We made it.
Thousands around the globe held the belief that on December 21 of last year, the world would come to an end. The poles would shift; or the rogue Planet X would shove Earth off its orbit; or a hundred methane pockets under the sea would uncover themselves and begin an atmospheric recalibration that would suffocate us all.
But the earth’s crust did not erupt in a hail of rock and lava, and no tidal waves buried our greatest cities. As many knew, the Mayan calendar functions much like the Gregorian calendar: the years turn, and keep going indefinitely. The purported end was only the beginning of another cycle. January 1.
Now we enter a new year. Those who were waiting–perhaps even hoping–for the end are now faced with a new horror: the return of the mundane. They need to rise, put on a pot of coffee, return to work (assuming they didn’t quit their jobs to watch the sky), and return home to make dinner, sleep, and rise again. Humanity rolls on, and not even the United States’ “fiscal cliff” could change that (although if we don’t get our debt under control, we will certainly face an end of a different sort).
In a new year rife with hope and pledges toward self-actualization, however, we would be wise to remember the end.
The ancient Sumerians believed in a cyclical world. Every few thousand years, the world was remade and a new era began. Some today believe this, although the world’s three largest religions, Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, all believe in a beginning and an end of time. Whether cyclical or linear, the question is, what are the implications for us as individuals?
No matter what the nature of time and whether there is an end, we know for sure that for each of us as humans, there is a definite end to our lives. Each of us will die at some point in the future. It is a sad fact to contemplate, but you are dying as you read this now. Cells are replicating and breaking down in entropy, toward decay and eventual shutdown. Apart from the chaos that will take our bodies if we live long enough is the persistent possibility of accidental death. (You’re now maybe wondering if you put that AD&D rider on your life insurance.)
If you’re one of those who waited for the end a few weeks ago, then in a way you are to be applauded. There’s a very healthy aspect to thinking about our own deaths, and too few do. Obviously we shouldn’t become obsessed with these thoughts, or we’ll worry ourselves into our very graves. Some contemplation, however, is warranted, and can help us put our lives into a perspective that becomes lost in the mundane.
For Christians, thinking on death is something we are encouraged to do:
A wise person thinks a lot about death, while a fool thinks only about having a good time. (Ecclesiastes 7:4 NLT)
It has many subtle benefits. We are immediately humbled, knowing that we cannot control even this most basic thing about our lives. It places God on his throne, and us in our rightful places as his creation, subject to the laws and conditions thereof. It spurs us to action, because believing that an end is coming gives us a sense of urgency to share this good news we have discovered with as many people as we can–that rather than lie absent from us, God saw the brokenness of the world and did something about it. He sent his Son Jesus Christ to die for all mankind, and redeem as many as will come to him. Death is “the way of all the earth” (Joshua 23:14), and try as we may to oppose it, it will take us all; but because of Christ, there is an escape.
The Bible says that one day this Earth will be remade. Most Christians believe heaven is our eternal home, but Revelation tells the story differently. The New Heaven and the New Earth will come after all wars are done and Satan is finally banished, and we will live on an Earth made perfect by God (Revelation 21). If you’re a Christian, you get to thinking: this will really happen.
To my mind this is sometimes a frightful proposition. I suspect nature itself will be much different from its current state, but humans’ relationships with each other will also change fundamentally. Marriage will cease as an institution, for example (Matthew 22:30; Mark 12:25), and without sin we will never hurt each other again. The unknowns make this new world so alien that it becomes, semantically, apocalyptic–the greatest of changes. It resembles in the imagination something like what I believe the adherents to the 2012 prophecies envisioned: a new landscape, a new societal order, even a new consciousness. I sometimes fear to enter it, except when I consider what we do know.
There will be a giant city, the new Jerusalem, whose footprint (and height) will be an area the size of half the continental United States (Revelation 21:16). Darkness will never touch it (v. 23). The divide between the land and the waters will cease to exist: the sea will disappear (v. 1). War and disease will be obsolete.
And if the shadow of goodness we experience on this earth is any indication, the bounty Christians will have there will be immeasurable–not only of food and health, but of space to play; of time to think and learn and invent and converse; of patience to grow into each other and feed our relationships; and mostly to talk with, embrace, and love God. An eternity prostrate, as some suggest? Or floating ethereal, stroking a harp? If this present gossamer world is so varied and nuanced, why should its perfect successor be so monotonous?
I have seen everything in this meaningless life, including the death of good young people and the long life of wicked people. (Ecclesiastes 7:15 NLT)
Many of us can echo the Teacher’s testimony here. There is no level of righteousness or achievement that can save us from “the way of all the earth.” There’s not even a predictability in this world that can ensure a level of fairness, no matter how any of us defines that concept. Goodness doesn’t always reap good rewards. Under evil, some here prosper. Justice is skewed. So the solution must lie outside this world.
An end will come. It will come for this earth, and for each of us individually. Whether or not we happen to belong to the generation that really does see the end (which no one knows), the most important end for anyone is his own. So today, look up at the sky, be thankful, and realize that at one day near or far, the end of your personal world will arrive. Fear it if you will, hope for it if you have assurance in Christ–but of all things, do not ignore it.