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    Conversations About the End of Time and The National Gallery of Art – Part 2: Back to the Apocalypse – Jean Delumeau

          This is a follow-up to a previous journal entry which also features excerpts transcribed from the same book, Conversations About the End of Time supplemented by photographs of paintings on display at the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C.  The other entry presented excerpts from a discussion that the book’s editor had with the late biologist-paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould.  The following excerpts are transcribed from an interview titled Back to the Apocalypse, in which French historian and theologian Jean Delumeau discusses, among other things, the role of Western religions in influencing the end of the world hysteria that intermittently manifest in civilizations and societies throughout history.  (To see Part 1 of this series, which features excerpts from an interview between the editors of the aforementioned book and the late biologist-paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould, click here.)


    If there hadn’t been any great fear in AD 1000, can you explain how and why eschatological fears recur from the end of the fifteenth century onwards?

    I believe this is the be connected to the series of misfortunes which befell the West from the fifteenth century onwards.  I shall list them.  The first, and indubitably the most important, was the Black Death of 1348, which was a veritable demographic disaster.   A quarter, perhaps even a third, of the population of Europe died in the space of three or four years – a truly vast number.  Second, a little later, there occurred the great schism (1378 – 1417), with two, and at times even three, concurrent popes.  The French theologian Jean Gerson was of the opinion that this could only be a punishment inflicted on sinning Christianity, and he even added that no one would enter paradise until the great schism was brought to an end.  The schism was repaired at the beginning of the fifteenth century, but a century later, the Protestant reformation broke out.  On this occasion, Christianity in the West was split in two and has remained thus divided to this day.  To all this must be added the many famines, the Hundred Years War, the War of the Rose and the Turkish threat: the conquest of Constantinople in 1453, that of Asia Minor and a large part of the Balkans, the fall of Egypt at the beginning of the sixteenth century, the Ottoman protectorate extending over the whole of North Africa with the protection being given to Barbary pirates who ravaged Christian shores, and so on.   And on top of that, wars of religion broke out in the sixteenth century.  It was in this dramatic context that the expectations and fears about the end of the world flourished again.  It was in the spirit of the age to look for guilty parties, since all these misfortunes had occurred.  And more rather than fewer were identified.

    Are you referring to the Inquisition and the witch hunts?

    Yes.  Throughout the 250 years during which these misfortunes were befalling the West, there was a constant search for scapegoats: Turks, Jews (it was the greatest age of anti-Semitism), heretics, witches.  One has to realize that the great age of the persecution of witches was not the Middle Ages, as is often believed, but a period stretching from the end of the fifteenth century to the beginning of the seventeenth: in other words, the Renaissance.  Think about Michelangelo’s tragic Last Judgement on the wall of the Sistine Chapel, or Durer’s series of fifteen etchings of the Apocalypse, which made it famous at a stroke.  People at this time did not have the notion of progress as part of their mental baggage.  They did not think that humanity could have a long future ahead of it, or any future at all.  They looked upon it as old and close to its end.  Christopher Columbus wrote in 1500 that the end of the world would occur in the 150 years at the very most.  Nicholas of Cusa declared that the victory over the Antichrist would happen between 1700 and 1734.  Luther stated that ‘We have reached the age of the pale horse of the Apocalypse… the world will not last another hundred years.’ I could give many other examples of quotations of this type.  Millenarians were in the minority; for most people, the end of time was close at hand; the world was rushing headlong towards the Last Judgement. 


    Isn’t there, at least in Christianity, a distinction between the particular judgement of a soul which occurs after death and the collective judgement of a soul which occurs after death and the collective judgement of humanity which will take place at the end of time?

    Traditional Christian theology, especially in the Middle Ages and during the modern era, indeed distinguished between the judgement of individuals, which takes place immediately after their death, from the general judgement of mankind.

    And this would occur after the end of time?

    Exactly, at the end of time, when God decides to stop the passage of time and bring history to a close.  According to the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke), what will then happen is a cosmic event called Parousia.  This is the return of the risen and glorious Christ who will come to judge the living and the dead.  Jesus proclaims this very explicitly:

    But in those days, after that tribulation, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.  And then they will see the Son of man coming in clouds with great power and glory.  And then he will send his angels, and shall gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth tot ends of heaven (Mark 13:24 – 7).

    Who will the elect be?

    I have no authority to speak out on this matter.  But I think it is important to turn to Chapter 25 of Matthew, where we read that the criterion of judgement will not a theological criterion, or a criterion of faith or belief, but a criterion of love and service to one’s fellow human beings.  It is worth recalling this famous text, which lies at the heart of what we are talking about:

    When the Son of man comes in this glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne.  Before him will be gathered all the nations; and he shall separate them one from another, as a shepherd separates the sheep from goats, and he will place the sheep at his right hand, but the goats at the left.  Then the King will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come O blessed of the Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry, and you gave me food; I was thirsty, and you gave me drink; I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked, and you clothed me, I was sick, and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’  Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see thee hungry, and feed thee, or thirsty, and give thee drink?  And when did we see thee a stranger, and welcome thee, or naked, and clothe thee?  And when did we see thee stick, or in prison, and visit thee?’  And the King will answer them. ‘Truly I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.’  (Matthew 25:31 – 40). 

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