Home » Headline, Insight

The End is near! Or is it?

February 10, 2011 One Comment

by Edward Kettner

What is going on in the world? The news is filled with strange events—birds falling from the sky for no apparent reason; masses of dead fish washing ashore. It seems this winter has been extreme, with record- setting snow falls (called in various places “snowpocalyse” or “snowmaggedon”) alternating with periods of unseasonably warm weather. Are these signs of the end?

There is no doubt about it: people are obsessed with “The end of the world as we know it.” The REM song from 1987 (or at least its title) sums up the intrigue many feel when dealing with the subject. Producers of Independence Day co-opted the song to begin the movie which depicts the earth faced with extraterrestrial invasion.

Books, movies, TV shows, see the world helpless and at the mercy of invading forces—aliens, meteors, comets, or climactic catastrophes. Sometimes they are natural occurrences (solar flares, asteroids, comets, or a multiplicity of events, as in the movie 2012), sometimes human-caused, such as manmade climate change, or even nuclear annihilation, a la On the Beach (a movie with one of the bleakest endings in cinematic history).

The popularity of these kinds of movies indicates people are aware the world will eventually come to an end. Some project total annihilation, others allow for the survival of a small remnant of humanity to continue the species, either on earth (2012) or on another world (When Worlds Collide, Knowing).

The Greek title of the biblical book Revelation is The Apocalypse. The word literally means “uncovering,” referring to the uncovering of future events previously hidden. These days the adjective “apocalyptic” refers to events which precede and ultimately bring about the end of the world, or at least the end of the world as we know it.

Christianity, which confesses a worldview with a beginning (creation and fall); a middle (the life, death and resurrection of Christ as the event upon which all of human history turns); and an end (Christ’s return in glory), has a special “take” on the end, one which many televangelists have grabbed onto. Jesus Christ Himself tells of the end, in terms of human activity (wars and rumours of wars); natural disasters (earthquakes and famines); and cosmic signs (signs in the sun, moon, and stars). Yet in relating all of these signs, we are told the end will come “like a thief in the night” (1 Thess. 5:2), and that no one knows the day or the hour (Matt. 24:36). Yet even with those warnings, many self-proclaimed prophecy “experts” proclaim the world will no doubt end in our generation.

So, what are we to do? Live our own lives in perpetual fear? Give up and do nothing because this world isn’t permanent?

In fairness, Martin Luther (1483-1546) made the same claim during his generation. He saw the unveiling of the antichrist in the form of the papacy, along with the continuing threat of the Black Plague (which less than two centuries earlier may have killed up to 60 percent of Europe’s population) as signs of the end. Great destructive events serve as reminders that this world—this present age—will not last forever. Everything will die. Jesus says, “Heaven and earth will pass away” (Matt. 24:35). It’s a given.

We see such signs today, signs serving as types, or microcosms, of the ultimate end. The utter devastation and loss of life in the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami in the Indian Ocean which killed 230,000 and the 2010 earthquake in Haiti which killed 40,000 to 50,000 remind us how quickly destruction can come. These things echo the words of Jesus, warning how destruction will come like it did upon those who died in The Flood (Matt. 24:36-39). His observation that nations will be distressed and perplexed “because of the roaring of the sea and the waves” (Luke 21:25) calls to mind the tsunami. The horrors described in Revelation accompanying the “bowls of wrath” serve as a reminder that this world remains a “vale of tears,” and, in spite of our relative comfort, we live in a world that will ultimately perish.

So, what are we to do? Live our own lives in perpetual fear? Give up and do nothing because this world isn’t permanent?

First, we need to remember God calls us to be stewards of creation. The dominion He gave to humanity (Gen.1:28) was not meant for the world’s exploitation but for its care. Until Christ returns our stewardship continues. We mess with this at our peril.

Second, for the redeemed children of God, the word Jesus gives us is simply: “”When these things begin to take place, straighten up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”

Even in the midst of life’s terrors, the end of life, or the end of the world, we are confident, because it means the dawn of our redemption. The end will come, sooner or later. We are to be prepared for it, but not obsessed with it. We live our lives and live them faithfully, knowing that we are the Lord’s.

Dr. Edward Kettner is professor of Systematic Theology at Concordia Lutheran Seminary, Edmonton, Alberta