Be not afraid - the end of the world is nigh
When the world feels like it’s ending, it’s tempting to do everything we can to hold off the end, says Marika Rose.
Between the climate crisis, the global pandemic, the rise of far right politics, growing moral panics targeting queer people and the cost of living crisis, things have been getting scarier and more difficult for lots of us these past few years. When things feel precarious, it can be difficult to see beyond the next day, the next meeting, or the next bill that needs to be paid. It’s easy to cling to what we have, and to become afraid of taking risks. Politicians across the political spectrum lately have taken to talking about necessity – about what we have to do, what we have to sacrifice, what is simply not possible. All we can do, they seem to suggest, is cling on to the remnants of what we have left, however much the cost of clinging on intensifies; however many people have to die at the borders, in hospital waiting rooms, or in despair.
When the world feels like it’s ending, it’s tempting to do everything we can to hold off the end. The politicians of today telling us that this is just how things have to be are the inheritors of a long line of tradition going back at least as far as the early days of Christianity. But there are other ways to think about the end of the world.
Contemporary Christians are sometimes embarrassed to talk about the biblical accounts of miracles. But stories of the miraculous have always been part of the Christian tradition. The book of Genesis tells the story of Jesus’ disciples, who get trapped on a lake in the middle of the storm. As the wind and the waves batter the boat, the disciples catch sight of Jesus, walking across the water towards them. But instead of feeling reassured, they’re terrified. The story seems intended to remind us of the creation story which opens the book of Genesis, which says that in the beginning, when God created, the earth was formless and void, and the spirit of God swept over the face of the waters. Just as the God of Genesis made land where there was only chaos and uncertainty, so when Peter takes a risk and steps out of the boat to answer Jesus’ call he finds himself inexplicably held up - first by the water, and then by Jesus’ hand reached out towards him.
One of the great conflicts within medieval Christianity was between the authorities of the Catholic church and a small group of rogue Franciscans who insisted, in the face of systems and structures of wealth, power and property forged over centuries, that it was possible to step outside of the systems and structures which seemed to offer the only protection in the midst of terrifying times. Two things characterised the Spiritual Franciscans or Fraticelli: an insistence on the absolute renunciation of all property ownership, and an apocalyptic vision of history, which held that the current age, the established order of things, would not last forever but was about to give way to a new era, in which heaven would come to earth and all things would be made new. The world was ending, they said, and that was a good thing. We must not cling on to our possessions and the false security that they promise us. We cannot reform the violence and corruption which had come to characterise the Western world. We must not expect that things will carry on the way they are, but should risk ourselves on the possibility that the ordinary rules of the world could be suspended.
Looking back, it might seem like the Spiritual Franciscans lost their struggle with church and state power. Key figures ended up in prison or in exile; some of them were prosecuted as heretics; the millennium did not arrive. But their absolute commitment to the possibility of the end of the world played a key role in the enormous theological and political upheavals out of which the modern world emerged. We can see something of their influence in another stormy and tumultuous time in history, during the May 1968 protests in France. What began as student protests against capitalism, imperialism, and traditional systems of government and society exploded into huge protests and mass strikes. The events of those few weeks dramatically transformed France, and played a key role around the world in a period of huge social change. During the protests, one of the slogans which appeared on walls around Paris said, ‘Be realistic, demand the impossible.’
There is a strand of Christian tradition which says that God made the world, and so the way things are is the way that God intended them to be. But there is also a strand which reminds us that God is also the God who remakes the world, who creates anew, which says that the old world is dying and a new one is waiting and groaning and struggling to be reborn. There is a God who calls us to take a leap of faith and to walk on water, to imagine the remaking of all things, to demand the impossible: the end of the world.
Dr Marika Rose is Senior Lecturer in Philosophical Theology at the University of Winchester. She is a trustee of Greenbelt, one of the UK's largest Christian festivals, and is a regular contributor to The Daily Service on BBC Radio 4 longwave. Her first book, A Theology of Failure: Zizek Against Christian Innocence was published by Fordham University Press in 2019.