As I’m sure most folks have heard, there are fundamentalist Christians who believe the world’s going to end this coming Saturday. I’m not gonna post links to these folks and their beliefs, because I don’t care to spread this stuff around or give them any more of a stage than they already have.
Sufficed to say, lots of funny stuff’s being said/written about it. My fellow damned heathen(1), Dr. Mark Chancey, pointed me toward toward this video this morning:
It’s one of those that makes you laugh and wince all at the same time. Because, this kind of instantaneous event is exactly what these fundamentalist Christians believe is about to happen.
Entire books have been written…nay, entire forests have been clearcut…by folks who believe in this stuff. And the whole problem with is that it can all be debunked with one, short scriptural reference from Jesus:
“But about that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.”
— Matthew 24:36
Holding aside for now the idea of exactly what might happen at some theoretical “end of the world”(2) the one thing this verse clearly tells us is that nobody knows when it will be. Nobody. In the case of this verse, not even Jesus.
What that, by definition, means is that anybody who tells you they know the precise time is wrong. Very wrong. Always wrong. Wrong in every historical age and time.
Of all the things that can be refuted about ultra-fundamentalists and their beliefs, this is perhaps the easiest. Jesus himself doesn’t knows the time. Only God knows.
So, ask yourself: Do you think these predictors of peril, these prognosticators of pernicion, are smarter than Jesus? Because to believe that it’s possible to “know” some exact time and place for the end of the world, you have to also assume that whomever’s telling you this is literally more smart than Jesus. And I don’t think they are.
The fact of the matter is, people have been predicting the end of the world for eons. People have always published exact dates and times. They’ve always been wrong. They always will be.
In fact, given what Jesus says here, I believe I can confidently make the opposite claim:
If anybody ever gives you an exact date and time when the world will end, the only thing you know for certain is that it won’t end then. By definition.
So, using what I know of the Bible and theology, I can assure everyone with great confidence that the world will not end Saturday. This I know. For the Bible tells me so.
So, have fun Saturday. I don’t know what you’ll be doing, but I’ll probably be screaming my head off, cheering for the Mavs in game three.
When I was a kid, the spiritual fathers of these current-day folks told us the Soviet Union and America would fight a battle of the last days somewhere in and around modern day Israel. Thirty years later, there is no Soviet Union, and nobody imagines that they (the Soviet Union) are the anti-Christ. Nobody I know of.
Back during the first Gulf War, there were fundamentalists suggesting that Saddam Hussein was the anti-Christ, and that the final war would be fought with him. Well, he’s dead now. How’s that workin’ out for ya?
In fact, you can go back through history and find an enormous number of times when people believed the world would end. Here is one of the more complete lists.
Do not miss the fact that people in all cultures and times have done this, not just contemporary Christian fundamentalists. The website link above points out the alleged discovery of a tablet in ancient Assyria from 2800 BCE:
“Our earth is degenerate in these latter days. There are signs that the world is speedily coming to an end. Bribery and corruption are common.”
There are secular versions too. Remember Y2K? Back then, not all who believed the world would descend into panic and chaos were fundamentalist Christians.
When I was a kid, I remember going to the State Fair of Texas, and walking through the “Grand Place” building (right next to Big Tex). There amongst display booths were people hawking kitchen knives, weed whackers, therapeutic whirlpool baths, and just about everything else you can buy on late-night television; and one booth staffed by fundamentalists Christians. Not only did they pass out tracts predicting the end of the world, they also displayed this very oil painting:
It may be hard to see, but it depicts the moment of rapture in downtown Dallas, circa 1970 (My guess). Just like the video jokes, the painting suggests that airline pilots, car and truck drivers, will be magically teleported away from whatever it is they are doing, leaving their planes, trains and automobiles to crash horribly into the unwashed heathens who are left behind.
Lots has changed in downtown Dallas since that painting was first created:
That’s about how it looks today. You can’t even see some of the tallest buildings from that 1970s painting anymore. Like apocalyptic theories themselves, they’ve been subsumed by history (and taller buildings) and, thankfully, fade from memory.
All is well
And all will be well on Saturday, May 21st.
And I would totally dismiss this theology, except for one encounter I had back in 1988, when I was intern pastor in Mason, Texas. A lovely older woman in the congregation (maybe in her 80s?) came to see me one day in a genuine panic. She’d been watching some televangelist who’d was predicting end of the world. She’d even sent off for a book the guy had written, titled “88 Reason Why the Rapture Will be in 1988.” (I actually just now found it listed at Amazon. Kid you not. It says, shockingly, that the book is out of print. Imagine that!)
She was terrified. She actually seemed to believe the world was about to end (in September of that year). After some time, I was able to convince her it wasn’t gonna happen. And, of course, after that second weekend in September came and went, she was much calmer.
But it gave me pause to realize that many, many people –often the elderly and the infirm– do believe this kind of theology, and are harmed by it. So, yes, I poke fun. But I do so to shine the bright light on something I believe is dangerous.
Jesus doesn’t tell us exactly when the world might end. Which means worrying about it, reading books about it, fretting over it for even one second, is completely pointless.
So, what then? Do we believe there is no ultimate hope for the world?
Far from it.
Every year –in the weeks before Christmas that the Church called “Advent”– we remember again this promise of a hopeful tomorrow. Instead of a cataclysmic end, filled with misery and horror, the Church remembers the HOPE that Jesus has come once, is present now, and will come at some unknown time in the future. In fact, we say (or sing it) it every time we take communion:
“Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again.”
The words of the liturgy call this “the mystery of faith.” And I think that’s a perfectly lovely way to describe it. It is a mystery. Mystery as to time. Mystery as to circumstance. Mystery as to specifics. It’s a mystery to be believed as a faith statement, about God’s hope for the world, not as a literal fact about any specific event.
And note that when Jesus does finally talk about some final judgment day, he doesn’t describe it literally either, because he understands that nobody can. You can’t describe spiritual truths literally without degrading the real meaning. Instead, since he knows that literal truth is impossible, Jesus tells a parable. It’s parable where, on that final day, EVERYBODY is surprised. Everybody.
“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left.”
What’s first interesting about this “Parable of the Last Judgment” is that what’s being judges are nations. Who we are, collectively, not just who are as individuals, is what’s judged.
Jesus says that the “Son of Man” will separate sheep and goats. Those who are called “goats” will head to eternal damnation. Those who are called “sheep” will head to eternal bliss. (Remember, if you are shocked by this: it’s a parable, not literal truth)
And what’s the criteria for this “judgment?” What gets you “in?” What keeps you “out?”
“Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?” And the king will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these, you did it to me.”
So, it’s a very specific list. What gets you “in,” Jesus says, is providing:
Food for the hungry
Water for the thirty
Welcome to the stranger
Clothes for the naked
Visits for the sick and prisoners
Then, the exact same scene repeats itself with the so-called “goats.”
“Then they also will answer, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?” Then he will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.”
But here’s perhaps the most important point not to miss: EVERYBODY IS SURPRISED.
The goats have no idea how they got to be called “goats.” The sheep have no idea why they are sheep. Neither group is conscious of, nor understand, that they have been doing the “right” thing, or the “wrong” thing all along.
“Lord, when was it that we saw you?” ask the sheep.
“Lord, when was it that we saw you…and did not take care of you?” say the goats.
You see, the sheep don’t realize they’re doing anything special. The goats think they’re doing everything they need to do. Everybody, absolutely everybody, is surprised. Anybody who thinks they’ve got it all figured out –the time, the place, the criteria, for salvation– is sorely mistaken.
Which seems to indicate that what’s most important to God is not following horribly strict doctrines or polity, and perhaps not even going to church regularly (gasp!) or memorizing the Bible (shock!), but how we treat each other, day-to-day.
It’s not about being “right” in some literalistic way. It’s about being “righteous” in our actions.
…What we do when nobody’s looking.
…How we live when we’re without conscious thought.
…The stuff we do so often, and so regularly, without thinking about it, that it becomes who we are.
This is the stuff, Jesus says in this parable, that ultimately matters to God. It’s the true meaning of the word “faith,” and it’s far deeper than simply believing, or affirming, certain logical principles.
It’s a call to be so fully connected to God’s desire for the world that we live a kind of unconscious righteousness, something that becomes so much a part of us that we can’t not do it.
So, if and when we achieve such a blessed state? What happens then?
Nobody knows. Everybody ends up surprised. That’s the point. So keep working, keep loving, keep living each and every day.
There’s a great old t-shirt I love that says: “Jesus is Coming. Look Busy.”
I love that.
But not just look busy. BE busy.
Visit the sick, the elderly, the infirm. Mend a fence with a loved one. Show kindness to a total stranger. Pray for an enemy. Love those that nobody else pays any attention to. Know that in doing all this, you are loving and caring for God. You are experiencing the God-kissed part of each and every blessed human person you encounter. You are seeing, touching, loving the face of God.
As sure as we can be about anything God “wants,” we can be assured that God wants us to live like this; and to not waste one second worrying about what happens next.
(1)Or, “Professor of Religions Studies, SMU” depending upon your point of view.
(2)In other words: Whether you believe, or whether you don’t believe that there will be some final, cataclysmic end of the world, assume for a moment (for argument’s sake) that there WILL be.
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