Is it the end? People are rushing to stores stocking up on bottled water and the necessities, preparing for the latest “end” which our world will endure. We’ve endured a few just this year. Some are now saying that the Mayan Calendar counts down to December 21, 2012 and that this was their prediction of the end of the world. The Mayans were extremely accurate in their calendar, so some people are thinking maybe they knew something we do not.
It just so happens that one of my random interests for quite some time has been ancient Mesoamerican history. I love reading about the Maya, Aztec, Inca, and Olmec cultures. Here, I’ll be drawing on those years of study (I am no expert–please don’t get me wrong here) along with my thoughts on Christian eschatology to provide a discussion of the latest “end of the world.”
People often talk about the Mayan Calendar without placing it in its cultural context. The Ancient Maya were a very advanced people. It is easy to think that the people who inhabited ancient South America were a bunch of paganistic simpletons who knew little of the goings on in the world until a boat of enlightened Europeans showed up and taught them better. Such a view is, of course, extremely Eurocentric, and I would suggest it is also betrays a certain lack of knowledge over what it means to be an advanced civilization. The Maya certainly fill that role well, albeit with different types of advancement.
One could argue that the differences in advancements was due, in part, to the radically different worldviews operating in independent spheres of influence. The values of European cultures were shaped by the Christian worldview, and so their concepts of what was important were very divergent from that of the polytheistic Maya. Indeed, this could account for a number of the extreme differences in practical areas, such as the differences in military technology, and of course in the development of religious doctrine. The Maya were not, as some have argued in the past, necessarily a bunch of noble people. Their artwork portraying their religious ceremonies and conquests makes this explicit, with all kinds of atrocities being glorified through their art. An extended comparison of the development of Western and pre-Columbian societies would be fascinating but it is beyond the realm of my discussion here. My point is that the ancient Maya were a very different people and culture from our own.
Why emphasize this point? Well, for one, because the interpretations which have been given to the Mayan Calendar have largely been using a western view of meaning for calendars, dates, and events to interpret a distinctly non-western culture’s apparatus for interacting with reality. The Mayan Calendar is not some construct in a void to be interpreted by various persons from whatever presuppositional strata in which they operate. No, it must be placed within its cultural context in order to even begin to understand what it means that the calendar should have an end.
The Mayan Calendar
Robert Sharer and Loa Traxler discuss the Mayan Calendar extensively in their monumental work, The Ancient Maya. Their work has just a phenomenal outline of how the calendar worked, but to outline it all would take a lot of room. Here, we’ll focus on two things: The Long Count in the Mayan Calendar and its interpretative framework.
Sharer and Traxler note that:
We take for granted the need to have a fixed point from which to count chronological records, but the ancient Maya seem to have been the only pre-Columbian society to use this basic concept. Different societies select different events as a starting point for their calendars. Our Western chronology, the Gregorian calendar, begins with the traditional year for the birth of Christ. (110, cited below)
The Mayan calendar, on the other hand, uses the end of the last “great cycle” as their starting point for the calendar. They measure something called “The Long Count” which is an extended way to determine a great cycle of 13 “bak’tuns” which are each periods of about 5,128 solar years (110). The previous long count had ended in 3114 BC, and that was the date the Mayans held “established the time of the creation of the current world” (110). And yes, the current “Long Count” will be ending December 21, 2012. What does this mean?
The calendar was not just used for chronology, but rather served more uses, such as divination. Sharer and Traxler note that the calendar was “a source of great power” in the Maya society (102). The Long Count “functioned as an absolute chronology by tracking the number of days elapsed from a zero date to reach a given day recorded by these lesser cycles” (104). Thus, the Long Count served to place the entire calendar cycle into a context: it established a measurable starting point and ending point for their calendar, which was itself extremely accurate due to its use of various astronomical measurements.
The Mayan Calendar shares one distinctive with that of the other Mesoamerican societies, namely, the use of a 52 year cycle. This cycle was celebrated as the end of the world by the Aztecs. The close of one of these 52 year periods literally meant that “the world would come to an end” (107). Yet this end of the world, which happened every 52 years, was not something feared, but rather celebrated due to the dawn of a new Sacred Fire, “the gods had given the world another 52-year lease on life” (107).
We thus have two possible ways to interpret the end of the Mayan Calendar. First, we can see it as simply the terminus of 13 bak’tuns and the end of the unit of measurement of absolute time, which would simply inaugurate the beginning of another cycle of 13 bak’tuns. Second, we can extrapolate from the cultural context that perhaps each terminus of this cycle would be anticipated as the beginning of another “lease on life.” But this is of the utmost importance: neither interpretation suggests some kind of cataclysmic ending of the space-time universe. To call the Mayan Calendar a “prophecy” of endtimes is nothing more than sensationalism. What cause is there to fear this?
The End of the World
Christians know that the end will come. However, this should not be surprising to anyone with knowledge of astronomy and physics. Indeed, our universe is ticking down to a cosmic heat death. Our universe itself will end. The energy will disperse, the stars will burn out, and all that will be left will be hulks of matter strewn about an ever-expanding galaxy. Or, perhaps there will be a “great crunch”–something I admit I am highly skeptical about–which will lead to an explosion of a new universe. But Christians have a unique perspective on the end of the world.
…[C]oncerning that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father only. Matthew 24:36a.
First, no one will know when the end is come. The end is coming, but it will be like a thief in the night. Jesus tells us that it will be like in the days of Noah, where people continued to live their lives despite the impending doom.
Second, the Christian expects God to be the one to usher in this end. The end will be a new creation. Tears will be wiped away (Revelation 21:4) and creation will be restored. Unfortunately, some Christians have taken this to mean the utter annihilation of all things in the spatio-temporal universe. These Christians will sometimes have a dismissive attitude over the stewardship of the earth. After all, they argue, this universe will be utterly destroyed and we will have a perfect one made for us. Why bother conserving resources? This attitude is simply wrong, and as I have noted elsewhere, we are called to care for creation, something which evangelicals who disagree on certain topics unanimously affirm.
As Christians we are called to always be ready for Christ’s triumphant return. But that preparation does not mean being fearful of every end-time “prophecy.” Indeed, Jesus tells us that many will say the end has come but they are false prophets (Matthew 7:15; 24:4-5; 24:10-11; Luke 21:8; Mark 13:21-23). No, the preparation is the call to make disciples of all nations and to care for those in need.
We will endure another “end of the world” on the 21st of this year. Let’s take the time to reflect on what our Lord tells us in His Word. We do not know how or when, but God knows. We do not know the day or the hour, but God knows. God will take care of us. Let us thank Him.
December 22nd, 2012– A poignant comic which speaks to the reality of what will happen on December 22, 2012.
Caring for Creation: A discussion among evangelicals– Creation care is an issue highly intertwined with eschatology. Here, I review an extremely thought-provoking panel discussion I attended at the Evangelical Theological Society conference in 2012. Climate change, endtimes, and Christianity and science are just a few related issues.
Cormac McCarthy’s Secular Apocalypse– An insightful post which reflects on Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road” and contrasts its vision of the apocalypse with the Christian worldview.
The End of it All…– I reflect on another failed end-time prophecy, this time from one who tried to use the Bible to make the prediction.
Robert Sharer with Loa Traxler, The Ancient Maya (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2006).
2012 Doomsday Myths Debunked– National Geographic.
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