This teaching is part of an ongoing series on approaching our fears with faith based in part on Adam Hamilton’s book, Unafraid.
Fear that the world is going to end soon has been great fodder for the movie industry, late-late night radio hosts, and comedians who make fun of religious leaders who call out a specific date for the world’s demise (shout out for the Bay Area’s own, Harold Camping!). The latest fear is that Planet X (Nibiru) will come out of nowhere and smash our earth.
Many conservative churches look forward to the day of Rapture, when God will take all the good sheep up to heaven and leave behind the rest for an awful period of hell on earth, ending in some surviving and most swimming in a lake of fire, after which all the dead in Christ will rise and find themselves living on a new earth that’s all pleasant and nice. This may sound like a bad screenplay, but it is actually derived from a particularly narrow, literalistic view of the Bible without regard to it’s original context and with little question as to how to apply it today. And, this Second Coming of Christ also happens to be the orthodox view – that’s how a lot of Christians think the end is going to come. Many people watched scary movies like A Thief in the Night that sacred the hell right out of them, directing them into the arms of God where they would find salvation.
Of course, we don’t need religion to be afraid of the end of the world. We’ve got nationalistic, ego driven world leaders to give us plenty of cause for alarm, with fingers on buttons that could trigger the end of the world as we know it. Potentially, hundreds of millions of lives could be lost if everything went south. But the world and humanity would not end. Still, we live on the West Coast, on the North Bay of San Francisco, a lovely target for an evil empire to dial some missiles toward.
Recall our acronym for FEAR: False Expectations Appearing Real. And let’s remember Adam Hamilton’s reworking of that acronym: Face your fears with faith. Examine your assumptions in light of the facts. Attack your anxieties with action. Release your cares to God. Let’s work this puppy over.
First, as Christians understanding God through a Jesus lens, we believe God is loving and good, and that since God’s fingerprints are on everything created, the flow of everything – even creation – is essentially good. We have a theological reason to be basically optimistic that the odds are good that our worst fears will not come to pass, as has been the case for most fears we struggle with. We catastrophize, wasting untold energy for nothing but an upset stomach.
As far as facts go, the nuclear arsenal of the United States and Russia has been significantly reduced over the last 30 years. While we still have a lot, we don’t have enough, according to some sources, to completely eliminate life on earth. We don’t have anywhere near enough to blow the earth up – luckily the Death Star was taken out a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away by cool people with British accents. The worst case scenario is that up to 500 million people would die, mostly in specific, strategic urban areas. The remaining seven billion people would carry humanity forward. Specifically for us in Napa, CA, being approximately 50 miles from San Francisco and 86 miles from San Jose, and being that we are North of both, meaning winds are in our favor, we would definitely see the mushroom cloud, but not likely suffer direct loss. More likely, we would be called upon to help provide support for recovery. It is unlikely that Napa Valley would be the target for an attack, unless we’re talking about very, very conservative Baptists from Topeka, KS. But they don’t have much more than picket signs in terms of weaponry. So, the facts should alleviate our fear of nuclear threat. Earthquakes and fires? Well, who knows. But those are surely more likely.
How do we attack our fears with action, then? Let me suggest some specific, practical things, and then one major, sweeping, ideological thing.
First, the practical. Most of us were here for the major earthquake that hit Napa in August 2014. We can’t forget the fires of October 2017. Both could have been much, much worse, of course, but I think both served to wake us up to a range of things we should be ready to face. Because of our location, I seriously doubt we would go very long without being given aid from the government. But for the short run, we should be ready for the next disaster. So, have you done your homework and put together an emergency preparedness kit? Get on it! Have you secured stuff that could tip over? Get on it! You should have supplies to get you through the short term if you lose power, water, a cooking source, etc. What about a trust? Have you put that together yet so as to clarify to your loved ones where you want your property to go in the event of your death? I don’t want to be morbid, but I can tell you from experience that I sleep better at night knowing that I’m fairly well prepared in the event of a natural disaster, and that my trust will make it easier for my kids to manage our estate if, God forbid, the 15 foot marble statue of Bono in our living room were to somehow take Lynne and I out in one fell swoop! Getting your literal and figurative house in order is simply wise, and is an action you can take that will alleviate some of your anxiety of a dystopian future.
The sweeping thing I want to talk to you about has to do with our stance toward life as Jesus followers. In Matthew’s Gospel, he remembers Jesus giving the disciples a charge to “go, make disciples of all nations.” He didn’t give any qualifiers to his commission, as far as I know. He didn’t say, “except if you think the end is near” or “if you think you’re the only chosen ones”. The charge he gave his disciples is the life he chose to live. People who carried Good News (the meaning of Evangelism). That’s who we’re supposed to be, and doing it like Jesus did is that way we’re supposed to do it. Unfortunately, study of the end times has led many to abandon the way of Jesus for something that only pretends to resemble him.
I have two problems with orthodox Christianity’s view of the end times. First, I think there has been a lack of appreciation of the first century context from which the related texts came, which was a time when apocalyptic fever ran especially high. Why wouldn’t it? Rome was in charge, and the only hope the Jews had was that God would swoop in and kick some serious butt! Added to that the bias toward a literalistic view of the scriptures which assumes inerrancy and infallibility, and we’ve got ourselves a lousy hermeneutic. I think Revelation reflects a reality that has largely already taken place, which is not hard to understand when the imagery used is understood in context. So, I don’t think it points toward a sci-fi future. The second issue I have with the position is how it has been used to generate fear to coax non-Christians toward God, and yet perpetuates fear among believers. I have never seen a person deeply devoted to “End Times study” who becomes more compassionate toward especially non-Christians. I have seen these folks get ugly, judgmental, and manipulative in order to win converts. Or, I have seen people huddle down in the security of Christian community awaiting Christ’s return while the world outside suffers on. Neither of these reflect Christ, in my opinion.
Jesus did not use fear to manipulate people into following him. The only fear that may have been at work was the fear that a person had been basing their life on a lesser “good news” than the one Jesus offered. He instead offered his presence, his teaching, his hands, and his healing to those he encountered. Gracious beyond anyone’s expectation, willing to go where religious people wouldn’t be caught dead, welcoming of those who were deemed “unclean”, Jesus was Good News as much as he proclaimed Good News. The Good News Jesus proclaimed was in contrast to Rome’s, which did offer some good news, but always with a looming threat. Jesus’ Good News, however, was delivered with an undercurrent of love and grace.
As Hamilton noted, I would much rather been found dead in rubble trying to help people than huddled in some bomb shelter somewhere looking out only for myself. I would rather die for compassion than self preservation.