Is it Stupid To Believe In The End Of The World?

Most of the humor I’ve seen about the Rapture has been repetitive (but perhaps it’s impossible to avoid in the age of Twitter), but in good fun. Every Christian friend who I’ve spoken to on the issue has taken part in the humor, and is otherwise bemused with the situation. But there’s a pretty big difference between humor and ignorant hate-mongering. I’ve already seen a bit of the “Christians are idiots” garbage being thrown around.  But while most of my friends, Christian or not, religious or nonreligious, agree that it’s a mistake to conflate the Rapture 2011 movement with something endemic of Christianity as a whole, there remains an uneasy divide over whether it’s ridiculous to believe in the end of the world at all.

In modern mainstream Christian theology, the end of the world is usually understood in two ways simultaneously: personally, and historically. Most Christian churches, at least in their official theology, accept that end-times stories can be used metaphorically to understand transitions, deaths and endings in our personal lives, and that the world really will end and Jesus really will come back to rule a perfected Kingdom. There’s an important caveat to the latter, which is that nobody, not even Jesus, knows when the historical end of the world is to take place. Jesus actually warns his disciples never to trust anybody who claims to know when the end will come just before he goes off and gets crucified, which should be a lesson to the Rapture 2011 folks that if you’re going to be Christian, it pays to read your Gospels.

I think my nonreligious friends and acquaintances are comfortable with the metaphorical interpretation of the New Testament’s end-times stories, but they get leery or snide when confronted with the historical belief, even when it is robbed of its ability to provide any kind of definitive time line. The general feeling I’ve gotten is that it’s either crazy or stupid to believe in the Biblical end of the world.

I’m not Christian, and I don’t believe in the Biblical end of the world, but it’s not crazy or stupid.

The Revelation of John is beautiful literature, and as a story that people believe in, it helps Christians to make sense of their place in history. When their society is stable and profitable, Christians have historically envisioned themselves as occupying a “meantime,” an era of history in which man is necessarily flawed, and people must struggle against the evil within themselves and others knowing that they will likely never see reward for their struggles. When their society is filled with turmoil and the violent potential of upheaval, there’s been a stronger tendency for more Christians to see themselves as approaching the cusp of that “meantime.” It’s like the potential for change, and the violence of it, recalls the imagery and the moral lessons of the Revelation of John, the ultimate re-creation through violence and rebirth.

This sense of history has allowed Christians to do things both great and terrible. A sense of Jesus’ impending resurrection allowed Englishmen to establish a Parliamentary government and overthrow monarchy well before the French Revolution, but it also eventually lead to chaos; and moderate Christian voices of that time that counseled against believing the end of the world was nigh wrote some seminal political tracts on the separation of church and state. But a sense of impending end-times also led Luther to condone violence against Christian rebels, and lots of people have been persecuted in an attempt to defend the status quo of the meantime.

I endorse using new poetic narratives, rather than the Scriptures, to make sense of our modern place in history, but the Scriptures aren’t insane, and, much as we might like to, we can’t simply counsel people to keep the stories without believing in them. I was Christian once. I know the difference in the power of a story you believe in with all the passion you can muster, and one that you think is just a beautiful metaphor. And believing in the end of the world, humanity can accomplish wonderful things. We continue to.

Like it or not, the end of the world narrative has crept into our culture, bled out from Christianity into all kinds of secular progressive causes. The vision of a global warming apocalypse stands out as a prime example. There is now scientific consensus that global warming is occurring, and that it is being influenced by people in a predictable fashion. We’ve got documentaries telling us how the ice caps will melt, and swallow the coastal areas of the world, and that we will destroy our planet and make it unlivable. But there are perfectly rational, secular dissenters. Richard Lindzen of MIT, who is respected by his peers, calls the consensus alarmist, and doesn’t believe that humanity has sufficient information and predictive capabilities to make the kinds of claims that it’s making about climate change in the future.

What’s interesting to me is not so much whether a consensus has been manufactured by social pressures, but how this apocalyptic vision of climate change has served to motivate people to, at least publicly, pay so much more attention to air pollution. Growing up in Los Angeles, the air tasted nasty and every day after it rained you could suddenly see entire mountain ranges that had been invisible behind the haze of smog.  There is filth in our air that is grossly apparent to the naked eye, but it takes a story about the end of the world to bring people together to try to change it.

We could say the same thing about Nuclear Proliferation. I’m not an atomic physicist, but I get dubious when people on the street tell me “how many times over” our nuclear stockpiles could destroy all life on earth. It’s fascinating to me that a potential Nuclear Holocaust has to be exaggerated. I mean, I can believe that we have enough to cripple human civilization, but how could anyone possibly even begin to have a scientific basis for the claim that we have enough to eradicate all life on earth? We exaggerate our nightmares into world-ending catastrophes, and we even believe them, and then we unite in ways that nobody would have expected to face those challenges that didn’t seem dire enough on their own.

Ironically, even New Atheists take up this trope in their rhetoric that secularism and rationalism will have a purgative affect on the intolerance and ignorance of our culture, and in that we are moving beyond an era of superstition and into a glorious new age of scientific realism.

Many, if not all, of us believe some version of this story at one point in our life. “If we don’t do something, then the world  will end!” There’s a strong vein of human arrogance that I happen to like in the idea that we are strong enough or clever enough to end the world at all. And, while it would be nice if we could all get together and cut down emissions just so that our air is cleaner and clearer, or dismantle our nuclear weapons just because we all agree that they are terrible, indiscriminate, dehumanizing weapons, maybe it’s more fun to imagine that the world is at stake if we don’t. In that case, there’s nothing wrong by me with a few Christians being more charitable, forgiving, honest people after the reading the Revelation of John just in caseTC mark

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  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1363230138 Michael Koh

    “Let's change the world. Give 'em a wake-up call.” – Harold Camping [pre-May 21, 2011].

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=300901223 Nicolette Beach

    Here's the thing: the world WILL end. Even if the human race dies out before that, the world is STILL going to end. It's the downside of living within spitting distance of a giant star that will one day basically explode, taking us out with it. It has nothing to do with any sort of religious literature, it has to do with science. So to believe in the end of the world is not stupid. It's stupid to think that some book written when people still thought the earth was flat is an accurate predictor of when and how the end will come.

    The thing is, moderate Christians are just as loony to atheists, humanists, etc because despite their ridcule of Harold Camping and his ideas, they still believe that a book and an invisible dude in the sky are guiding the course of human history.  I am an atheist and I do have Christian friends who I respect but there will always be a generous dose of side eye for them when they remind me that they suscribe to such an irrational belief.

  • http://disrespectfultone.blogspot.com/ Daniel Schealler

    The conclusion is only good as its supporting argument.

    Given Camping's supporting argument… Well. Judge for yourself.

    http://www.washingtonpost.com/

  • Guy

    I feel like I rarely find this type of an attempt at respect & understanding in public life.  Thanks for going for it.

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