Eschatology is the theology of endings, the counterpart to ætiology. Eschatologies are as varied as ætiologies, and just as important for shaping religious practice. Norse mythology’s final battle at Ragnarök, the Buddhist prophecy of Maitreya revealing to a once-more-benighted world the concept of dharma, the theme of a time of judgement shared by Judaism, Christianity and Islam: these are all forms of eschatology. When writing about religions that exist, make sure to check what their eschatologies are as well or you might end up making embarrassing claims about a massive group of people. When inventing religions, apply the same rules as established for ætiologies: how will the world end? Are any of the religions right about it? If so, why? And so on.
Sometimes, eschatology relates to the concept of soteriology, the theology of salvation: Norse eschatology is quite bleak, for there will be few survivors: two humans will be left to repopulate the world, and those who did not die in glorious battle will have less than pleasant afterlives, one assumes, if those afterlives even still exist. Insofar as Norse mythology had a soteriological aspect, it was “salvation through battle”. The beginning and the end of all things form part of an epic saga, but they do not explicitly relate to one another: there is no return to primordial fire and ice to begin the cycle anew.
Christian soteriology is, at least in descriptive terms, quite complex, and unlike Norse mythology is directly informed by the relationship between Christian ætiology and Christian eschatology: God creates the universe and puts a man and a woman in charge; they make a huge, tree-shaped mistake; sin and death enter the world; God reconciles wayward humanity through a tree; at the end of time, Jesus will take his bride, the Church, to an eternity of paradise.
This is a paraphrase of the soteriology of Christianity as St John Chrysostom sees it, and it shows how the common thread of ‘beginning – salvation – ending’ or ‘beginning – ending – salvation’ (however one wants to parse it) corresponds to Christian belief. The context of the origin and ending and salvation of humanity’s earthly existence (consisting of a union of man and woman) also informs traditional Christian teaching on marriage, for example. Fictional religions should be informed by their ætiological, soteriological, and eschatological beliefs as well: even if we disagree with what the Noctiminads believe about what constitutes a just war, we should be able to understand why the Noctiminad religion teaches what it does beyond ‘it says so in this book’.
So, how does this help us build upon our fictional religions?
Our sun-worshipping animists believe that the end will come when, one day, the sun dims and does not brighten. Over four days, it will grow dimmer and dimmer until the great night comes. Then, the strong will devour the weak for warmth until only one remains. If that one is full of virtue, he will become the new sun. If not, he will continue to devour all things, and finally himself, condemning the world to endless oblivion. The writer decides to call them Noctiminads, using the noct- prefix to show their relationship to, and preparation for, that long night. Through them, we could perhaps explore themes such as the naturalistic fallacies of the 21st Century, and/or the numinal quality of nature.
Despite lacking an ætiology, our philosophers became Erazafenes, after Erazafa, the ancient philosopher whose writings they follow. Erazafa herself is not believed to have any divine or prophetic status, but rather to have made predictions based on the natural endowments of her intellect. Erazafenes believe that the end will come when they have access to the knowledge of all things. At that point, they will be able to cast off all material inhibitions and become as gods themselves. The Hollow World might continue, but it will continue without them; for all intents and purposes, their eschatology and soteriology (such as it is) is almost solipsistic. Through them we could explore what a godless religion might really look like (drawing on Frank Herbert’s Dune) or criticize technological hubris.
Our anti-Erazafene philosophers become Neognostics. They are light on eschatology, but believe that just because the Hollow World exists today does not mean that it will exist tomorrow, and that if there is going to be an end of things, it should be investigated and then, perhaps, averted. Through them we might examine why philosophical movements never gained the traction that religious movements did, or examine the life of the navel-gazer.
Finally, our traditional hedonists become the Children of the Peach, the peach in question symbolizing joy and pleasure, or referred to by their traditional ethnic group which we have not yet named. There is division amongst them regarding whether or not there will be an end, but all agree that if there is an end, it will come when the shell of the Hollow World is breached. They pray that if/when that day comes, their gods will deliver them. Through them, we could examine utilitarianism as a theological position and/or how action and prayer should be used in response to or to avert disaster.
Having looked at the Beginning and the End, we now have a greater sense of what our fictional religions are about and what place they could take in our writing. They are still fairly abstract, however. These creatures of dust and clay need some fresh air before they will come to life. In my next posts, I hope to look at religion’s head and religion’s heart.