The Beginning is Near
It’s fall in southern Alberta, which seems to mean, if the last two years are any indication, that it is end-times prophecy season at a local hotel. Last year, it was “Unlocking the Prophecy Code” and the promotional material came adorned with all kinds of sinister looking beasts and fiery looking scenes. According to a recent flyer I received in the mail, this year’s theme is equally cheery: “Preparing for Economic Armageddon!” Speaker Darrell Beaudoin, who is “considered by many as an authority on Bible prophecy,” will apparently outline the “imminent global crisis” as well as provide guidance to his listeners regarding how they can be “survivors.” Sounds exciting.
As I noted last year around this time, it’s probably a bit too easy to poke fun at these sorts of events. Expecting credible theology from “Amazing Facts Ministries” would probably be roughly equivalent to expecting respectable journalism from the Weekly World News. But whenever I see stuff like this, I can’t help but wonder about the obsession with the end of the world, and the enthusiasm with which these people seem to embrace their role as the harbingers of doom. On one level, it makes a kind of sense. I guess. The end of the world means the beginning of (a certain understanding of) eternal life. Doom and gloom is the necessary precursor to paradise. So bring it on. But is the telos of the biblical narrative really an ending? Or a beginning?
A couple of recent queries about my masters thesis from a few years ago has led to a bit of digging around in and cleaning up old files filled with quotes, discarded portions of writing, etc. One of the quotes that caught my eye—not least because of the aforementioned delivery in the mail—deals with the issue of beginnings and endings in the Christian story. Speaking about common images in popular Christian end-time imaginations, German theologian Jürgen Moltmann has this to say:
These images are apocalyptic, but are they also Christian? No, they are not; for Christian expectation of the future has nothing whatsoever to do with the end, whether it be the end of this life, the end of history, or the end of the world. Christian expectation is about the beginning: the beginning of true life, the beginning of God’s kingdom, and the beginning of the new creation of all things into their enduring form. The ancient wisdom of hope says: ‘The last things are as the first.’ So God’s great promise in the last book of the Bible, the book of Revelation, is” ‘Behold, I make all things new’ (21:5). In the light of this ultimate horizon we read the Bible as the book of God’s promises and the hopes of men and women—indeed the hopes of everything created; and from the remembrances of their future we find energies for the new beginning.
For me this fascination with all things apocalyptic is the natural outcome of a “lack of responsibility” faith: God will change me… or not. God will change the world. And in the end God will end the whole thing. I don’t have to do a thing; I’m merely a passenger.
The problems with this kind of eschatology are myriad, aren’t they? I wonder about the order of things. Does a fascination with the apocalyptic produce “lack of responsibility faith,” or does “lack of responsibility faith” naturally gravitate toward these kinds of end times schemes? I suppose there are many examples of both and they probably bleed into each other. Whatever the order, there certainly seems to be a correlation between a preoccupation with endings and not enough concern with responsibility (personal or corporate) in the present.
Ryan, you say,…”Whatever the order, there certainly seems to be a correlation between a preoccupation with endings and not enough concern with responsibility (personal or corporate) in the present.” From personal experience, I’m not so sure this is always so.
A small group of people (10-12) with whom I’m familiar believe we are in “the end times”. They are and have been some of the most committed and socially engaged Catholics I know. Admittedly now though, their first focus is not on pressing social issues. Rather theirs is a call to repentance and belief in Jesus Christ. A combination of “the time is at hand” and, “what profit a man if he gain the whole world but lose his soul” mentality.
They take there cue from two gentlemen in Ireland they believe to be living prophets, who they say are actively communicating with Jesus. ( The men go by the name of “The two Patrick’s”…I kid you not)
At best this group meets with bewildered respect from the likes of people like me, who know and have experienced their profound faith commitment in other contexts, to outright derision from others. Recently a younger member of our prayer group opined that she might not continue with us as she found this “cell” within our group too “old and creepy”.
Personally, I wish your observation here lined up with my experience, but it doesn’t. So much of what we will believe and accept is defined by the relational. For me, when people I perceive to be real heroes of the faith, speak of an impending Parousia…well I don’t quite know what to think but I can’t dismiss them or their ideas. These are people who I believe the Spirit has often spoken through and to be perfectly honest my doubt hinges mostly on the fact that I don’t want it to be so.
My discernment, through prayer, tells me not to dismiss their message and that their message is an important one.
It’s good to hear this, Paul. In saying that a correlation exists, I certainly didn’t mean to imply that the category of “end-timers” mapped exactly on to the category of “socially disengaged people.” Thankfully, this isn’t true. I have had similar experiences to the one you describe here—I can think of a few people I have known whose eschatology made me cringe, but who were nonetheless the most committed people I knew with respect to advocating for the poor and a wide variety of other pressing social concerns.
Having said that, these people and these experiences have tended to be the exception more than the rule. At least in my experience. Those who embrace some of the more exotic end-time scenarios tend to focus more on rescuing souls from a ship destined for drowning than cultivating hearts and minds for the new beginning that has already begun. Perhaps this is theological hair-splitting, and the difference on the ground between these two approaches is less significant than I am making it out to be. Perhaps I am guilty of seeing what I expect (or prefer!) to see.
As difficult as it is for me to swallow the mode and message of groups like the one I mention in my post, you are undoubtedly right: it is best not to be dismissive. Thanks for the reminder.
Thanks, Ryan. No I don’t think your “splitting hairs” here and I think your message is crucial for Christians to remember. God’s justice, as best as we can understand it, is ultimately restorative. As you imply, the ultimate climax is not the end but the beginning.
Personally I am thankful for the Catholic concept of purgation. In this way what might at first appear to be wholly punitive can be seen, not as an end in of itself but rather a means to a greater end; purification leading leading to full communion with God.
Calvinist tendencies ultimately defend pre-destination philosophically and are often expressed in some variation of the “turn or burn” ecclesiology locally. I don’t know….I don’t spoil for fights much anymore :)….all I can say is that in in hearing these approaches, I can fear such a Godhead but I don’t fall in love with Him.
Believing that all have sinned but that all can yet be saved, is still a love story for me. God is both the agent and the objective. Works will not save us but implicit to love is our choosing. Saying yes to God as our objective and as agent. Synergy seems important to God, reflective of His love, though seemingly contradictory in the real sense in that in so far as the will of God is concerned our co-operation is superfluous. He just wants it that way. God submits Himself to very same demands of love.
I will love this God , however imperfectly, until the very end.
uh I meant beginning. 🙂
I share your assessment of Calvinism, at least in some of its expressions. I have long felt that the God some Calvinists endorse is a truly frightening being. I would find it very difficult to worship, much less love the God that is portrayed in some of the more severe forms of Calvinism.
I’m intrigued by purgation. I know of a handful of evangelical scholars who have expressed an interest in this doctrine, even if they do not embrace Roman Catholic teaching. Its attraction obviously lies in precisely the reasons you suggest here: it holds out the hope that all can yet be saved. And that ours is a love story of synergism.
I, too, will love this God until the (new) beginning :).
“Christian expectation is about the beginning: the beginning of true life, the beginning of God’s kingdom, and the beginning of the new creation of all things into their enduring form. The ancient wisdom of hope says: ‘The last things are as the first.’ ” – love it.