One of the most popular movie genres is apocalyptic. We love to watch movies about the end of the world or the end of civilization. Why? I’m not sure. I am not a huge fan of movies like Armageddon, I Am Legend, The Day after Tomorrow, or Dawn of the Dead. I didn’t even really like Wall-E.
BUT even though I don’t like the movie genre, I do find it an interesting thought experiment to think about different ways we could see the end of the world and their scientific plausibility. I thought I’d walk through three of them for you.
The first is the one that someone with any astronomical knowledge will know is going to eventually happen, the sun growing and burning this planet to a crisp. Stars follow a general life cycle, an average star like our sun was formed from a stellar nebula into what we see today. As the star begins to run out of hydrogen, the star will expand and cool to a red giant. Then as it stops glowing, it becomes a planetary nebula, then a white dwarf.
In about 5.4 billion years, the sun will expand into the orbits of Mercury, Venus, and Earth, causing those planets to crash straight into the sun. The sun is already increasing in luminosity and heat, so in about 1 billion years, the world will be too warm for life. In 2.5 billion years the sun will begin to boil our oceans. It is not a matter of IF this scenario will destroy our little blue dot, but IF humanity will be around to see it.
One of the most popular post-apocalypse topics is a zombie apocalypse. Even though it shows up frequently in movies, science says this scenario is VERY unlikely. In order for a disease to be an end of the world scenario, it needs four things:
- Incurable — There are a number of current illnesses, like current strains of Ebola, where there is no way to “cure” the illness, simply try to survive.
- Almost always fatal — When there is no cure, the disease must kill almost all unvaccinated human beings. If an unknown pathogen with this kind of mortality rate emerges, we’re in trouble.
- Easily transferable — If the illness can spread like common colds, there’s virtually no way to stop new infections from happening.
- Long incubation period — Diseases such as HIV can take up to 40-60 days before showing symptoms. This long period of time allows you to transmit it to others without ever knowing you had it to give.
If a disease had all four of these qualities and showed up in a highly populated area, we would be in trouble. Thankfully our modern medicine and investment in rapid-response disease detection has reduced the chances of the worst diseases being actually “world ending” to just “disastrous”.
The third scenario is almost never talked about in movies, but is highly likely, super volcanoes! Super volcanoes already have caused massive destruction to the Earth in the past. They happen about every 100,000 years. In recent memory, we Americans might have lived through or heard of the eruption of Mount St. Helens. That explosion released 0.25 cubic kilometers of magma, but super volcanoes can release more than 450 cubic kilometers of magma. Not only will there be large-scale destruction near the volcano, but the amount of ash lifted into the atmosphere could block out the sun across the entire world and drop global temperatures five to ten degrees Celsius for a decade. The ash that makes it to the ground would kill all plant life.
So many hours have been spent thinking about different scenarios and what the world would look like in the end, in addition, the Catholic Church spends most of the month of November thinking about this exact thing and encouraging all of us to do the same. We began yesterday with All Saints Day, today is All Souls Day, then we will spend the next few weeks talking about it in the Sunday readings leading up to the feast of Christ the King (Nov. 20th this year). The Sunday gospels emphasize the end of things as we know them so that we spend time contemplating the reign of Christ in the second coming.
This all feels very big and weighty, but the first two days of November (yesterday and today) are all about inviting us into this big mystery. All Saints Day calls us to remember those who have gone before us and have made it to heaven. We take this day to think about how one day our lives will end and hopefully we will get to join them in heaven. We ask these men and women to pray for us. They want nothing more than for us to be with them when we die. We then should ask for not only their prayers but also their guidance, helping us to follow in their footsteps.
Today, All Souls Day is less talked about. Today we pray for all souls who have died.
Yesterday we talked about the best scenario: HEAVEN! YAY! Today we must grapple with the reality that there is a hell. Some people go there. We also know that our God is a merciful God and so there is a caveat to those two drastic options. At each person’s death, they are judged on whether they will be going to heaven or hell. Heaven is perfection, nothing is allowed into heaven that is not perfected. You and I are currently not perfect. If there were only those two options, we would definitely be going to hell. Sorry, it’s just the truth. Thankfully, God gave us purgatory too.
If our merciful God sees you at your death and judges you to be imperfect but still good, it is decided that you will go to heaven, but you have to be cleansed first. Recently I heard the analogy that heaven is like a wedding, and to be fair, it is often referred to as a wedding feast. For an earthly wedding, you wouldn’t show up filthy in your yardwork clothes. You would take the time to shower, do your hair, clean your clothes.
Purgatory is a spiritual semi-equivalent where we take the time to cleanse ourselves so that we are perfectly ready for heaven. On All Souls Day today, we not only take the time to think about where we will be going at our death, but we are encouraged to take time to pray for all of the souls who are in purgatory. It is somewhat of a mystery how exactly it happens, but it is understood that God has brought us into this beautiful process, allowing our prayers for these souls to shorten the time they spend in purgatory. Our prayers can bring them grace needed to help cleanse them. Our prayers can help someone get to heaven sooner. What an honor to help them with that. What a beautiful gift we can give.
As you take time today to think about the time that you will have to spend in purgatory, hoping that others will pray for you, I’d invite you to pray for souls that are currently in purgatory. You can pray for souls that you’ve known. You can pray for souls that have been forgotten by those here on Earth. My two favorites are to pray for souls who just got to purgatory and for those who are SOOOOOO close to heaven. Whoever you choose to pray for today, pray for someone. Billions of children of God have gone before us, may we spend the next few weeks praying for them as the readings lead us to think of the end of the world and the end of our lives.