secular harold campings

“When September 6, 1994, arrives, no one else can become saved. The end has come.”

“And now, we have no option. We can’t say ‘maybe’ ‘it’s possible’ ‘it looks very probable…’ No way! We have to say this is what the Bible teaches! This is fact! May 21, 2011 is the day of the Rapture, it is the day that Judgment Day begins…”

“Thus, we must realize that October 21, 2011 will be the final day of this earth’s existence.”

Poor Harold Camping. He never could get the calculations just right. He became the poster-child for apocalyptic quackery. But he is not alone. History is full of failed prophets of doom attempting to calculate times and dates using dubious apocalyptic arithmetic.

Everyone has an eschatology, even those who don’t know what the word means. All people presently live in light of an imagined future. The details of this imagined future are filled in differently depending on the person. Camping, and those like him, have a particular eschatology with a long tradition in religious circles sometimes called apocalypticism.

Richard Kyle has identified three key characteristics of apocalyptic thinking. It is radically dualistic. History is a cosmic struggle between good and evil forces. It is catastrophic meaning that history is moving towards a great and violent cataclysm in which evil is defeated. Thirdly, it is deterministic. The final sequence of events have been set in motion. The end is imminent, and it is inescapable. We are all on the clock.

If all people, including secular people, have an eschatology, then it is safe to assume that even secular people can fall into a version of apocalypticism. Kyle has said that the primary difference between the secular and the religious apocalypse is the mood of each. Religious apocalypses possess an unyielding hope in renewal following catastrophe and judgment. Secular apocalypses are short on hope. Instead, secular apocalypses tend to focus on somehow limiting the effects of the impending catastrophe. We face a choice between various versions of dystopia.

Joustra and Wilkinson, in their book How to Survive the Apocalypse, see it slightly different. According to them, the secular apocalypse can’t help but be religious. As they say, “Apocalypse demands meaning. Apocalypse demands horizon. Apocalypse demands…religion.” A secular apocalypse forces us to think about what there is worth saving in a secular world. Or, to put it another way, apocalypse is not just about survival. It is about deep truths, values, traditions, and conceptions of the “good life.” These are the things of religion.

The secular apocalypse is on my mind a lot recently especially since the mid-term elections and the vigorous talk of a “Green New Deal” that followed it. The rhetoric of climate change stopped being scientific some time ago. Notice, I didn’t say that climate change was not scientific. It is the language of climate change that has abandoned science for religious apocalypticism.

Al Gore is the Harold Camping of climate change apocalypticism. An Inconvenient Truth is the Left Behind for the secular apocalypse. In 2006, he told us that in about 10 years we will reach a point of no return with the environment. If we were to take his prophecy seriously, then we should admit that any efforts to “fix” the environment now would be futile. But there is now a new generation of secular Campings led by celebrity congresswoman Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez. Siting a UN study, she has said, “Millennials and people, you know, Gen Z and all these folks that will come after us are looking up and we’re like: ‘The world is gonna end in 12 years if we don’t address climate change and your biggest issue is how are we gonna pay for it?’”

In this quote she has hit all three notes consistent to apocalypticism. We are in a cosmic struggle. There are good people who care and there are bad people who only care about how much it will cost. There is an impending global catastrophe. And we are all on the clock. She even makes the rookie mistake of assigning a date to judgment day. Consistent to secular apocalypticism, we are both the cause of and the solution to the problem. But consistent to religious apocalypticism, our only hope to escape judgment is through radical repentance and sacrifice (and by giving lots of money to our dear leaders).

Many of the most radical believers in the secular apocalypse have all but given up on hope. They have become what I call environihilists. A New York Magazine article ominously predicting the earth will be uninhabitable within 100 years is a good example of this worldview. But maybe the best example of environihilism is the rejection of procreation because of climate doom. Science magazine reported that the best thing you can do for the environment is have one less child. This idea has become popular among the environhilists. Bill Nye the “Science” Guy has now thought openly about whether all nations should follow China’s lead and penalize families for having too many children. Women in England are joining a “Birthstrike” group because they are too afraid to have children given the coming catastrophe. If these people belonged to a traditionally religious group, they would be labelled a cult. You know that environihilism is taking root when even the idea of having children becomes deeply problematic. Children have always represented hope, but to the environihilist they represent despair.

Of course, most people resist giving in to despair. Instead, they respond to the environihilist with cynicism. And why not be cynical? Is it any more absurd when Ceflo Dollar flies around on his private jet than when Leonardo DiCaprio flies in his private jet to receive an environmental award? And that’s a shame because while the despair of the environihilist should be resisted, the broader point about caring for the environment should not be. We will disagree about specifics, but we really shouldn’t disagree that taking care of our world is an urgent need. Christians, in particular, should respond to environihilism not with cynicism but with a hope-filled alternative. We must never adopt the language of a secular apocalypse, but we should be at the forefront of caring for the environment.

Jesus said that the two greatest commands are to love God and to love others. We care for the environment, then, in obedience to those two commands. The environmental policies we support should also be tempered by those two commands. Creation was pronounced good by God who then gave stewardship over that creation to mankind who was made in his image. Caring for and creating within creation without abusing it is an act of obedience and even worship. When you are caring for that which has been called “good” you are demonstrating that you honor and trust its Creator. Those who abuse what God calls good are not loving God rightly. Secondly, it seems obvious that caring for the environment is a way to love our neighbor with whom we share this world. If I threw all of my trash on my neighbor’s lawn, that wouldn’t be very loving. Taking care of the environment is one (certainly not the only) way to love and take care of my neighbor. So for a Christian, environmental care is not primarily about the environment. It is also not about “saving the planet.” For a Christian, caring for creation is an act of obedience and worship until the end does come and God makes all things new in a new heaven and a new earth. Maranatha.

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