The signs are escalating every day. The world is in turmoil. We are on the cusp—right now—of the end of the age.” So reads the disclaimer for an upcoming eschatological conference featuring some prominent American evangelical leaders.

Across the Atlantic, as a pastor in Belgium, I’ve also regularly heard from people in evangelical circles convinced or worried about current events revealing the fact that Christ is coming not just soon, as he put it, but very soon. I sympathize with them: Apart from global concerns, our continent faces many challenges that make me yearn for God’s kingdom.

Still, I’m often surprised: Why does this high level of immediate eschatological expectation continue when Jesus told us explicitly that we can’t know when the end will come (Matt. 24:36; Acts 1:7)? Have we Christians baptized pessimism? Perhaps we might consider the works of a 20th-century world-renowned science fiction writer and skeptic who envisioned the continuation of human life for tens of thousands of years—and then read our Bibles again. When it comes to where we’re headed, Scripture calls us to realism.

Around the time many young evangelicals found themselves reading premillennialist literature like Left Behind, I was absorbed in another series: Isaac Asimov’s Foundation trilogy.

Asimov, a Russian native who emigrated to the United States as a toddler, wrote or edited more than 500 books. From 1942 to 1950, he published a collection of short stories and novels dedicated to the fall and rebuilding of a galactic empire in the distant future—approximately A.D. 24000. The Foundation trilogy became so influential that it is often considered to have inspired elements of other fantasy classics such as Dune and Star Wars. (The work has also been adapted into an Apple TV show.)

The series introduces us to Hari Seldon, a brilliant scientist who discovers the devastating news of the empire’s inevitable collapse. Through what he calls psychohistory, he calculates not only that the empire will cease in the next 300 years but also that, if nothing is done, 30,000 years of darkness will follow this demise. Seldon develops a plan to reduce this period of chaos to a mere millennium and accelerate the rebirth of a new empire through the “Foundation.”

Through the years, Asimov expanded the Foundation trilogy and linked it with his Robot and Galactic Empire series to build what some have called a hypothetical “history of the future,” exploring turning points in the more than 20,000 years separating Seldon from us. In doing so, he anticipated many questions we now face today, especially the development of robots and AI and how we will live with them.

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In the absence of the belief that God would end history at some point, and with some measure of optimism about humanity, the non-Christian Asimov was free to explore his hypotheses about humanity’s future, including potential crises. His work remains a source of inspiration to those pondering our contemporary challenges.

Christian eschatology, contrary to Asimov’s timeline, has often been rather pessimistic about the continuity of our world. In its humorous census of “near-end” prophecies across history, the Pocket Guide to the Apocalypse counts numerous more-or-less Christian preachers who predicted the “end of the world” in their time, starting as soon as the second century with the heretic Montanus.

Martin Luther continued this tradition. Referring to the dire state of the Holy Roman Empire and the threat of Turkish invasions, he wrote, “The world is coming to an end, and it often occurs to me that the Day of Judgment may well arrive before we have completed our translation of the Holy Scripture. All the temporal things predicted therein are fulfilled.”

Luther was more temperate than some of his contemporaries, such as theologian Thomas Müntzer, whose end-time beliefs led German peasants to rebel and be subsequently slaughtered. Of course, all of them and far more recent examples have been wrong. Despite continual crises, the earth has continued to spin. And despite years of false predictions, all kinds of prophets continue to announce the very near end of the world.

Bible interpretation aside, these types of prophecies and mentalities continue to resonate. (Consider the Doomsday Clock, for instance.) Why?

Belgian philosopher and religious skeptic Maarten Boudry recently published an article exploring what he calls “the seven laws of declinism,” or his understandings of the conditions making us humans anxious about our world.

Among the better-known mechanisms at work behind our feeling that the world is basically falling apart—like the invisible quietness of good news, our instinctive and self-preservative appetite for bad news, and how nowadays social media intentionally feed this appetite—Boudry also highlights what he calls “The Law of Conservation of Outrage.” That is, our level of indignation tends to stay the same even when conditions improve. We simply increase our sensitivity to lesser evils, so that anxious people will always find some ground for their anxiety.

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Beyond this, according to Boudry, the solutions we find for a problem let us forget about the problem itself and focus on new problems that arise from our new solutions, even if these new problems are less acute than the former (he calls this “The Law of Self-Effacing Solutions”). And the more liberty we enjoy in a society, the more we’re able to report about new evils that go unheard of in other contexts (“The Law of Disinfecting Sunlight”). So progress itself can lead to pessimism.

In sum, whether we are facing the firsthand effects of war or over-exaggerating the inconveniences of modern society, humans will always find fodder for the idea of decline. Most end-time concerns I’ve heard personally came from people in countries with a relative degree of abundance and security. In fact, wealthier or more powerful people have potentially more to lose than those with little.

For some Christians, converting this angst into the notion that Christ is about to return seems an easy step to take. “Christ is coming very soon” may also be a Christian version of the very common “This world scares me,” or “I don’t like the way things are going.” In a world defined by Boudry’s seven laws, the individual offering biblical confirmation will inevitably gain attention.

Whatever the quality of religious leaders’ exegesis claiming to know that Christ is just about to come because of this or that present event, they concretely validate the distress some feel and give those anxious a measure of control back with the immediate certainties they offer. But as appealing as these things can be, God instead calls us to direct our attention and actions toward others.

It is not for us to make plans for the next 20,000 years, but we lack the imagination of someone like Asimov when we cannot conceive the survival of humanity, or simply of our children, beyond the setting we currently know. Certainly, many desperate situations in our world make us profoundly long for the renewal promised by our God. But time and time again, we can see that upsetting circumstances alone do not mean that God has wrapped everything up or is done working in our world.

In Asimov’s novels, the impending threat is far bigger than everything we could fear even in our globalized world: the fall of an intergalactic empire, wars, and barbarity, accompanied by the death of billions. Still, Asimov doesn’t depict it as “the end of the world.” Some will survive and will have to rebuild civilization. The main issue is whether they’ll be sufficiently prepared to shorten the period of chaos that will follow the fall of the empire.

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Scripture encourages neither an anxiety-inducing pessimism that would make us suspicious toward everything nor a naive optimism that expects humanity to progress by itself into a peaceful and harmonious state. As the recent TV adaptation displays, whatever the exotic interstellar setting, spaceships, inventive technologies, or fancy clothing that might await us, humanity will stay constant in its mix of beauty and corruption. In this world, the wheat and the weeds grow side by side (Matt. 13:24–30; Rev. 22:11).

When Jesus told us to “keep watch, because you do not know on what day your Lord will come” (Matt. 24:42), he didn’t mean watching for upcoming signs, whether in the sky or in Middle East geopolitics. He meant watching ourselves, as he makes clear in the following parable about the faithful and the wicked servant, where the former isn’t hovering at the door, waiting for his master’s return. Instead, he is taking care of those who have been entrusted to him (vv.45-46).

Instead of constantly looking for indications of whether our Master is coming right now, we’re called to let him become visible to our contemporaries in the Christlike way we walk, however long human history may endure.

Among the many characters of the original Foundation trilogy, those most capable of facing challenging circumstances are the people who trust in the viability of Seldon’s unknown plan for the Foundation despite insecurity, wars, riots, or bad leaders. I won’t reveal here what becomes of Seldon’s plan. In the end, Asimov’s eschatology in Foundation is not Christian. But we know with certainty that the author of our plan is far more worthy of our trust.

This assurance allows us, in a complex and ever-changing world, to offer our contemporaries the presence of Christians who are anchored in eternity and ready to face the harsh realities and heavy questions of our day with the grace of their coming Lord, until he really does come.

Léo Lehmann is CT’s French language coordinator as well as publications director for the Network of Evangelical Missiology for French-speaking Europe (REMEEF). He lives in Belgium, in the Namur area.

[ This article is also available in Français. ]