WASHINGTON – The apocalypse has been much on my mind.
This is not only because Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is now more or less officially in charge of a nuclear threshold state, or because a dictator with the mentality of a spiteful teenager controls North Korea’s dozen or so atom bombs, or because a nuclear Pakistan was recently named the world’s 10th most fragile state (right above Zimbabwe).
Contrary to expectation, the proliferation of nuclear weapons since World War II has been relatively slow. And the current global balance of power makes a world-ending, ozone-layer-destroying, nuclear-winter-inducing exchange unlikely.
But it doesn’t take much historical imagination to spin a scenario in which, at some point over the next century, a different balance obtains. There could be a new and deadly global standoff, involving even more powerful weapons, with one side holding an ideology with a streak of suicide. The Bomb may still be “the destroyer of worlds.”
Future existential threats to humanity might involve the spread of destructive knowledge not only to governments but to individuals. The splicing of genes could eventually become a do-it-yourself technology, allowing the creation of some deliberately species-ending virus. Or the fears of Elon Musk and Stephen Hawking could be realized with the emergence of artificial intelligence that becomes superior to human intelligence and annoyed by human existence.
These dark thoughts brought to mind an essay by C.S. Lewis, written not long after the dawn of the atomic age. Lewis provided a bracing warning against exaggerating the novelty of the situation: “Believe me, dear sir or madam, you and all whom you love were already sentenced to death before the atomic bomb was invented; and quite a high percentage of us were going to die in unpleasant ways. … It is perfectly ridiculous to go about whimpering and drawing long faces because the scientists have added one more chance of painful and premature death to a world which already bristled with such chances and in which death itself was not a chance at all, but a certainty.”
For all of us who perceive reality through the functions of a biological organism, the problem of the apocalypse is the problem of mortality. The fact that we may or may not hang together does not change the inevitability of the noose. We can all look forward to our own private apocalypse.
And the prognosis for humanity was never particularly good. The fossil record reveals a disturbing history of large asteroids and mass extinctions. Our sun, now vigorously middle-aged, will eventually flare and die. All of which is admittedly hard to contemplate on a cool spring morning.
Ultimately, the problem of the apocalypse is the problem of time. Blame the second law of thermodynamics. There is nothing about the other fundamental laws of physics that would keep them from running backward. But entropy marches in one direction, from more order to less. Eggs can be made into omelets, not omelets into eggs. It is possible to collect a puddle of organization in a specific place – in a body, a planet, a solar system, a galaxy or galaxy cluster – but only for a time. The universe, like the individual, tends toward sagging decay.
Cosmologists struggle to explain why the initial condition at the Big Bang was a high level of order (confusingly defined as a low level of entropy). But this is what set the arrow of time forward. And we should probably be grateful. Without the inevitability of decay there is no possibility of change, of growth, of evolution, of life, and of all the good, temporary things that life brings.
These things are worth defending from dictators, terrorists and the potential demon residing in our laptop. But it matters if our heroism is ultimately hopeless, like in some ancient, Greek play. Or if the winter of decay and disorder gives way to another season.
Just about every culture has ceremonies of fertility and renewal this time of year, celebrating the green shoots of hope within nature. Christianity, for its part, claims to reverse the natural order of decay and time, so that the end for human beings is not the darkness and silence of the universe as a tomb. Perhaps, it has been said, we are not human beings having a spiritual experience, but spiritual beings having a human experience. It is an unlikely, even outlandish, hope. But it reaches, on good authority, “even unto the end of the world.”
Michael Gerson’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.