Image: George Frederick Watts, Chaos (c. 1875).
With global anxiety increasing as we face threats in so many areas, how should we—as people of faith—respond?
It is clear that humanity is facing a number of existential crises: sea-levels rising, more frequent “weather events,” insect numbers decimated, oxygen levels in the sea declining, species extinction, plastic pollution, toxic air . . . and the list could go on. When we add to this political posturing, social inequality, the rise of nationalism, and nuclear arms proliferation we end up with the perfect storm. Many are anxious. Is this the end of the world? So prevalent is anxiety in the current climate that one paper recently presented us with the “A-Z of climate anxiety: how to avoid meltdown,” subtitled: “With the climate emergency putting our mental health at risk, Emma Beddington presents an everyday guide to eco wellbeing.” This may, perhaps, result in some personal comfort but offers little hope for the planet.
I would like to make some observations from a theological perspective. The first is that eschatology—the theological exploration of the end times—is a strong biblical theme. There are numerous prophecies about the “end of the age”; this should come as no surprise as the biblical metanarrative implies both a beginning and an end. History is on a trajectory that is unfolding. However, not only are biblical prophesies about the end times numerous, they are also significantly mysterious. This means that opinions about end-time scenarios are also numerous as well as diverse—and often contradictory.
Caricatures and conundrums
One common mistake is to shoe-horn mystical biblical passages into literalist readings. For example, thanks to John Nelson Darby (an eighteenth-century Anglican priest who left the Church and founded the sect-like Plymouth Brethren) and subsequent footnotes in the best-selling Scofield Reference Bible, a very literalist and specific version of “the rapture” took root in much of American Evangelicalism. Darby and successors insisted (based on Saint Paul’s account in 1 Thessalonians 4) that Christ would return to the earth to collect the true believers and whisk them off to heaven for a while, leaving the earth to a period of terrible “tribulation” unameliorated by the salt and light of the saints before coming back with his followers to establish a thousand-year reign before winding up the present age by creating a new planet. This view is known as “postmillennialism.” In the 1970s, for example (when nuclear conflict seemed inevitable), it led to Hal Lindsey’s popular book The Late Great Planet Earth milking such a scenario for all it was worth, as more recently have the “Left Behind” books and movies. At the height of the Cold War, passages such as 2 Peter 3:10–13 were said to foretell the coming nuclear apocalypse.
It is not my purpose here to discuss eschatological theories, simply to note that they are numerous and we would be wise to treat them with a measure of caution and humility. This is one area where I think psychologist Iain McGilchrist’s maxim is particularly relevant:
“The only certainty, it seems to me, is that those who believe they are certainly right are certainly wrong.”1
Puzzles and predictions
One immediate observation is that the rapture scenario is by no means the only way to interpret the enigmatic eschatological biblical passages. For example, the Apostle Paul (in 1 Corinthians 15:51–55) states—quoting Isaiah and Hosea—that when Christ returns death will end forever. If this is the case, how can there be a deadly tribulation on the earth after the rapture? To give just one more example, some scholars (such as my old Baptist minister David Pawson) suggest that Paul’s account of Christ’s return in the Thessalonians passage—a key “rapture” narrative—has been wrongly interpreted. The Scofield Bible, for example, offers (in its footnote to 1 Cor. 15:52) its literalist conviction about end-time chronology:
The “first resurrection,” that “unto life,” will occur at the second coming of Christ (1 Corinthians 15:23) the saints of the O.T. and church ages meeting Him in the air (1 Thessalonians 4:16–17) while the martyrs of the tribulation, who also have part in the resurrection (Revelation 20:4) are raised at the end of the great tribulation.
This dogmatic, literalist interpretation is based on, Pawson argues, a faulty exegesis of Paul’s account. Pawson insists that Paul is alluding to the Middle Eastern custom of local elders meeting a visiting dignitary and escorting him or her back into town as a guest of honor. The image is of Christians welcoming and escorting Christ back to the earth. Even this, however, begs the question as to how such an event can have global impact—how it relates to Jesus’s words: “For as the lightning flashes in the east and shines to the west, so it will be when the Son of Man comes” (Matt. 24:27).
I suggest these comments so far lead us to two key thoughts.
Literalism and escapism
First, that over-literalistic and dogmatic interpretations of biblical prophecy are unhelpful in that they tend to result in caricatures; in other words, crude accounts that evoke laughter rather than reflection; accounts that inoculate people against the idea that God might indeed be taking action in human history.
The second is this: if one holds the view that (a) as a true believer, one will be “raptured” by Christ before any major earthly catastrophes take place, and (b) that God intends to simply throw this planet away and make a new one, there is little incentive to take any action to deal with existential, social, or political threats. This, as I have noted before, drives those such as Senator James Inhofe to undermine the role of the Environmental Protection Agency (and invest in fossil fuels)—an attitude that seems to be the behind the general American Evangelical aversion to climate change action that is influencing U.S. attitudes more generally. But this is a high stakes gamble. What if such an event is centuries away rather than—as some seem to believe—in a few short decades? Is it not somewhat selfish to take a gamble that children and grandchildren will have to pay for? And one might also question the moral integrity of those who disdain and abuse this beautiful planet and refuse to steward it. If they (as they insist) are the true believers, destined to be the movers and shakers in the new earth (based on passages such as 2 Tim 2:12 and Revelation 20:4), on what grounds would a morally perfect deity give such people such responsibility when they have proved their inability to care for a “temporary” planet for the sake of future generations?
In short, questionable theology that leads to what most people consider immoral behavior drives people away from God rather than offering hope. People legitimately ask, for example, why the most wealthy, powerful, and polluting nation in the world refuses to cooperate with global climate change initiatives while at the same time proclaiming itself as the word’s exemplary “Christian” nation. It leaves observers with any moral compass questioning the veracity of the religion behind such paradox.
There is, however, a third issue which we need to consider.
Prophecy or poppycock?
Because eschatology is a bit of a minefield and has resulted in some strange theories (for example, in seventeenth-century Britain the execution of James VI was felt to be a necessary condition for the return of King Jesus)—and because of a naive “rapture theology”—it could be argued that the pendulum has swung too far in the other direction: the danger is that we ignore biblical prophecy relating to “the end of the age.” I would like to consider three examples for reflection.
First, consider the book of Daniel (written c. 200BCE). The last three chapters of Daniel begin with Daniel having a vision of a “messenger,” a Christophany (a vision of Christ, see Dan. 10:4–10) very similar to John’s vision in Revelation. Just reading these chapters reveals how enigmatic such apocalyptic writing can be. Some scholars, for example, argue that some of the events described had already happened. That said, we are nevertheless left with a curious thought. As the vision draws to a close, the “messenger” says to Daniel:
“But you, Daniel, keep this prophecy a secret; seal up the book until the time of the end, when many will rush here and there, and knowledge will increase” (Dan. 12:4).
I just found it curious that these two attributes are ascribed to the end times: “many rushing here and there” (some translations have “many will go back and forth”) and increasing knowledge. I read recently that leading up to the 1900s world knowledge doubled about every 150 years whereas today it doubles about every 12 hours. That such “knowledge” is primarily utilitarian data and does not imply increased wisdom is evident, but it is evident that “knowledge”—and its use and misuse—is an extraordinary global phenomenon. On the former point, I simple leave you to consider this screenshot of the aircraft currently flying over Europe in the knowledge that aviation fuel accounts for significant CO2 emissions.
Second, Paul writes (2 Thes 2:3) that the end of the age will be characterized by the rise of the “man of lawlessness.” This may represent an individual, but I suggest such an individual would be the product of the kind of social trends that are evident today. I understand “lawlessness” to equate not to law as such but to a disdain for the social contracts of which social institutions and laws are representative. Increasingly, politicians, corporations, religious groups, and so forth, act as if they were above the law and foster a disdain in others for social norms such as mutual respect. At root, it reflects (as does the third issue we will come to shortly) the Enlightenment “turn to self” and the resulting devaluation of community.
Lastly, I would draw your attention to Jesus’s own words about the end times in response to a question from his followers: “Tell us, when will these things happen, and what will be the sign of Your coming, and of the end of the age?” In response, he also highlights lawlessness:
“Because lawlessness is increased, most people’s love will grow cold” (Matt. 24:12).
Lawlessness, Jesus says, will be “a sign of his coming,” and will be allied to “people’s love growing cold.” Now this could be interpreted as Christians losing faith or as a further expression of general social lawlessness, after all, “lawlessness” as described above is predicated on a lack of love for society, for community, or for others and results, ultimately, in violence. In my view the two are very much related for the same root reason: that the philosophical and individual turn to the self has not only damaged social connectedness but robbed us of transcendent awareness—damaged our connection to God such that faith is routinely viewed as naive belief in a fairy story.
Now one obvious objection to these observations might be to observe that, for example, in the nineteenth century “Great” Britain was expanding its empire fueled by a self-belief in its calling from God. At home, the British Isles were being covered by the most concentrated railway network in the world and many were frantically “rushing to and fro.” In addition, science was pushing forward the frontiers in many disciplines. As briefly noted above, in just about every age (including the first century) you could find people predicting the imminent return of Christ on the basis that people were travelling more, knowledge was increasing, lawlessness was thriving, and love was not in evidence. In response, I would simply observe that in ages past such attributes were (a) mostly the domain and the wealthy, and (b) broadly regional in nature. Technological connectedness, however, means that such phenomena are now global, a situation compounded by another prediction: that the last days will be characterized by a disdain for the truth: people will “follow their own desires and will look for teachers who will tell them whatever their itching ears want to hear”—a service social media is happy to offer and certain political leaders are happy to exploit.
The baby and the bath water
I write these words simply to warn against two things. First, the danger of over-simplifying, over-literalizing, or sensationalizing biblical narratives of the end times. Second, of throwing out the baby with the bath water—of rejecting the truth of these mysterious biblical end-time prophecies because popular interpretations are both laughable and immoral. A brief web search will throw up many sites with headlines such as, “Knowledge Growth Foretells the Coming Armageddon!” and such like. Those who relish the coming apocalypse seem to come from the same stable as those who predict—and look forward to—the burning of most of humanity in hell; views that are ungrounded in any understanding of God as the “causing goodness” and love who is invested in the ultimate redemption of the universe.
Redemption is the key. In this Advent season we remember how light has invaded human darkness. Whereas some choose to focus on the destruction of the wicked, I believe God’s focus is on the destruction of wickedness and the release, the redemption of those made in God’s image. Likewise, despite apocalyptic descriptions of the earth’s destruction, it seems to me that God’s focus is on recreating, redeeming the earth rather than simply throwing it away, just as we, as human being beings, have to potential to be renewed by God without losing our personhood—our identity; we, too, will be recreated. At the end of time—
“When all things are subjected to Him, then the Son Himself also will be subjected to the One who subjected all things to Him, so that God may be all in all” (1 Cor. 15:28).
Let us hold on to this vision of hope in what may be the “last days.” But until the “end of the age” comes, let us be found to be good stewards of this beautiful planet.
I recommend reading Tom Wright’s Surprised by Hope (SPCK, 2007) for a more nuanced discussion of death and the afterlife from a Christian perspective. In particular, Wright addresses the erroneous dualism behind the idea that heaven is “up there” and the consequent negative disposition towards the earth and materiality in general.