Well, we’re certainly all living in interesting times, as the old proverbial curse has it. Who even a few short months ago in 2019 could have predicted the situation we’re currently living through? (Who a few short months ago had even heard the terms Covid-19, self-isolation or social distancing which are now dominating all of our lives?)
Covid-19, and the complete upheaval it’s caused to our world and our daily lives, has taken pretty much everyone by surprise. And of course it raises all sorts of questions, including a few spiritual and theological ones. Where is God in all this? Did he cause this or just allow it, and why? Is it a Sign of the End? How should we respond to it? How do we survive lockdown without going loco and murdering our nearest and dearest, and what do we do if the shops run out of essential wine and beer? I’d like to address at least some of these questions over the next few posts. Starting this time with the question of whether Covid-19 is a sign of the End Times.
The end is nigh (maybe)
At times like these, certain types of people inevitably respond by reaching for their well-worn copies of the book of Revelation and proclaiming that what’s happening is a fulfilment of biblical prophecy. For such people, the coronavirus pandemic is a sure sign that, this time, The End Is really Nigh, and that Jesus will shortly be landing in Jerusalem (or just possibly somewhere in the southern United States).
And joking apart, I suppose that if we believe – as most Christians probably do in theory at least – that Jesus is ultimately coming back to wrap up history and institute a new era, then at some point the prophesiers will have to be right – even if only by statistical chance rather than divine guidance. (And even if they’re hopefully not right about most of the details of what Christ’s return will look like – for example, The Rapture, or everyone bearing ‘the mark of the beast’ being cast into a literal lake of eternal fire).
If you think I’m being overly flippant, you’re probably right – it’s a coping strategy, rather as predicting the end of the world is for some (as I’ll argue below). I don’t really think the end of the world or the actual return of Jesus are laughing matters – but I do think that some Christian interpretations of them are.
Why do people keep predicting the end?
So why do some people seem so keen to predict the imminent end whenever things get a bit strange or difficult? I think partly it goes with a certain fundamentalist mentality, a theology that’s always wanted to believe that Christ will return soon to vindicate the true believers and to judge and punish the scoffers, evildoers and liberals. Which of course can be a tremendously comforting belief.
But furthermore, sometimes the strangeness and difficulty of our situation becomes so extreme that it’s really hard to deal with, as I think it is now for many people. Then it can be tempting for any of us – fundamentalist or not – to hope for some kind of divine or magical end to all the seemingly insuperable problems of our lives and of the world; the return of the Saviour to whisk us all away from present trouble to eternal paradise. (And if the Saviour also decides at the same time to punish those who we deem to be irredeemable – whether that be politicians of the wrong party, anti-social neighbours or people who aren’t observing lockdown as assiduously as we are – well, who are we to argue?)
And also, comfortably liberal and sceptical as I am, even I have to admit that at times over the last few years it’s been hard not to feel that world situations and events appear to be hotting up to some kind of climactic (or climatic) crescendo. Sometimes it is hard to watch the news and not feel that things are spiralling a tiny bit out of control and that surely this can’t all just go on indefinitely without a major and possibly terminal crash.
At the start of 2020 many of us were fearing that Donald Trump might be about to precipitate World War Three with Iran. Others were worrying that the raging wildfires in Australia and then Storms Ciara and Dennis were signs of impending climate disaster. And then Covid-19 hit, kicked everything else into touch and turned the whole world upside-down. At times like these, talk of the End of the World perhaps doesn’t feel quite so crazy as it usually would.
We’ve survived worse
And yet – let’s also acknowledge the historical reality that the world has faced countless catastrophes and cataclysms before, and it’s still here. Humanity too has been through near-global wars, large-scale disasters, economic crashes, pandemics and dramatic climate shifts before, and people are still here, indeed in greater numbers than ever. And of course the self-appointed prophets of doom have been regularly predicting The End, or Christ’s Return, for millennia, and so far none of them have ever been right.
So I think it’s still reasonable to have a fairly strong scepticism about any prophetic claims of an imminent End, or that any particular event – however catastrophic or unprecedented – is a herald of the impending Apocalypse. Coronavirus is undeniably a horrible, devastating and even world-changing thing, but so too were the World Wars, the Black Death, the Spanish Flu pandemic and hundreds of other terrible events in history, and none of them ushered in the End of All Things. Which is not at all to belittle them or the impact they have had on real people’s lives.
But while I am always sceptical about End Times claims, I’m also not going to write them off completely. As I say, at some point, eventually, the end-predictors will probably have to be right if only by accident. Equally at some point the sceptics like me will have to be wrong. And none of us knows the day or hour – it could be in a billion years, or it could conceivably be today.
Never mind the end of the world
But either way, what we do know is that our own lives are relatively short and will certainly end – in a matter of decades at most, and very probably long before this world does. In light of the current situation our short lives seem even more fragile and vulnerable than ever. So what matters surely is what we do with the time that is given us, as the Bible – no sorry, Gandalf – says.
So I’m inclined to say: never mind the end of the world – you can’t do much about it anyway. Instead, concentrate on what you can do something positive about – yourself, and the situations immediately around you. What can we do to be our best and most creative selves during lockdown, and not take out our frustrations on those we’re cooped up with? How can we support the people who most need it despite social distancing, and how can we not fall into the easy traps of becoming judgemental and self-righteous, fearful and isolationist, or just cynical and apathetic? The end of the world can worry about itself – we’ve got other stuff to do.
And who knows – if we all learn to live a bit more sustainably, there’s just a tiny chance that the planet might limp on for a little bit longer than it would have otherwise. God willing, maybe we can do something to postpone the end.
Next time – is Covid-19 God’s judgement on sinful humanity?