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The idea that the world will end in a cataclysmic apocalypse that ushers in a new age is one of the most enduring human ideas. It is all the rage today. From fundamentalist Christians awaiting a Left Behind-style Rapture and Tribulation, to Shiite Muslims preparing for the arrival of the Twelfth Imam, to New Agers anticipating the extraterrestrials who will make all things new, everyone seems to agree with Bob Dylan that "the times they are a changin'." I recently read a New York Times Magazine article that describes a new version of the apocalyptic scenario: the belief that the world as we know it will end in 2012, the final year of the ancient Mayan calendar. This got me to thinking about what A Course in Miracles tells us about how the world will end.
While the various end-of-the-world scenarios out there certainly differ in the details, their general pattern is strikingly similar. For instance, even though fundamentalist Christians and believers in the Mayan calendar would hardly regard each other as kindred spirits, the basic template for both is the same. They both start with the idea that the world as we know it is corrupt. For Christians, it is corrupted by original sin; for many 2012 advocates it is corrupted by the modern "sin" of "materialism and the rational, empirical worldview." Whatever the corruption is named, it must be "cleansed" from the world by a greater-than-human power—whether it be God or the forces of the cosmos.
This cleansing will come through a devastating cataclysm in which the corrupt are wiped out. For Christians, this happens (after the faithful are raptured to Heaven) through the tribulation of natural disasters and wars culminating in the battle of Armageddon; through this process, the vast majority of the human race will be destroyed and ultimately consigned to hell. For many 2012 advocates, this cleansing will also involve devastating natural disasters, including "hurricanes, earthquakes and volcanic eruptions caused by solar storms, cracks forming in the earth's magnetic field and mass extinctions brought on by nuclear winter." Some also put forth the idea that few human beings will be left when all this is done. José Arguelles, one of the earliest proponents of the 2012 date, says that "there will be a lot fewer of us"; the many who "have not evolved spiritually enough to know that there are other dimensions of reality" will be taken away in "silver ships." I wonder where they will be taken?
Our role in all of this is to prepare ourselves by throwing in our lot with the good guys and/or doing something to bring the cleansing event about. For Christians, this means accepting Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior, and perhaps doing something to trigger the final days. Some conservative Christians today, for instance, are supporting the state of Israel because in their view, doing so satisfies prophetic predictions of what will bring about Christ's return. For many 2012 advocates, we can prepare ourselves by adopting a "more intuitive, mystical and shamanic" paradigm and participating in events meant to usher in the great event; large group meditations are popular. The promise of all this is that is that when the dust of the apocalypse settles, a special remnant (which of course includes you) will enjoy the glories of the age to come: for Christians the New Jerusalem, and for 2012 advocates some version of a wondrous new age. Arguelles, for instance, envisions a new world "with simple lifestyles, solar technology, garden culture and lots of telepathic communication."
A Course in Miracles discusses the end times in a Manual section called "How Will the World End?" (M-14). It addresses all of the elements we've seen here, and in doing so overturns many aspects of the "basic template" we've discussed. In my mind, the most significant difference is that while conventional apocalyptic views see the world, its corruption, and the end times as painfully real, in the Course's view the entire drama from start to finish is an illusion. Yes, the world is corrupt in a sense—the Course doesn't hesitate to call it insane—but this corruption is merely a dream projected from our own minds, the minds of holy Sons of God who falsely believe in sin. The world has never really existed except as a dream, and as M-14 says at the start, "Can what has no beginning really end?" (1:1). Its apparent end—the end of the dream—will come about not through the sudden intervention of God or cosmic forces, but through a gradual process in which we cleanse the false belief in sin from our minds with God's loving help.
The cleansing agent here is not devastating natural disasters and bloody wars, but our forgiveness of one another. If the cause of the world is our false belief in the illusion of sin, then the end of the world is the healing illusion of forgiveness, which undoes our belief in sin. Nothing is destroyed, and no one is wiped out, condemned to hell, or whisked off in silver ships. Instead:
The world will end with the benediction of holiness upon it. When not one thought of sin remains, the world is over. It will not be destroyed nor attacked nor even touched. It will merely cease to seem to be. (2:9-11)
Our role in all of this, then, is not to prepare for the coming doom, but to do our part to bring about the coming benediction, to bring this moment when "not one thought of sin remains" closer. We do this by becoming teachers of God, heralds of forgiveness to the world. As more and more people do this, the promise is that one day, "the illusion of forgiveness, complete, excluding no one, limitless in gentleness, will cover [the world], hiding all evil, concealing all sin and ending guilt forever" (1:4). Rather than a special remnant surviving the destruction of the evildoers and enjoying the Heavenly City or "lots of telepathic communication," all of us will enjoy the most wondrous new age imaginable: at last the world will cease to seem to be, and we will awaken together to our glorious reality in God.
All of this sounds like quite a stretch, and I'm not holding my breath that anything this all-encompassing will happen by 2012 or even 3012. "'When not one thought of sin remains' appears to be a long-range goal indeed" (3:2). Yet the section reassures us that we don't need to become St. Francis overnight. All we need to do to learn the lesson of forgiveness is to "learn how to approach it; to be willing to go in its direction" (3:5) and trust that the Holy Spirit will take us the rest of the way. Thus, you can begin to do your part in ending the world by simply being willing to forgive that person—yes, the one you thought of just now. You may find it difficult to believe that you can forgive even that one person, let alone become a herald of forgiveness to the entire world. Yet whatever you may think of your own potential, God knows you better than you do. He knows that all of us have what it takes to end the world forever:
To turn hell into Heaven is the function of God's teachers, for what they teach are lessons in which Heaven is reflected. And now sit down in true humility, and realize that all God would have you do you can do. Do not be arrogant and say you cannot learn His Own curriculum. His Word says otherwise. His Will be done. It cannot be otherwise. And be you thankful it is so. (5:9-15)