Theology and Scripture at Earth’s End

As we moved through Earth Day this past Sunday, I have found myself contemplating Earth’s death.  I don’t mean the destruction of the planet itself (though that may come to pass at some point as well); I mean the death of living things on the Earth.  Life as we know it has a pretty skinny tolerance for environmental variance, and given the forces and variables at work, we humans (and really all life on our little blue-green planet) are pretty lucky to be here at all in the first place.

Kiel - Apocalyptic EcologyI’m not sure we’ll always be that lucky, even if we hold to Christian faith that God loves us.  This becomes even less helpful if one takes only a cursory look at scripture, steeped in apocalyptic and very much offering views of the end, even if those views are cryptic and saturated with symbolism and unfamiliar allusions (though there is also help to be found here, as we’ll discuss below with this handy book to the right).

A brief mental experiment might help to illuminate the headspace I find myself in.  Think through the plans you have for the rest of the day, and tomorrow.  If you’re like me, there are many of them (or a conspicuous absence of plans, carefully curated to provide some level of respite).  Do you also have plans for next week, or next month?  I suspect that’s likely.  How far forward does your horizon go?  Do you have plans for the coming year?

Have you planned your next 5 years, maybe with a car loan or a long-term rent agreement or an education program?

Do you have a plan that stretches beyond your lifetime, perhaps conceived in terms of half-centuries or even centuries?  Maybe at this point plans turn to hopes, or to suspicions, but they’re at the very least still conceivable, right?

What do you think those who come after us can look forward to not 100 years down the road, but 1,000?  Is a thousand years beyond thinking about reasonably?

How about 10,000 years?  Dare we hope humankind is still around at that point?  Dare we hope life is thriving?

Can we extend the horizon of hope back to 100,000 years?  Remember an ice age happens about every 100,000 years, so if humans are to make it that far, we’ll likely have to deal with a deep chill if this whole global warming bit doesn’t cook us first.

A million years?  Is the end coming before then?  If not, how far back can one push the horizon, and if we can see with even a hint of clarity some end date before that horizon—and end date to life, especially human life, I mean—what does a theologically and scientifically tenable response to that realization look like?

In any case, I find myself with a set of questions that I realize is by no means unique to me, circulating around this central one: what should Christianity do or believe with an ever-more-real expiration date hanging over this existence?

I don’t have a great answer, but I’ve been reading a book that has been quite helpful in fleshing out some ways of thinking through and interpreting the Christian story in light of the scientific extrapolation that life as we know it is, at best, on borrowed time.  Micah Kiel’s book Apocalyptic Ecology: The Book of Revelation, the Earth, and the Future (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2017) has been quite helpful in naming and dispelling certain historically Christian—and problematic—ways of viewing creation and its end (like wanton exploitation, since it’s all going to burn anyway), and at instead providing some ways through which to engage apocalyptic worldviews in terms of relating to creation.

As the book’s title suggests, Kiel guides his reader through the intimidating task of reckoning with the book of Revelation, especially encouraging his readers to actually engage Revelation in the first place (p. 2), and to take care not to draw too-clean parallels between the book and our current context (p. 12-13).  Kiel gently helps his readers through what he calls Revelation’s personality, ancestors, upbringing, and career, ending with something of Revelation’s “legacy,” including what Kiel hopes contemporary readers draw from this final book of the Bible.

Kiel’s book is especially illuminative for me as a non-scripture scholar, because he takes great care to why certain implications he draws from the text are in fact warranted by the text, instead of jumping right to theological implication without cause.  As the book progresses, his main theses become clear: an emphasis on the interconnectedness of life and creation, a stinging critique of empire and its machinations, and a call to conceive of a future different from our own (this comes to a head on pages 128-129).  In short, Kiel’s look at the end of all things through the lens of Revelation distills neither a pessimistic nor a simplistic approach to the limited time humankind has left.  Instead, Revelation speaks through him a hopeful exhortation to what discipleship could look like as we hurtle toward whatever apocalypse ultimately comes.

I had hoped by the time I wrote this to come to some brilliant insight that would guide the conclusion of my thought-sharing, but as I waded through this set of thoughts, the only thing I’ve found more clear is the strength of the Christian ethical and political imperative in light of both ecology and scripture.  The particular content of that imperative is, at least to my eyes, still being revealed.

Perhaps we Christians should let Revelation reveal this imperative with a bit more regularity.  If heaven and earth will indeed pass away (Rev 21:1), what Christians do before that happens becomes more important, more weighty, not less.