Whenever I read one those apocalyptic passages in the Bible, the words to the R.E.M. song start running through my mind: “It’s the end of the world as we know it. It’s the end of the world as we know it and I feel fine.” Watch Video
That song was released twenty years ago. Since then, songs about the end of the world are more common than ever, along with a shift in mood from one of ironic playfulness to pessimism and sometimes even despair, especially post 9/11. Radiohead (one of my favorite bands) made a fortune in the 90s writing lyrics which are downright depressing. So what’s up?
In Luke 21:5-19 Jesus predicts the destruction of the Temple, but in the same breath he warns his listeners not to be led astray by those who claim that the end is here. A significant number of scholars agree that Jesus, towards the end of his ministry, did make a prediction to this effect (Fitzmyer, Luke X-XXIV, 1326). Like us, he lived at a time when people were thin on hope and desperate for change. The Temple and the ruling elite were dismally corrupt, not to mention that the nation of Israel was being crushed under the iron shod foot of the Roman Empire.
Like now, people in Jesus’ time responded to this sort of crisis in different ways. While some joined cults and ran off to the desert, others were plotting some violent means to cleanse the land of the Romans and its corrupt leaders. Most assumed that it would take no less than a cataclysmic event to shake things up. Just about everyone in Jerusalem, revolutionaries and religious freaks alike, were waiting for something to happen, something big enough to change the world.
Luke, however, is writing after the Temple had already been destroyed by the Romans in 70 C.E. His version is almost entirely dependent on Mark’s gospel, which was written while the Temple was still standing, except that Luke has eliminated Mark’s equation of the end of Jerusalem with the end of the world (Fitzmyer, Luke X-XXIV, 1328-29). Mark may have expected the destruction of the temple to coincide with Jesus’ return, but Luke knows for certain that it didn’t it happen that way: the Temple was destroyed, but the end they were waiting for never arrived.
In many ways our culture is experiencing a general loss of hope similar to the Jews of Jesus’ time. Not only on the part of the younger generations, but across the board. There are a large number of Christians who wait for the end times when Jesus will return and whisk them away to heaven. There are those who see the destruction of the World Trade Center as the proof that Jesus is going to return any day now [see example].
Whatever your interpretation of 9/11 might be, most of us are still reeling from the cataclysmic nature of that event, but let me ask you: did it really change anything? I think we all expected 9/11 to shake things up more than it did. Thats not to say that it was a good thing, far from it, but in some way it disappointed us and our sense of expectation.
After all, everyone born after WWII has lived in fear of a singular event: nuclear war. My mom tells me what it was like in the 50s expecting the “A-bomb” to drop at any moment. She describes air raid drills during school and doing the ‘duck and cover’ under her desk.
Like those who lived during Jesus’ time, we’ve all grown up living in anticipation of the end of the world.
Something changed in the 90s: the fear of nuclear war that characterized my mother’s generation is now mixed with a kind of fascination or even hopeful anticipation of the end.
This accounts for the phenomenal success not only of the Left Behind books (and now the Left Behind Games), but Gen-X writers like Douglas Coupland and Chuck Palahniuk, who depict the end of the world as the only thing powerful enough to interrupt the endless malaise of contemporary life or rescue them from the relentless cycle of work and consumption. Its like the Radiohead song the bends, “…waiting for something to happen and i wish it were the sixties i wish i could be happy i wish i wish i wish that something would happen..”
But as Baudrillard (my favorite postmodern thinker) says “in the New World Order there are no longer any revolutions…no longer any crises, but malfunctions, faults, breakdowns, aneurysmal ruptures”(Jean Baudrillard, The Intelligence of Evil, 127). In our attempt to delay the onset of death, to stop growing old, to remove all the bad things which can happen, technology has deferred those events which give meaning to history; which give meaning to our lives. The costs is “a dissafection with life that is itself unbearable” (Baudrillard, 136). So that postmodern existence is infected with malaise and resentment: as expressed in Thom Yorke’s The Clock, ” Time is running out for us, but you just move the hands upon the clock..” The end that forever hangs over our heads, that which we both fear and long for, never actually arrives. Like the first line of the Bright Eyes song Road to Joy, ” The sun came up with no conclusions..”
Luke seems to suggest that in our longing for change we are too easily led astray. We end up inventing strategies which deprive of us of anything new breaking into our reality. If instead of plotting terrorist acts or looking for an escape, we just stand still, we actually create the space for new meaning to enter our lives. Does this mean the end of the world? It will probably feel that way - but which is worse: a continuation of the same without the possibility of anything new on the horizon, or allowing some degree of uncertainty. Living in a heightened state of fear and anticipation, waiting for the end to arrive any time, deprives us of the significant moments taking place in our lives every day. And honestly, speaking for myself, if Jesus does return someday, I think the only way I’ll even be open to that is if I can experience his presence in that day to day reality of my life.