Saturday, May 21, 2011

How to Know When the World Will End

The end of the world is all over Facebook today, fodder for jokes and theologizing. My favorite status update is from my friend Matt: "I feel fine." In terms of viral marketing, this message has permeated the culture to be sure. It's the theologizing that I worry about a bit.

It's obvious that the close-reading gymnastics used to reach this particular date as the end of history are incredibly flawed. It's obvious that this precise prediction misuses the Bible and misrepresents God; one of the best ways to point that out is to make fun of it. But in the middle of all the jokes flying back and forth, and the earnest denunciations of flawed exposition, I see a lot of people moving from the specific to the general, and saying that basically, it's silly to believe in the end of the world because it will never end. Is the idea to hold the opposite wrong view so overall it cancels out?

I keep thinking of the line from the O Antiphons service about how we await the Second Advent of Jesus; there is still more to come, and some of the changes will be abrupt, like phase changes of freezing or sublimation, brought about by the new breaking into the old in the same way it did on Easter morning. I'm not ready to say it must be abrupt or it must be gradual, but I know it must break in and it must change.

Read 2 Thessalonians: judgment can, does, and will break in. It did in AD70 when the Romans razed the Temple. It did when Rome fell 400 years later, and when Constantinople fell in the Fourth Crusade, and again, and again, and again. "Look upon my works, ye mighty, and despair." These falls are all part of a bigger fall, ruins upon ruins. The overall pattern is that falls happen, bubbles burst, and people die. In 2 Thessalonians, Paul tells them that a lot of bad stuff has to happen in terms that don't entirely make sense to us, but the message that bad stuff will happen, lawlessness will set itself above every power and principality, even in the holiest place, but Jesus will set it right. Paul goes so far as to say you can know the judgment has not come yet because it hasn't gotten bad enough yet: a huge falling-away, a ruler without laws that worships self and created things over the Creator, over everything. I'm pretty sure that's not happened yet, but the fascinating thing about Paul's prophecy is that it's general enough that I can't be sure it's not! The major point is not to be able to identify exactly when judgment will come, but to keep the focus of worship on the Creator where it belongs. I'm pretty sure that God maintains the ability to surprise us no matter how smart we think we are.

The general truth of the Thessalonian letters, and Revelation, and all the related things we're trying to think about right now, is that the pattern of history is one of growth instead of stasis. Every day is not the same, and the world is not in a loop. It is a line, and we look forward to God setting right what we cannot change with new creation. The pattern is that death must precede new life, and we are not in control of granting either one. Tearing down must precede building. What Paul says to do is to run from lawlessness, depending on the grace of God and living with love for each other, because love builds and transforms. History doesn't all make sense, everyone knows that (and if history doesn't make sense why should prophecy?). Looking at the canon I modify that slightly: it doesn't make sense ... yet. Some days, patience and perseverance are all we can supply and we wait for the rest from above. We can't let something that's wrong in the specifics dissuade us from the general truth that we await a Second Advent.

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