Creation Spirituality: The End — God-Ordained or Human Made?
By Rev. Dr. Louise Westfall
Global warming … asteroid impact … nuclear war … fungus … engineered disease … robot ascension … overpopulation … multiple systems failure … scientists and others have chronicled multiple scenarios to trigger the end of the world as we know it. It actually won’t be the first time. Some theorize that as many as five “extinction events” have occurred over the past 500 million years. In one, almost 90% of extant species disappeared through a massive volcanic eruption and the release of carbon dioxide at unprecedented levels resulting in sudden, large-scale global warming and acidified oceans. A more recent one (maybe a million years ago) involved an asteroid careening into earth and taking out most of the dinosaurs. In The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History, author Elizabeth Kolbert draws upon environmental research to foretell a scenario of mass destruction brought on by human-made climate change. The book won the Pulitzer Prize in 2015.
Eschatology (the study of final things) has long sparked the imagination of Christians. The Bible is presented as sacred history with a beginning and an end, and the end is variously portrayed through the highly-symbolic language of apocalypse, which means “unveiling,” or “revelation.” Apocalyptic literature in the Bible (including the Book of Revelation) signifies the final unveiling of God’s plan for the world. It’s portrayed most often as a battle, a great struggle between the forces of God and Evil. Some traditions have detailed elaborate tableaux based on particular interpretations of this writing. Years ago, it was the Left Behind series, all bestsellers. And I’ll bet some of you are fans of the HBO series The Leftovers, based on a novel by Tom Perotta, following the inexplicable and rapture-like “sudden departure” of one hundred forty million people worldwide.
I confess that eschatology has not often been high on my list of theological priorities, losing out to pressing daily concerns and immediate realities and responsibilities. It seems much more important to focus on the problems that threaten peace and well-being now than to worry about “what ifs” far down the road. But lately I’ve come to re-think that view. The future you want or expect will shape the way you act today. The photograph I saw of the white supremacists and neo-Nazis who had come to Charlottesville broke my heart. They were so young. Except for the tiki torches, semi-automatic rifles and plastic shields, they could have been a group of young men on their way to a football game. Yet there they were: chanting words of hatred, hell-bent on demonstrating their perceived power, faces contorted in rage, seeking to bring about as terrifying a vision of the future as any you’ll find depicted in dystopian literature or media. That vision — however inarticulately imagined — is predicated on the domination of one people over all others. That some do it in the name of God violently contradicts the witness of holy Scripture and the vision of one Table in the Kingdom of God where people will come from east and west and south and north and eat together.
Your picture of the future informs your decisions, choices, and actions today. It’s why we’re motivated to invest in a future we won’t be around to see by setting up trusts for our children and grandchildren; by making provision in our wills that the ministry carried out so vibrantly through the church today will thrive into an unknown future. It’s the trust of one who plants a tree today, knowing she will never eat its apples. Just as important, that picture provides a lens through which you interpret the history being made today. In this, the book of Revelation may prove helpful after all — not so much as prediction but as description of the ways the church and the world are failing to live towards God’s future. I dare to believe it also provides a prescription on how to do it better.
The book is largely a circulating letter sent to seven churches in Asia Minor (modern-day Turkey), then part of the Roman Empire. While some of the churches were undergoing persecution under the iron eye of Rome, historical evidence indicates that by the reign of Emperor Domitian, capital punishment was not in widespread use. The penalties for resisting the empire were much more subtle — social ostracism and reduced economic opportunities. For the congregations to whom Revelation is addressed, the temptation was to incorporate imperial perspectives into Christian worship as a way of ensuring their socio-economic status. The central message of Revelation is to encourage resistance to the Empire’s values and practices and to remain faithful to God and God’s purposes for the world and all its people. [from commentary on the Book of Revelation in The Discipleship Study Bible, Westminster John Knox Press, pp 2097-8] A word for us as well? Reading first from the opening chapter of the book of Revelation. Listen for God’s Word to the church. [Revelation 1:1-8]
At the outset, a note of urgency is sounded; the time is near. But the overwhelming affirmation is God in the beginning and in the end. Just verses later, the potential dread of that reality is put to rest; Do not be afraid; I am the first and the last, and the living one. I was dead, and see, I am alive forever and ever. I have the keys of Death and of Hell. In a way it’s like reading the last page of a book first, or getting the punchline before the set-up. No matter how things unfold, God will be there. And not as a passive bystander, but as One who has defeated Death and the forces of evil. This is a text we often read at funerals and memorial services as a reminder that our death is not the end for us. Our physical existence ceases, but in ways we cannot fully comprehend, our “self,” our essence is raised to new life. Because Christ lives, we shall live also.
The Church has always proclaimed this good news for individuals. But the great “revelation” is that what is true on the personal level is also true for the community of humanity. The world may end — by any number of causes including ones for which humans are largely responsible. Human existence and human history as we know them may come to an end. But Life does not. The God who was there at the beginning, whose Word fashioned worlds and breathed life into human beings, will be there at the end. With an invitation: The Spirit and the Church say, “Come.” And let everyone who hears say, “Come.” And let everyone who is thirsty come. Let anyone who wishes take the water of life as a gift. [Revelation 22:17] In the end, human division and lines in the sand and hierarchies will disappear. Though some interpret the words of Revelation as signposts pointing to the precise way the world will end, I think that can’t be anything more than speculation. More significant is God’s promise that the end of the world — however it happens — is finally just the end of the beginning. Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more … And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, See the home of God is among mortals. God will dwell with them; they will be God’s peoples, and God’s very self will be with them. God will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away. [Revelation 21:1-4]
The end of the world signals the final destruction of evil, the end of the power of chaos and finality of death. The end of the world heralds the fulfillment of God’s reign of justice and peace and homecoming. God’s home here, among the people God loves with an everlasting love. No wonder the Communion Table is a potent symbol of that day when all people will enjoy the bread of life, the cup of blessing, together, with God smack dab in the middle.
This vision of the end of the world has sometimes been misused — to placate suffering people to hold on for their ultimate reward; or to scare complacent people into faith. But I think there’s another way to read it, and that is as a vision of future hope that informs and transforms the present. It’s a hope that keeps us from despair when we face problems that seem insoluble. Hope that keeps us from a sense of futility that insists what we do doesn’t matter at all; life is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. [Macbeth 5.5] Hope that keeps us “woke”— resisting evil, and more: countering it with active, self-giving love. Hope that inspires us to align our daily decisions and choices with this picture of a new earth where everyone is safe at home. I’ve seen it. I saw it in the faces of those who gathered last Sunday afternoon at the foot of the Martin Luther King statue in City Park: old and young, people of every color, who came together peacefully to demonstrate “unity, strength and power” to stand against racism, hatred, and white supremacy. There was a light in their eyes, a note of urgency that the future starts today. As they walked out of the park down Colfax Avenue, you could hear the chant grow louder and louder. We are one. We are one. We are one.
Glory to God the Creator, and to the Christ and to the Holy Spirit. As it was in the beginning, now and ever shall be, world without end, Amen. Amen. Amen.