Psychology of postmodern society: An eschatological perspective

“There will be signs in the sun, moon and stars. On the earth, nations will be in anguish and perplexity at the roaring and tossing of the sea. Men will faint from terror, apprehensive of what is coming on the world, for the heavenly bodies will be shaken. At that time they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory” (Luke 21:25-27, NIV).

When would Jesus set up His kingdom of glory? When would this world end? When would the nightmare of sin be brought to a close and the new order of eternal peace ushered in? These were the questions that troubled the disciples, and have occupied the minds of Christians throughout history. Luke records for us the words of Jesus, listing six signs that would specifically point to the nearness of history’s climactic moment. Three of these signs deal with astronomical phenomena: the darkening of the sun and the moon, and the falling of the stars (see Matthew 24:29, 30). Three others deal with psychological phenomena: anguish, perplexity, and fainting.

Adventist eschatology has traced for us the fulfillment of the first three signs in history. This article will deal with the second set of signs involving human life as it approaches the end of time.

Jesus uses three phrases that describe different but related signs in the end-time psychological arena. The Revised Standard Version renders these phrases as “distress of nations,” pointing to a collective anguish; “the roaring of the sea and waves,” referring to a confused status of perplexity; and “men fainting with fear and with foreboding of what is coming on the world,” warning of a human fainting. These life-oriented signs seem to predict global aspects of behavior and lifestyle, involving mental health. We shall now probe the nature of these signs, using psychological or better yet psychopathological models to illustrate the predicament in which postmodern humanity finds itself, even as the end draws nearer.

Anguish: the case of Raskolnikov

Optimism gave way to anguish sometime in the middle of the 19th century. Ever since Sören Kierkegaard, the Danish philosopher, published in 1844 The Concept of Anguish, philosophers and theologians have grappled with anguish as a phenomenon of human existence. Consider the works of Nietzsche (1844-1901), Heidegger (1888-1976), Sartre (1905-1980), Camus (1913-1960) and other existential philosophers, and immediately we are reminded that only anguish, rising from nothingness and marked by the inevitability of death, can awaken consciousness to the authentic reality of human existence. As Heidegger once remarked, anguish “places us in the presence of the world as the world,” and “it reveals the existing self as the problem.”

For an illustration of anguish as a defining feature of postmodern humanity, witness Raskolnikov, a character in Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment (1866).1 Here was a poor, young student, searching for a way out of his misery and aiming for higher objectives in life. One day he meets an old woman, a pawnbroker. She has money, lots of it. He has nothing. Raskolnikov begins to reflect. What good is money in the hands of this old woman? What is her worth compared to his own? If he only had that money, how much could be accomplished: He could help his mother, his sister, complete his studies, and in the end be of good to everyone.

Thus he comes to the moment of his decision. He kills the old woman. By some strange quirk of fate, the law does not get him. But then begins the real drama of inner punishment. He finds himself in a “moral sensation of torture, infinite loneliness and alienation.” He cannot sleep. He stays awake, often shaken by a nervous tremor. His heart palpitates. He hears strange noises. He is afraid and delirious. Anguish makes him susceptible and irritable. He lives self-absorbed, sullen, locked up in his room.

Then one day Raskolnikov meets Sonia, a prostitute. She convinces him to confess. Suddenly the words of the gospel come to his mind: “Whoever believes in me, even if he is dead, will live.” Raskolnikov experiences repentance. He is now free from guilt and anguish. He gets back his inner freedom.

Thus Dostoyevsky perceived the decisive role anguish would play in 20th-century life. Karen Horney too wrote about the “difficulties that reign in our time and in our culture,” because of “the psychological conflicts we have,” characterized by neurosis and anguish.2

Anguish, for the philosopher, may suggest infinite nothingness and absolute loneliness; for the psychologist, it may suggest an emotional disorder, bordering on neurosis. But for the student of prophecy, anguish is a sign of the last days, peaking around the middle of the 20th century. But that’s not all. The prophetic theme of Luke 21 goes beyond anguish to provide us a portrait of human condition in the second half of our century: utter perplexity and confusion.

Ambivalent perplexity: the case of Emil Sinclair

The Greek word translated “perplexity” is aporia. It literally means “without pores,” “without a way or exit.” It carries the meaning of “difficulty,” “uncertainty,” “doubt” or “skepticism”.

According to Jesus, perplexity would reign at the end of time as a result of the “roaring and tossing of the sea.” In apocalyptic symbolism seas and waters stand for “peoples, multitudes, nations and languages” (Revelation 17:15). The point is simple: Perplexity as an eschatological sign needs to be seen in the contradictory and antagonistic voices and opinions that will rule the world as history draws to its close. Who has the truth? Whom shall we believe? Is there any truth at all? How shall we define right and wrong? Or is there any necessity to raise such questions at all? End-time biblical prophecy suggests that skepticism and doubt would eat away the contours of life, including religion, politics, education, and family values. Children educated in that atmosphere and young people nurtured in such worldviews become ambiguous, indefinite, or “androgenous.”3

This perplexity is not simply an emotional problem with repercussions such as anguish. It alters identity and organization of one’s being and affects the perception of reality. For a psychological model, consider Emil Sinclair, the central character in Hermann Hesse’s (1877-1962) Demian.4

Hesse, who won a Nobel prize for literature, portrays in this book a character who lives in ambivalent perplexity brought about by political events prior to the Great War. Sinclair’s life is marked by deep spiritual antagonism. He lacks identity. He feels he is an inhabitant of two worlds: the demonic one of chaos and distrust, and the luminous one of the ordered and believing life. Within his home, he finds himself tormented and unsociable like a ghost. He is unstable, ambivalent, and contradictory. Often he experiences feelings of joy and fear. He is both Cain and Abel. He oscillates between extreme idealization and devaluation. Even his sexual life reflects this contradiction: He is both male and female.

Such a state of confusion and perplexity, rooted in a lack of identity, dominates our life and culture today. Erich Fromm5 attributes this phenomenon of ambiguity to the loss of a proper understanding of self. “Society,” he says, “is on its way to barbarity” as a result of “robotism,” “automation,” and manipulating “bureaucracy.” These factors contributed to a sense of “insanity and destruction” that marked the 1960s. Those were the years when hippies, rock music, the Beatles, and violent acts of youth protest seemed to overwhelm the world.

Thus we arrive at our own time, a time of dehumanization, and dangerously walk on the borderline of derangement. A vacuum arises within the soul. Perplexity looms ahead, above and within. We live in a world of such ambivalent perplexity, but as Christians we anticipate deliverance, looking ahead for the end of this age and for the age to come.

Collective paranoia: the case of Saul

The last in the triplet of psychological signs of end-time is “fainting.” The Greek word in the original refers to something that comes from the cold or produces coldness. Psychologists speak of coldness in terms of insensibility. The word describes an incapacity to experience emotions. Coldness is a characteristic of mentally ill persons, in whom emotions are disassociated from representations or ideas. It describes an attitude of indifference and alienation where one is “affected by nothing.”

In prophecy too, coldness can point to a state of perturbed thoughts and mental illness or psychosis. But there are many kinds of psychosis. To which one is Jesus referring as a sign of the end? Perhaps the text gives us a clue: the insensibility is due to being “apprehensive of what is coming on the world.”

Many people live in fear. They are threatened by the dangers of the present and the uncertainty of the future. They are almost paranoid. They look normal, they reason logically, but they seem to see a conspiracy in every event and around every corner. They feel spied on by others who are suspected of gossiping around them. They feel betrayed and unjustly judged. They move to protect their honor or name or right. They are forever pettifoggers, constantly seeking vindication. As a result, their hearts faint.

A classic model of such paranoid living is Saul, the first king of Israel—a person of great power, and yet powerless to control his own thoughts and feelings. He saw an enemy in every shadow. Even the one who brought healing to him was considered an enemy. He distrusted David. He failed to understand God’s purposes and plans for him. After an auspicious beginning, Saul became an empty soul. Fear was his constant companion, distrust his guide. Such fear, says Jesus, will be a characteristic of the last days and will affect the postmodern humans.

Fear and postmodern society

Who are these postmodern men and women? The term postmodern emerged toward the end of the 1960s. With the publication of The Postmodern Condition by Jean-Francois Lyotard in 1979, the concept spread rapidly, suggesting that we have arrived at a new order. The collapse of the Berlin Wall, the fall of communism, the Gulf War, and the end of ideological polarities and parameters seemed to have thrust life into a new era.

K. Gergen6 argues that the post-modern human emerges from two roots: the romantic vision of the 15th century and the modern cosmic vision of the 20th century. These two roots produced three stages of human life.

First, the romantic life. A preoccupation with self, passion, and creativity marked this stage. There was a presence of the occult, both latent and profound. The individual was supreme, underscoring the values of friendship, conjugal love, and family unity. Extended family systems ruled ordinary living.

Second, modernism. It imposed new values inimical to the romantic vision. It promoted objective evidence, scientific method, and the discovery of the laws of nature. Progress and industry dominated the scene. The romantic urge for the occult and deep emotional feelings were replaced by the rational, ordered, and accessible self. The extended family gave way to the capsule family (the couple and their children).

Third, postmodernism. Suddenly there arose an information surge. Self is bombarded by information of every kind until it finds itself in a state of saturation. In Gergen’s dramatic expression, “we become plagiarisms, cheap imitations of others.” There is a “schism of the individual in a multiplicity of his self.” The family capsule disintegrates. There emerges the single parent, the ensemble, the reconstructed family (“mine, yours, and ours”7). In the place of modernism’s objectivity and rationality arise the phenomena of pluralism and multiplicity, where incoherence is the norm (i.e.: the music videos and video games).

The result? Postmodernism has driven us to a life of paranoid fear. Coordination is lost. Faith has gone. Violence has become routine. Crime and international terrorism are part of life’s daily landscape. Are we not all afraid, threatened, doubting everything, and believing nothing and no one? Aren’t we a bit paranoid?

Umberto Eco has rightfully pointed out that an illness has taken “over the culture and the politics of our time. It is an illness of interpretation that has influenced everything, in theology, in politics, in psychological life. Its name is ‘the suspicion syndrome.’ Its instrument is behindology: behind a fact there hides another more complex, and another, and so on forever. Life is interpreted as an everlasting conspiracy.”8

We live in an age of ultimate anguish, ambivalent perplexity, and collective paranoia, just as Jesus predicted long ago. Our children identify themselves with “robocop,” and they prefer to play fantasy games than with a teddy bear. Young people are trapped in a journey of mindless music and New Age thrillers. Adults have their TV god. In the process, we have lost the meaning of family values, friendship, and spiritual fulfillment. We are cold, insensitive, self-satisfied, distrustful—and afraid.

But that need not be the case. We have an alternative. Biblical prophecy has given us a graphic picture of the last days. The words of Jesus quoted above end in a hopeful note: “When these things begin to take place, stand up and lift up your heads, because your redemption is drawing near” (Luke 21:28 NIV).

Neither fear nor meaninglessness nor uncertainty of this world need shake or shape the attitude of Christians. For we have a hope, sure and steadfast—hope in the coming of the Lord. To live in that hope is the Christian answer to all the psychological terror that will mark the last days.

Mario Pereyra (Ph.D., University of Córdoba) is a clinical psychologist practicing and teaching in Argentina. He is the author of many articles (including “A Tale of Two Brothers,” [Dialogue 2:3] and “Hope, Christianity and Mental Health” [Dialogue 5:3]) and several books in Spanish. His address: Universidad Adventista del Plata, 25 de Mayo 99; 3103 Villa Libertador San Martín, Entre Ríos; Argentina.

Notes and references

  1. See Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Crime and Punishment, vol. 1.
  2. See K. Horney, La personalidad neurótica de nuestro tiempo (Buenos Aires: Ed. Paidos, 1967), pp. 33, 231.
  3. See A. Margulis, “Los jóvenes de los 90: El engañoso juego de las apariencias,” Revista La Nación (February 16, 1992), pp. 6-8.
  4. See Hermann Hesse, Demian (México: Cía. General de Ediciones, 1974), pp. 68, 100, 111, 161, 162.
  5. See Erich Fromm, Psicoanálisis de la sociedad contemporánea (México: Fondo de Cultura Económica, 1970), 8th ed., p. 300.
  6. See K. Gergen, El yo saturado (Barcelona: Ed. Paidos, 1991), pp. 63, 103, 106.
  7. See C. Wainerman, “La familia está cambiando,” Clarín (October 6, 1994), p. 19.
  8. See Ferdinando Adornato, “Umberto Eco, el alquimista de nuestro tiempo,” interview in La Nación (October 30, 1988).