How strange can it be? Everybody is excited about the Mayan ‘prophecy’ regarding the end of the world on 21 Dec 2012. Mankind has only 7 days left but nobody seems to be panicking. People are more worried about having only 11 days left for Christmas shopping.
Can it be that the world is really coming to an end? Indeed, Doomsday is nearer than you think!
How do you react when you come across a hippy looking character pacing the sidewalk, proclaiming, “Repent, Doomsday is near” while waving a placard announcing the end of the world? I guess you might keep a safe distance – and barely able to hide your feeling of smug amusement towards the poor misguided social paranoid. You shake your head and say to yourself, “Poor fellow, he is off his rockers.”
A mixed reaction combining wariness and amused condescension is not surprising since we do come across silly people who abandon society and join dubious cults, only to be disillusioned when the prophesied Doomsday fails to come to pass. Worse, we fear we may have another lunatic like Jim Jones or David Koresh to deal with. In contrast, more sober minded people like us should carry on with the serious business of making the most of life. We have more pressing concerns to worry about, like keeping our jobs to enable us to service our mortgages and educational insurances for our children, and improving the quality of our lives.
Still, Christians cannot rule out the possibility that planet Earth may be on an unavoidable collision course with some cataclysmic forces in the future. Certainly, we cannot disregard the book of Revelation with its graphic imageries – of the seven seals, seven trumpets and seven bowls, each of which initiates a global catastrophe. Surely, any one reading of the four horsemen’s final visitations on earth – the white horse with a spirit of false messianic conqueror, the red horse that spreads war, the black horse which presages global famine and finally the ashen horse that bears death will feel a sense of foreboding.
The second book of Peter is not any more reassuring. To be sure, chapter 3 tells us that the world will not be destroyed again by a global flood (a super tsunami?). But frighteningly, we are told that the earth and everything in it will be consumed by fire. What sort of fire it will be I dare not venture to speculate.
Critics may mock at us and counsel us to drop such ludicrous primeval fears and have faith in modern technology to create safe and conducive living environments. After all, humans have survived for millennia without developed technology. Today, with modern technology at our disposal, we should expect the human race to live on indefinitely. Indeed, the very idea that global disasters will come along to wipe out the entire human race is irrational.
But is it really irrational to imagine that the human race may be on the brink of extinction as a result of cataclysms? Skeptics may be surprised to learn that the possibility of human extinction has been seriously discussed in some of the most learned journals of science and philosophy. For instance, Nature magazine has discussed the controversy over the so-called Carter-Leslie Doomsday Argument since 1993.
The Doomsday Argument claims to be able to calculate the future lifetime of the human race based merely on a given estimate of the total number of humans born so far. I now give two very simplified calculations so that readers may be assured that current discussion about Doomsday is not based on hazy thinking or imagination but on serious mathematical reasoning, in particular the application of the Bayesian Theorem of Probability. Readers without the prior mathematical knowledge needed to grasp the concept may skip the mathematical examples.
Let us imagine our fractional position f = n/N along the chronological list of all the humans who will ever be born, where:
- n is our absolute position from the beginning of the list.
- N is the total number of humans.
Now, we can say with 95% confidence that f = n/N is within the interval (0.05,1). In other words we are 95% certain that we are within the last 95% of all the humans ever to be born. Given our absolute position n, this implies an upper bound for N obtained by rearranging
n / N > 0.05
N < 20n.
If we assume that 60 billion humans have been born so far, then we can say with 95% confidence that the total number of humans, N, will be less than 20 X 60 = 1200 billion.
Assuming that the world population stabilizes at 10 billion and that humans have a life expectancy of 80 years, one can calculate how long it will take for the remaining 1140 billion humans to be born. The argument predicts, with 95% confidence, that humanity will disappear within 9120 years.
Example 2 (Given by John Leslie, an analytic philosopher from University of Gelph, Canada, in his famous book The End of the World (Routledge 1996), pp. 200-202.
Imagine my lottery ticket is placed into one of one hundred urns along with 999 names. Suppose there is a 98 % probability that a lottery urn with my name in it contains 1000 names, and a 2 % probability that it contains just 10 names. What if I next find that my name is among the first three names drawn from the urn? Calculations using the Bayesian formula [2% x 3/10]/ [(2% x 3/10) + (98% x 3/1000)] yields a probability of 67%.
Notice the 2% probability that the urn only contains just 10 names has increased to 67%. – a significant shift indeed!
Leslie now asks us to consider two opposing possibilities. Doom Soon – a scenario in which the human race will be extinct by AD 2150, and Doom Late – a scenario in which the human race will survive for a few thousand centuries.
Now suppose that the chance of a human being alive in the short-lasting race is 1/10. Assume a reasonable estimate that Doom Soon has a low 1% probability. Doom Late then has a 99% probability. We proceed with our calculation on taking into account your existence at this time.
Using Bayes’ Probability Rule the revised estimate of the risk of Doom Soon becomes:
[1% x 1/10] / [(1% x 100) + (99% x 1/1000)] which yields a probability of 50%. Notice how the prediction of a 1% Doom Soon has suddenly jumped to a good half-chance!
Obviously, the calculations have been much simplified. Furthermore, one can change the variables. We can increase the limit of humans and allow the possibility that our descendents might attain fantastic technology that will enable them to migrate to more hospitable parts of the galaxy. But other calculations I have read elsewhere acknowledge that the main point of the argument remains intact, that is, the likelihood of an early disappearance of the human race is much greater than normally supposed.
For some people, the Doomsday Argument may prompt suspicion of trickery. Many philosophers have tried to refute the Doomsday argument but most concede that its logic is sound. The reason the argument is rejected is because the consequences are too ‘inconceivable’. People find it incredulous that the eventual destiny of the entire human race can be deduced through a few steps of mathematical reasoning.
However, Leslie offers some concrete examples of possible causes that might be responsible for the extinction of the human race, that should strengthen the Doomsday Argument.
Accidental Nuclear War
Most research agree that the real cause of human extinction in a nuclear war is not the heat or radiation from nuclear explosions but the resulting nuclear winter that will set in. Leslie believes there is a 70% chance the human species will be extinct 500 years from now (p. 146). He seems to think the main risk at present (even if not 500 years from now) is accidental nuclear war: “Probably, however, it has been accidental nuclear war between the United States and Russia which has represented the most immediate danger to humankind since Russia’s development of the H-bomb” (p. 32).
Historical analysis of past pandemics suggests that disease is the most likely cause of human extinction. In the 14th century, a third to two thirds of Europe’s population was killed by the plague. In all, some 25 million people died as a result of the plague.
The outbreak of the Spanish Influenza virus from 1918-1919 killed between 40-50 million people, four times as many as were killed in the First World War. About 700 million people were infected. There was no cure for the flu. Thankfully, the disease disappeared on its own accord after claiming the lives of ‘only’ 40-50 million people. One wonders how many more will die if the dreaded Avian Flu or Ebola virus should become pandemic given the much higher fatality rate of these diseases.
Comets and Asteroids
According to NASA and other studies, the probability that Earth maybe hit by a comet or asteroid is reckoned to be one in two million (Leslie, pp. 84-85 citing The Economist Sept 11, 1993). The most pessimistic estimate suggests a chance of 1 in 200 that an extra large impact from a comet or asteroid, at least 500 million people within the next 50 years.
The last instance of mass extinction which saw the end of dinosaurs occurred 65 million years ago, Scientists speculate that the last historical extinction of homo sapiens (100,000 BC) was caused by an asteroid hitting the Yucatan peninsula in Mexico. It exploded with the energy of 100 million megatons of TNT, about ten thousand times the energy locked up in the world’s nuclear arsenals when at their largest (Leslie, p. 82).
Some scientists suggest that about once in every thirty million to one hundred million years the earth is hit by a comet or asteroid large enough to vaporize the oceans, causing global climatic distortion and mass extinction (Leslie, p. 83).
If one is pushed to give a time frame for such a disaster, the most likely year for human extinction is 2126. At this time a comet (named the “Swift-Turtle” – dubbed by some as the Doomsday Rock), will pass dangerously close to the Earth. It is possible that gravitational perturbation may cause the comet to crash into planet Earth, causing the mass extinction of the human race.
Swift-Turtle is dwarfed by an even greater threat that is, the threat of possible supernova explosion. Should a star in Alpha Crucis, four hundred light years away (near in astronomical terms) explode as a supernova, the resulting radiation will be deadly enough to obliterate all life forms found within its path.
Where does the raging and controversial discussion on the Doomsday Argument leave us? The mathematicians and philosophers have promised us that they are refining the arguments and will devise more robust thought-experiments to test their logical validity. Meanwhile our anxieties are heightened with each report of an imminent pandemic like the Avian Flu and we nervously look into the sky to make sure there is no previously unknown asteroid is streaking toward Earth, bringing with it a fiery end for humankind. It certainly seems as if the end time catastrophe described in the Book of Revelation can no longer be brushed aside as a fanciful product of the overactive imagination of paranoid believers.
For Christians however, the ongoing controversial debate as to whether the next catastrophe will destroy a major portion of the human race or entirely wipe it out only distracts us from a more frightening truth – that is, we can be sure that at least one catastrophe of cosmic proportion will visit earth in the near future, whether it causes human extinction or not. As Scripture testifies,
The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance. But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a roar, and the heavenly bodies will be burned up and dissolved, and the earth and the works that are done on it will be exposed. Since all these things are thus to be dissolved, what sort of people ought you to be in lives of holiness and godliness, waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be set on fire and dissolved, and the heavenly bodies will melt as they burn! But according to his promise we are waiting for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells. Therefore, beloved, since you are waiting for these, be diligent to be found by him without spot or blemish, and at peace (2 Peter 3:9-14).
The conviction that the prophecy of 2 Peter will be fulfilled is strengthened by the current convergence between philosophical arguments and scientific estimates for the imminent (in cosmic terms) destruction of planet Earth and the extinction of the human race. Doomsday is inevitable and it will come sooner than you think.
Thankfully this passage of Scripture gives Christians cause to look beyond the global cataclysm and to affirm not just the hope of survival but the flourishing of redeemed humanity in the new earth.
LINK TO PART 2 – The End of the World: Getting it Right LINK
Additional note added on 15 Dec 2012 – NASA’s brief analysis on why the world will not come to an end in 2012. Read the FAQ article at NASA website/facebook, “Beyond 2012: Why the World Won’t End” LINK