In this episode, an actual third episode of Season 2, Joe writes about how he misses thinking that the world might end today.
American Christianity has always been eschatological. It has always viewed life with an expectation of an imminent end, where we are moments away from our personal finality or a step from the Day of Judgment. Consider Jonathan Edwards or Michael Wigglesworth’s poem, “The Day of Doom: Or, A Poetical Description of the Great and Last Judgment.” We are always a moment away from the return of Jesus.
Depending on the particular strain of theology, this return can come slowly, after a thousand years of peace. Or it can come instantly, before I finish this sentence. It’s this latter form—the “thief in the night,” the “twinkling of an eye“—that I have lived longest with. It is this ongoing sense that we are living in a unique age, that when things get bad enough—or too organized, such as a peaceable and efficient union of nations—Jesus will come for us. He will call us home.
My mom believes in this—the Rapture—and for several years, I did. I think her life is more religiously rich for believing still, as I, having read too much theology and history and recognizing that the hopeful whisking away of us Christians into the clouds is a recent idea. It is, best I can tell, not at all likely. Though, to borrow from one of my favorite preachers, if I’m wrong about that, please grab me on the way up.
The Rapture, when I believed in it, game me hope that I have lost along the way. For one thing, it served as a bond with other evangelicals. We read the news differently, saw every moment differently. And a war, a rumor of war, was followed by a wordless knowing, a quiet and aware glance, a speechless recognition that this could be it. This could be the fulfillment of a prophecy that makes the clock—the Doomsday wristwatch that only God the Father wears—click one more minute to midnight.
Living in the world with the expectation of the imminent end gave life a steady dose of adrenaline. Rather than being frightened by the news, we could find comfort in it. We had, of course, no concept of history, no way of reconciling the many signs that have already come and gone—the ways that people, including Christians, had already lived through—or were violently killed by—plagues, wars, pestilence, ecological disasters. The Rapture eschatology knew only those histories that include Israel or advanced the world toward a unified global government. It did not have a way of fully comprehending how ravaging life had already been for most of humanity. Or how the churches named or existing when the Book of Revelation was penned may have experienced all—and worse—of what the book seemed to depict. Or, as Corrie Ten Boom, the Dutch Christian who described the Nazi occupation of Holland and her imprisonment in a concentration camp, noted, that much of the church, at the time Christians in America were talking of Rapture and escape from persecution, were experiencing horrors that made Revelation read like a nursery rhyme.
These flaws aside, the Rapture gave me an expectancy that was both absurd and envigorating—like a feverish crush that, in hindsight, leads to both a “what was I thinking?” feeling of foolishness and a tinge of sadness that he or she “wasn’t the one.” It is a little like that adage (which I have grown more suspicious of): “’Tis better to have loved and lost, than never to have loved at all.” It was, I think, better to have believed in a life that was always self-consciously expectant than to live always rationally and mundanely—a life that was almost certain to conclude in a hospital bed.
1970, the year before my birth, produce Hal Lindsey’s The Late Great Planet Earth, which sold 28 million copies in its first twenty years and led to a movie narrated by Orson Welles. That book encapsulated—or triggered—all that was right and wrong about the form of evangelicalism I grew connected to. The book and its adherents scoured the news for government movements, connecting existing nations to Old Testament prophecies. The description of Gog and Magog in the book of Ezekiel became a twentieth-century code for a war with the Soviet Union. The Bible was, page by page, a revealing message, like lemon juice scribbles on paper held over a heat lamp. It talked incessantly of 1948—or 1967—the establishment and expansion of the nation of Israel, the undeniably divine coincidences that birthed a country, the unseen hand that defended and expanded it. From that book and the movement it spoke to, the Bible was alive and constantly calling Christians to think and prepare, like restless horses in the moments before an earthquake.
I am, now, saddened that all of this fell apart — that 1988 (marking the forty years after the establishment of Israel) came and went with nothing except the election of another Republic president. No rise of an anti-Christ, no trumpet or shofar from heaven. (I was, during the first Gulf War, convinced I, a soldier, was living in the book of Isaiah, chapter 13, where Iraq equaled Babylon and the coalition of nations under President George H.W. Bush was the coalition in scripture. Instead, the war came and went and, in consolation, gave way to the eventual release of Nirvana’s Nevermind. I remain disappointed that the calendar’s turn from 1999 to 2000 was as uneventful, cosmically, as every turn of year before it. The world went on as regularly scheduled. No earthquake or series of earthquakes were enough to bring about the end Jesus spoke of in Matthew 24. No matter how much I turned my eyes to see or my ears to hear, I was blind, I was deaf, the world stopped speaking.
The loss of this expectancy cannot be overstated. Though I can point to the problems of a Rapture theology, I have no deep need or interest in taking it away from people who still hold it. As arrogant as it sounds — and as arrogant as it surely is —when I hear a Christian talk about a new American policy toward Israel—naming Jerusalem as the capital, for example—and watch the excitement of the Rapture people, I am tempted to dispel it all. Like how I told my, then-five-year-old daughter, while she went on about the dress she would wear for a middle-school boy at the baptist church we attended, “Elaina, you’re not going to marry James.” And my girl—daddy’s favorite—refused to speak to me for 36 hours after. I had thrown a cold and hopeless form of reality over her expectancy and possibility. And, to be honest, knowing what I know about James, I would have been quite pleased if a world existed in which my daughter wanted and was with a person of his qualities. I can, fourteen years later, transport back to the Safeway parking lot in Yakima and slap the younger, orthodox, reasonable me and whisper to him, “Shut up, you know-it-all, and just ask her what she and James will name their children.”
There is, in the creeds, an expectancy that aligns nicely to a theology of a sudden and definitive end. The rational, informed, sophisticated Sadducee in me has come to accept the language as so abstract and distant that it might as well be poetry: “I believe he will come again to judge the living and the dead.” It is the creed recited by Christians throughout the centuries, generation after generation—expectant and attending to the world with a belief—at least the possibility—that today could be the day. And the delay of that day has, among many of us, reduced that element of the creed to a formality and a tradition. Do we—except in the acknowledgment that any one of us is mortal and could die and could therefore on this day come face to face with God—really believe that this day might be unlike every other day in human history since some blessed moment in the first century?
I have long given up on the idea, even as I defend the virgin birth, the death and resurrection. But those historical statements are no different than the eschatological: they are as sure to happen as those things that have already happened. The creed—and the Christian conviction—sees the end as concrete and settled as the beginning. The world is part of a story both written and unfolding, both planned and spontaneous. That in every moment, there is room and reason for fear and assurance. We are letters and commas and periods waiting in the ink of a pen.
This morning, I’m bored of the world. As I’ve been bored of it for more years than I can count. It is, for me, stuck in the aimless cycle of Ecclesiastes. And as I grow older and more disappointed, I have come to think like that writer. I have even come to celebrate his or her wisdom, the way that living each day under the sun has shown the pleasure and meaninglessness— or “vanity” and “smoke”—of life: that we are all, at once, pathetic and fortunate. That every day always mundane and miraculous.
Ecclesiastes is a respectable book, one that even English profs can introduce into a lit course without apology, teaching its poetry, its wisdom, its insight into life under the sun. And we can expect a philosophy major to gravitate toward it, relate it back to the great Greek movements, revolving between Stoicism and Epicureanism. A perspective holding in tension the extremes of despair and expectation, all in a form and brevity that merits re-reading and meditation.
How different this is than showing the end of Matthew’s gospel as Jesus responds to the question of when will the end come and what will be the sign of its coming. Or of Revelation, its obscurity and scale—a long-winded and archaic vision of beasts and dragons and scrolls and an abyss—cryptic and superstitious, the fodder for horror movies. And we, I, am quick to note that Jesus is speaking of a moment that has come and gone: the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 C.E. (careful to say “C.E.” and not “A.D.”). Or that Revelation is part of a literary tradition that encodes political messages—that for a reader in the late first century, these images would all be evident. Think of how in a thousand years people will read Harry Potter and assume the world believes in Hogwarts and wizards, or they’ll find our endless archives of Star Wars references and make strange interpretations of our belief in “The Force” and Jedi. All of this—the scrolls, the silence in heaven—has already come and gone.
Yet that leaves me sad and bored. We, living in this moment, have been left out of the story. The book has been assembled and canonized with no part for us to play but to continue on unto our individual immanent deaths, each of us witnesses to a private apocalypse—some by stroke, some by cancer, some by accident. Each little apocalypse, both unique and generic, small and immense. But no great cosmic event, no coming in the clouds, no trumpet blast reverberating through every human ear. Only the sequence established, barring accident or untreatable disease: my grandparents will die (as their parents did) in hospice or hospital. Then my parents. Then in some sequence, me and my siblings. Then it will be my children’s job to be accepting and wise, to read Ecclesiastes and see the machine running on schedule: days pass, lives pass, better is a living dog than a dead lion. Elaina will not marry James. Israel will not renew the temple sacrifice. I will work until I can afford to retire. I will read through the latter pages of the gospel of Matthew, and my pulse will stay steady.
As I write this, the news is all redundant. The virus has entered the world—as viruses always have—and every story or post includes a set of numbers. Every story judges how leaders moved faster or more decisively—those numbers could be lower—as if those numbers weren’t going to be counted sooner or later, as if we are actually stopping something that can be stopped. I wonder if they have even read Ecclesiastes. Don’t they know that there is nothing new under the sun. They have, already, stopped calling the virus “novel”—the “novel coronavirus,” the new coronavirus. It no longer feels new. It feels as old as Gog and Magog. It’s always been here. It will always be here. World without end.
We are, I think, stuck here. Israel is in the news again. It is always in the news. The nation is quarantining, testing, treating the Palestinians the way King David treated the Philistines. But, so far, it has not announced plans to demolish the Dome of the Rock so it can rebuild the temple and re-instate ritual sacrifice, as the Rapture news and the Late Great Planet Earth people told us would happen. That is the news I’m waiting for: that the world, today—or even tomorrow—will do something new.
But, still, I have this vestigial hope, a strange sense of expectancy. Not that this plague is the plague of Revelation, destroying countless lives. But that the world is capable of newness, of remembering to be in wonder. And, this word echoes in me, like an old prayer or a TV theme song: from the very end of the book of Revelation, maranatha.
Come, Lord Jesus.
Theme music is “Holiday Gift” by Kai Engel, via Creative Commons. For artist information, see http://www.kai-engel.com