Environmental eschatology

As I mentioned earlier, last semester I started and never finished a book on biblical eschatology. It was an interesting book, and full of meaty textual analysis, but ultimately started to feel… pointless? Somewhere along the way I just stopped feeling like it was relevant beyond it being interesting. I couldn’t find a reason to figure out what the Bible says about how the “End Times” will go down, not just from the perspective of a skeptic (me), but from the standpoint of someone who believes deeply in the rightness of Christian religion.

Part of my skepticism stems from the impenetrable obscurity of Revelations. It’s a deeply figurative, imagistic, metaphorical, text. It is in no way literal, which means it cannot be used for reliable prediction, and only very, very, very problematically or tenuously mapped on to past events. Considering that that is where the bulk of Christian eschatology comes from, that undermines the project from the start.

My skepticism also stems from a verse that has always stuck in my head: “Therefore keep watch, because you do not know the day or the hour.” (Matthew 25:13) While this verse makes no reference to the nature of the eschaton, it does say that Christians should simply focus on remaining vigilant because there is no way to know when it will come. That embedded ignorance also makes me question the nature of the project from within its own confines.

Finally, I couldn’t (and still can’t) find a satisfactory answer to whether or not it really matters, and whether it really matters now, whether there is a Rapture or 1000 years of Christian-dominated utopia. How does zeroing in on the right beliefs about the End Times matter for our lives?

So yes, I discovered some deep questions in myself about the value of studying eschatology.

And this is all before you throw in my general spiritual doubt about the Christian church.

But that doesn’t mean I’m uninterested in the idea of eschatology in a broader sense, about the concept of the “end of the world.” I feel very strongly about environmental eschatology, if I can co-opt the term for non-spiritual use. I am deeply devoted to and believe in the importance of understanding the state of the world and the planet, especially because it has become clear that the planet is under dire threat due to human action. The way we are living is simply unsustainable for humanity and much of the life on this planet. (The recent IPCC report is shocking.) I believe we have a ethical responsibility to take climate change seriously, in part because we are the ones causing it.

Since we humans are the ones destroying the planet and ushering in a potential “End Times,” that means a concept of environmental eschatology has profound ethical implications and makes serious demands. There are real, concrete actions that we can take to mitigate and slow down climate change, and I believe we are obligated to do them. This makes it a topic of immediate ethical import, something missing in biblical eschatology.

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Can I just say that I have never been more certain of my husband’s and my decision to grow our family through adoption? Image via.

Biblical eschatology is purportedly a reflection of the “will of God,” so there is no real ethical import to it. We can’t really bring it about (again, not knowing the day or hour). Well, I suppose that’s not quite the teaching. Some people believe we can bring it about, but that’s even more problematic, because that “bringing about” usually involves inflicting suffering on the world! It’s a perverse ethical impetus (and strangely utilitarian) that we must inflict suffering in order to bring about more good. The highest Good. (And in a more deeply perverse way, this “highest Good” ends up subjecting those who are already suffering into MORE and eternal torment in hell. Cheery.)

All in all, I find the concept of biblical eschatology deeply problematic, but find environmental “End Times” compelling and ethically compulsory because the end of humanity and life on our planet will happen at some point. It could be millions or billions of years from now, but “the end” is a certainty for life on our planet. And science and actions to mitigate climate change are the best tools we have for understanding what that could look like, what is causing it, and our “deadlines”, as it were, for acting. All things missing from biblical eschatology. I simply don’t know how to drum up interest in myself for studying biblical eschatology when it appears to me empty of both substance and ethical import.

Interestingly, I have posed this question in the form of “is there something I’m missing?” to several evangelical Christian friends, and so far no one has answered! Any answers I have been given don’t quite answer my concern in a way that makes me reconsider biblical eschatology. Admittedly, most have acknowledged the question and said they are thinking about it, so this could be because it is such a big question that they need more time than usual to think about it, or it could be because it’s not one that can be answered in the affirmative. I want to consider any answers I receive, so I guess time will tell if I find any defenses compelling.

In the meantime, I’d be very curious to hear from any readers out there: do you think studying biblical eschatology is relevant or useful? Is there a way I could think about it that makes it more present to our responsibility to love our fellow creatures and reduce suffering? In other words, is there anything I’m missing?

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