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Leader: End of the world? The least of our worries

18 May 2011

IT IS all too easy to mock “end-timers”, especially once the day of the latest supposed apocalypse has passed. Scepticism is based partly on probability: the sun rose yesterday and today, and the likelihood is that it will rise tomorrow; partly on any quick survey of potential threats: no meteors are plunging towards the earth and no significant volcano activity has been reported. Added to this, of course, is Christ’s warning about leading people astray: “But of that day and hour knoweth no man, no, not the angels of heaven, but my Father only” (Matthew 24.36). Thus is set up the sort of wrangle common to all faiths, when different factions cite different portions of scripture to support their view.

The chief object of such predictions of disaster is to stir up a complacent populace to take seriously the fragility of their assumptions. The paradox is that, far from being complacent, many people nurse a profound anxiety about the future. The older generation grew up with the expectation — often bordering on certainty — that the world would end in a nuclear conflagration. As this fear has receded (though it has not disappeared), it has been replaced with a greater awareness of the damage being done to the climate by human activity. These are just the global fears: most individuals carry with them an acute anxiety, that misadventure, accident, or disease will be inflicted on their partner, their children, their parents, or themselves. Indeed, many lives are blighted by such fears.

End-timers, then, mine a rich seam of fear. If they were merely expressing their own anxiety, it would be easy to be sympathetic. But they project their judgements on to others. Most theologians and Christian apologists have moved away from this sort of preaching, which plays on people’s vulnerability. But a common strain in the pronouncements of apocalyptic preachers emphasises retribution. They are not called “prophets of doom” for no reason. This cheerful consigning of the ungodly (however defined) to hellfire is one of the least attractive aspects of these people. Mercy is not a prominent element in their gospel.

Unfortunately, unlike some in their audience who pay them too much attention, end-time preachers tend to be impervious to criticism and correction, citing another of Christ’s sayings: “Blessed are ye, when men shall revile you,” etc. (Matthew 5.11). Being reviled is an unreliable indicator of correctness. It is right, therefore, to reprimand false prophets, always bearing in mind how easy it is to misunderstand aspects of the faith, and thus unbalance Christ’s message of patient forgiveness as well as judgement.

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