The Way the World Ends: What if Jesus Doesn’t Come Back to Save Us?

treeoflife01Over the weekend, some of my progressive Christian friends were grousing on Twitter about how growing up in ‘90s Evangelical culture and being taught that we would be raptured up to heaven before anything terrible happens in the world, ever, left us ill-equipped to face the reality that we would one day die.

I quit believing in the rapture early on in high school when I realized it was inconsistent with Jesus’s own teachings on the end-times, but in retrospect I can see how this denial of death bled over even into the forms of Christianity towards which I was drawn in my teens and early twenties. In the doomsday cult I was a part of in college, we believed we would be impervious to the bullets fired at us in the Middle East by the Antichrist and his hordes of demonically driven Muslim supporters.

“If it wasn’t time for us to be dead,” my friend April* told me, “God could just send us back down. So that might be a really great option! Whenever we’re in any kind of danger, we can just shoot each other! Like if they were going to behead you, I could just SHOOT you and then Jesus could send you back!”

“I don’t think I like where this is going…” I said in a low voice.

April cocked an imaginary gun. “‘I’LL SEE YOU IN A MINUTE!’” she yelled.

After I left the group I began studying Gnostic groups (like ours) that believe they have a special mission to accomplish at the end of history. This sense of being in a cosmic drama relieves us of the appalling tedium of being not-particularly-special people living in a fairly uneventful period of history. One writer made a point that has stuck with me: he said that these Gnostic groups, even the ones that call themselves Christian, deny the wisdom of the Old Testament writers that life is an incredible mystery, and that everything that has a beginning must also have an end—ourselves, our relationships, our accomplishments, the world itself.

And I don’t think I fully got that until I stood in front of my friend’s coffin, face to face for the first time in my life with the awful specter of mortality. Nothing in my upbringing or religious education had prepared me for this. Bethany had been there not long ago and now she was just gone. I could spend the rest of my life roaming the earth trying to find her and would never find her. The body in the coffin had once belonged to her, but now it resembled her less and less. I had no idea what to make of this. As I wrote in my journal on the day after the visitation, “She was dead and I suddenly had no idea where her soul had gone, or if she even had one.”

I had already begun to abandon the convoluted eschatological scheme accepted by most Evangelicals (seven years of tribulation followed by a thousand-year reign of Jesus) before Bethany’s death—the Catholic Church which I was in the process of joining teaches only that Jesus will return at some point in the future and set up his kingdom forever. The rest is just speculation. But it was only after I had thrown out most of what I had been taught and believed all my life about the end of the world that I ran into a problem—namely, that science already has a pretty clear idea how the world is going to end, and it’s pretty grim.

Basically, carbon life has only existed on earth for about two billion years out of the roughly fifteen billion years of the lifespan of our universe. The first Homo sapiens emerged some tens of millions of years ago, only a second ago in geologic time, sweeping down out of the trees onto the savannahs with a miraculous awareness of themselves that is surely the greatest mystery and miracle of cosmic history—“the universe,” as one scientist put it, “becoming aware of itself.”

Barring some nuclear or ecological disaster, our species and life on our planet as a whole will lumber along for another few hundred million years until we are wiped out by an asteroid, a comet, a meteor, a chance collision of two black holes somewhere in our galaxy, an explosion from a neighboring supernova or some other ghastly and xenocidal event. Assuming we manage to survive each of these extinction-level threats, within a mere five billion years the sun will enter the next stage of its life cycle, becoming a red giant and swelling up to gargantuan proportions, in the process casually destroying the three closest planets in its orbit.

Of course by then it’s entirely possible that we’ll have developed the means of leaving earth and colonizing other solar systems. But even if we do, it turns out we’re only delaying the eventual end of our species, for the stars are going out one by one, leaving us in a cold void of perpetual night.

On the bright side, if there is one, this is still an inconceivably vast number of years away from happening, and by the time the sun winks out, everyone you know will be dead. Maybe you’re okay with that. It’s hard enough getting people to care about rises in ocean levels that will flood coastal regions and cause massive droughts, leading to war and famine, in the lives of our children and grandchildren. Still fewer are kept up at night by the cosmological certainty that our species will eventually be annihilated when the sun, the giver of life, blows up and devours its own offspring. But I am.

It troubles me because even as a child I had a mystic’s eye for the goodness and beauty of the world, because I believed that this world is full of more good things than we can possibly dream or imagine, and love makes it hard for me to accept that all this—the churches of Greenwich, the bistros of the Left Bank, the factories of Birmingham and Philadelphia; every piece of flannel, every strip of paper, everything you ever built or wrote—will perish in solar fires, unobserved and unremembered. Surely if anything can test a person’s faith, it is this. Philosopher Bertrand Russell felt keenly the implications for humanity when he wrote, “All the labors of the ages, all the devotion, all the inspiration, all the noonday brightness of human genius, are destined to extinction in the vast death of the solar system … The whole temple of Man’s achievement must inevitably be buried beneath the debris of a universe in ruins.”

Perhaps Shakespeare glimpsed something of the futility in which all humanity’s ambitions must end when he had King Lear ask, “Is man no more than this?” This is the sort of question people of faith are going to have to take seriously, if we want to be taken seriously by the rest of the world in our time.

As a Christian blogger, I’m supposed to state here that it’s all going to be okay and we don’t have to be afraid of extinction and Jesus will come down and save us before the universe reaches Threat Level: Midnight. But I don’t know that for a fact, and you don’t, either. In this life we’re given promises, but no guarantees. We have assurances, but no certainties. That’s why it’s called faith.

Ironically, part of what led to my current existential crisis was the Catholic faith in natural processes, in the idea—going all the way back to St. Augustine, who developed an early theory of evolution to describe how life on earth had come into being—that God uses natural methods and natural laws to accomplish his purposes in the natural realm. (This is still a major source of division between Catholics and Protestant fundamentalists: it was a Catholic priest and astronomer, Georges Lemaitre, who first proposed what became known as the Big Bang theory, which is almost uniformly rejected by fundamentalists who don’t seem to realize how it converges with the Genesis account). Once I accepted that maybe God had used a slow unfurling of cosmic evolution to bring the worlds into being over a span of eons, I couldn’t help wondering if maybe God would end space-time in precisely the same way: slowly, over many billions of years.

I spent much of yesterday reading a book by John Polkinghorne, a renowned Cambridge physicist—his work was instrumental in the discovery of the quark in the 1960s—who is also an Anglican priest and amateur theologian. The book, The God of Hope and the End of the World, summarizes his conversations with several other scientist-theologians at Yale University who are trying to reconcile our scientific knowledge of the eventual extinction of our species with the Christian faith in a bodily resurrection in which God raises individuals from death and restores them to their bodies in a natural environment. (The belief I was taught growing up, that when we die, our spirits leave our gross bodies behind and fly up to heaven to be with Jesus forever, is actually Gnostic).

Polkinghorne and his colleagues raise several possibilities for how this might happen in a way that doesn’t contradict current scientific findings or Christian orthodoxy. For example, maybe the information-bearing part of a human being (what we call “the soul”) is stored in God’s memory after death until the day of resurrection. Maybe we all die at different times and then find ourselves together again at the same time, as happened in the final episode of LOST. Maybe we awaken to find that the billions of years between our death and the end of the old universe have already transpired while we slept.

Ultimately, as even Polkinghorne himself seems to concede, none of these answers can be entirely satisfying because they all have to be taken on faith. “Any hope of a destiny beyond death,” he writes, “can ultimately rest only on the faithfulness of God the Creator.” In the end we’re left only with hope: hope that we were created for a purpose; hope that our creator loves us; hope that this world of unthinkable beauty is leading us towards a world of beauties even more unthinkable.

And, if I’m being honest, hope is what I’ve been missing ever since Bethany’s death. She trusted God to protect her, and God seems to have failed her. After she died, I could no longer entrust myself to pious certainties. People die. People are murdered or take their own lives and no deity intervenes to save them. Terrible things happen because this world can be a terrible place, because humans are terrible and depraved and a savage darkness lurks in even the most devout heart. Just look at what they did to Jesus.

And ultimately that’s why I remain a Christian, because even with all my doubts and questions I know I’m not asking anything new or original. Nothing has changed in human nature just because we now understand that the sun will eventually destroy us. It was Thomas Kempis in the twelfth century who said, “Look on all things as passing away, and thyself as doomed to pass away with them.” It was Job who asked why man is born to trouble, and it was Jesus who in the agony of his final hours dared to ask God why he had been forsaken, and heard only silence in response.

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17 thoughts on “The Way the World Ends: What if Jesus Doesn’t Come Back to Save Us?

  1. I watched my mom die five years ago as of September 12th. I literally watched her die. She got sick, her kidneys failed, they put her on dialysis, she had a heart attack, dialysis fundamentally changed her and she finally said enough.

    Hospice said that death by kidney failure was one of the “easier” ways to go. They could manage her pain and as her body poisoned itself she wouldn’t be aware of what was happening to her. What they failed to make clear was that what they meant by easy was that it would only be easy for her. My siblings, father, and I spent a week watching her slip away from us. It would be a lie if I said that there wasn’t incredible beauty and mercy and grace in that week, but when my mom’s final moment in this part of life came at 2am on a Sunday morning, it wasn’t like a scene from a movie where there’s a gentle breeze that rustles the curtains of her hospital room and then she’s gone. Instead it was like she had come out of a deep sleep, her eyes flew wide open, she gasped for air, we held her hands and each other and one brave nurse who had compassion for us in our state of absolute horror stood by my father, her hand on my mom’s side, and prayed, “Jesus, help miss Nancy”.

    Nothing about my faith leading up to that moment made sense after my mom took her last breath.

    What I did know in that moment and what I still know now is that what was left was a body, my mom was not there anymore. I don’t know where she went, or even how to imagine a “where” in which a “soul” can go. My mind doesn’t know how to make sense of this sort of place which is physical but not, which is here but not, which exists but doesn’t in a way that I can touch or behold. However, the fact that she was gone was undeniable, and in spite of not being able to comprehend where, that it was so clear that she was no longer present was enough to give my heart hope.

    After that experience I can’t accept the neat and tidy picture of the afterlife that Christianity likes to paint. I can’t. In fact, I can’t accept the neat and tidy picture Christianity likes to paint about most things. Life and death are messy, God is not a simple thing we can wrap up in our minds and be comfortable with, and right and wrong are not black and white at all. Maybe death is the rescue.

    • Oh, Katie, my heart went out to you as I read your description of your mother’s death. I too sat at my mother’s bedside on the night that she died last June and over the past weekend my brother and I went to the mining village in the north of England where she grew up with her ashes as she asked us to do. A member of her family there gave us some old photos that I had never seen before. I saw a beautiful and proud young woman holding a baby, her first born child that was me. As I did so I could not help but wonder what her 90 year life had been about, a life now reduced to the ashes that my brother and I scattered on the hillside later that day in accordance with her wishes. And of course as I thought about her life I thought about mine too a life that will end just as hers has done. Unlike you I have the comfort of the memory of a peaceful death but I also carry the memory of the weariness that came over her in the years after my father died when a once vibrant woman was reduced to silence.
      I am an Anglican priest and I spend a good portion of my life alongside people as they celebrate the birth of a child and all the fear that comes with that responsibility as well as the joy of welcoming a life into the world; as they celebrate falling in love and wanting to make a life together; as they grow weary and old, and as they die and those that love them mourn their passing. And occasionally I am called to a funeral where no-one comes, where no-one is sad except me which is something I reflected on with my daughters after their grandmother died and they were very sad indeed. At least she had folk who loved her enough to mourn her passing.
      I am struck that the early teachers of the church just after the age of the apostles used to teach that metanoia, the word usually translated “repentance” in the New Testaments we have, meant the renunciation of despair. We usually get stuck with being sorry for bad stuff we have done. They had a much bigger picture than that. Surely we need to know what despair feels like in order to renounce it, in order to keep holding onto love and light even when there seems no point. There feels no kind of neatness or tidiness when you pass such an experience but then I don’t see much neatness or tidiness when I read the accounts of the cross in the gospels. Any Christianity that is not true to the mess of the cross is not worth much as far as I can see. I think Boze expressed that really well in his piece and he is right to call that “faith”.
      I have written this for you and I have also written this for me in my sadness today. My prayer for you as it is for me is that you won’t give up on love or upon light even as I pray that for me. And my hope is that you and me will one day know what this has been all about when we get caught up in the love that moves the sun and the other stars. God bless you and keep you.

  2. Terrific post. Well thought out and heart-felt. Just a couple of random thoughts. According to the Bible, itself, Jesus said that he was returning in the lifetimes of the disciples (see Mark 13 and Matthew 24). Some quantum physicists say that reality is a projection from the”quantum world” and that we live in a virtual reality matrix. That said, the whole discussion about life and death takes on a totally different tenor. Besides, if we have a soul, then it’s fair to assume that we live forever (in some form).

  3. Wow. This brought me to tears. Thank you for writing.

    By the way, have you read much Madeleine L’Engle? Her peculiar blending of science and supernatural wonder seems right up your alley:
    “There are still stars which move in ordered and beautiful rhythm. There are still people in this world who keep promises… That’s enough to keep my heart optimistic, no matter how pessimistic my mind. And you and I have good enough minds to know how very limited and finite they really are. The naked intellect is an extraordinarily inaccurate instrument.” –A Wind in the Door

  4. As a kid, one of the reasons I really liked the rapture theory was its portrayal of a sudden and certain end. My beloved astronomy books would leave me terribly anxious about a messy, slow end. What if the sun expanded into a red giant and we hadn’t found another livable planet? What about all the people who would suffer to death? “But at least that won’t happen to you” didn’t really comfort me then, and it still doesn’t, to be honest.
    Thank you for writing this – it’s a beautiful, relatable read.

  5. Wow, this is incredible.
    I spent most of the last 13 years in a more fundamentalist/Pentecostal church – I joined it when I got married, as it was where my husband had gone to church his whole life. But I was raised standard Australian rural Anglo-Celtic Catholic (we’re such a stereotype in Australia!), and I mistakenly thought all Christian churches would be roughly the same. Prior to meeting Pentecostals my only experience of “other” Christians was Anglicans, and they didn’t seem that different.

    As bleak as the far distant future proposed to us by science is, I much prefer Catholicism’s calm approach to eschatology than the frantic timeline-making and oddly specific calculations that I’ve encountered in Pentecostal circles – I’ve even started going to mass again, I just can’t stomach the high emotional intensity of Pentecostalism these days.

    I’ve been reading NT Wright’s “Surprised By Hope,” & no doubt you’ve heard of it. He’s an Anglican Bishop & theologian and his eschatology is wonderful. It makes me remember why I choose to be a Christian.

    • The calmness of Catholic (and Anglican) eschatology is a huge reason why I became Catholic. I was actually reading Surprised by Hope this weekend – when he mentioned Polkinghorne, I set the book down and started reading his book instead. I’m grateful for intellectuals who show us that we can be Christians and not give up our integrity.

  6. “Once I accepted that maybe God had used a slow unfurling of cosmic evolution to bring the worlds into being over a span of eons, I couldn’t help wondering if maybe God would end space-time in precisely the same way: slowly, over many billions of years.”

    So you’re saying God has been taking apocalypse lessons from Peter Jackson???

      • I still doubt all the time, but not about the essential things. End times eschatology is not an essential thing, and calling that into doubt shouldn’t make me (or anyone) doubt my faith. If it did, that would mean my faith was in the wrong thing. My faith is in the crucifixion and coming resurrection, not the rapture or tribulation. But honestly, I haven’t decided what I think about the end of the world. I haven’t spent enough time immersed in scripture and other commentaries (both scientific and theological) to be confident on any opinion.

        On the other hand, I find it mostly a moot point. If the rapture (assuming it exists) happens within my lifetime, that’s all well and good, but it’s just as likely I will live and die on this spinning globe. Even when I believed firmly in the rapture, I was quite aware of that. My parents never taught that we’d be spared suffering, and I remember being very young and gazing at pictures of bloodied and beaten Christians in the pages of Voice of the Martyrs magazine. Christians are suffering now. Christians I KNOW are suffering now. They’ve suffered and died for two thousand years, and I don’t feel special.

        But whether the world ends soon, or a billion years from now, that is inessential to the reality that death has been defeated and I am not its subject. Treating life like it’s merely a video game (be killed and you’ll respawn) is obviously flippant and unhelpful, but if the world ends, the worst thing that will happen is that I’ll die. I’m not pretending death is something I take lightly: I don’t. But I know people who live in constant danger of death and imprisonment, and yet still believe firmly in God. They can’t count on a rapture. They can count on a resurrection. So can I. And that will be the same a billion years from now.

        “O Nebuchadnezzar, we have no need to answer you in this matter. If this be so, our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, and he will deliver us out of your hand, O king. But if not, be it known to you, O king, that we will not serve your gods or worship the golden image that you have set up.”

        I don’t know if any of this is helpful or just me sounding overly confident and unsympathetic or if it even makes sense. If it sounds as if I’m just sitting here, not worrying about anything, that’s not true either (I am infamously insecure, and very good at pretending not to be). I guess it’s just my rambling description of the hope I find in life.

  7. I am extremely touched by the article, and the comments that follow. At 51, I’ve had my small share of deaths in the family. As an ex Worship Pastor in a charismatic church, I can also identify with the issues raised by the various colours of eschatology. As an (amateur) scholar though, I have found much depth reading the apostolic fathers. Perhaps because of this, I only believe in one “universal” church. It is not catholicism, though catholicism is a part,it is not Orthodoxism, nor is it Lutherism, Wesleyism, Pentecostalism, charismatism (am I inventing a word?) nor “third wave church”. The universality comes from disparate belief systems, who hold certain things in common. Personally, the notion that our planetary system will burn in x billion years does not interest me. The idea that the universe will ultimately expand so far that no life will be possible bothers me even less. In theology no eschatology satisfies me. The thigns that intesest me most though are these; does our God intervene in our lives? Emphatic YES. Is the gospel true? Emphatic yes. I was an atheist before our God spoke to me. What will happen in the hereafter? For now, this idea is entirely linked with what happened in the “herebefore”(there you go, another new word). By herebefore I mean that science has built more or less credible theories about WHEN the universe happened. Big bang theory points ot a singularity of no mass and no energy from which everything happened. My idea of the “herebefore” touches on the real question; how can something be created out of nothing? There IS surely a cause. Even Stephen Hawking has no mathematical model other than the now discredited superstring theory. My conclusion is this; both where the universe came from, and where we came from are mysteries, both to science and theology; what happens when the universe ends, and when we die, is the same kind of mystery.

  8. My fellow mystic, I salute you!
    Reading this post brought me back to my early teens. The latest end times report had just finished playing in the guest church my family had made a special effort to attend. I was quieter than usual for weeks afterward as the “truth” of the rapture timeline sank into my heart. How does one deal with the knowledge that the year they graduate high school is the end? I was very matter of fact & stuffed my fear into a box & swept it under the “metaphorical” rug. Concentrating on anything became difficult with my secret haunting me. I lost interest in exploring my dreams & desires for my future mainly because when I checked inside, there was just a big blank empty space. Tried not to think about it. Did a good job of that because by the time I graduated high school feeling aimless & passionless about my future I had no idea why.
    If I could go back to that young teenager & tell her just one thing, it would be to question everything she was told was true. Once I gave myself permission to do this, I started waking up to my own truth.
    Carry on questioning!

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