. Again, Dante's "Divine Comedy," it is a great story. There's a lot at stake. So whether or not you buy into all the particulars of, you know, of the "Left Behind" eschatology, if you have a literal resurrection of Jesus, if he's coming back to Earth again, if our ultimate fate depends on our response to him and his claims and the like, that's a huge story with huge and enormous implications. I mean, that's big stuff any way you cut it.

CONAN: All right, let's get another caller on the line. This is Ernest(ph), Ernest with us from Waynesboro in Georgia.

ERNEST (Caller): Yes, hi.

CONAN: Hi.

ERNEST: I'm find the topic very interesting. As a Seventh Day Adventist, of course, our views are different than most of our Protestant brethren. We believe that the only reason for our church to be in existence is probably the calling for the warning of the end of the world, of Revelation 14, beginning at Verse 6, with the three angels' messages. And so we believe that when the lord finishes his work in the sanctuary that when he comes, it will be the end of the world. The heavens to part like a scroll. The mountains flee out of their places - I mean, the islands flee out of their places. The mountains fall. The very air catches fire...

CONAN: Ooh.

ERNEST: ...and the dead in Christ will rise, you know, during this event.

And so there is no life left. So we depart from this and disagree with the "Left Behind" series that there will be this thousand years of peace, when Christ so clearly taught that just like in the days of Noah, when the end comes, it comes, and no life is left. And so there isn't a second chance. The life we have now is the only chance and that this world will end very cataclysmically and in fire. But that seems to not be the view of most Christian churches in the last 75 years. They all seem to have taken up this "Left Behind" kind of doctrine, when 75 years and prior, that would not have been the Protestant view.

CONAN: Is he right about that transition, Jerry?

Mr. WALLS: He's certainly right that the "Left Behind" view is a relative newcomer in the history of Christian eschatology. Yes, it is a novelty, and again, I think a big part of the fascination with it is the tendency to tie it with specific world figures to suggest who the Antichrist might be.

Hal Lindsey's book, for instance, more or less predicted that the world would end by 1988, within a generation of the founding of Israel in 1948. Well, of course, that didn't happen, and then there was another, you know, guy wrote a book, you know, so many reasons why the world would end at another date, and that also was a big bestseller...

CONAN: And...

Mr. WALLS: ...but yes, he's right that that is a departure. The population eschatology depicted in those books is a departure from classic Christian eschatology. That's correct.

CONAN: All right. Thanks very much for the call, Ernest.

ERNEST: Yes, sir, thank you.

CONAN: Bye-bye. And the interest in dates, not necessarily 1988, but I guess the millennium was the first one, and then the second millennium and a few dates in between.

Mr. WALLS: Yeah, yeah.

CONAN: They've all been predicted.

Mr. WALLS: People are always predicting specific dates. I mean, it has happened with a number of what would be called cults by mainline Christians - often has been founded on people predicting the end of the world by a specific date. And they always, you know, arouse a lot of excitement, get a lot of followers. Then it doesn't happen. Then they have to reinterpret those events accordingly, in order to sustain...

CONAN: Generally with fewer followers the second time around.

Mr. WALLS: Often with fewer followers and less enthusiasm the second time around. That's correct, yeah, yeah.

CONAN: Let's talk with Eric(ph), Eric with us from Portland.

ERIC (Caller): Hi there, Neal, love the show.

CONAN: Thank you.

ERIC: I was wondering if your guest might comment on Ray Kurzweil's pseudo-eschatological theory of the singularity as the ending of our modern world.

CONAN: The singularity being?

Mr. WALLS: Could he explain what he means more by that?

ERIC: I'm sorry, the singularity being the confluence of genetic engineering, artificial intelligence and nanotechnology creating such a state in our culture and our technology that we can't make accurate predictions beyond the point that those three technologies all merge.

CONAN: I see. So the future is opaque to us because when that singularity occurs, everything will be different, and we don't know how.

ERIC: Yes, that's correct.

Mr. WALLS: Yeah, well again, I mean, this is kind of reducing eschatology to science and what we can determine from our own means and our own insight and the like, and that of course is not the view of Christian eschatology at all. Because according to Christian eschatology, the end is written by God. God is the only one who knows how it's going to end.

He's revealed certain things about how it's going to end, but that is kind of a scientific version, you know, I don't know, of the Mayan prophecies, as if that's where the great insight and the like is going to come to tell us how the world is going to come to an end and the limits we can place on knowing that. So there have always been tendencies to reduce eschatology to what science can tell us and the like. And again, that is simply making human beings the ultimate players in the story and what they can figure out on their own resources and with their own lights.

CONAN: Thanks very much for the call, Eric.

ERIC: Thank you.

CONAN: See you on the other side of the singularity.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Let's see if we can go next to - this is Sinduja(ph), and I hope I'm pronouncing that correctly, in Ann Arbor.

SINDUJA (Caller): Hi. You said that just fine.

CONAN: Okay, go ahead, please.

SINDUJA: I just wanted to say, your guest commented at the beginning of the show that Hinduism doesn't believe to an end to the world, that everything is a cycle, and I don't think that's completely true. We do believe the world's going to end but that it's going to be reborn, like, fresh at the end. It's not one end for every single person, but there's going to be a massive flood at the end of it all. And then it'll start again.

CONAN: And then it'll start again. And that's - there are, Jerry, there are a lot of situations like that, where it is: the world ends but to create a new realm of peace. Indeed, the "Left Behind" theory ends with that thousand years of peace.

Mr. WALLS: Right, right, right. Yeah, and again, I mean, as in every major world religion, Hinduism has different variations with respect to eschatology. And that might be one opinion, but I'm not aware that that would be a kind of point of consensus.

The author in my - in "The Oxford Handbook of Eschatology" who wrote the essay on Hinduism certainly suggested that there is nothing like an end of the world - explicitly says this. There's nothing like an end of the world in the same sense that Christians, Jews and Muslims conceive it, not one final end where it's brought to its ultimate end.

And by the way, the word end is an interesting word. It has a double meaning. One meaning of end is like as in goal, purpose, target. So the world will come to its final purpose and target, and then the other meaning of end is simply the chronological, as in the end of the story, which may not necessarily involve any kind of a goal or purpose or target. So, I could be wrong about that, but the person who wrote the essay in the Oxford Handbook who is a specialist on this, I think, suggested that there's nothing really comparable in Hindu eschatology, at least as a matter of consensus, like the Christian understanding and the Jewish and Muslim one.

SINDUJA: Maybe he meant it's not an end because we - something was going to start again, whereas everything else means that it's - it's over.

CONAN: Yeah, that could be, that could be. Sinduja, thank you very much for the correction.

SINDUJA: OK. Thank you.

CONAN: Bye-bye.

Mr. WALLS: Thank you. Thank you for your call.

CONAN: Here are some emails, this is from Julian in Appling, Georgia. The world will end when the sun becomes a red giant and vaporizes the planet. Humanity's future is like that of fungus growing on an apple. The end comes when all resources have been consumed or as the result of the toxins the fungus has produced in the process of ravaging its host. I would not put him among the eschatological comedians. This...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WALLS: No.

CONAN: This from Tim in Iowa: A powerful computer in the future could be used to design a perfect virus for wiping out all of humanity. Again, not the comedian type.

Bruce in Oakland: The world is ending all the time for someone, somewhere, and starting for someone else. The cycle of death and birth continues. And that seems to be more along the Buddhist lines.

Mr. WALLS: Right, right. Yeah. Yeah. That first one you just read, I mean, that would be an extreme example of the tragic view of the human race. And again, I mean, what's fascinating about this whole thing - and this is why I think there's such perpetual fascination with this is how you understand the big story. The end of the world, does it have a point? Is it going somewhere? That defines the possibilities for how we can understand our personal story.

So, hey, if this is the end of the world, I'm just basically a fungus in the universe, you know, inevitably to be wiped out at the end of the day. That's my story. I'm just a speck of meaningless matter in an ultimately meaningless universe. I mean, that's pretty tragic, that's pretty dismal.

CONAN: Here's a more romantic view from L.M. Singh(ph) in Hudson, Wisconsin. Since we are at this - we are all the center of the universe, when we end the world ends. And here's how it ends according to me: I'm 87 years old, tucked up in bed, luxuriating in the feathers, sipping a glass of Veuve Clicquot when my jealous lover bursts into the room and shoots me. Finis.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WALLS: I love it.

CONAN: We're talking...

Mr. WALLS: Albeit a bit tragic, too.

CONAN: Oh, too. We're talking with Jerry Walls, who's the editor of "The Oxford Handbook of Eschatology," and you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

Is there a politics of eschatology, because we keep hearing about some Christian groups who support the state of Israel in the hopes that - you mentioned this idea about the creation of the state of Israel - that it might -the creation of a Jewish state in Israel would hasten the events predicted in Revelations.

Mr. WALLS: Yes. There's a lot of politics tied up with eschatology. In fact, there was a debate - gosh, I am thinking it was in England, some politicians expressing dismay over how these fundamentalist Christians and their political views were affecting American politics with respect to Israel, yeah, and the fact that this may not be fair to the people who hold the "Left Behind" view and the like, but they're often pictured as people who don't want to see anything good happening. I mean, they don't want peace in Middle East. They don't want, you know, the Israelis to get along with their neighbors because they're looking forward to the final great battle, the battle of Armageddon...

CONAN: Yeah, cheering on...

Mr. WALLS: ...and they actually delight in destruction taking place because it's a harbinger of the end of the world. So, yes, particular views about how the world will end often influence heavily people's political, their economic, their moral views and the like - yeah, enormously so - ecological and so on. I mean, if the world's going to hell in a handbasket, why bother save it, and the like.

CONAN: Lets get Tom on the line, Tom with us from Long Island.

TOM (Caller): Hi.

CONAN: Hi, Tom.

TOM: Did the previous caller, the Christian, did he believe in a pre-tribulation millennial reign or - I'm sorry.

CONAN: The Seventh Day Adventist, you mean?

TOM: OK, I'm sorry. He was a Seventh Day Adventist. I'm a Christian. I believe that the Bible is true, and that no one knows that the end of the world is going to come except for God. But I believe that there is going to be a taking up, as you will, a rapture of the church followed by a seven-year period of tribulation, followed by a thousand-year reign of Christ at which then will be the, you know, apocalyptic battle. That's my belief based on the Bible.

CONAN: Based on the Bible. And, Jerry Walls, who's read this carefully, there are other people who look at the Bible and come up with different interpretations.

Mr. WALLS: Right. It's fascinating. I mean, the caller before, the Seventh Day Adventist said what Christ so clearly taught...

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. WALLS: ...and the current caller says based on the Bible. Well, again, this is based upon a particular interpretation of the Bible, which again, is very recent, that is an innovation, that particular scheme of eschatology is a relatively recent innovation in the history of understanding the end of the world.

Now, the Bible clearly teaches that Christ will come again. It teaches there will be a final judgment. It teaches, you know, that evil will be defeated, that good will triumph, that God's purposes will finally prevail. All of those things are taught. But that particular scheme, particularly the idea of the rapture of the church and the like, is very much a very modern innovation that's only been around for a relatively few years. So the idea that it's clearly taught in the Bible I think is highly dubious.

CONAN: And, Tom, this is not to challenge your belief system. It's just to...

TOM: No, I understand. There's one passage, though, where Jesus says one will be standing and one will be left, as, you know, two farmers in the field. And so, a lot of people wonder what that exactly means, and I suppose that's open for some speculation, but it appears clearly cut-and-dry.

CONAN: All right, Tom. Thanks very much.

TOM: You're welcome.

CONAN: Appreciate it.

Mr. WALLS: I would suggest, by the way, for readers who would like an alternative account of this, Bishop N.T. Wright, who is a popular writer and leading New Testament scholar has just written a book that expresses a critique of that popular eschatology and what he thinks is a much more biblical view.

CONAN: Here's a couple more emails. This from Joe in Lakewood, Colorado. My belief is that all life on Earth will end when a genetically engineered alien organism that was designed to eliminate any life form arrives here. I think that in the 13.7 billion years since the Big Bang, there's been plenty of time for a sufficiently advanced life form to have evolved and to have created this plague. He doesn't say why. And this a tweet from Mr. Voxius, who said the world will end in line at Wal-Mart.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WALLS: That's very plausible - at Christmastime, especially.

CONAN: Especially, yes. Jerry Walls, thank you so much for your time today.

Mr. WALLS: Thank you. My pleasure.

CONAN: Jerry Walls joined us from Notre Dame University, where he's a senior research fellow in the Center for Philosophy of Religion. He's the editor of "The Oxford Handbook of Eschatology," as he mentioned, the author of books on heaven and hell. He's working on purgatory.

And stay with us. When we come back, we're going to be talking with Peter Mehlman, who used to write for "Seinfeld," about, well, weaseling out of jury duty. If that's your story, send us an email: talk@npr.org. 800-989-8255. This is NPR News.

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Who Watch For The Morning

It's hard to hear
A word made flesh
Confessing thirst

Or to see glory
In God forsaken
Midday darkness

The stone on his grave
Did not cry out though
The cheering ended

Those three hours
Three days are like years
For those who wait

As sitting he remains
On high with Him for whom
One is like a thousand

While they under
Setting suns strain to view
All things beneath his feet

Yet if light exploded
Darkness it will again
Blazing like lightning

Psalm 130:5-6
John 19:28
Luke 23:44-46; 19:37-40
Hebrews 1:3; 2:8-9
2 Peter 3:3-4, 8-9
Luke 17:24-25

Poem excerpted from the book Who Watch For The Morning by Jerry Walls with permission from Finishing Line Press, copyright 2009.

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