The end of the world: why we are here
Originally published in The Mennonite (August 6, 2002), 12-14.
In the Bible, “the end of the world” focuses not so much on what is going to happen to the world in the future as on the purpose of the world. More directly, it points us to our purpose in living in the world. Why is the world here and why are we here and what are we to be about?
A long time ago, in the years right after I became a Christian as a teenager, I thought of the end of the world strictly in terms of the future and how things would conclude. I looked for the imminent return of Christ and would have been shocked to know I would still be living in the 21st century. When I was in college in the mid-1970s, I contemplated dropping out. I thought, why should I work at preparing for the future when the future was not going to come?
In those days, I welcomed the development of nuclear weapons, the conflicts in the Middle East, the likelihood of war with the Soviet Union and possibly China–wars and rumors of wars. These all meant the Second Coming was at hand.
Then at some point I realized that I was welcoming incredible human suffering and mass destruction of animals and plants. When the scales fell from my eyes (which is how I see it now), I recoiled at my old worldview.
I do not fully understand how this view of the end of the world as the destruction of the world came to dominate Christian thinking. I suspect Augustine of Hippo had something to do with it.
In Augustine’s great fifth-century book, The City of God, grafts Greek philosophy onto biblical theology and comes up with the notion of heaven (the city of God) as something outside time and history, future, otherworldly. This city is sharply distinguished from the world we live in, from from historical life in the here and now (“the city of man”). For Augustine, life in history is characterized by brutality, sin, and the struggle for power.
This disjunction between heaven and historical life in the here and now led to a notion of Christian hope that focused, in effect, on the destruction of this world. Genuine salvation requires the end of the world, meaning an escape from this life to heaven and something totally different and separate.
This worldview fosters a self-fulfilling prophecy: Since we believe that life in the here and now is nasty, brutish, violent, and short, we act to make it so. Thus Augustine and many other Christians since have supported violence toward so-called heretics, pagans, and criminals.
What if we, to borrow Mennonite writer Howard Zehr’s metaphor, change our lenses? What if we look at the Bible and at the world differently?
The biblical worldview has less in common with our modern, Western worldview than with the worldview of the very cultures Western civilization has sought to stamp out.
This other worldview has been identified by recent writers variously as “primal,” “aboriginal,” and “indigenous.” (See, for example, Contemplations of a Primal Mind by Gabriel Horn, African Religion by Laurenti Magesa, and Returning to the Teachings by Rupert Ross). In this primal worldview, the world here and now has purpose and is full of the grandeur of God.
Should we look at the Bible with new eyes, looking for what it tells us about the purpose of the world rather than looking for what it tells us about the future destruction of the world, what might we see?
I will briefly note three texts that provide a glimpse. Mark 2:23-28 tells us of Jesus’ encounter with some of his opponents. They challenge Jesus for his laxness in allowing his followers to feed themselves on the Sabbath and for allegedly ignoring God’s law. He acts as if the earth is friendly and life is good.
Jesus responds by making his understanding of the purpose of the law quite clear: The law is to serve human well-being, not human beings to serve the legalism of the letter of the law. The purpose of the law is to foster the flourishing of life right now. For Jesus the law reflects the God behind the law–guiding us into the fullness of life in the present and into harmony with the rest of creation.
A second text is Revelation 21:1-4. As often interpreted, Revelation provides perhaps the sharpest challenge to my proposal. Is not Revelation all about the future destruction of the world? Studying Revelation has developed my understanding of the biblical notion of the end of the world–that is, the understanding that the message of the Bible challenges us to find the purpose of life in the here and now, not in some otherworldly future.
The Book of Revelation is a highly symbolic work. We need to take seriously the opening words of the book: “The revelation of Jesus Christ.” We are shown with symbolic imagery the meaning of Jesus’ message. We have here a revelation of a different way of seeing the world, different from power politics, nationalism, and the worship of wealth. Jesus Christ reveals that the purpose of the world is found in love, mercy, peaceableness, and faithfulness to the Lamb’s way. The world is where singing and celebration and joy happen–here and now, if we but have eyes to see and ears to hear.
A key world-affirming vision in Revelation comes in chapter four, where we see the one on the throne being worshiped by all of creation–followed in chapter five by the joyful singing of uncounted voices from heaven and earth and under the earth. When we get to the end of the book and the vision of the New Jerusalem, we are not meant to understand that we are seeing something from the future and outside of history coming into being after the destruction of this world. Rather, we are seeing a revelation of what characterizes reality right now if we but change our lenses and see the holy in the firm, the presence of the Spirit of God here and now, the awareness that creation is holy and good.
Finally, well-known verses from the prophet Micah contain a powerful message of the end of human life, our purpose. These words could come from any number of primal or aboriginal cultures: “What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (6:8).
“Do justice.” In the Bible and in aboriginal justice, this means to seek wholeness, the restoration of relationships, to bring healing when there is harm.
“Love kindness.” Treat people, all people, with respect, with friendliness and hospitality, with compassion. Be gentle. Listen. Enjoy.
“Walk humbly with God.” Know your place in the cosmos. Remember and accept your finitude. Remember your responsibility to your children and your children’s children and on and on. Trust in God; don’t grasp for your own power and control and dominance.
The world is the good creation of a good God. Our end, our purpose, is to seek harmony and wholeness in relationship with one another and this good world.