Here is the reply Rabbi Steinsaltz offered in response to the question, “Do you believe the world will come to an end, and if so, where, when and what will it look like?”
Scientifically speaking, we do suppose that there will be an end to our world.
There are even some estimates about when – somewhere in the order of many millions of years, so it should not be a cause for immediate concern.
But from a religious point of view, there is a common belief that the world will not remain forever and that we should consider its existence temporary, even though it may take a very long time.
This concept is referred to as the “End of Days” in the Hebrew Bible and became incorporated into Christianity and Islam as well.
The idea seems to be a universal one. People throughout the ages have believed in it and written about it, from ancient Sumerian texts to Norse mythology.
The “End of Days,” in essence, means the end of the physical existence of this world – either an infinite end, or the end of a stage, after which a new creation will begin.
But there is also another notion about the end of days, which is directly connected to a shift in human existence.
In a way, the “End of Days” is not a belief in the physical annihilation of the world, but rather the end of history.
This means that, at some point in the future, there will be an enormous change in humanity that will be the end of ancient and contemporary history. After that, the vision is of a quieter, happier life.
In happy times, as with happy people, there is not much to tell. Unhappiness, in different forms, is what literature and history books are made of.
A time of happiness is an uninteresting time that contains little material for history. In this vein, there was an ancient Chinese curse: “May you live in interesting times.”
Unlike the ancient pagan view of the world as sinking, gradually, from era to era, the Hebrew Bible introduces us to a novel concept – the notion of redemption.
Even when it is expressed in secular or atheistic terms, redemption basically refers to the world – and humanity – reaching a state of tranquility, a permanent equilibrium of the main forces in our world.
According to Jewish tradition, there are two possible – and opposite – ways that this stage can be reached.
One of them is dramatic, even apocalyptic, and entails a large-scale tragic ending to the existence of the world.
It is a vision of fire and blood that will cleanse the world in a revolutionary, rather abrupt way.
It prophesies a great destruction that will annihilate evil, but it also comes with tremendous sorrow and suffering.
The second scenario is a more gradual and less violent evolutionary change in which problems are rectified in a quieter, less painful way.
If we were to compare the redemption to some kind of a peak of human endeavor, the first scenario is like climbing a steep, craggy wall of rock, whereas the second is like getting to the same peak though a pleasant, gradual ascent.
The Jewish Sages have taught that humanity has a choice which scenario it will adopt. If evil and misery continue to rule, then the change will be abrupt and against the will of many.
On the other hand, if people constantly strive to make changes for the better, then the redemption will come about at a slower pace and in a happier way.
From “On Faith: A Conversation about Religion with Jon Meacham and Sally Quinn”