In my darker moments folk used to say to me: ‘Don’t worry it’s not the end of the world’, and I’d feel a pang of disappointment.
Thoughts of the end of the world seem to be innate in the human psyche and Christians are no exception.
I used to obsess on eschatological theories, which can take you down some very strange paths indeed. Nowadays I’m with the Pope:
On the contrary, he [Jesus] wants us to stop his disciples of every epoch from being curious over dates, forecasts, and wants to give them the key to…the right road to walk today and tomorrow to enter into the eternal life.”
We know the first Century Christians had an expectation of the return of Christ within their lifetimes, and the consequential adjustments they had to make, and the disappointments they had to overcome, as the decades rolled by and that generation died out. Peter had to deal with just this problem:
First of all, you must understand that in the last days scoffers will come, scoffing and following their own evil desires. They will say, “Where is this ‘coming’ he promised? Ever since our fathers died, everything goes on as it has since the beginning of creation.” But they deliberately forget that long ago by God’s word the heavens existed and the earth was formed out of water and by water. By these waters also the world of that time was deluged and destroyed. By the same word the present heavens and earth are reserved for fire, being kept for the day of judgment and destruction of ungodly men.
But do not forget this one thing, dear friends: With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day. The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.
But the day of the Lord will come like a thief. The heavens will disappear with a roar; the elements will be destroyed by fire, and the earth and everything in it will be laid bare.
And in the face of this Peter exhorts:
Since everything will be destroyed in this way, what kind of people ought you to be? You ought to live holy and godly lives as you look forward to the day of God and speed its coming.That day will bring about the destruction of the heavens by fire, and the elements will melt in the heat. But in keeping with his promise we are looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth, the home of righteousness.
So then, dear friends, since you are looking forward to this, make every effort to be found spotless, blameless and at peace with him. Bear in mind that our Lord’s patience means salvation, just as our dear brother Paul also wrote you with the wisdom that God gave him. He writes the same way in all his letters, speaking in them of these matters. His letters contain some things that are hard to understand, which ignorant and unstable people distort, as they do the other Scriptures, to their own destruction.
Therefore, dear friends, since you already know this, be on your guard so that you may not be carried away by the error of lawless men and fall from your secure position. But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. To him be glory both now and forever! Amen.
It seems hard for some Christians to heed the directions of Christ when he said that nobody knows the hour or the day of his return. We saw all of this played out very publicly with Harold Camping last year, a proponent of the ‘Rapture’, or as I disparagingly term it: ‘raptural science or raptureology’.
But Camping is by no means alone. The Left Behind series which reportedly sold 70 million copies was little more than an exercise in the same phenomena. There will always be a market for the end of the world. I think it taps in to ultimate psychological escapism, and reveals many folk, even in the opulent parts of the world, are deeply unhappy and unfulfilled with their lot and the way things are.
The BBC has an interesting article today looking at end-of-the-world cults and how they cope when the prophecy fails:
For those who paid heed to their dire warnings, learning that life will in fact carry on as normal might be expected to be a deeply traumatic experience.
Surprisingly, however, groups which predict the end of the world have quite a good record of carrying on after the world is supposed to have ended, says Lorne Dawson, an expert in the sociology of religion at the University of Waterloo.
“The vast majority seem to shrug off the failure of prophecy fairly well,” he says.
Of 75 groups identified by Dawson which predicted the apocalypse, all but six remained intact after catastrophe failed to materialise.
Indeed, many have gone on to flourish. Jehovah’s Witnesses are viewed as having predicted some form of end several times and yet still have more than seven million followers.
The Seventh Day Adventists, who have an estimated 17 million members, grew out of the Millerites, whose failed apocalyptic forecast in 1844 became known as the Great Disappointment.
The seminal study into this phenomenon came in the 1956 text When Prophecy Fails, in which psychologist Leon Festinger recounted how he and his students infiltrated a group who believed the world was about to end with members being rescued by a flying saucer.
When both the apocalypse and the UFO failed to materialise, Festinger found, the leader declared that the small circle of believers had “spread so much light” that God had spared the planet. Her followers responded by proselytising the good news among non-believers in what Festinger saw as a classic case of cognitive dissonance.
Some years ago I was told of Jehovah’s Witnesses who sold everything they had in the 70′s in readiness for the end. When it didn’t happen and many left the organisation, this was rationalised by announcing God was ridding himself of the dead wood from within the ranks.
There always seems to be a way around a failed prophecy, and there always will be.
Of course, as Christians we believe this ‘age’ will come to a conclusion with the return of Christ, and although there is something of a spur in believing in his imminent return; looking for signs and portents and trying to ‘crack the code’ of the Bible, and especially of the apocalyptic elements, is nothing more than a distraction from the task at hand; namely, the growth of the Kingdom not of this world.
I must conclude at this point and can find no more fitting way than with Cranmer’s eloquent words today:
The signs of salvation may induce madness, for the world is progressing to its appointed end. But the fascination with cultic zealotry and fringe crackpottiness draw a veil over the Judaeo-Christian revelation of the relationship between suffering and hope, sin and forgiveness, evil and love. Only when we look at our hum,an suffering in cosmic terms, as part of a universal order of creation and destruction, is catastrophe dignified and our life endowed with meaning, and hence made bearable.
The end will come when it comes, and no man can know the day or the hour. We await a great bang, but it is more likely to be a whimper. For God did not come in a blaze of conquering glory: He was born as a baby and laid in a manger. God became man, and dwelt among us. And therein lies the revelation and eschatological hope of our salvation: therein is our revolution of love, joy, peace and patience.