The end of the world was and still is a religiously overcharged subject, inseparable from the divine will. An end of the world produced by the simple mechanics of the Universe, independent of divinity, took shape only at the end of the 19th century. Scientific development allowed mankind to become aware of the material dangers that threatens its entire existence. Accordingly, the idea of an end of the world started to be more and more imagined, handled and analyzed as a scientific possibility, independent of the existence and will of a supernatural entity.
Unlike the Abrahamic religions, which state that the end is inevitable, science treats it as a possible event. Currently, there is a multitude of scientific apocalyptic scenarios and, as knowledge progresses, their number increases. The scientific apocalyptic scenarios are divided into two large groups: scenarios caused strictly by the mechanics of the Universe and scenarios caused by social mechanics (self-destructive). Naturally, intermediate situations can also be imagined. Examples of scenarios caused by the mechanics of the Universe include Earth’s collision with an asteroid or a comet, a killer virus, the eruption of a supervolcano, the destabilization of Earth’s magnetic field, solar depletion and so on. On the other hand, man can trigger an apocalypse through pollution and climate change, nuclear war or out of control biological, physical or chemical experiments. Some scenarios are more likely to happen than others but, overall, the end is improbable to take place in the near future. Nevertheless, we must never forget that all the theories and the statistics behind them are enunciated according to our limited level of understanding.
Prediction and prophecy are often believed to refer to the same thing, but there is a crucial difference between the two. Prophecy refers to a future state of things without any clues regarding this state in the present time. For example, claiming at the moment that the world will end in the year 3000 is obviously a prophecy because right now there is no clue that this will really happen. By contrast, prediction is a crucial aspect of our life. In fact, our existence as a species and human society itself depend on our ability to predict the future. All the aspects of our life are based on planning the future: in agriculture, medicine, architecture, military, banking or business trained people gather information to foresee what is about to happen. In our everyday life a well-known application of prediction is the ordinary weather forecast.
Prediction is the rational operation of determining a future event based on the information held in the present. The accuracy of predictions depends entirely on the quantity and quality of the information and the computing power. Hence, the ratio between accuracy and temporal distance is inversely proportional. A short-term prediction has a good chance to be confirmed, whereas a long-term prediction has little chance. A long-term prediction is very similar to a prophecy, because both are based on too little information; prophecy and prediction can come to the point when they confound with each other.
Determining the future on scientific bases is called “futurology.” Although it was practiced from ancient times, futurology only recently became a scientific concept. The largest current consumers of futurology are the fields of weapons development and business, where hundreds of millions of dollars are invested in studying the future. A crucial feature in the definition of any professional army is the capacity to anticipate the power and the actions of the enemy. When we talk about weapons whose construction requires billions of dollars, the army has to know what kind of battles will fight not only in the present, but also in ten or twenty years. Thus, the military equipment has a very long time of use. On the other hand, Shell Oil Company is one of the largest producers of studies of the future. Philip Watts, Shell’s chairman until 2004, said that “such scenarios are not an exercise in prophecy. Rather they are designed to challenge our thinking so that we can make better business decisions today – helping us fulfil our commitments to our customers and society.”51 In other words, the emphasis is on realism, not fantasies; predictions, not prophecies.
In conclusion, divination or illumination leads to the enunciation of prophecies, while computing leads to predictions. But there are situations when certain apocalyptic manifestations cannot be classified as one or the other. This is the case of “religious prediction” – an expression used by exegetes to designate the prophecies based on logic, empirical observations and connection between historical events and prophetic texts. He who makes a religious prediction does not claim divine illumination, but the correct correlation between history and biblical prophecies. Furthermore, these relations are used as bases for determining the moment of the end: “if a, then b.” The eschatological efforts of William Miller regarding the year 1844 represent one of the best examples of religious prediction. Nevertheless, religious prediction is basically one and the same with false prophecy because, according to Matthew 24:36, the temporal distances between apocalyptic signs and the time of the end are impossible to be determined.
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