VIEW VIDEO It occurred to me this past week that it’s been 25 years since my first book was published and I found myself at a convention in Nashville, Tennessee signing copies of my book, alongside a man named Tim LaHaye who had written a book called Left Behind, the first book in a cheerful little series of novels describing the end of the world and the annihilation of billions of people. Someone gave me a copy and I read the first chapter and laid it aside, convinced it would be the greatest flop in publishing history. But not for the first time, I had underestimated the public demand for bad theology and divine retribution and the series, eventually numbering 10 volumes, sold 80 million copies.
When I was a little boy in the Catholic Church, I would repeat the Apostle’s Creed with all the other Catholics, saying from memory that curious line, “and He will come again to judge the living and the dead,” but never taking it seriously because I sensed the adults around me weren’t all that persuaded of its reality. It was never discussed outside of church. Father McLoughlin never preached about it, and at our social gatherings, our conversations steered in the direction of Notre Dame football, which we knew to be God’s favorite football team. But Jesus coming down on the clouds next Tuesday and whisking the believers away to heaven while burning the evildoers, mostly Protestants, to a turn, simply wasn’t in our lexicon.
Then I became a Protestant and discovered other Christians ate this stuff up, morning, noon, and night. They sang about it, they preached about it, they prayed for it to happen soon. Today, this very moment. So be ready. So certain was their confidence, that one Christian I knew, a Jehovah’s Witness, gave away all his earthly possessions so he and his family could fly to heaven unencumbered, then had to move in with his in-laws, a hell of a different sort.
We’ve been reflecting on the virtues and vices of religion, and today I want to observe that while many Christians talk a great deal about hope and joy, there is, at the heart of their theology a deep undercurrent of despair and gloom. This darkness manifests itself in an apocalyptic worldview that gleefully anticipates not the restoration and renewal of the world and its inhabitants, but their destruction. It celebrates divine wrath, exalts the annihilation of billions of people, and praises the destruction of the only home we’ll ever know, all so they, the relative few, can enjoy a state of blissful perfection. Apocalyptic theology is Nazism on steroids, the twisted conviction that life will only be good when the “enemies” of God are destroyed.
We’re having a new well drilled at our farm, so I drove down there on Wednesday morning, which you might remember was a quintessential fall day in Indiana. The leaves were bright and fiery, the sun on full display. I passed a lovely white church, not unlike our old meetinghouse, nestled in a grove of oak trees.
There, amidst all that loveliness, was a sign that read, “Jesus is coming soon.” At first glance, it seemed like a harmless expression, often shared by those Christians whose earthly lives have been so painful and difficult that the second coming of Jesus would seem a sweet relief. Indeed, that was the origin of end-times theology. It originated in times of persecution and struggle as a means of encouraging powerless people to hold on and endure in the face of evil. It promised an end to their suffering and the eventual triumph of right over wrong. We tended to overlook the darker side of that theology, that for them to have their heaven, others would have their hell.
But what was once a fringe movement within Christianity has become a central theme for many Christians. Forty percent of American Christians now believe we are living in the last years, and therefore feel no need to address climate change or racial injustice or the global threat of Covid. Why bother if Jesus is coming soon?
Not only does this worldview encourage moral indifference, think what it says about God and our ultimate values. It says God is not the giver of life, but its destroyer. It says God is only able to achieve divine purposes through chaos, division, and murder. It says God is no better than Hitler, willing to unleash an apocalyptic Holocaust on the world in the hopes of creating a spiritual master race.
It is one thing to long for justice, to look forward to the day when all people everywhere will live in peace with one another. What moral person doesn’t want that? But to achieve it at the high cost of global warfare and widespread destruction offends every Christian virtue we have come to cherish. As Quakers, we long for justice, but do not believe a noble end can be achieved through ignoble means. The writer Madeleine L’Engle tells the story of a Christian dying and going to heaven, only to find it empty. Having anticipated reuniting with his family and friends, he is despondent, so goes to Saint Peter and asks where everyone is. “I’ve been looking forward to heaven for years, and I finally arrive and no one is here. Where has everyone gone?”
St. Peter says, “They’re with Jesus in hell, ministering to the damned.”
Now I don’t know if there’s a hell. I prefer to dwell in the certainty of this life, not the ambiguity of the next. But if there are those who are damned, I want my faith to offer them comfort, not condemnation. I take no pleasure in their demise, nor seek any blessing at the cost of their misery. I want for them what I want for myself—love, compassion, wholeness, and joy. As a Quaker, I believe no heavenly peace can arise from earthly violence. If God is imaginative enough to create the universe in all its spangled beauty, surely God is capable of bringing light to darkness, of bringing right from wrong, of restoring even the most broken among us. Should Jesus come again, it will be to heal, and never to harm, to bring joy and not pain, to bring hope and not despair.