Posted by: Mark Nielsen | May 12, 2008

The End Times Cafe: Wars, Earthquakes, and Enjoying That Final Cup of Coffee

Cyclones in Myanmar, and an oppressive dictatorship digs in its isolationist heels before finally beginning to accept international aid. Earthquakes in China. Earthquakes in Illinois last month?! Florida and California wildfires every time we turn around. Devastating storms last week in Oklahoma, Georgia, … heck …find me a state in the past three years that hasn’t faced billion-dollar damages due to extreme environmental conditions. Again and again we’re faced with questions about the climate, the global infrastructure, and humanity’s ability to sustain itself on a planet that we’ve wrecked, like a teenager treats his bedroom.

Is the writing on the wall?

I was teaching my students a few things last week about ancient Aztec culture, specifically the complex glyphs or picture-writing system they used to record their history, laws and religious ideas. Not surprisingly, a couple of my junior high kids asked if I thought the world was going to end in 2012, the last year accounted for on the Mayan calendar (and probably the Aztec one also, though I’m too lazy and rushed to look it up at the moment). It was the first time the question had been posed to me by anyone, child or adult. I responded that I did, in fact, think something huge for the entire world would happen in 2012. It’s been an idea circulating among “pagan prophecy” buffs at least since Erich von Daniken’s 1968 bestseller Chariots of the Gods. I think I was in junior high myself –and therefore ripe for the picking with regard to sensationalist ideas– when I stumbled upon this book. Plus there was also a film version, awhile after the book’s release, which caught my imagination even more.

So despite all rational argument and education to the contrary, I’ve still gone through the past thirty or so years with a vague but noncommittal sense that yes, I would be around to see the end of the world in around 2011 or 2012… despite Jesus’ assurance that we would not know the time or the place of his return, nor of the Apocalypse or Armageddon (not words Jesus himself used, by the way… one reason I take most attempts to interpret John’s Revelation with a grain of salt, because it didn’t seem to be much of a concern for the Son of God when he walked among us).

Yes, I believe I will be here to hear the fat lady sing. It’s an interesting stance to take, precisely because it can’t be proven or disproven until that dreaded/long-awaited target year arrives. It’s fun– in a weird, dark kind of way that only twisted minds like mine can understand– to let that anticipation build as if there’s some kind of grand fireworks display on the way, which I will be priveleged to see firsthand. (Never mind the grinding and gnashing of teeth and the Left Behind and all of that… rapture or no rapture, I don’t believe Yahweh is looking to judge and test and hurt those who willingly choose to follow Him… and He might not even allow those who don’t follow Him to be lost forever. He’s that merciful.)

I know it’s nearly impossible to reconcile these two worldviews (the “pagan” and the Christian, the predictive/magical and the “don’t worry about tomorrow” pragmatism of Christ’s own advice). Nevertheless, whenever things get real messy — either politically or environmentally — I can’t help but experience a moment of both thrill and mild terror, thinking, “This is it! Isn’t it? Wait, let’s look for the signs…” And then I look, checking off items on some unwritten mental list that has no clear qualifications for what IS a sign and what IS NOT. Silly, I know. But probably harmless.

As I mature (a theoretical concept, I will admit…), it’s mostly the environmental stuff that sets me off on that train of thought, not so much the human or political turmoil. When humans mess up, I take that “nothing new under the sun” attitude, like the writer of Ecclesiastes, and dismiss it as just this year’s manifestation of the latest trends in sinning, both personal and global. For example, remember all the people who dug up strange new “after-the-fact” interpretations of Nostradamus in the weeks after Sept. 11th, 2001? Where are those people now? How much does mass hysteria contribute to the snowball effect, once such ideas get started? How many people are out there fearmongering right now, quietly circulating emails proposing that the U.S. presidential election and its outcome will be a sign of the end times? [If you get any of these emails, forward them to me… I’m a big fan…]

With every transition or large-scale human undertaking, superstition inevitably gets mixed in with fact, and we come out the other end with more questions and vague fears than we had going in. Let’s call it a “philosophical earthquake” effect. That’s why, when it comes to “wars and rumors of wars”, that’s one area where I really do let Jesus have the last word:

” Many will come in my name, claiming, ‘I am he,’ and will deceive many. When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed. Such things must happen, but the end is still to come. Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be earthquakes in various places, and famines. These are the beginning of birth pains.”

(Mark 13:6-8, New International Version)

See, nice and vague, just the way I like it. Leaves room for conjecture, but says not to be alarmed. Could be in 2012, …or else the “beginning” could be something that lasts a thousand years, all by itself.

Which is not to say that some well-intentioned but lazy Christians won’t stretch these words of Jesus in their efforts to scare more people into becoming his disciples. Sure, I’d like to see God have more followers, too. But I want those who genuinely love God, and love their fellow man sacrifically, not some shallow, frightened hanger-on just looking to cover his ass in case this end-times stuff turns out to be true.

I’d rather be a brother to someone interested in serving those in the cross-hairs of history, the ones upon whom these wars are perpetrated, who go hungry or die as a result of these extreme weather conditions. If they’re concerned only for people’s eternal souls, and not their present-day minds and bodies, then they’re not my brother or sister. No, sir. I serve the prophet and Lord who fed the 5,000, who calmed the storms on the seas, who saved Jews, Samaritans and Romans alike, who healed the lopped-off ear of the soldier trying to arrest him, then told his armed disciple not to live by the sword, lest he die by the sword.

To walk in the Spirit of the Lord is to lose your life while you’re still living it. It’s a daily decision not to care if today’s your last day. As long as you live it with integrity, in service to God and His people, take it on faith that you’ll be fine. Make the world a better place, in spite of the fact that it has a limited expiration date.

So I guess it’s okay to be curious about the end of the world, whether you’re 12 years old or 92. But don’t let it keep you up at night. It ain’t worth it…


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