Is This the End of the World?
An epidemic on a planetary scale, countless sick and dead people, statistics that have a horrifying effect, tens of millions of job losses, hundreds of billions of financial losses, political measures never seen before, a risk of global economic collapse, worldwide demonstrations, the rise of hatred, authoritarianism, anguish, selfishness, anxiety… 2020 looks like a very bad science fiction movie!
No wonder then that this question is on the lips and social networking pages of thousands of people around the world: “Is this the end of the world?”
This question has haunted humankind enough to develop into a science. In theology, ‘eschatology’ is the name given to the study of matters related to the things of the end (from the Greek eschaton, meaning ‘last’). A closer look reveals that pseudo eschatological prophecies are legion across all cultures, disciplines and worldviews.
The ‘End of the World’: Between the Bible and Culture
While the various ‘end of the world’ scenarios raise the possibility that an uncontrollable accident could bring our civilisation to an end, what distinguishes the biblical understanding is that this end is not an accident, but the result of God’s judgment on fallen humanity. And our Western popular imagination has already integrated some biblical conception of judgment, its function, and its result. The almost universal adoption of the rainbow as a sign reminding us that ‘all will be well,’ inspired directly by the story of Noah and the flood in the Bible, further reinforces this notion that there is a civilisational Christian sub-consciousness.
This idea that the ‘end’ is not simply an end, but the result of the action of an agent who comes to bring some order to a disordered world, finds its source in the biblical conception of the end times. However, despite the overlap between our popular culture and the biblical story that inspired the question of the end of the world, the Bible is at odds with contemporary culture and it astonishes.
Basically, nowadays, two eschatologies, two great narratives oppose each other in trying to answer the question: “Where are our society and our world heading?” The first, the great narrative of total progress, was born at the same time as the Age of Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution in the 18th and 19th centuries. It tells us that the material, economic and moral circumstances of the world are destined to get better and better with the help of reason, science, and the benevolence of human beings. Industrial progress will bring comfort and ease to all. Economic development will give us access to wealth. The development of critical thinking, reason and the end of obscurantism will put an end to wars and the dark sides of the human soul. We will arrive at a “Perpetual Peace” (Immanuel Kant), at a “Grand Soir” (or ‘Great Evening,’ the communist expectation of a great social event mainly aimed at the elimination of the capitalist system).
The second narrative, which has been rising in recent decades, predicts a miserable future not only for humanity but also for the rest of creation. The first and essential cause of this doom is precisely the thing that gives so much hope to the progressives: the human world will accelerate its industrial development on a global scale, with cataclysmic consequences for the planet. Whether it is the collapse of biodiversity, global warming, ozone depletion, the disruption of geochemical cycles, or the fact that the world will have less and less oil, the science and narrative of collapse (collapsology) have inspired many voices to cry out that the ultimate destruction and the end of human beings are at hand.
Some progressives and collapsologists vociferate with lectures and activism to demonstrate that the other side is wrong. There is indeed a real tension between the narratives of total progress and the narratives of total collapse. And it raises the question: should we hope or despair for the future? All this does not make it so easy for us!
In this tension between the two great eschatologies, the biblical narrative, which offers another voice, a third way, no doubt helps us to see things more clearly. Western culture has, unsurprisingly, inherited from the biblical narrative the idea of the end of the world. That said, culture sometimes—often—distorts the original message of the Bible, and this requires a critical look.
In fact, the biblical expression for “end of the world” appears in Jesus’ mouth, who addresses his disciples (his apprentices) gathered before him in his very last speech, and announces in conclusion: “I am with you all the time, until the end of the world.” (Matthew 28:20.)
The End of a World-System
This word “world” translates from the Greek aiôn, which means ‘time, epoch, era, age’ and therefore “world” in the sense of order of things, order of the world, or, in a language drawn from political science, world-system. Jesus therefore uses a language that is in line with the idea that there are great epochs, great eras, and that these epochs are coming to an end.
In one of his well-known speeches on this theme, Jesus tells an agricultural parable that also marked our culture and language, the parable of the wheat and the tares (Matthew 13:24-30). In this picturesque story, he speaks of a farmer who sows grains of wheat in his field, while an enemy who wants to harm him comes to sow bad grain, tares. The tares are a plant that looks very much like wheat, except that it is a weed and that it can ruin the harvest at the end! The farm workers then go to alert the owner of the disaster. What can be done? Tear out the weed, at the cost of tearing out the good grain at the same time? Or do nothing at all, at the risk that the whole harvest—and all the efforts undertaken—will be reduced to nothing?
Neither one, nor the other! Jesus, who further explains the meaning of this parable, equates the good grain with “those who belong to the Kingdom,” those who belong to an order of things in which human beings live according to their primary vocation, reconciled to a God of love and justice. These agents of the good evolve simultaneously with that which “belongs to the Evil One” and therefore with all that results from the negative and destructive forces in this world. Ultimately it is that world-system, based on Jesus’ parable, which is coming to an end.
Jesus leads us to see that we should neither believe that everything is ruined for the future, nor think that the future is heading towards pure improvement: good and evil will coexist until the time when both will bear fruit completely, just as wheat and tares are distinguished from each other when they are ripe. Once mature, a radical distinction will have to be made with that which allows humans to grow and mature fully in the image of God: everything that bears truth, goodness and beauty will then be magnified. The rest will be destroyed as the weeds in the fields are destroyed.
He is Sowing a New World
Jesus identifies himself with the one who sows the good seed in his field. His field is the world, he says, here expressed in another Greek word, kosmos. (Matthew 18:38)
The biblical narrative thus features this motif of judgment which appears literally from the beginning (Genesis) to the end (Revelation). The warning of the coming judgment is one of the main themes throughout the biblical narrative. This same kind of warning is also present at the heart of Jesus’ last words before his arrest and crucifixion.
Jesus thus announces that he is the incarnation of the One who generates in the world not simply ‘the Good’ in the abstract sense, but a new order of things, made up of restoration, meaning action for good, healed relationships, and total well-being. Far from weeds, crises, cries and weeping, Jesus announces that he is sowing a new world in our cosmos! Intriguing, isn’t it?
Christel Lamère Ngnambi
6 July 2020 (first version on 6 April 2020)
A longer discussion of this theme can be found in an article
and podcast episode in French on the imagoDei website
Photo by Markus Siemens on Unsplash