Biblically rational views on the end of the world

Excerpted from The Genesis Fix: A Repair Manual for Faith in the Modern Age by Christopher L. Cudworth

Revelations about the future

To have a future here on earth, of course, we must believe that there will be one. That is one of the sticking points of apocalyptic philosophy, and not a minor one. Apocalyptic cultures convince themselves that time as we know it will soon end. In a culture that believes the end of time is imminent and inevitable, there is no need to preserve resources for future generations. With this perspective the notion of dominion as presented in the bible becomes fatalistic.

The primary source of hand-wringing theology for apocalyptics is the Book of Revelation, where biblical literalism gets turned inside out. Apocalyptic believers contend that the events depicted in Revelation are about to come true any day if they are not happening already. Among modern apocalyptics, nearly everything in the Book of Revelation from frightening beasts to fantastic visions can be projected literally on modern day countries and events. The character of the anti-Christ becomes a real, flesh-and-blood person whom we can identify, perhaps a president or other charismatic figure. Projecting symbolic imagery on actual events in this manner can be described as reverse literalism.

Many Christian believers who are decidedly literal about the Book of Genesis and its creation story somehow embrace the symbolic prophecies of the Book of Revelation as if it were a fantastical tour guide to current and future events. Rather than focusing on the significance of scripture as a moral guide, reverse literalism focuses use of scripture to predict literal events, including the so-called “end of the world.”

Apocalyptic thinking invokes a sense of dread about events to come, and that is compelling stuff from an emotional perspective. But it is not a requirement to believe in God. Literalism of this nature is tricky business. It led some followers of Jesus to become obsessed with the idea that he was about to become king with an earthly rule. Such zealots were wrong about Jesus and missed the apparent focus of his ministry––the triumph of faith over earthly shortcomings. Modern apocalyptic thinking is no less misguided.

Reverse literalism has the same function as biblical literalism, which is to control the thoughts and practices of believers through authority of faith. Hence the cults that spring up around End Time theology. It’s all about thought control.

The theological bookends of literalism and reverse literalism conspire to preclude all other worldviews through a doctrinal mandate that defines the beginning and end of time. That’s a powerful package for anyone seeking control over the cultural dialogue or rights to the title of the one true religion. There is at least one problem with this brand of apocalyptic thinking: It is brand of religious sociopathy based on a gross misinterpretation of scripture. As centuries of dire prophets carrying signs have proven, only misguided souls focus only on the day the world will end.  That is not what the book of Revelation is really about.

The Book of Revelation in a Nutshell

The world as it is addressed in the Book of Revelation has already, effectively ended. The churches to which each of the letters encompassed in the book are either dead or transformed along with enemies cryptically identified in the text, namely Rome and Babylonian. You migh throw in Greece for good measure? The whole idea was to resist such earthly powers with spiritual strength.

What we truly need to discover is the core message of Revelation, its symbolic significance to individual believers. We find this core meaning in Chapter 22, verse 11, where Jesus is quoted: “Let him who does wrong continue to do wrong; let him who is vile continue to be vile; let him who does right continue to do right; and let him who is holy continue to be holy.” That’s the book of Revelation in a nutshell. Jesus reminds us that every decision about faith and salvation is first and foremost a personal one. This perspective resolves the puzzle of Revelation by reminding us that our choices do matter and that life on earth has significance beyond mere materialism.

In Revelation 22:12 Jesus is quoted again, “Behold! I am coming soon! My reward is with me, and I will give to everyone according to what he has done. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the First and the Last, the Beginning and the End.” We should not regard the opening phrase “Behold! I am coming soon!” as a literal statement. That obviously has not happened in the last 2000 years. So we must derive some other meaning or risk labeling Jesus a liar. Yet generations of apocalyptic believers continue to push the literal agenda of a Second Coming when it is clearly our personal journey towards God and Christ that these words are intended to describe. When Jesus says in Revelation 22:12 that “My reward is with me…” it becomes clear that it is our job to go to him in faith, not the other way around. The Book of Revelation deals less with the end of the world than it does with the sense of personal apocalypse that occurs in ignoring the principles most dear to God. We reap what we sow, sometimes sooner than later. The singular nature of this prophecy is outlined in the Prologue of Revelation, Chapter 1:3: “Blessed is the one who reads the words of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear it and take to heart what is written in it, because the time is near.” In other words, it is incumbent on us to be repentant in our lives so that when we die we can go to the grave knowing we have lived with dedication and devotion to God and Christ. That, dear friends, is the real revelation in Revelation.

We have a choice: We can apply reverse literalism and interpret the prophecies of Revelation to condemn the world or we can focus on its significance as a message for each of our individual lives.

There is no doubt that religious industries have been built around the apocalyptic prophecies of Revelation and the Bible. But the apocalyptic cultures that keep cropping up in history have the purpose and focus of Revelation all wrong. Apocalyptic obsession is indeed a religious sociopathy concerned more with the “end time” than with making the most of our real time. The sociopathy in apocalyptic thinking is vindictive in its hopes for a payback against anyone judged to be “the other” by those claiming to know the truth of Revelation, Daniel or other apocalyptic texts in the bible. These same themes or patterns are reflected in similar fears of “the other” among so-called Christians who ostracize people of another race, who are gay or even those in another political party. Such partisanship is all based on deep-seated fears of “the other.” End time theology rewards those fears by intimating that they perceived enemy will be killed or left behind when Jesus returns to end all time.

The apocalyptic tradition yearns for the time when believers will be swept up to heaven in rapture, the better to judge in loathing those left behind. This dismissive and prurient brand of faith certainly does not deserve the credibility it appears to sustain among many believers. The Bible tells us not to focus on when the end will come (Matthew 24:36––“No one knows about that day or hour”) but to live our lives in expression of the kingdom of God as described in Matthew 24:45–46: “Who then is the faithful and wise servant, whom the master has put in charge of the servants of the household to give them food at the proper time? It will be good for that servant whose master finds him doing so when he returns.” But guess what? To the true believer, Jesus returns every day if you stop and think about it. New every morning! These are the hallmarks of a faithful and wise servant. But who among the apocalyptic set appears to be listening to these words?

It’s rather depressing to consider, but sometimes it seems as if people outside the Christian faith have a better grip on biblical concepts than those who claim to be true believers.

Apocalyptic thinking in a rational context

For a rational perspective on the reality of our existence, we turn to scientific educators such as Ann Druyan, widow of the late Carl Sagan and head of Cosmos Studios, a science-based entertainment company. Druyan is quoted on the Cosmos website (www.carlsagan.com) where she puts our material position in perspective: “The violent and brutal struggle to dominate this planet is a function of our inability to come to grips with our true circumstances, the reality of the pale blue dot that Carl (Sagan) was trying to convey. Once you grasp that all life is related here and that this is our heaven, you have a completely different attitude, you become less greedy and less shortsighted. The notion of stealing the oil from that country, or of dominating one little corner of this little dot, becomes pathetic.”61

Druyan expresses faint hope that this rational take on reality can be allowed to inform culture as to the right decisions on stewardship of the earth. “The Western religious tradition is based on a fear of knowledge. It goes right back to the Garden of Eden, to God’s threat that if we partake of the tree of knowledge, we will know only misery and death. So we keep one thing in our heads that says, yes, our cell phones work, our TVs work because of science, but we keep an infantile, geocentric view of the universe locked within our hearts. If only an elite minority understands science and technology,” Druyan warns, “there is no hope of democracy, because then we, the people, cannot make informed decisions. We will always be manipulated.”

A few religious believers who are also scientists have chosen to take an active role in trying to unite the tangible truths of nature with faith. The Rev. Canon Arthur Peacocke is a British physical biochemist and Anglican priest whose pioneering research into DNA and other scientific issues have led him to call for a new theology for a technological age. In a Chicago Tribune article dated March 9, 2001, Rev. Peacocke was quoted: “The search for intelligibility that characterizes science and the search for meaning that characterizes religion are two necessary intertwined strands of the human enterprise and are not opposed. They are essential to each other, complementary yet distinct and strongly interacting, indeed just like the two helical strands of DNA itself.” 2 As Reverend Peacocke points out, Genesis and genetics may not be so far apart.

Rev. Peacocke is unafraid to ask the big questions: “Why is there anything at all? And why does it develop this extraordinary form? If you put all considerations together, the best explanation for the existence of some kind of world we have is some other being that has characteristics that we normally in English call God. Scientific discoveries in astronomy and molecular biology during the past 50 years have for the first time opened to humans the extraordinary vistas of the whole sweep of cosmic development. We need a theology that will give meaning and significance to those advances.”

Rev. Peacocke epitomizes a truly hungry soul, one who wants to know the answers that might lead one to God. The challenge is to overcome the clinging weight of anachronistic and dogmatic tradition. Rationalists such as Arthur Peacocke and Ann Druyan identify the importance of developing connections between religion and naturalism that can help us develop a comprehensive worldview informed by reason and affirmed by tradition. The Bible can play an important role in the future of the human race, but its influence may ultimately be limited if forced to play the role of a tyrant determined make the world play by its own, literal rules.

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