I wonder how many people secretly want for the world to end. I do. I don’t mean “end” in a way that actually causes pain to other people. I mean “end” in the sense that all the pressures and anxieties which make my white middle-class universe miserable would somehow suddenly disappear, so that whatever happens next is completely stripped of the should’s and have-to’s that completely define my existence.Like what would happen if the Internet completely crashed all over the world and there was no way to fix it? Wouldn’t that be awesome? We would be completely helpless and also stripped of so many expectations that imprison us. Of course I couldn’t blog about it.
In any case, I have some sympathy for the fundamentalists who really wanted Y2K to be the end of civilization and then more recently prayed that Harold Camping would be right. I think that people who long for the “end times” don’t really want other people to suffer and die, but desperately yearn that God would destroy “business as usual” forever. It’s also probably true that a fair number of people who are swept away in “end times” culture have a particular set of somebodies in mind as the target recipients of God’s seven bowls of wrath whether it’s disagreeable people at work, rivals on church committees, good-for-nothing ex-husbands, or the “Muslims” and “homosexuals” who serve as your mental punching bags to cope with whatever wounds that life has given you.
I know that “end times” theology is ridiculous and horrifying to most people and I agree that the forms that it often takes are ridiculous and horrifying, but we have to face the fact that Christianity is a religion founded upon declaring the end of the world. Mark 1:15 summarizes Jesus’ first sermon in this way: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” Now you might say, what in the world does this verse have to do with the end of the world? Where’s the fire and brimstone? Where’s the pale horse rider with his Armageddon sword? It’s not a very Hollywood ending to the world. But I think Mark 1:15 captures in a very succinct way how we should understand the end of the world, because the world ends when we accept God’s kingdom as our new reality by repenting and believing in the good news of Jesus Christ.
Christians believe that Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection is the basis for a way of living that is so radically different from the default of human society that we call it the “world to come.” We also believe that there is a life beyond our biological lives into which we will be resurrected (and many Christians think that’s the only thing that “world to come” refers to, but I completely disagree). Following Jesus doesn’t just make us nicer, more productive members of society. We look at the world so differently and define ourselves so differently in relationship to other people that our old world ends and our new reality is completely discontinuous with the old. God’s kingdom overthrows the world in the hearts of those who accept it.
God’s kingdom is as different from the old world as the tents in Zuccotti Park in Manhattan are different from the skyscrapers that surround them. Whether the Occupy Wall Street protestors are right or wrong in their understanding of the problems our world faces, their basic instinct is right: the presumptions of society that make us stressed-out, self-centered, suspicious people really do need to be flushed down the toilet so we can start over. As a Christian, I believe that obliterating the old world and replacing it with a new world is not something we can accomplish on our own. Over the course of my life, I’ve been in quite a few groups of people who really wanted to change the world but got mired down in personality conflicts, identity politics, and time-sucking ideological disputes. The only human society that I’ve experienced to be capable of creating a new reality is the body of people who put all their trust in Jesus Christ. The reason most American Christians today don’t exhibit the kingdom of God is because we haven’t really put our trust in Jesus. We trust instead that God is satisfied with what we believe about Jesus, which gives us the cover to continue to live self-reliant, self-centered, worldly lives.
Here’s the paradox. Many people who are very comfortable with the way our world is talk about it being a “temporary home” that is hopelessly evil and fallen which we shouldn’t try to change because our “true home” is in “heaven” (i.e. on a cloud with a harp somewhere). Their professed denigration of the world is a mask for the comfortable nihilism that gives them permission to enjoy their privilege and tacitly reject Jesus’ call to form a new kingdom, while they accuse others who reject their nihilism of not following the “true gospel” and being overly invested in the world which they themselves are invested in. They might take pleasure in pointing out “the signs” that the world is coming to end, but the end of the world has the opposite meaning for them that it does for Jesus, because the next life to them would look exactly the same as this life in terms of who has power and privilege, rather than being a place where “the last are [truly] first.”
Looking back at Mark 1:15, “Repent and believe the good news” has a completely different tone than “Turn or burn” (which Jesus never said). I’m definitely not a universalist, but Jesus didn’t just proclaim the destruction of the old world; He invited people into a new one. That’s the function of all those parables that start “The kingdom of heaven is like…” He’s inviting us to end our old world and start a new one in which we trust Him as our king. And we blow Him off. All the time. The question for us is this: are we ready for the world to end? Or do we need for the world to continue to be a hopeless place whose fallenness we regard with a comfortable nihilism that allows us to persist in selfishness? The kingdom of God has come near. Who will enter?