It’s the end of the world as we know it . . .
Armageddon. Ragnarok. The Kali Yuga. That which begins must eventually end — right?
The technical term for the end of the world — or of humanity, or of the present age in a cosmological rather than historic sense — is eschatology. We also speak of the end an as apocalypse, but that’s a case of a word sliding sideways from its original meaning: “apocalypse” comes from the Greek for “revelation,” i.e. the Book of Revelation in the Christian Bible, wherein the details of the coming disaster are laid out in technicolor glory.
It’s appropriate to talk about the end of times as a revelation, though, because eschatology is inherently prophetic. Any discussion of how that will go, be it well or poorly, is a forecast. One of the things to ask is how mutable that forecast is — can we avert or at least delay the end? — and whether it comes with a specific ticking clock. Where Christian belief is concerned, the answer to the latter has often been yes . . . in the sense that Christians have been predicting the specific date of the end of the world for at least the last thousand years. When it failed to end in the year 1000, people recalculated — and have kept doing so ever since. Even within their own lifetimes: there are influential evangelicals living today who have assured their followers that the Second Coming will be arriving every decade or so.
Christian belief lends itself to this because there is a Book of Revelation, which (in combination with prophetic details scraped from other books of the Bible) provides a foothold for calculation. Other eschatological traditions are more general: the end will come, but the only way to measure its approach is by the degeneration of the world around you. It’s common, though not universal, to link the end with the moral and physical degradation of the age, everything spiraling downward into sin and disaster until the ultimate disaster arrives. Given that it’s also common (though again, not universal) to see current times as worse than those which came before — kids are less respectful; leaders are more corrupt; the order of society is falling apart — it isn’t a very big leap to get from that to the feeling that sooner or later, it will all come crashing down.
There is, however, a big distinction between the circular and linear modes of this kind of thinking. The circular sort is exemplified by the Yuga Cycle of Hindu belief, where the world passes through four yugas or ages before starting the journey again. Given that a Yuga Cycle is calculated at 4,320,000 years, we’ve been living in the Kali Yuga, the worst of those ages, basically since records began! (The Puranas place its start at 3102 BCE, which works out to right around the development of Sumerian pictographs, the precursor to cuneiform.) But the Kali Yuga will eventually end, and when it does, we’ll return to the Satya or Krita Yuga, the best and most moral age.
The linear mode takes a very different view of time in general. There’s no cycling back around; the end is an end. Reality itself won’t cease to exist, but everything will reach its final state and remain there forever, essentially unchanging. Generally a better state than the one we have right now, because God is in control of that and God is good, but still: we get only one shot.
Belief that the world will come to an end affects how people behave. Sometimes in good ways; if you think that degeneration is a sign or driver of the apocalypse, then making the world a better place could potentially delay that event. This is the thinking represented by the Doomsday Clock, a symbolic representation of how close scientists believe we are to a man-made global catastrophe. (It started out at seven minutes to midnight in 1947, and has gone back and forth since then. Farthest we’ve been from disaster? 17 minutes, in 1991. Closest? 100 seconds . . . right now.) Even if you don’t think such delay is possible, you’re likely to talk about the greater righteousness of past ages, using those — or at least, how those are remembered — as touchstones for guiding behavior today.
Unfortunately, the effect can also go in the other direction. “Well, it’s the end times” can excuse a lot of malignant carpe diem behavior; we see a scientific rendition of this right now with the behavior of many ultra-elites, who are more concerned with wringing the last drops of profit out of our current society than with doing anything to forestall its collapse. Those who truly come to believe that the end is nigh can even go so far as to commit suicide, as happened with the Heaven’s Gate cult in 1997. Less drastically, people expecting the imminent apocalypse don’t plan for the future: they might burn through their savings, quit their jobs, and otherwise wreck their lives . . . only to find everything still ticking along as usual. When this becomes a mass movement (as it did periodically in European history), it can destabilize society — which might be a good thing, if it brings about much-needed reform, but might also cause famine, pogroms, and other disasters of its own.
One thing to bear in mind, though: eschatology seems to be less universal of a concept than cosmogony is. The fact that the world exists, and humans in it, is proof that creation happened, but it doesn’t necessarily follow that those things will end. It’s hard to be absolutely certain, of course; religions influence each other, and many of the faiths widely practiced now fall under either the Abrahamic umbrella or the dharmic one, both of which do include this concept. But the records we have of ancient religions, and other faiths today, don’t always include an apocalypse, in either the disastrous or prophetic sense. Time just . . . continues on.
In fiction, however, we do like this trope. Epic fantasy in particular is notorious for wanting world-shattering stakes — and what higher stakes could there be than the world itself? More recent trends have walked back from that edge in favor of more human-scale conflict, but that doesn’t mean eschatology itself can’t be part of a setting. As I said above, belief in a prophesied end affects how people behave: the end itself doesn’t have to loom on the page to influence how the story goes.