Imagining the Future   /   Spring 2008   /    Articles

The Foreordained Future

Apocalyptic Thought in the Abrahamic Religions

Paul Boyer

Does the ability to imagine the future set homo sapiens apart from other species? Given current research on cognition in primates and other animals, this claim may be yet another example of human hubris. Be that as it may, the most ancient texts marking the dawn of recorded human thought speculate about the future—both the world’s future and a possible future for individuals beyond death. Such speculation, ancient as it is, remains timely in our own day, when the path ahead so often seems freighted with dark foreboding.

Contemplation of the future has historically been intertwined with religion, particularly the so-called Abrahamic religions: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Hinduism and Buddhism envision successive stages of existence culminating in a final state of blessed- ness or enlightenment, but the Abrahamic religions, firmly grounded historically, see humanity’s emergence at a specific moment in time, an unfolding plan of salvation, and an endpoint when God’s plan is fulfilled. The historical rootedness of these three religions has made them particularly fertile in generating belief in a divinely ordained future. This essay, after briefly surveying the history of eschatological (end-time) beliefs in the Abrahamic religions, closes with consideration of more recent developments and their public policy implications.

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