Life is strange. This morning, I read an article about folks at Family Radio. You know, the nice people who are sponsoring the end of the world this coming Saturday (as predicted by their founder). The author of the article interviewed a woman named Esther, who is the receptionist at Family Radio’s office in Oakland, California. Esther indicated that she was making appointments for most of Family Radio’s employees well beyond the May 21 end of the world date, and that she estimated about 80% of Family Radio’s employees don’t believe that Christ will return to begin the end times on Saturday. Yet, they continue to be purveyors of this prediction.
Some have suggested that perhaps the real goal of the prediction, and its attendant publicity, is a kind of religious scam meant to increase visibility for and income to Family Radio. That’s certainly a possibility, though it seems an odd one, to me. After all, assuming that Mr. Camping, their leader, is wrong and the world really won’t start ending on Saturday, then presumably those who are believers will be greatly disappointed and drift away from him and Family Radio.
I tend to think that Mr. Camping does indeed believe what he says. And he’s hardly the only one to jump on the Apocalypse band wagon. Lots of folks these days, it seems, are fascinated by various end of the world scenarios, be they rooted in Christian apocalyptic tradition or the end of the Mayan calendar. It is truly, I think, a sign of the times in which we live.
Let’s face it: things are pretty stressful right now. Climate change, floods and fires, earthquakes and nuclear meltdowns, rising gas and food prices, widespread unemployment, economic uncertainty – there’s an awful lot on the global plate these days. It is understandable that some people, overwhelmed by so many challenges, would long for some divine intervention that would bring it all to an end and set things right for ever after. When looked at from this perspective, all the apocalyptic talk and thinking really represents a deep human longing to be taken care of by a higher power. It’s a recognition that things are badly messed up in lots of ways. And, it’s a belief that things are so messed up that we can’t get a handle on them. We need God or some divine or cosmic force to do it for us.
And that, it seems to me, is the real danger of going down the apocalyptic road: it is, at least in part, an abdication of personal responsibility. If God is going to come and clean things up, then all I have to do is wait and be faithful (which is usually interpreted as holding a particular belief and abiding by a particular personal moral code). I don’t actually have to do anything to try to make things better.
And that is not what the followers of Jesus are called to do. It is true that the Gospels show us a Jesus who did from time to time use apocalyptic imagery and speech, and books could be written (and probably have been) about how we might understand this particular aspect of Jesus. Yet, it is also clear that Jesus’ teaching contains a call to action: faithfulness for Jesus is a matter of doing. Love is a verb in the New Testament, and when we are enjoined to love our neighbors, we are being asked to do something for them.
And when Jesus is shown talking about judgment, that judgment is never based on beliefs or personal moral purity. It is based on the idea of “What have you done for my beloved human family lately?” Lack of compassionate action is what constitutes a negative judgment in the teaching of Jesus.
One wonders what might happen if the energy that people like the Family Radio folks have poured into their apocalyptic hopes (which, apparently, many of them don’t really believe!) had instead been poured into tackling some of the world’s challenges. We wouldn’t suddenly have solved them all, certainly, but we might have made some steps forward. And, instead of waiting for Christ to appear in the sky, they might have found that Christ was already here, waiting for them all along to be his hands and heart in the world.