15 June 2010

The End May Or May Not Be Near

The end is near, I have heard it said. Soon, perhaps as early as next Thursday, the Rapture will happen. All the true followers of Christ will suddenly be lifted up to Heaven, leaving cars without drivers, airplanes without pilots, and Mr. Smith's biology class without that one kid who rolls his eyes whenever Mr. Smith says the word “evolution.”

It appears that something great and terrible is about to befall humanity. Great plagues will lay waste the land, the multitudes will suffer indescribable pain, and “them that dies will be the lucky ones.” Thankfully, if we are the right kind of Christians, we will get to skip out of here before the going gets tough.

This belief that the end of the world is imminent is very popular within a particular segment of Christianity. Numerous books have been written and movies have been made about this subject. Sermons have been preached, Study Bibles have been published, and detailed accounts of the “Last Days” are readily available.

A fascination with the end of the world is, I suppose, normal for us. Jesus' early followers thought the end was going to happen in their lifetimes. As Rome fell in the West, the end had to be near. When the year AD 1000, with all its Y1K concerns, approached, I am sure many throughout the world thought the world's story was almost complete. We saw it in 2000, and it looks like we get to have it again in 2012.

And yet, the world keeps on spinning and we are still here. True, I suppose the world could end before I finish this sentence. Then again, perhaps we will have to wait a bit longer. While we're waiting, perhaps I'll hunt down a copy of 88 Reasons Why The Rapture Will Be In 1988. I do love to read.

I would like to address two issues that are affected by this “End Times” fascination. One is peace in the Middle East, and the other is the environment. Both are areas where end times fever goes beyond an eccentric hobby and can actually have very real consequences.

As I sit and think, it occurs to me that a devastating nuclear war in the Middle East, in which millions die and the land is ruined by radiation, is actually a bad thing. And yet, there are many people who eagerly look forward to such a scenario. This big war could be just the thing to set off the end times and trigger the Rapture, if it hasn't happened already. Every time someone throws a stone in the Gaza Strip, the Armageddon clock can move forward one more second.

The conflict between the Palestinians and the Israelis is a complicated one, and I do not pretend to have the answer. Both “sides” have their supporters, who tend to thoroughly ignore the humanity of their “side's” enemies. One tends to expect the radical Islamists, if the term is appropriate, to support the Palestinians and the radical Jewish Zionists to support the Israelis, so this is no surprise. It is a little less expected to see Western anti-war leftists on the same side as the radical Islamists, and it is also a bit of a shock to find Fundamentalist Christians on the same side as the radical Jewish Zionists.

Leaving the Islamists and Western anti-war leftists aside for this discussion, let us look at the Fundamentalist Christians. They are a powerful ally of the Israelis, influencing U.S. foreign policy and sending aid to Israel. And yet, there is something very peculiar about this relationship. Fundamentalist Christians have a tendency to think that Jews, by virtue of not being Christians, are heading for Hell, and they also have a tendency to think that a horrible war in the Middle East is a desired event.

My guess is that the Israeli Jews appreciate the aid, though they would personally like to avoid the horrible war, and perhaps even Hell, if that's not too much to ask. Their faith that God will miraculously save them during the war by sending fire to destroy their enemies may not be quite as strong as that of their Fundamentalist benefactors.

Resolving conflicts between peoples tends to require compromise and reasoned discussion. For the Israelis and Palestinians who truly want to live in peace, there is hope that they can sit down at the table and work something out. Perhaps other parties can even participate. However, if a particular group, such as the end times focused Fundamentalists, believes that it is God's will for the modern state of Israel to extend to the Euphrates River and that the Palestinians have a moral obligation to move to Portugal, it is difficult to see what help they can be. They may even sabotage the peace process by their hardline stand on behalf of the people who actually have to live with the consequences.

It is a wonderful thing when brothers can live together in harmony. What a glorious thing it would be if the Israelis, Palestinians, and all the people in the region could share peace, happiness and mutual prosperity. To work for such a peace would be a noble thing, and I salute all who are doing so. For those who are hoping the Rapture takes them away before they have to deal with wrinkles and walkers, however, this peace could actually be a disappointment.

This world is a changing place. Not so long ago, the oceans teemed with life, and vast forests covered much of the world. Today, as we look at our polluted, deforested planet, we are becoming increasingly aware that many of our actions are harmful, and real change is needed in order to preserve our home. This awareness has begun to move from fringe environmental groups to the mainstream, and there is hope that we may be able to work together to ensure our children will inherit a liveable planet.

Among the end times crowd, however, this goal is often looked upon with scorn. If Christ is going to take us all away in a few years, why do we need to protect our oceans and forests? Why do we need to make sacrifices for future generations that are not going to exist? Why do we need to take care of this planet, when God is going to give us a new and better one?

While opinions do vary, there are many who believe Christ's return will occur during the lifetime of those who saw the restoration of Israel as a nation in 1948 (some will stretch it to 1967, when Israel reclaimed the old city of Jerusalem). Whatever date one chooses, this probably only gives us another fifty or sixty years, at most. If we are to assume that this planet only has fifty or sixty years left, it is easy to see how an environmental policy of rape and pillage appeals to people. Let's use it while we have it, and then watch it burn as we ascend to glory.

How many more generations of humanity are still to come? We simply do not know. Perhaps we will all be wiped out by a meteor strike in a few decades. Or, in a more hopeful scenario, perhaps we will become a galaxy-spanning civilization, living out our lives on countless worlds, our earthbound years being but the infancy of our species. Who is to say?

I propose that we take care of our home, in the best way we can. Perhaps I am sentimental, but I would like for my children to be able to walk through a forest or see a pod of whales skimming the surface of the ocean on a summer's day. I would like to know that I did my best to ensure those who come after me inherit a better world than I received. We do not know how long this place needs to last, so let us take the concept of stewardship seriously, and take responsibility for what God has given to us.

I understand that people want to feel special. They would like to feel that God has chosen them, out of all the generations in human history, to be taken up in the Rapture. They would like to feel that there is something that sets them apart from those who have come before. They would like to feel that they, uniquely among the masses of humanity, will be spared the pains of death.

And yet, if the experience of every other generation in history is any indication, the reality is that you, me, our families, friends and acquaintances are all going to die. This is a scary and often upsetting truth, because no matter how strongly many of us believe in the glorious hereafter, none of us really know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, what is going to happen to us. And yet, countless generations before us have experienced the same thing, and there is little to indicate that our generation is something special. Our bodies will shut down, for one reason or another, and then...we shall see.

I mean no offense to people who, based on their reading of the Bible or the teachings of their theological traditions, truly think that the end is near. What I am suggesting is that none of us can be certain. Life is a gift, and none of us, Rapture or no, can know how long we have. So, rather than obsessing over the coming apocalypse, why not spend our days loving our neighbor and making a better world for our children? And then, perhaps in some distant age, Christ will return to a world we have not managed to destroy. Keeping the place in order in the meantime seems like the decent thing to do.