In Greek mythology, a Golden Age of peace and happiness was thought to become gradually more corrupt, eventually degenerating into an Iron Age of greed and cruelty.
Some scientists today have a similar view, as they predict the inevitable (but not immediate) end of the world due to global warming, species extinction, bacterial immunity, etc.
Another approach sees human history as a series of recurring cycles. The classic description — what I would call an emotional outburst, rather than a theological viewpoint — is found in Ecclesiastes 1:9: "That which has been is that which shall be, and that which has been done is that which shall be done, and there is nothing new under the sun."
This approach is also pessimistic, because it imprisons us in an endless loop that we are powerless to escape, no matter how much human effort we exert.
Today, it is a very common idea that the world is progressing, and that everything is becoming better, more highly developed and more perfect — and will, therefore, ultimately merit redemption.
The concept of a world that will be redeemed in the "End of Days" was carried over from Judaism and — mediated by Christianity and Islam — has become one of the foundation stones of modern thinking. It is so powerful that it has been integrated into nontheological "religions": The ideology of communism assured its followers that the revolution (like the Messiah) might tarry, but it (like him) would surely come.
We can also see this way of thinking in the theory of evolution, which has — through a subtle shift in meaning — turned from a theory that explains how organisms adapt to their environments, to a description of how creation improves with each generation. According to this view, if we let nature run its course and don't interfere, society will evolve toward perfection. Advances made in science and technology are held up as alleged proofs that the world is improving, based on the false assumption that whatever is more sophisticated (and more artificial) is better.
The Jewish view of world history is optimistic, but it's an optimism with substance and meaning: The realization of the hope that it offers depends on us.
It can be summarized like this: Humanity is born into the perfect world of the Garden of Eden, and begins to descend into decadence and immorality. But this downfall is only part of the story. At the same time, there is another, parallel momentum: a path that leads upward. Step by step — sometimes revealed, sometimes hidden — this inexorable process leads to redemption. When that process is complete, the entire world will ascend to their point of departure, even transcend it.
How do we know whether we're ascending? We must look more closely at how we measure human "progress." In the course of its transition from spirituality to secularity, this idea has lost one of its most essential dimensions — namely, the ability to examine itself, the criteria for examining it and the inner sense of what is really of value.
The religious idea of future redemption contains an entire system of introspection and self-examination that must guide our outlook and our behavior, not once a year — between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur — but every day.
Each year is not necessarily better or more perfect than the preceding one: It must first go through the crucible of divine judgment, and prove that humanity and human history are worthy of continuation. We claim that this or that thing represents "progress," but there's at least a 50 percent chance of progressing toward hell in this world.
When man decides how to measure progress, he expels God and the acceptance of the absolute values emanating from the throne of judgment. When man makes the measuring rod, his measurements are meaningless, and he ceases to measure altogether.
The divine measuring rod renders judgment according to the divine criteria — values that are not man-made and not determined in relation to man. It is on the Day of Judgment that the divine criteria are reinstated. The world sorely needs this set of criteria. A value system based on a theory of relativity is the highway to the deluge. Holding onto "the finger of God" (Exodus 8:15) offers us a way to return to the possibility of redemption.
Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz is an author and translator of the Talmud.