The National Catholic Review

The End of the World. It’s always on people’s minds. About every year and a half, in our Theology dept.’s informal evening discussions for undergraduates called Theology Night Live, the topic is the apocalypse. I gave it again about two weeks ago. The students come in droves, admittedly drawn by the powers of forces too powerful to resist – free pizza and extra credit in some cases – but also because the theme is intriguing to them. I first noticed the powerful attraction of this theme as a 16 year old, writing for a Mennonite Brethren publication known as the MB Herald. The book Late, Great Planet Earth by Hal Lindsey was extremely popular, especially in evangelical circles. I thought it was a joke because even with my limited knowledge of the Bible, I was quite certain that calculating the end of time was not something people had the capability to do. So, I wrote a poem for the youth insert Sonkist, for which I was a “token teenager” (that’s what the masthead said), in which I “debunked” Hal Lindsey’s book with all the sarcasm that a teenager can muster in the form of The Night Before Christmas. It began with, “Twas the night before the end of the world and all through the home, not a creature was moving, not even junior’s comb,” and ended with “so, save your five dollars because, oh, can’t you see, street corner prophets will do it for free.” In between was a lot of mockery. This was decades before the internet, so a month later I was shocked by the vitriol of the letters which arrived denouncing me, urging me to get on my knees and repent and chastising the magazine for giving a rascal like me a space to publish. That was the end of my short career as a token teenager for the youth insert Sonkist in the MB Herald. Yet, I never forgot how powerful the hold of the coming “end” was on the imagination of believers, even when it had to do with “calculating” the end against the teaching of Jesus himself.

What came to surprise me even more, though, was the hold the end of the world has on people who would not count themselves Christian believers, at least not in any formal sense. I saw it teaching “Apocalyptic Literature” at the University of Winnipeg, in which students came to class with no particular belief system, but with a powerful attraction to images and visions of the end. I was using Adela Yarbro Collins’ book “Crisis and Catharsis” as one of my textbooks and  referred to her comments about how the dark images, the violence, the black and white sharpness,  of the end times might turn people off. One of my students raised his hand and said bluntly, “That’s what I like about it.” The students began to talk about apocalyptic movies and their attraction to these movies, which was the starting point of my book “The End of the World: The Apocalyptic Imagination in Film and Television.” Since, that book was published in 2003 as many apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic movies have been made as were made prior to the book’s release.

Why the hold on our imaginations? For once again, as I discussed with the students at University of St. Thomas 14 days ago, and as was discussed recently in First Things there is a prediction about the coming end of the world. It will happen, according to the website, on May 21, 2011. It is a series of predictions based upon strange, convoluted and inexplicable biblical exegesis. My desire to mock, however, is much reduced since 1976 and not because I am afraid of losing this gig, or because I am more mature, but because I understand better that it is a deep human impulse to want to know and to understand and to be ready and prepared. And the students are still aware of the movies which imagine the end and are, if not predictions of the end, paeans to the existence of an eternal battle between good and evil that we wish well and done. Except for a few on the fringes, we wish evil to be done, its claws retracted, its fangs blunted. We wish suffering, whether caused by humans or nature, to come to an end.

The answer to the “why” then is simple and complex for me. The simple answer is that we know it is true, that we will all come to an end, whether the world continues on or not, and most of us believe that we will be accountable for our lives. Yet, our personal ends are unknowable and we want to know. In the same way, we do not know how or when the world will end, but we know it will. The sun will only run for another 5 billion or so years.  Again, though, the Christian image of the end is not of senseless, meaningless destruction, ending with a whimper not with a bang, but of the world being brought to its true destiny. John Polkinghorne, in his book “The God of Hope and the End of the World” argues that the Christian hope does not run counter to scientific understanding of the goals and purpose of human and natural life properly understood and I believe that we are ultimately attracted to the end of the world because we are attracted to the end of sin, suffering and death. This is what we know in our bones must come to an end, this is why the attraction, but it is complicated, complex, to ponder how and when this may be. It is almost too powerful to leave alone and so people yearn for it, calculate it, and prepare for it through biblical interpretation, as they have for over 2,000 years.

I always ask my students, and myself, though, a simple question: would it change the way you lived if you knew the end was May 21, 2011 or 2012 or 2013? If yes, then change the way you live your life now; this is what we have in our control. If we are able to minimize even somewhat the effects of sin and suffering in the lives of those around us, if we are all able to do this through small matters, then we are doing all that we can to prepare for the end, personal or cosmic, whenever it comes. For me, the ultimate message of the apocalypse is that life is intended to be good so it is best to get on with it and live it not calculate the time it begins. The end is now.

John W. Martens

Follow me on Twitter @johnwmartens

Comments

NORMA NUNAG | 3/24/2011 - 2:01pm
Thank you for this piece.   I especially love the last paragraph.  It is very consoling.... for a lot of people who are concerned as  they witness the various disasters happening around the world.
ed gleason | 3/24/2011 - 6:48pm
I used to mock tsunamis but Japan's pics/crisis gave me new thinking. I live blocks from the Pacific ocean with tsunami evacuations signs a few blocks down the street. San Andreas fault lies about a mile off shore so at 500 miles an hour we can expect a tsunami to hit in 8 seconds after a big earthquake.... so the 'end' is not so far fetched anymore.
Michelle Russell | 3/24/2011 - 4:57pm
"We wish suffering, whether caused by human or nature, to come to an end."

I found this quote to be the pivotal and strongest part of this excellent piece.  I have never really thought much about the "end times", as they'll come when they come and there's not much I can do about it, agreeing, of course with your final line "the end is now."  But, wow, to consider that one of the reasons apocolyptic literature/movies, etc.. are so popular is the notion that we as a species desire the end to suffering.....   The first noble truth of the Buddha, somewhat incorrectly translated as "Life is suffering", speaks to this.  Maybe this concept of a human desire for an end to suffering belongs on a Bill van Ornum blog-page :-).  Thanks for giving me something to ponder, for certainly it is both simple and complex.