Wednesday, 4 January 2012

The end of the world

This post is about what different Christians think will happen to bring this era of history to an end. I guess the typical phrase used is 'the Second Coming of Jesus' and what this broadly refers to is that Jesus will return to the earth, and people will be judged according to whether they believe in Jesus, with those who do believe going on to spend eternity in God's glorious presence and those who do not either spending eternity in torment or being wiped out of existence. The details are up for dispute, of course, but I think that is a fair summary of the evangelical Christian position.

I write this post with some trepidation as I am about to express some doubts about this view of the end of the world. Be gentle with me, friends... I blogged last year about Brian McLaren's book, A New Kind of Christianity [IMAGE] and a couple of weeks ago I started to read the book again. It's funny how this happens, isn't it, but one chapter which didn't have much impact on me first time round has really got me thinking now; probably due to my being recently lent a book that firmly espouses Jesus' Second Coming and the Rapture of Christians (hello kind book-lender, if you're reading this!).

Chapters 14 and 15 of A New Kind of Christianity tackle the question of what the good news of Christianity is – what is the gospel? The typical evangelical answer might refer to several verses in Romans (as I wrote here) that, when linked together, make up a 'road of salvation' taking us from a realisation that we have all fallen short of God's standards and are helpless to do anything about it, to an offer of restoration if we trust in Jesus and his payment in our place. But how did Jesus himself explain what the good news (his good news!) is? Well, one of his key phrases was, 'The kingdom of God is at hand' (e.g. in Mark 1:15) and in the synagogue at Nazareth, his childhood home, he took this message from the Old Testament as his mission:
When he came to the village of Nazareth, his boyhood home, he went as usual to the synagogue on the Sabbath and stood up to read the Scriptures. The scroll of Isaiah the prophet was handed to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where this was written:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, for he has anointed me to bring Good News to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim that captives will be released, that the blind will see, that the oppressed will be set free, and that the time of the Lord’s favor has come.”

He rolled up the scroll, handed it back to the attendant, and sat down. All eyes in the synagogue looked at him intently. Then he began to speak to them. “The Scripture you’ve just heard has been fulfilled this very day!”

Here's how Brian McLaren puts it, from page 186 of A New Kind of Christianity:
[Jesus] came to announce a new kingdom, a new way of life, a new way of peace that carried good news to all people... It wasn't simply information about how individual souls could leave earth, avoid hell and ascend to heaven after death. No: it was about God's will being done on earth as in heaven for all people. It was about God's faithful solidarity with all humanity in our suffering, oppression and evil. It was about God's compassion and call to be reconciled with God and with one another – before death, on earth. It was a summons to rethink everything and enter a life of retraining as disciples or learners of a new way of life, citizens of a new kingdom.

So how does this tally with a future in which there will be wars, discord, famine and a catastrophic decline of conditions on earth, all leading up to Christians being whisked away to safety while things go even further downhill? (Wikipedia has plenty of material on this.) Brian McLaren again:
If the world is about to end, why care for the environment? Why worry about global climate change or fuel resources? Who gives a fig for endangered species or sustainable economies or peak oil or global poverty if God is planning to incinerate the whole planet soon anyway? If the Bible requires the rebuilding of the Jewish temple (or requires that rebuilding for its prophecies to work in a dispensationalist framework), why care about Muslim claims on the Temple Mount land? Why care about justice for non-Jews in Israel at all – after all, isn't it their own fault for being on land God predicts will be returned in full to the Jews in the last days?
If God has predetermined that the world will get worse and worse until it ends in a cosmic mega-conflict... why waste energy on peace-making, on diplomacy, on inter-religious dialogue? Aren't those simply endeavours in rearranging deckchairs on the Titanic?

Why indeed care about releasing captives and fighting oppression...

So you see that I'm struck by some difficulties with the standard evangelical view of how this age will end. That's enough for now, I think; I'll write the second half of this post, showing what Brian McLaren proposes as an alternative version, at the weekend.


  1. I will have to read McLaren's book. Indeed, why spend energy on combating large scale injustices, tackling global problems such as pollution and climate change? Why bother living sustainably (as if humans will be around for centuries more) if you think the world will end soon (and think it will end within your lifetime)?

    I've seen that message coming out of those vocal politio-believers in the states. Or the message that God is in control so He takes care of the environment and the climate (that is, we don't need to waste time, money doing it ourselves). That some of these people hold high political office and are actively fighting against any sort of intervention to make the world a better place is scary.

    Looking forward to part 2 to see his alternative version (if I haven't read the book by then).

  2. Oh do read A New Kind of Christianity. It's got me rethinking so much of what I believe, and McLaren puts his views across with both gentleness and persuasiveness, I think.