The Sceptic Blog

Random thoughts of a random chappy

The end of the world may – or may not – be nigh

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1.    A common objective of environmental campaigns is sustainability.  That is to say, a test frequently applied in determining the propriety of a use of natural resources is whether it is sustainable itself (as in the case of forestation and irrigation) or whether it threatens the sustainability of all or part of the ecological system (as in the case of the emission of greenhouse gases or the hunting of a species).  However, this assumes either that the world ought to be allowed to last forever or, at least, that it is improper for us to do anything that threatens to shorten its likely span of existence.2.    Jewish thinking has traditionally neither expected nor desired this world to last forever.

3.    Midrashic tradition posits this world as the seventh in a series (based on the number of words in the first verse of the Bible), each of the first six of which was destroyed (based on the rabbinic understanding of the word “sohu” as not meaning “null”, as sometimes translated, but as referring to desolate destruction) (incidentally providing one of the many possible rabbinic explanations of dinosaur fossils).

4.    Each world, according to this tradition, is a time-limited experiment created by God to produce some kind of spiritual force, of the nature of which we can comprehend only a very shadowy picture.  In the case of this world, the rabbinic construction of the behaviour of Adam (“Adam sinned for the sake of Heaven”) suggests the creation of a world in which man descended from an angelic state, in which he obeys God as an automaton without choice, to a state of tension between a selfish animalism and an altruistic holiness.  When human altruism finally triumphs over bestial selfishness through an exertion of free will, the product is a kiddush hashem of unequalled proportions, justifying the creation of the world and rendering its continued existence, at any rate in this form, unnecessary.

5.    Hence the difference between the Messianic Era and the World to Come.  The former is still “business as usual” so far as nature is concerned (at least according to Maimonides – others differ to a greater or lesser extent) while the latter is the end of this world as we know it.  This is why the description “the world to come” is used to describe the state attained by those who die now, as well as the state attained by everyone as a culmination of the perfection of the natural order known as the Messianic Era.

6.    For the Jew, therefore, the continuation of this world is not, in itself, an aim at all.  For me personally, I aim at the attainment of a state of wholly spiritual existence after death known as my personal world to come.  For the world, I aim to participate in producing an environment which proclaims the existence and kingship of Hashem.  With this in mind, the rabbis have often predicted different periods for the life of this world.  A number are discussed in Gemara Sanhedrin 97.  One that focuses our minds is that of 6,000 years, which on the basis of our traditional numbering would give the world a little over two centuries to go.

7.    Nor does that necessarily seem unreasonable to the modern mind.  The world seems tired.  Its resources, whatever environmental decisions are taken, will become more than a little stretched in the next couple of hundred years even if the human family increases at a slower rate than at present.  And, of course, increasingly sophisticated techniques of astronomical observation have made it possible in recent years for scientists to observe the number of near misses that the world has had in the matter of meteoric collisions and to speculate how long it will be before we sustain a direct hit.

8.    Although much of Jewish law tells us to respect the world and its resources and to use them with care, the prospect of using them solely in order to achieve perpetual sustainability is not one which commends itself.  For one thing, we have always believed in the precariousness of the world’s existence, and the constant reliance on Hashem’s chessed in keeping us alive, which scientists are now beginning to conclude for themselves.  For another, it has always seemed to us to be more important to ensure that we arrive at the next world in a fit spiritual state than that we prolong this world, or our miniscule share in it, to a particular length.


Written by Daniel Greenberg

October 24, 2004 at 12:00 pm

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