Is this the End of the World as We Know It?

With apologies to Michael Stipe and company, this is going to be a mostly serious attempt to answer a very serious questions. Given the fact that my corner of the globe has, in the past two or three weeks experienced, literally, earthquake, fire, AND flood, not to mention record-breaking storms, a total solar eclipse and nearly constant threats and rumors of war, it is no surprise to me that the End of the World has been on a couple of folks minds. What are we to make of these times? Aren’t these the types of things mentioned consistently in the Bible as markers of the rapidly approaching End of Days? Or, more directly: Is this the End of the World as we know it?

In a word: “Don’t sell your savings bonds.”

Stories of the world’s ending, in the Bible, are both more common and more varied than most folks appriciate right off the bat. Like so many other basic concepts of the faith (the details of Jesus’ birth, the story of the Great Flood, etc.), the image that the contemporary believer carries in her mind is actually a composite of several different ‘predictions’ blended into some kind of apocalyptic master-narrative. Interestingly, even the term ‘apocalypse’ is broadly mis-understood, meaning, literally “revelation” or “revealing” rather than “ending” a decidedly present-tense disclosure of a hidden reality rather than a prediction of specific future events.

Jesus, himself, is perhaps our best guide through the landscape of world-ending destruction. In the text of the Gospels, he gives several different teachings that point to either cataclysmic destruction or the end of the age. Notice however, that he rarely equivocates. Scholars hold, and I agree, that when Jesus speaks of world-shaking destruction: fire, flood, war, he has just those things in mind, and little else. “This world is rough,” Jesus seems to say. “And if you think things are bad now they’re probably going to get worse before they get infinitely better. And he was right. In the lifetime of some of his first followers, the community (and specifically the Judean community) would see death and destruction on a scale that they had never before experienced. The machinery of the world would be exposed, so to speak, and many things long hidden (the cruelty of the Empire, the inefficacy of Temple leadership, the true nature of the messianic hope) would be laid bare. It was going to get bad. And people needed to be prepared.

But Jesus also is quick to remind us that all of these things happen “before” the end. This is important. Death and destruction and wars and the like are to come BEFORE the end. They are NOT the end. Though they are each horrible and painful and destructive in their own way, they are inextricably a part of the current state of affairs, not the reality that is to come. Yes they are points along the way to the coming Day of the Lord, but that’s just how time works. In the same way that he stoic aphorism of “each day brings us one day closer to death” is a tautology (true simply because of its structure) so is it the case that everything that happens in the future is a step in the way to the end of all things. That’s what makes the future the future.

What comes to mind here, though is a statement by the former head of IBM who, when asked if he intended to fire an emploee who had just cost the company $600,000 do to his incompetence said, “Why would I do that? We just paid $600,000 teaching him how not to make that mistake.” God loves the world. He made it and invited us to be a part of it. Why would God destroy the world right before people finally figured out how to use it correctly?

So, I, for one, feel fine. I’ve never been particularly bullish on end of the world prophecies, thending, rather, to align myself more with those who see such predictions as so much flash leading up to an inbreaking of God’s kingdom that will be far more subtle and profound. God is, in his TIM, bringing about the redemption and perfection of all things. We will certainly have a part to play and the end result will be an eternity spent in inhabiting the world as it was always designed to be.

Leonard Bernstein.

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