2012 and Eschatology: It’s Not the End of the World

16 November 2009

Christopher J Wiles

writer | speaker | servant

Did we really need another film about the end of the world?  Apparently, yes.

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you know that Roland Emmerich is the director of such end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it kinds of films such as Independence Day, Godzilla and, most recently, The Day After Tomorrow.  The latter film makes me wonder what ground is left to tread with his latest venture, 2012. 

2012 is the year that the Mayan calendar supposedly ends, prompting the interpretation that this is some ironclad doomsday prophecy.  Emmerich’s film is based on this global apocalypse.

Of course, there is also a Facebook page entitled “Shut up; the world won’t end in 2012.”  At first I thought this was humorous, until I noticed that it had quickly devolved into an anti-religious forum.

But the “doomsday” subgenre is hardly limited to Emmerich’s work.  Similar elements are found in such films as I Am Legend and any number of zombie films.  Even recent TV series “Flash Forward” has touched on the theme of global ruin.

THE END OF THE WORLD AS WE KNOW IT…

What’s the appeal?  What is man’s preoccupation with the end?  I suggest five broad trends:

(1)   In The Truman Show, Truman (Jim Carrey) comments on a novelty button that reads, “How’s it going to end?” (an ironic reference to the “show” itself).  “I was wondering that myself.”  There’s a certain kind of person that has to flip to the end of the novel to know the ending before they get there.  Apocalyptic films offer us a glimpse of how things might look at world’s end.

(2)   These films often serve as cautionary tales of man’s hubris over nature.  Godzilla was filmed in the context of hysteria of nuclear proliferation.  The Day After Tomorrow was filmed in the context of man’s new enemy of climate change.  Even critics who found the science of the latter film laughable conceded their respect of a film that addressed the issue of climate change.

(3)   They offer a sense of safety.  In Michael Crichton’s novel State of Fear, he suggests that fear is often used to promote public awareness because it allows safety to become “marketable.”  Like Dickens’ “Ghost of Christmas Future,” these films often probe man’s fears in a way that prompts at least some to wonder if “these are the things that will be, or simply the things that might be?”

(4)   These films bring man’s nature into sharp contrast.  In every film there will always be scenes of selfish masses struggling to survive by any means necessary (the “minivan” scene in Spielburg’s version of War of the Worlds is an excellent example of this).  At the same time, there will also be a few – or even just one – who triumphs through the power of their own reason and courageous determination.  Audiences always love the hero, and in the face of such apocalyptic terror, a hero is needed ever the more desperately.

(5)   By virtue of their subject matter, these films dwarf our problems.  This theme was – in a way – at the heart of the film Cloverfield, where a young lover’s quarrel dissipated when faced with the threat of a looming monster.  The Greek tragedians used the word catharsis to describe their plays – that a story could offer emotional release through its depiction of violence or tragedy.  These films offer the highest form of cathartic escapism.  Whose problems at work could possibly seem important in the face of such tragedy?

WHEN EDEN SANK TO GRIEF

I can’t help but wonder if ultimately these films reflect our innate knowledge that things are not as they were meant to be.  Since the day that Eden “sank to grief,” we have been left with the struggle of picking up her pieces.

Eden’s curse tells us that the ground would “produce thorns and thistles” (Ge 3:18), meaning that nature herself has been placed under the same curse that man’s sin has wrought.  Environmental calamity is the ultimate end product of a cursed creation.  Even some astrophysicists suggest that the universe will come to an end, and they argue in the language of mathematics whether the end “will come with a bang or with a whimper.”

ESCHATOLOGY: IT’S NOT THE END OF THE WORLD

In the language of theology, the church has spoken the word eschatology, meaning “last things.”  In the last century, there has been an increased fascination (obsession?) with this subject.  Books as well as numerous films depict the terrible disasters waiting for those who are (ahem) left behind after the rapture of the church (for a fuller treatment of this issue, I highly recommend Paul Boyer’s book, When Time Shall Be No More which offers an outsider’s perspective on the man’s preoccupation with Biblical prophecy).

While these are things that the Bible mentions, they are not, by themselves, representative of the Christian hope.  The prophet Amos writes, “Woe to those who wish for the day of the Lord! Why do you want the Lord’s day of judgment to come? It will bring darkness, not light.” (Amos 5:18, NET)  Israel was wrong to wish for the Day of the Lord.  They believed that this day would bring them prosperity by eliminating their enemies.  But instead they found themselves in the same condition.  It is a strange thing, then, in our day, to wish for this onrush of judgment on those left behind after the rapture.

Which is why I have often said that the word eschatology is something of a misnomer, for it speaks more strongly of new things.  At scripture’s conclusion, we find a vision of a new heaven and a new earth – a creation restored to Eden’s perfection.  It is a world where Emmerich’s terrifying visions will be as out of place as the thorns and thistles in our gardens.  It is a world of neither sorrow nor shame, and a great river flows down the streets that have no name.

The Christian hope is therefore not for future destruction, but for a new beginning.  This is what C. S. Lewis speaks of in his Narnia novel, The Last Battle:

1136764_21619849It is as hard to explain how this sunlit land was different from the old Narnia as it would be to tell you how the fruits of that country taste. Perhaps you will get some idea of it if you think like this. You may have been in a room in which there was a window that looked out on a lovely bay of the sea or a green valley that wound away among mountains. And in the wall of that room opposite to the window there may have been a looking-glass. And as you turned away from the window you suddenly caught sight of that sea or that valley, all over again, in the looking glass. And the sea in the mirror, or the valley in the mirror, were in one sense just the same as the real ones: yet at the same time there were somehow different — deeper, more wonderful, more like places in a story: in a story you have never heard but very much want to know.
The difference between the old Narnia and the new Narnia was like that. The new one was a deeper country: every rock and flower and blade of grass looked as if it meant more. I can’t describe it any better than that: if ever you get there you will know what I mean.
It was the Unicorn who summed up what everyone was feeling. He stamped his right fore-hoof on the ground and neighed, and then he cried:
“I have come home at last! This is my real country! I belong here. This is the land I have been looking for all my life, though I never knew it till now. The reason why we loved the old Narnia is that is sometimes looked a little like this. Bree-hee-hee! Come further up, come further in!”

HOPE SEEKING UNDERSTANDING

The Christian life is, in one very real sense, spes quaerens intellectum (“hope seeking understanding”).  Following Calvin, faith is defined as trust in God’s promise.  Hope, then, is the expectation of fulfilled promise.  This is why Paul describes hope as the outworking of perseverance (Rom 5:4): hope gives meaning to our struggles as we live in the confidence of an imminent and better future.  German writer Jurgen Moltmann describes this hope as a “goal” that “gives meaning to the journey and its distresses; and today’s decision to trust in the call of God is a decision pregnant with future.”

Hope is what we find saturating the interstices of history – between the promises of God and their future culmination – a distance that Os Guiness describes as only the length “between the lightning and the thunder.”

Our lives here are to be lived not in fear of a sudden, inglorious end, but in the expectant hope of an approaching, glorious new beginning and a future that stretches into infinity.

Eschatology.  It’s the beginning of a world as we’ve never known it.

And I feel fine.

16 November 2009

Christopher J Wiles

writer | speaker | servant

Chris is a writer and speaker from the Charlottesville area. He regularly serves as a research writer for Docent Research Group in addition to doing some guest speaking.

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