Seeking Faith at the End of the World
I can recall the first moment I felt the pangs of disbelief, marked with an electric current of fear: I saw a man gliding down an escalator inside his own mall to announce his presidential election bid. The gaudiness, the banality of the setting, his face, his words and cadence. The anti-christ, so much more garish and unsubtle than I had been taught to believe. I watched with growing trepidation, months after months of almost unbelievable vitriol, rhetoric, lumping entire people groups into fearful or hateful categories, friends brushing away my concerns that this could actually happen. On election night, one year ago, I sat in my living room in the middle of prayer meeting and I checked my phone. He’s winning, I announced to the faithful gathered at my house. He is going to be our next president. We were all shocked into silence, and then a few people tried to say encouraging words about the future, tried to pray as if God were in control of our politics. But I couldn’t hear them anymore. I had already gone to a place deep inside of me. I was already busy preparing again for the end of the world.
As a child, I was taught about the end of the world. Eschatology was a huge part of my life and upbringing. And then, on November 8th 2016 I was plunged into a world I had been taught to look out for: feeling powerless in the face of God-orchestrated political events, people rising to power on the backs of the oppressed, high levels of hysteria, rumblings among other countries, unrest, protests, false calls for unity, the need to prepare for things to get much, much worse in the foreseeable future. I had dreams at night about being on a cruise ship that had been turned into a lifeboat for those seeking to flee to safety. I had dreams at night about surviving, while everyone around me perished.
If I watched the news, or looked at Twitter for too long, I was plunged back into my eight-year-old mind: will I survive the apocalypse? “The Conversation” as Rebecca Solnit calls it--the constant waves of fear and despair and anger I was seeing in my mostly-progressive circles--brought all my apocalyptic fears back in a flash. Although now it was also compounded by disillusionment, since the very people who had prepared me for the last days ended up being the ones who ushered it in.
The twist that I never saw coming was that the apocalyptic threads of theology I picked up as a child can be traced parallel to evangelical Christianity’s obsession with obtaining cultural power. In years where democrats were elected (or civil rights demonstrations skyrocketed), Christian apocalyptic thinking became more popular, books were sold, theologies of a world getting worse and worse until it suddenly ended grew. But when things were looking up—Republican presidents, for instance--the end times language quieted down.
I had grown and drifted away from many of the political beliefs of my religious community while still retaining much of the doctrine and values. So I wasn’t paying attention to the prophecies and dire predictions sprinkled throughout conservative, charismatic websites during the Obama years. I didn’t quite understand when the first Christians to openly support Donald Trump with enthusiasm were the same people who had said only a few years before it was all going to end. Why did Charisma magazine publish a piece declaring Trump to be a “Trumpet of the Lord” way back in June of 2016? Why did big-name evangelicals like Franklin Graham and Jerry Falwell Jr. endorse a candidate with a history of misogyny, racism, greed, and corruption with enthusiasm, pointing to the election night victory as a sign of the miraculous intervention of the hand of God? Did they really think they had safely averted the apocalypse? Or were they really just celebrating a return to power?
When the president declared in June his intention to pull out of the Paris agreement, several prominent conservative Christians publicly agreed with him. They said: climate change is a myth, it is not a matter of salvation, God made humans to be stewards of the earth so we could never mess it up so royally, Jesus will be returning in the end times to destroy the earth as we know it so why not hurry along the process? It was a gleeful march towards the apocalypse, because the ones who ushered it in thought that they, of course, would be the ones to survive it.
I read the news with dismay and something akin to deja vu. Climate change, a spike in ICE raids in my neighborhood, travel bans on countries I loved. My apocalypse had arrived, just as I secretly always knew it would. I just didn’t think people claiming my religion would be the ones in power, that we would be the ones to usher it in.
At my conservative Christian college, women did not teach the Bible classes. And yet, somehow, they made an exception for the class on the book of Revelation that I ended up taking almost a decade ago. I sat, enthralled, listening to a dignified and intelligent woman go over the book that I had poured over so often as a child, trying to match up the murky riddles, longing to know what was in store for my future, and resigning myself to a state of fearful attention. But this teacher pointed out different parts. She told me that the book that made me the most afraid was really a message of hope. Revelation is the story of a God of justice overcoming the corrupt powers at work in the world, and it is about the restoration of God’s dream for humanity--including people from every nation, tribe, and language being ushered into a world free of tears and suffering and death. The message of the messiah in this book is not one of fear nor damnation. It is this: “Behold, I am making all things new! Write these things down, for they are trustworthy and true.” (Rev 21:5)
No brimstone, just the promise of restoration. This was a different book, and a different view of the world, than I had absorbed as a young child. There was no fear to be found, just a longing for a better world rooted in justice and equality, a world where no one ever had to live through the destruction of everything they knew and loved. The seeds of hope started to be planted in me. Could this be true? Could God's dream for the world be one of new life, instead of fire?
My brother-in-law is South Sudanese. He listens to the white American Christians he knows talk about prophecies of the end times coming soon, and he chuckles. War, death, famine, poverty, sickness, oppression--these things have been experienced by my brother-in-law and countless others around the globe, both currently and in recent history. The true end of the world, however, will only happen when white Americans experiences these terrors. Then, and only then, he told me, will the apocalypse count.
Many of my current neighbors are refugees and immigrants. They too have survived, and are busy rebuilding worlds in the shell of the old. I watch them cook food and parent their children, and they catch my despondent eyes and tell me not to worry. I am trying to believe them, but old beliefs die slowly. My whole life I have been looking for a prophecy telling me exactly what is to come, who to fear, and what destruction to expect. Instead, all I have been given is this day in front of me.
At the grocery store I still think idly of stocking up on bottled water, of buying large canisters of dried potato soup. I think about when I was a child and my mother taught me what it meant that life would not always go on forever, that we might need to one day work hard to ensure survival. I think about how I was raised to resist a government that oppresses people, and how persistence was taught to me from a very young age. To face the fear, to pay attention to the signs, to be prepared, to watch out for the vulnerable among us. As it turns out, my apocalyptic background has been both a boon and a burden in these current political times. I am both acutely aware that we are in a new time, and that the world I thought I lived in is gone and never to return.
The end of one world must be given careful attention, because that is what apocalypse means: a revelation, an unfolding, a new way to move forward out of the ashes of the old. I am busy preparing, once again, for the end of the world. I wish we had all been ready, indeed. I wish we had been listening to the real prophets in our midst, telling us America never has been as great as we all so wish it was.
But I am finding it is never too late to cultivate hope in the midst of despair. It is never too late to learn from those who have survived the apocalypses they were born into. And now is the time to work towards the rebuilding of a world that is better than the one we left behind.