The R.E.M. song from the late 80s, “It’s the End of the World as We Know It,” should be on any 2012 playlist. The Mayan calendar tells us that something cataclysmic will take place before we have the chance to replace our calendars Add to this the rapture hysteria of the folks loyal to Harold Camping last year. He predicted that the “end of the world” would happen in two phases.
First, he said May 21st would usher in the rapture of the Church away from the cosmos. And then would come the final judgment, he said—the annihilation of all unrepentant humanity and creation on October 21st.
Both days came and went, and if you’re reading this article, you probably didn’t get obliterated.
Why is there an obsession in popular culture and in certain sects of Christianity with the end of the world? When I think of the R.E.M. song, my mind immediately goes to the movie Independence Day, featuring Will Smith. Although the end to come in that film had to do with aliens and not God, countless movies take on such fanciful apocalyptic themes.
And many Christians share a similar fascination. Maybe these Jesus followers don’t agree with people like Harold Camping, but they often hold to a similar theology: When Christ returns, believers will be taken to heaven, and the Earth will be destroyed. This, certainly, represents the view bequeathed to me in my evangelical upbringing. A main text to support this view is found in Mark 13, where Jesus uses “apocalyptic” language to describe the destruction of Jerusalem (which happened in 70 AD).
Consider the following analogy to better understand apocalyptic language. N.T. Wright invites us to ask, What if we compare Jesus saying “the sun will be darkened” or that “stars will fall from the sky” with our exaggerative language of earth-shattering events? Think about the most earth-shattering event of our generation in North America: 9/11, for example. Suppose you read a news article with that sort of language in it. You wouldn’t assume that an earthquake had caused the Twin Towers to collapse. You would understand the exaggerated metaphor.
The same understanding may not be true of someone who, two thousand years into the future, reads the exact copy of that same article. Such a person might think that a literal earthquake “shattered” the World Trade Center, causing a new political situation to emerge. Of course, they would be misinformed.
But the same is true for us as we read “doomsday” texts in the Bible. In fact, whenever that sort of language is used in the Old Testament, it almost always refers to a major event that had political or social ramifications. For instance, Isaiah uses cosmic language to describe political events such as Babylon’s conquering and the eventual fall of Edom. These are realities that have already been fulfilled in history. As we’ve already noted, Jesus borrows this sort of Old Testament rhetoric to explain the coming doom of Jerusalem—something that happened in 70 AD.
We still ought to believe in the Second Coming. That’s our hope! But it’s a hope that needs to be reframed, not around God’s eventual destruction of the Earth but in God’s redemption and healing of all creation. In this way, R.E.M.’s lyric is partly right—when Christ returns, it really will be the “end of the world as we know it.”
Revelation 21-22 tells us that that this world will be renewed (the Greek for “new” means “renew,” not “brand new”). Suffering and death will cease, God’s presence will be known intimately, evil and violence will end, and the curse of Eden will lift. Romans 8 says that the groaning creation will be “liberated from its bondage to decay” and will experience the same fate as God’s children.
The whole of the New Testament teaches that heaven will mysteriously join this planet and that God’s restorative, healing justice will reign forevermore. The Church’s invitation is to live in light of that hope-filled vision, existing as though God’s future world has already begun. Every time we bring healing in the midst of suffering, the loving message of God to those who don’t know it, justice to the oppressed, peace instead of a sword or care to the creation, we live as signposts pointing toward the opposite of “doomsday.” We point toward God bringing heaven to Earth.
Kurt Willems is the author of Echoing Hope and the founder and pastor of Pangea Church in Seattle. Also a blogger, podcaster and speaker, he maintains the resource website Theology Curator and hosts the Theology Curator podcast. Willems is passionate about taking dense ideas and communicating them in ways that are empowering for people in all walks of life. He holds a Master of Divinity degree from Fresno Pacific Biblical Seminary and a master's degree in comparative religion from the University of Washington. His wife, Lauren, is a special education teacher. They have two young daughters. For more information, visit www.theologycurator.com.