When I visited my mother’s small Oklahoma hometown in the fall of 1988, a local pastor expected the world to end the same day my vacation did.

He spread the word on the cable station’s “scanner” channel. I tuned in. The familiar clock and thermometer scrolled by; there was an announcement about the library’s new hours; a note about a shoe sale at Curfman’s; and then, “THE END BEGINS SEPTEMBER 19 AT 6 P.M.” This banner headline was followed by an invitation:

If you are not already a member of Jesus Christ’s blood-bought family, now is the time. Terrible trials are coming. The Bible and the calendar prove that the Lord will soon appear in judgment and power. Hear all about it at Grace Community Chapel, 9:30 A.M., Sunday.

On September 19, I was in the air. But I was headed toward Chicago’s O’Hare Airport, a destination rarely mistaken for heaven. I glanced at my watch around 7 P.M. and realized the fateful hour had come and gone.

On The Brink

The genre of apocalypse has bothered me ever since a Sunday-school teacher spent all four of my high-school years in the Book of Revelation, time enough for her to present—with unvarying confidence and intensity—a succession of three Antichrists and at least as many datings for Armageddon. Since then I have met too many other apocalypticists who also used their newspaper to interpret the Bible, rather than the Bible to interpret their newspaper.

But whether or not some of us find it awkward, these are apocalyptic times—apocalyptic in the sense that the entire world is seen as beseiged by crises so severe we are on the brink of the end. Even without a certain dictator who just happens to have Babylon in his back yard, we can expect apocalyptic fever to spread in the next decade.

Theologians picked up on the biblical mention of one thousand years (Rev. 20) at least as early as the second century, and they seared the millennial period into our religious and cultural imaginations. Now, of course, we are nearing the turn of another millennium.

Quite apart from that, technology has given us nuclear and ecological threats that make the end of the world conceivable on a purely secular basis. When catastrophic bombs could fall at any moment, or the greenhouse effect could flood Manhattan within decades, you no longer have to believe in God to be an apocalypticist.

Consider, too, that these are times of incredibly rapid and prolific change. People, products, ideas, and cultures meet, mingle, and mutate with unsettling speed. In the 1960s, anyone over age 30 was considered square and not to be trusted. Now a teenage disc jockey in the recent movie Pump Up the Volume avers that no one over 20 can keep up. The modern world is an uncoordinated, loosely jointed giant, hurtling headlong down a steep slope, already off balance and stumbling, perhaps on the verge of an imminent—and disastrous—fall.

With so much urgent and uncontrollable change, it is not hard to see why many fear, in the poet Yeats’s famous phrase, that “the center cannot hold” and total disintegration is at hand.

So here is one reason we must struggle with apocalypse, like it or not: Culturally, a sense of the end is as much in the air as carbon monoxide in Los Angeles. But there is another reason to take apocalypse seriously, and in Christian terms it is the more important one.

As I have learned since Sunday school, Christians are apocalypticists by definition. Jesus came announcing the end of one age and the beginning of another. And apocalyptic was essential to Paul’s interpretation of the meaning of Jesus’ life and work; Paul, too, saw one age ending and another beginning. In the summary terms of New Testament scholar James Dunn, “Christianity began as an apocalyptic sect within Judaism.”

For those who would follow Jesus, then, there is no choice about being an apocalypticist. But a crucial choice remains. It is a choice that will affect how credible and appealing our witness to Christ will be in an apocalyptic world—a world of increasing confusion, fear, and despair. We can choose whether we will be sensational or responsible apocalypticists.

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A Criminal Under Warrant

Apocalyptic imagination, like dynamite, is always dangerous. Dynamite is especially dangerous in the hands of someone who does not understand it and might set it off accidentally. But kept in its place—say, a heavy case, and under the knowing supervision of professionals who demolish buildings for a living—dynamite can be responsibly owned and used.

Similarly, apocalyptic hopes and fears are so grand and catastrophic that they will surely always be open to abuse. But kept in its proper place or context, apocalyptic can be responsibly owned and used. In context, its instabilities will be guarded and balanced, its tendency to premature explosion checked and contained.

Of course, the most important context for responsible apocalyptic is the biblical context. It is embedded in the sweep of the grand biblical narrative, the great Christ-story that encompasses Creation, Fall, Redemption, and Consummation.

Sensationalists rip apocalypse out of this context and concentrate, myopically, on one part of the story: the Second Coming and Consummation. Thus people like my Sunday-school teacher—immersed in the writings of Hal Lindsey and Salem Kirban—could spend years talking about the end times, rarely relating them to Creation, Fall, or Redemption.

In this fashion, sensational apocalypticists concentrate solely on the future, disconnecting the Second Coming from the rest of the biblical story. Responsible apocalypticists recognize that, in Jesus, the future has already invaded the present and (in the sense of fulfilling creation) the past as well. At the very beginning of his mission, Jesus declared that time was fulfilled and the kingdom of God had come (Mark 1:15). Likewise, in the light of Christ, Paul saw himself among those “on whom the end of the ages has come” (1 Cor. 10:11).

Thus the key event of the Christian story is not ahead of us. Jesus with his life and his work on the cross has brought creation to its fulfillment, reversed the effects of the Fall, and enabled reconciliation. Because of this, responsible apocalypticism cannot ignore but must include all aspects of the grand biblical narrative. Responsible apocalypticism, like apocalypticism in general, focuses on the future; but its future crucially encompasses the past and the present.

At this point, an obvious problem presents itself. If history goes on—with sin and destruction still painfully manifest—how can Paul say Christ has already ended history? The New Testament’s answer is that a new age or history has come in Christ. Those who recognize this epochal reality are called to live in the light of Christ’s lordship now; on some day yet to come, Christ’s lordship will be universally revealed and “every knee shall bow” (Phil. 2:10).

Biblical scholars have long used Oscar Cullman’s analogy of the time between D Day (when the outcome of World War II in Europe was decided, though battles remained to be fought) and V-E Day (when everyone, including the vanquished, acknowledged the decisiveness of earlier victories) to explain the tension we experience as Christians living between Christ’s first and second comings. Recently I came across a fresher image (especially fitting in the light of Col. 2:15): that of the criminal who has been detected and has a warrant out for his arrest.

The criminal under warrant still roams free and does fearful damage, but he is now exposed and recognized. His modus operandi is known, and people can guard against him. He cannot move freely or boldly, and in that sense is contained. Citizens aware of the warrant may still have a healthy respect for the criminal’s malignant abilities, but they take hope in the fact that his days are numbered.

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Responsible apocalypticists are people who keep all this in view. The awareness that the warrant is out—on sin, death, and the powers of darkness—has changed the way they live.

Sensational apocalypticists obsess about the coming arrest. Their lives fall out of balance because they do not keep it in wider perspective, the full context of the biblical story.

Cracking The Code

There is another, and more precise, aspect to keeping apocalypse in biblical context. Apocalypse is responsible when it is in the context of the Bible’s many literary genres. We too easily forget that the Bible is an entire library, its parts spanning centuries, addressing all sorts of situations and using a variety of literary forms to do so.

Historian George Marsden observes that some Christians view the Bible as a giant code that can be “cracked” in the light of current events. But to read the Bible this way is to forget that it is not all, like Daniel and Revelation, apocalyptic literature. It includes historical narrative, poetry, parables, and many other literary forms as well.

Consider one example: the genre of wisdom literature. Apocalyptic literature is spectacular, featuring once-for-all cosmic events. But wisdom literature, such as the Book of Proverbs, zeroes in on the ordinary and everyday. Here we find no rivers of blood, but admonitions against laziness; no blaring trumpets, but tips on child rearing; no cities of gold and jewels, but homely observations about the power of gossip.

Revelation may be more interesting to read than Proverbs, but the responsible apocalypticist remembers that both are included in the Canon. The responsible apocalypticist looks ahead to the end, realizing it could come at any time. But until it does, there will be hours of boredom like those faced by the writer of Ecclesiastes. There will be years of tasks not exactly cosmic in their dimensions, such as hoeing a garden or running a government.

Hoeing a garden? Running a government? Apocalypticists expect Earth and all its vegetation to burn any day, empires great and small to crumble today or tomorrow. How can they possibly be “responsible” in the sense of planting strawberries (let alone redwoods) or standing for city council? Critics who reject biblical apocalypticism altogether fear that it encourages an attitude of escape—escape from the back-breaking toil of caring for the Earth, the drudgery of making our society a slightly better place for our children to inhabit.

Indeed, sensational apocalypticism has trouble fitting in such concerns. Recently I was in a meeting with a group of Christians discussing ecological issues. One young man sympathized with the group’s aims but was visibly distressed. Finally he confessed, “In my gut I want to oppose pollution and work hard in favor of conservation. But I just don’t see much of a Christian rationale. After all, the Bible says the Earth will burn up.”

Unfortunately, his apocalypticism was sensational. It was out of context, forgetting prophets, such as Isaiah, who look forward to a renewed and fulfilled Earth. The Book of Revelation awaits “a new heaven and a new earth” (Rev. 21:1). Paul also clearly anticipates (throughout Colossians, and in 1 Cor. 15; Rom. 8, and elsewhere) a consummated existence in some kind of continuity with our bodily, earthly lives. Responsible apocalyptic does not encourage escape from the created, physical world. It looks ahead to the rescue and redemption of the entire creation rather than just the souls of men and women.

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Responsible apocalyptic also has a social and political context. D. L. Moody betrayed the better aspects of his theology when he gave up on the world as a “wrecked vessel” from which Christians could, at best, rescue individual crew members. Such thinking all too easily leads to the sensational apocalypticism that hopes only to escape a dying and hateful world. It invites and justifies the criticism that the church is too heavenly minded to be of any earthly good.

But responsible apocalypticism, once again, claims its biblical provenance, remembering its Hebrew and Jewish setting. As New Testament scholar N. T. Wright insists, “No first-century Jew … could imagine that the worship of their God and the organization of human society were matters that related only [at] a tangent.” Jesus’ kingdom “does not mean the abandonment of the created order and the escape into a private or ‘spiritual’ sphere.” Wright concludes that Jesus and Paul acted out of their “whole Jewish background” and nothing they said or did detracted from its thrust: that “the God of Israel is precisely the creator, the God of the whole world, and when he acts to redeem his people this will be the means of blessing the whole world.”

Taken in proper context, then, apocalypticism does not breed social or political passivity. Martin Luther King, Jr., was a responsible apocalypticist when he salted his speeches with biblical images of a better world, rousing us from complacency and urging us to struggle toward a society more just for people of all races. Responsible apocalypticism radically challenges the church and the world by heralding the kingdom of God and forcefully reminding us that the only true status quo will be the final status quo.

A Hopeful Apocalypse

Apocalyptic, then, can be responsible only when it has hope: hope that the kingdom of God has been inaugurated and will one day be fulfilled.

While some Christians remove apocalyptic from its full biblical context, the consequences are even worse for secularists who remove apocalyptic entirely from its biblical context. Secularists try to have apocalyptic without God. In the process they become sensational—and nihilistic.

What we remember about Jonathan Schell’s The Fate of the Earth, for instance, is not his solution to the danger of nuclear holocaust (a vaguely sketched world government), but his vivid and relentless picture of the “republic of insects” that alone might survive humanity’s folly. Or consider the futuristic science-fiction films of recent years. Nearly all, like The Blade Runner or Brazil, can only imagine a coming world that is horribly polluted, given up to anarchic violence, and capable of finding refuge in nothing more substantial than romantic love. Apocalyptic without God can only breed despair and paralysis.

Hope gives responsible apocalyptic—apocalyptic with God—one of its most ironic features. Long ago I heard Martin Luther’s statement (perhaps apocryphal) to the effect, “If I knew that the Lord was returning tomorrow, I would plant a tree today.” Since I was steeped in the sensational, escape-oriented apocalypticism of my Sunday-school days, Luther’s comment baffled me. If you believed time was running out, why plant a tree?

Now I think I understand a bit more. Responsible apocalyptic looks forward not so much to a destroyed Earth as to a renewed Earth. It imagines a time not when grubby, long-term endeavors like politics will be abolished, but when they will bear fruit: In Revelation, the kings of the earth march into the New Jerusalem not to be slaughtered, but to deliver “the glory and the honor of the nations” (21:26).

So here is the oddly heartening thing about responsible apocalypticism: It concentrates on the end of time and, by doing so, makes all time valuable and significant. Sensational apocalypticism robs its adherents of time and may leave them frantic. Sensational apocalypticists find time only to dash from one crisis to the next; like the coward who dies a thousand deaths, they suffer a thousand ends of the world.

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Admiring the elegantly simple furniture of the Shakers, someone once asked the monk Thomas Merton how such craftmanship could have been achieved by such radical apocalypticists. After all, these folk were so sure the curtain was already falling on history that they ceased having children (a practice inconsistent, I think, with the kind of care and hope that went into their woodworking). Merton responded, “When you expect the world to end at any moment, you know there is no need to hurry. You take your time, you do your work well.”

Responsible apocalypticism allows for only one apocalypse, one real and final crisis: God’s. Apocalypticism in its full, biblical context is certainly marked by a note of urgency and intensity, but it is one note (if the climactic note) in an entire symphony. Look around. You can tell the responsible apocalypticists. They are the ones with time. Time to make babies, build houses, read novels, prepare dinner for friends—and even to plant trees.

Eugene H. Peterson is pastor of Christ Our King Presbyterian Church, Bel Air, Maryland, and author of A Long Obedience in the Same Direction (InterVarsity) and Answering God (Harper & Row), both of which are about the Psalms.

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