I grew up in the 1980s being told that the world was going to end at any moment because Jesus was coming back and he was pissed. They gathered us kids together in the church hall and showed us movies made in the prior decade about people who were too stoned or otherwise evil to make the Rapture cut. We watched the hippies on-screen as they were forced to take the Mark of the Beast, which turned out to be a 666 stamped on the back of their hand like they were coming and going from a cool nightclub. As the credits rolled, all of us kids would sing along with Larry Norman:
“Life was filled with guns and war,
and everyone got trampled on the floor.
I wish we’d all been ready!”
Ah, the end times. Weren’t they fun?
It turns out the Soviet Union (I forget if it was supposed to be Gog or Magog, I never understood the difference) grew tired of waiting for its fated role in Armageddon and gave up the ghost, although perhaps Putin is having second thoughts. Those particular end times, well, ended — and we entered a new era of end times.
Because it is always, always, the end times.
In 1948, when Jacques Ellul published Presence in the Modern World, he described the tumultuous post-war world in terms that sound remarkably familiar:
“Disaster in all its forms has fallen upon the entire earth as never before. Totalitarian wars, dictatorial empires, administratively organized famines, complete moral breakdown in contexts both social (nation, family) and internal (individual amorality), the fabulous increase in wealth that does not benefit the most destitute, the enslavement of almost all humanity under the domination of states or individuals (capitalism), the depersonalization of humanity as a whole and individually … Thus, when we consider that the world is in trouble, cure is impossible, and revolution is needed, we are inclined to say that this world is apocalyptic, that it is the world of the last days.” (emphasis added)(Chapter 2, pp. 17-18)
When I became a young adult and left my family’s church behind, I managed to slowly release the apocalyptic fear that had been ingrained in me, and replace it with … a satisfying smugness. The same sort of smugness you might witness today from “exvangelicals” or “deconstructing” Christians, or whatever the current hashtag is.
“Jeez,” I would say, “don’t you know that people have always thought they were living in the end times? Everybody wants to be last because it makes them important. What makes you think you’re so special?”
Thankfully, Ellul had no patience for this kind of silly dismissal of the very real fears of actual human beings (as opposed to the caricatures we so easily turn other people into). It is “easy to respond” that way, he said — but it is the wrong response. He wrote:
“What matters in our eyes — not the eyes of the historian, but of humankind — is not objective, material ‘reality’ but the idea that we form of it and the suffering and hope and worry of those who live within it. It is not unreasonable for the average person today to feel completely distraught. This is what matters. And besides, as Christians, it is essential to understand that each moment we live through is actually not historical but apocalyptic … The only vision that Christians can have of the world they live in is an apocalyptic one. Well aware that the present moment may not be the end of the world in the historical sense, they must act as if it were the last.” (emphasis added)Chapter 2, pp. 18-19
Look, the whole Rapture, premillenial dispensationalism thing is just bad theology of very recent American origin, and it’s been used by people (often with good intentions, sometimes not) to engender fear and paranoia and subservience, and to support lots of really stupid political movements.
But you don’t have to believe in any of that stuff to understand that Ellul is making a valid point. If Christians take seriously the concept of the Fall, which led to the presence of death, and also the promise of a resurrected Christ that death has been overcome, then they must accept that, for them, history has already ended.
When humans naturally react to the continuously troubled times in which they live with fear and trembling, convinced that the world is on the verge of ending, then Christians should not wave away their concerns while sharing data points about how much better life is today than it was for the people of a thousand years ago, or a hundred, who had the very same fears. Shouldn’t these Christians be prepared to say: Yes, you’re right. These are the end times. Something big is going to happen.
As Ellul writes, “What counts is not the world’s actual end but that life is truly apocalyptic at this very moment.”
The apocalyptic world is what makes people sense a need for revolution, while they are also convinced that revolution is already happening. As we’ll discuss in the next part of this series, Ellul is convinced that this is a recipe for stasis disguised by chaos.