By Ken Trainor
Is the end near? Do you believe in the Rapture, the Apocalypse, Armageddon? Jim Jones and his followers drank the Kool-Aid in Jonestown in 1979. David Koresh and his Branch Davidians went up in flames in Waco in 1992. Marshall Applewhite and his Heaven's Gate community hoped to hitch a ride on comet Hale-Bopp in 1997.
Nostradamus was smart enough to be vague about his predictions, but the prophets of doom (and their interpreters) share one thing: Throughout history, they've been wrong every single time. But they keep trying. Take Harold Camping (please, God, please), who keeps miscalculating, but surely he'll get it right if he keeps trying.
At least he isn't proposing mass suicide.
God knows what will happen on Dec. 21, 2012 when the New Agers claim the Mayan calendar is set to expire. To their credit, at least some say 12/21/12 will simply mark the end of the world as we know it — launching a great leap forward to a new, more enlightened world. Give them points for optimism.
It's easy to make fun of end-timers, but they have a sad side — all the gullible goofs who give away their life savings preparing for the Day of Reckoning. It's got to be a shock to the system when the last day comes and goes and is followed by the first day of the rest of their lives. You'd think they'd all be camping out on Camping's lawn, calling for his indictment, but people are surprisingly devoted, capable of great faith ... and great denial.
The scarier part of Armageddon fever is that it afflicts so many mainstreamers. Christians are trained from an early age to expect, even look forward to, the Second Coming. Be prepared, we were told, time and again. The end is near.
But it's clear after 2,000 years that God is in no hurry to pull the plug, so whatever the gobbledygook of Revelations was getting at, you really shouldn't bank on it.
Unfortunately, a certain percentage of fundamentalists — and I don't know how large that percentage is — live their lives guided by the belief that the world will end sooner than later, which means they have no real investment in the world's future. There's no motivation to improve life for generations to come (beyond their own children and grandchildren). Every catastrophe they hear about merely confirms it will all be over soon anyway. Not their problem. If they're among the righteous, they don't have to worry.
Politically, why should they vote for someone who believes the system can be made to work? Why go through the long, grinding marathon of incremental improvement if it's all going to end anyway? Why not just hunker down, protect you and yours, and wait it out? Human beings are hopelessly flawed. Human nature will never be reformed. Even if it could, we don't have time. The end is near. Only God can save us.
Not exactly a prescription for progress. And now that human beings have the capacity to destroy the planet we inhabit, this brand of passive moral myopia is particularly dangerous.
Harold Camping and his crazies are easy enough to dismiss, but there are many more seemingly sane people among us who live as if there is no tomorrow. They believe they are among the "elect" and the rest of us are going to get our just deserts as soon as God gets around to sending Jesus down for the Great Kickass Encore.
People who live their lives by this theology do not see themselves as part of the solution. They don't believe in a man-made solution. The only solution comes from Heaven — from beyond this vale of tears, from outside of history.
They don't see humanity as a pilgrim people, moving toward a better world. We are stuck in a cesspool of sin, and the mission of the righteous is to create little pockets of purity so when Christ comes down, he'll have someone to save.
It's a self-defeating but widespread notion. The rest of us would like to move forward, realize our potential as a people, face the future and embrace it. Save the Earth. But apocalyptic theology is like a ball and chain.
Meanwhile, a real-life apocalypse is gradually unfolding all around us — more and more severe "weather events" occurring with greater and greater frequency. One unfolded right through the middle of Joplin, Mo., last week. Second-comers are among those who scoff at the notion that human beings could possibly be the cause of climate change. They mock environmentalists for impersonating "Chicken Little," then go off to church to pray for the world to end.
But why wait for God to end life on this planet? We're doing a fine job on our own.
We need to grow up and let go of our rapturous rescue fantasies. Instead of basing your theology on Revelations, why not go to the source: the Gospel according to Matthew, where Jesus has the last word.
"Know that I am with you always," he says. "Yes, even to the end of time."
If you believe him, the Savior doesn't need a second coming because he never left.
Saving the world, on the other hand, is entirely up to us.