Local News: This Thursday's Mission Mississippi Prayer Breakfast will take place at 6:45 at St. Andrews Episcopal Cathedral (305 E. Capitol Street, Jackson, MS). The purposes of these bi-weekly prayer breakfasts is to foster greater unity across racial and denominational lines among Christians in the metro-Jackson area. The rector of St. Andrew's is Rev. Edward O'Connor, and the contact person for the prayer breakfast is Rev. Carol Borne Spencer, the coordinator for missions. For more information, call (601) 354-1535 or e-mail email@example.com.
The world didn't end in 2012 as many feared it would, in the wake of the Mayan calendar controversy. That doesn't mean, though, that apocalyptic fears have totally subsided. According to a recent poll from the Public Religion Research Institute, which was reported in Presbyterian News Service late last month, of 1,1018 Americans, approximately 36% believe recent severe weather trends are signs of what the New Testament calls the "end times".
According to the article, Poll: More than one-third of Americans see signs of end times in extreme weather, 65% of "white evangelical Protestants" hold this belief, 21% of Catholics, and 15% of "religiously unaffiliated". The study found that 63% of those polled believe cataclysmic weather is due to the phenomena of global warming. Political differences also emerged in the poll, as surveys indicate 70% of Democrats attribute bizarre weather trends to global warming, while only 43% of Republicans do.
Clearly, the end of the world is on many people's radar, and many people see unpredictable weather as having religious significance. How should the Christian church respond?
It would be easy, on one hand, to want to tap into the "doomsday" mindset and lure people to a faith in Christ that is based on fear. The problem, though, is that such conversions are, by their very nature, hard to sustain. If people come to Christ to be ready for the rapture this year, and then live another year without the awaited rapture happening, they may grow lax in their faith at best, or turn into skeptics at worst. We mustn't then overreact by exploiting the opportunity to use people's end-times fears as evangelistic opportunities.
We also mustn't misrepresent these statistics, as if they proved a religious revival were happening. It's human nature to want to know the future, and Americans' preoccupation with prophecy is no automatic sign of sanctification. There is a reason why fortune tellers and psychic hotlines are so successful. We think that our lives would be better if we could know the future, but doesn't experience teach us otherwise. How fun would that last weekend with your grandfather have been if you'd known he would have a stroke the following day? How fun would that birthday party have been for your friend if you'd known she was going to have a car wreck right afterwards. It is God's mercy, not his sternness, that keeps us blind to the future. Still we want to know more. We want to know what direction history is moving, want to know what our role in the "big picture" is going to be, although that is not something that really can be known except in hindsight, long after we're gone.
Just as the Christmas season provides a perfect opportunity to discuss God becoming a Man with people who might otherwise be averse to such "religious" conversations, the spike in interest about end-times prophecy provide an opportunity for Christians to share their faith with people. For one thing, Christians stand out in being a group of people who can look to the consummation of history, not with fear and trepidation, but with hope. Christ's second coming will have radically different effects on people, depending on what they have done with the gospel; for some, his return will be like a groom coming for his bride. For others, it will be like the Judge finally coming to execute punishment.
On a personal note, how do you respond when pondering the world's end, whether this is still in the distant future or right around the corner? If this is something that strikes fear in your heart, it need not be this way. The heart of Christian faith is not about fear, but rather about love. If the end of the world prompts nothing in your heart except anxiety, this is not because God wants it be that way. God wants us to fear him, in the sense of showing respect, but not to be afraid of him, in the sense of running from him. Christ's first coming was all about redemption; he died on the cross to pay for the sins of the world. In him full forgiveness is abundantly available. Christ's second coming holds no ominous terror for those who've trusted in the work he did during his first coming. If God is nothing more than an angry judge in your perspective today, this is not because God wants to be perceived in this manner. God wants you to be able to relate to him as a loving heavenly Father. God wants to be your great comfort, not your great terror.
But apart from Christ, his presence is terrible. He is a consuming fire. We can no more, in our own strength, stand in God's presence than we could stand in the middle of the sun--we would be obliterated in an instant. But if we stand before God in Christ, meaning our sins are forgiven for his sake and his righteousness is covering us, then we can stand before God. What the end of the world means to each of us individually depends first on whether or not we believe the gospel. For the one who's been reconciled to God through Christ, the greatest fear is not loss of this world, but loss of God. For the one in love with Jesus, the loss of this world is tolerable, if only we can go through it with Jesus. As an early church father said, "He who has God and all things has no more than he who has only God."
Is global warming a real threat? This is something Christians are free to disagree on, but for the sake of argument assuming that it is, even this should be no cause for panic among Christians. Whatever climate changes occur can only happen with God's permission. We've already been told in Scripture that this world is fleeting so if it were to all burn up tomorrow, we shouldn't allow this to shock us into a stupor. Our hope is not rooted in this world, and so as discussions about its end abound, Christians again stand out as being citizens of another world.
Finally, a word of caution is needed. There are so many systems, so many "isms", when it comes to interpreting the New Testament's teaching about the end of the world. Christians should be very cautious about having a "know-it-all" attitude on this subject. We don't have it all figured out and that is okay. Many details are, and probably will remain, ambiguous, but what's most important is very clear: Christ will come again to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end.