A few days ago one of my wife’s buddies asked her if all the wars, volcanoes, tsunamis and earthquakes might be the biblical signs of the end times. I liked how she answered. All of these things, and more, have been going on for thousands of years, but because we see them now in our own time, they appear to us as if uniquely ours. We can be tempted to read into them more than they deserve.
Many of the churches in our region thrive on the apocalypse. In the scary language of B horror movie promotions, they hype out of town prophets coming (for one night only) to tell us the true meaning of scripture and warn us of what’s to come. Routine sermons are rich with the threatening imminence of the last day and final judgment. Some local pastors seek battalions of prayer warriors to stand in the breach between the Devil and the God’s people on That Day. No wonder some folks are stoked with anxiety, ready to see the end approaching in every headline and breaking news interruption.
It’s great theater, lousy theology and fully understandable. This kind of religious thinking, with its accompanying social anxiety (even hysteria), has ebbed and flowed throughout history. I suspect that it reaches its high points under three conditions. First, the political and natural world seems out of control. Second, there is a critical mass of individuals who believe that their personal lives are also out of control and in serious jeopardy of losing life continued in comfort and safety. Third, and oddly enough, these conditions, however catastrophic they may be somewhere, are not catastrophic in the lives of those anxious about the apocalyptic end of time.
I doubt that persons living through the London Blitz, Japanese earthquake, Hurricane Katrina, Gettysburg, or similar catastrophic events, give much thought to the apocalypse or hysterical prophecies. They are too busy surviving. The same may be true in times of great national striving in times of urgent need. For apocalyptic anxiety to find its moment there must be a certain distance from which unfolding events can be observed and interpreted according to whatever prophecies have had time to be raised to awareness.
I wouldn’t mind so much if those convinced of the imminent end of time would also use their remaining days to live in peace with one another, seek reconciliation for injustices done, and be agents of God’s love throughout the community. So far I haven’t seen much evidence of that. More often it takes the form of crowing about the salvation of some over the well deserved damnation of others, or hiding from any social engagement, or stockpiling for survival.
When is that last day? For my friend Helen it was about three hours ago. For thousands in Japan it was a few days ago. For millions around the globe it’s an everyday occurrence.