Wednesday, April 18, 2007

End Times Indifference

Having identified some valid reasons that Christians have for eschewing the environmental movement, I feel the need to mention an area in which some Christians--through less sound reasoning--tend to abdicate their God-mandated role in creation care. The subject of this post then is the area of eschatology--one's view of the end times.

Ever since Jesus ascended to heaven following his resurrection, his disciples have recognized that they live in the "last days," that this age of the world will end with the parousia--his second coming. The reason that Christians have universally believed in this parousia is that it is taught by nearly all the New Testament writers (e.g., Paul in I Thess. 4:15-17 and II Thess. 1:8, Peter in II Pet. 1:16 and 3:10, John in I John 2:28, James in James 5:7-8, and Jude in Jude 14) as well as by Jesus himself (as in Mt. 16:27 and Lk 22:27). Christians everywhere and throughout church history have acknowledged both the fact and the imminence of the promised return of Christ.

Besides articulating the fact of a second coming of Christ and the end of this age, the Bible identifies signs that will precede this great event. These include evangelism of the world, a conversion of Jews, a period of apostasy (in which many will fall away from the faith), an increase in wars, famines, and earthquakes, and a great persecution of the faithful.

With these signs in mind, many 19th-, 20th-, and 21st-century Christians (as well as many cultists) have convinced themselves that they were (are) living in the very last days, and that Christ is coming again in their lifetime. In our day, the most dogmatic in this belief hold to a relatively recent interpretation of Bible prophecy known as dispensationalism. This interpretation, credited to the Plymouth Brethren J.N. Darby (ca. 1830), was popularized by the Scofield Study Bible and much more recently by the Left Behind series of fictional apocalyptic novels and movies. This particular interpretation has been held by only a minority of Christians during a very small portion of the church age. Nonetheless, its modern adherents point to the reestablishment of Israel as a nation, to current unrest in the Middle East, to the moral decline of Western culture, and to other factors in order to assure themselves that "this is it!"

Such end-time beliefs are pertinent to our discussion of our responsibility to be good stewards of God's creation. To the degree that Christians are certain that ours is among the very last generation, stewardship of the earth becomes an unnecessary consideration. Why should I worry about future generations when I know that this is the last?

Let me be perfectly clear here. This view is not the prevailing one even today within Christendom. Nonetheless, there is a significant segment of the church in America where this idea is accepted uncritically. Again, no one (to my knowledge) is articulating (preaching or writing) that we should not care about the environment because we know ours is the last generation. But I and many others have encountered this eschatological certainty and its accompanying environmental indifference in many conservative, fundamentalist circles.

My purpose here is not to critique dispensationalism per se. Rather, I mean to argue against such certainty (and its practical consequences) by a common sense appeal to what history teaches us and by reference to explicit Scriptures warning against such certainty.

First, it is clear that the prophecies concerning the end times--like many biblical prophecies--involve multiple fulfillments. Thus even Jesus' own longest treatment of the end of the age (the "Olivet Discourse" of Mt. 24) applies both to events that occurred during that generation (the seige of Jerusalem and destruction of the temple by Rome in A.D. 70) and to yet-future events. Indeed, most Christians will acknowledge that the entire church age has been characterized by the "signs" of the last days (and of persecution in particular), though most also anticipate an increase in such things before the end.

For this reason, generations throughout the church age have believed--and many have had plenty of reason to believe--that they lived in the very last days. Even the Apostle Paul seems to have expected the parousia to occur during his lifetime. Certainly Christians who witnessed the (aforementioned) seige of Jerusalem could be excused for thinking they were witnessing the end of the world. In like manner, the Europeans of the fourth and fifth centuries saw the entire civilized world overrun by barbarians. Again in the ninth and tenth centuries, Christendom was largely obliterated by Vikings, Maygars, and Muslims. In each case--and by God's providence--his people stood fast and endured these overwhelming onslaughts, and eventually rebuilt, recivilized and re-evangelized the world that had so drastically changed for the worse in their respective lifetimes. I submit that many who endured the Nazi regime and witnessed the Holocaust were likewise tempted to believe that things couldn't get any worse and that surely the end had come.

The lesson from history, then, would seem to be that we are unable to say with certainty when the sovereign Creator will choose to put an end to this stage of history. Moreover (lo and behold!), one of the most explicit teachings of Scripture on this subject is just that--that we cannot know the timing of the second coming. After discussing the signs of those last days, Jesus says (as recorded in Mark 13:32),
But concerning that day or that hour, no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.
One of the very last things Jesus is recorded as saying before his ascension is "It is not for you to know times or seasons that the Father has fixed by his own authority." Paul assures the believers at Thessalonica that they did not need to know the exact time of the second coming (I Thess. 5:1-2), while Peter indicates that it is God's patience that causes the parousia to be delayed (II Pet. 3:9).

Scripture teaches that Christ's followers are to await with hope and longing his return and the culmination of his purposes for this creation. But over against that are the many expectations that we are to be found at our posts, going about the business to which we are called. The central message of Jesus' earthly ministry was not heaven, a future millenial reign, or even eternity. Rather, it was that his first advent--the incarnation--ushered in the kingdom of God there and then. We already live within the kingdom of God and, until he tells us otherwise, we are to be salt and light in this world. This means making disciples--helping others into that already-present kingdom--but it also means fulfilling the even older directives to be good stewards of the creation in which God has placed us. In the Lord's own words (Lk. 12:42-48),
Who then is the faithful and wise manager, whom his master will set over his household...? Blessed is that servant whom his master will find so doing when he comes. Truly, I say to you, he will set him over all his possessions... Everyone to whom much was given, of him much will be required, and from him to whom they entrusted much, they will demand the more.


Ben Larson said...

Powerfully said, Rick :)

Dan said...

Excellent argument Rick and even if you do believe that the rapture is imminent, it does not preclude you from caring for God's creation. I believe it is a sin to litter because you are being disrespectful to God's majestic work.

I know that Dawkins and others have said that dispensationalism of the premillenial variety has caused global warming...I think we need to counter that by telling them that true Christians would not litter or pollute because it is a sin.