Seventy five years ago this week, millions of ordinary Americans were convinced that the world was coming to an end. They came to this conclusion, not because Hitler was rattling his sabers in Europe and the entire world teetered on the verge of war. Rather, these fears were fueled by a broadcast aired from a small CBS radio studio in New York City.
Orson Welles took to the airways on October 30, 1938 as the usual host of the Mercury Theater, and using the science fiction book, War of the Worlds as his script, described in dramatic and fictional detail – with that unmistakable voice of his – how Martians had invaded Earth, landing in Grover Mills, New Jersey.
There were 32 million radio listeners that evening, and none with 24-hour news, Twitter, Google, or text messages to learn from the world around them. Thus, the nation was thrown into a terrifying hysteria that simply could not be duplicated today. Telephone lines were clogged; police stations were overrun; anxious mobs filled the streets; churches ran over with impromptu prayer meetings; and citizens barricaded and armed themselves.
There is a Christian equivalent to this kind of unnerving fear and panic. It pours from radio and television stations, podcasts and pulpits, from books, periodicals, and websites. The oft-presented Christian version of the Apocalypse is initiated not by a Martian invasion, but by Jesus’ violent and destructive return to earth.
“Jesus is coming back!” they say. “There will be few survivors, but if you do survive the initial onslaught, you will be left behind to suffer the vengeance of the glory of the Lord, as he tramples ‘out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored.’” These Orson Welleses of our day sell millions of fictional books, movies, computer games, CDs, audios, videos, T-shirts, calendars, and greeting cards with their shrink-wrapped, pre-packaged, fearmongering.
Personally, I’m very well acquainted with this kind of mania. Growing up in the revivalistic tradition, almost weekly the pastor would tell us how the universe was about to come unwrapped and how very few of us were going to make it through the Jesus-invasion. As a self-centered child and teenager, I felt that if Jesus had waited all these centuries to show up on earth at this particular blip in history just to interrupt my life, it was fairly discourteous on his part to do so.
As I have gotten older, however, I see a more pronounced difficulty with constant “end-of-the-world” preaching. Entire congregations of people become so obsessively convinced that we are living in the final chapter of human history – on the last page, if not within the last sentence – that they begin to give away the future.
Ultimately, it is extremely difficult to give one’s self to today, to incarnate God’s love for the world, to alleviate the grotesque levels of suffering on this planet, or to practice justice, peace-making, and grace when one’s attitude is, “Why bother? It’s all going to burn up in ashes any minute now.”
Unbalanced apocalypticism simply makes it easy to give up on today. It fosters a view of the future that is dark and sinister. It creates a kind of apathy and hopelessness toward the planet. We become little more than caricatures of today’s politicians who choose to kick the worst problems down the street for another generation to wrestle with, long after they have left office. We become freakish doomsday preparers, who misunderstand that the best preparation is joining God in his transforming work rather than watching the clock for the end of the world.
No, “God is not slow about keeping his promises,” but the truth is that Jesus will probably not return today, and it’s not likely he will return in our lifetime. Therefore, we have to be more than prepared for his imminent return. We must be prepared to persevere. We must trade in our misapplied hysteria for living out a very real hope, the “Blessed Hope.” We must learn to live in the actual here and now, not the hypothetical tomorrow.