The End of the World

I took a stroll through the End of the World last week. Brought the wife and kids and a picnic lunch. It was beautiful, as always. But one of these days (and it won’t be long) it will be gone. Maybe us too.

Yellowstone geyserI’m speaking of the Yellowstone Caldera, of course. What’s unnerving is not so much the size of the thing (35 miles across at places) but the regularity and predictability of its eruptions, combined with the impending end of its rather lengthy cycle. Here’s how naturalist and writer Tim Cahill sums things up in his pleasant little book Lost in My Own Backyard: A Walk in Yellowstone National Park (2004).

The Huckleberry Ridge eruption … happened about 2.1 million years ago. The Mesa Falls eruption occurred 1.3 million years ago, and … the Lava Creek event happened about 640,000 years ago. … Some texts are willing to say that there’s a cataclysmic supervolcano eruption in Yellowstone every 600,000 years or so. I don’t have to tell you again that the last one was 640,000 years ago.

This is just a particularly striking if picturesque example of the problem we face. Other candidates for End of the World As We Know It scenarios include a sizeable meteorite, comet, or errant planetoid striking Planet Earth; a star in our celestial neighborhood going supernova; a sustained nuclear exchange; and so forth. [See here for other scenarios.] This isn’t science fiction; one of these scenarios could very well come to pass before too many centuries elapse. But few of us seem to be losing any sleep over this. Why not? A few explanations leap to mind.

  1. Ignorance is bliss. But is there anyone alive who hasn’t seen the Supervolcano show at least twice? Or seen the comet movie? No, I don’t think people are ignorant.
  2. The government will save us. Just joking.
  3. I’ve got my year’s supply in the garage. Or at least a friendly relative does. Funny, Mormons don’t get teased about this much anymore.
  4. God won’t let it happen. Well, He didn’t stop the Black Plague or the eruption of Mount Tambora in 1815 or the Tunguska event in 1908. I don’t pretend to know God’s will in such matters, but the evidence suggests He does not intervene to prevent natural catastrophes.
  5. The Second Coming will happen first. Maybe; maybe not. No one really knows when this will occur. People have been expecting the Second Coming in their own generation for two thousand years now. Personally, I think we’re looking at several millennia, not centuries and certainly not mere decades.

My impression is that few people, whether believers or not, seem capable of wrapping their minds around the End of the World as a natural event. But we do seem capable of coming to grips with the concept in theological terms, eschatology being the particular branch of theology that specializes in this sort of thing. Which brings me to The God of Hope and the End of the World (2002) by John Polkinghorne, a physicist turned theologian. If you are one of those sensitive souls that lose sleep over things like this, I certainly recommend the book. Polkinghorne sees grounds for hope, Christian hope, despite the inexorable probabilties of supervolcanoes, comets, etc.

Hope for what? Not simple immortality — that’s too shallow, even selfish. I believe hope is rooted in our conviction that justice should, in the end, prevail over the evils of this world and that innocent suffering should be redressed. This conviction is reflected in the simple lines of the Lord’s Prayer, “deliver us from evil” and “thy will be done in earth.”

Hope is certainly more than just being optimistic about the future. Polkinghorne states, “The opposite of hope is despair, a nihilistic rejection of trust in the meaningfulness of life” (p. 47). So hope means embracing trust in the meaningfulness of life, despite evidence to the contrary.

The contemporary cultural context that we have been discussing clouds recognition of the religious nature of hope, for it is prone to confuse it with optimism or with wishful thinking. Janet Soskice comments that even in the churches today there is a tendency to represent hope as if it were a psychological mood. “Lack of faith and charity can be treated by prayer, but lack of hope is treated with antidepressants.”

Because hope is much more than a mood, it involves commitment to action. Its moral character implies that what we hope for should be what we are prepared to work for and to bring about, as far as that power lies in us. (p. 47-48.)

It would be wrong, of course, to suggest that all atheists are nihilists or that all nonbelievers are necessarily practitioners of despair. But hope is plainly correlated with, if not entirely dependent on, belief.

Holding in mind such a clear-eyed view of the woes and disappointments of history, one must ask what could then be the ground of a true hope beyond history? There is only one possible source: the eternal faithfulness of the God who is the Creator and Redeemer of history. … It is only God who can bring new life and raise the dead, whose Spirit breathes life into dry bones and makes them live (Ezekiel 37:9-10). Hope lies in the divine chesed, God’s steadfast love, and not in some Hellenistic belief in an unchanging realm of ideas or an intrinsic immortality of the human soul. Christian trust in divine faithfulness is reinforced by the knowledge that God is the One who raised Jesus from the dead. Only such a God could be the ground for that hope against hope that transcends the limits of any natural expression. (p. 94-95.)

Hayden ValleyI like the idea raised by Polkinghorne that that hope is a moral stance, a commitment to action, and that we should work toward what we hope for. If Mormon hope differs in any sense from a more general Christian hope, that view probably captures it. This line expresses that thought in anecdotal form: “There is an apocryphal saying attributed to Martin Luther, in which he declared that if he knew that tomorrow the world would end, he would plant an apple tree today” (p. 102). So planting things that live and grow — or even just admiring them while strolling through a park or garden — reflects our hope against hope that there’s more to the End of the World than meets the natural eye. And that is a comforting thought.

16 comments for “The End of the World

  1. July 2, 2010 at 2:22 pm

    How about you just can’t live in a perpetual state of panic? Eventually, the brain adjusts.

    I happen to know. :D

  2. Tim
    July 2, 2010 at 2:24 pm

    The end of the world? For Salt Lake, perhaps. For Idaho Falls, most certainly. For those of us who live far away from the Mormon corridor? A couple of cold years, but not the end of the world by any means.
    I hope I’m far away from Yellowstone when it finally erupts. But the vast amount of time between eruptions makes it very unlikely it will happen in my lifetime.

  3. Julie M. Smith
    July 2, 2010 at 2:44 pm

    I think your list needs a #6:

    6. I can’t do anything about it anyway, so I’m not going to worry about it.

  4. Marjorie Conder
    July 2, 2010 at 4:38 pm

    My thoughts on this are the same as Julie’s.If you can do something, do it. If not, there is little point letting it consume your life.

  5. Derek
    July 2, 2010 at 5:01 pm

    If you use any natural resources (such as oil) faster than the earth can replace them, or of you create pollution faster than the earth can break it down, or if you and your spouse have more children than is needed to replace the two of you (that means “stop at two”), then you have hastened the end of the world.

    So there are a few things you can do about the end of the world.

  6. Bfabbi
    July 2, 2010 at 5:23 pm

    I believe in the commandments in the D&C, and in other parts of the scriptures that say that there is enough and to spare in the Earth, and that we need to use the resources of the Earth responsibly as well as the commandment to multiply and replenish the Earth. I do not see how having more children than the minimum to replace the current population.
    I do agree that we need to be wise stewards of the Earth, but I don’t agree with your conclusions.

  7. el oso
    July 2, 2010 at 5:29 pm

    Maybe you will have some warning and be able to get out of the 300+ mile danger zone. If not, you and some of my close relatives will be getting pretty hot. Sorry about that Dave.
    As I look at natural disaster risks for my extended family, I see that we all need to move close to a few particular relatives in calm areas. Of course these areas are all limited by water supply and cannot support a vast increase in population. I guess I am stuck here in tornado alley.

  8. July 2, 2010 at 5:44 pm

    I was about to pipe up with Julie’s #6. In Florida we lived with hurricane season and now I live on a huge fault line. Life is full of risks. If a meteor drops on my house tomorrow, well then I’ll say “good morning, good evening, and good night,” right now — just in case.

    But the real answer is #7. Al Gore will save us.

  9. Derek
    July 2, 2010 at 6:21 pm

    Bfabbi, those scriptures were written at a time when people had not yet replenished the earth and when the people at the time were less resource-hungry and created less pollution.

  10. Stephanie
    July 2, 2010 at 11:31 pm

    if you and your spouse have more children than is needed to replace the two of you (that means “stop at two”), then you have hastened the end of the world.

    Glad to know I’m doing my part.

  11. Julio
    July 3, 2010 at 7:58 am

    Reading your comments, makes me think that the context of our thoughts and views regarding the end of the world, are based and are very much dependent in: (1) How far away can we move from the epicenter of a probably natural disaster, (2) What others would think or do regarding such end (temporal solutions). And (3) Do nothing, we are stuck.

    As matter of fact , the very fact, writing these words, is an attempt to please myself, and (perhaps) a futile attempt from me to persuade you that I know regarding the end better than you.

    The very fact to me, is that our understanding of Jesus example of self-sacrifice, gained only trough a personal relationship with the Savior (obedience is better than sacrifice) will give us, not only the hope, but the assurance of a new better day in a new different place. And it will not be a surprise to find that “another world’s end” is still part of a never ending personal progression.

  12. July 3, 2010 at 2:43 pm

    How come nobody ever calls it the beginning of a new world?

    A world without doomsday-ers like Al Gore and Michael Moore would be a wonderful, new thing for sure.

  13. Raymond Takashi Swenson
    July 7, 2010 at 5:09 pm

    Having been a resident of Idaho Falls for 8 years, and still owner of real estate there, I am voting for the supervolcano scenario. That certainly seems to be the nature of the destruction that visited the Nephites in 3 Nephi, and to me, the whole narrative is meant to give us a foretaste of what the Second Coming will be like, as well as fulfilling almost all of the prophecies of the Messiah’s coming that many of the Jews of the First Century were looking for.

    Sorry, Derek, but anyone who is up to date on 21st century population trends knows that the current trend is toward a population crash, with lots of old folks and few younger ones who can carry the burden of supporting them (including paying IN to Social Security). If it weren’t for immigration (and Mormons) the US population would already be flattened out and headed toward decline. (If the current leveling out of Southern Baptist membership continues, within 20 years or so the Mormons will pass them as the largest non-Catholic church in the US, and with most Catholics refusing to follow their church’s teachings on family size, it is even conceivable that in 60 years the LDS will become the largest single Christian church in the US.) Converting our economy to one that uses radically different sources of energy will require a large, young work force.

  14. Brad Dennis
    July 7, 2010 at 7:20 pm

    Actually both Derek and Raymond are right. In many economies and countries there needs to be a population increase to sustain economic growth and young people need to support an ageing population. However, if we are to dig deeper into 21st century population trends, we will see that in many countries and economies that rapidly increasing populations cause significant strain on the environment and consequently the economy. Egypt and Pakistan are experiencing unsustainable population growth rates could possibly face food crises unless their growth rates slow down. Yes to multiplying and replenishing (especially among the relatively small Mormon community), but there is moderation in all things. Some countries would do well to undertake greater strides towards family planning and/or female education (the more educated and career-seeking females are the fewer children they tend to have, Mormons are probably the exception though).

  15. Derek
    July 8, 2010 at 1:10 pm

    Raymond (#13) wrote: “the current trend is toward a population crash, with lots of old folks and few younger ones who can carry the burden of supporting them (including paying IN to Social Security).”

    And that’s why we need to change Social Security from a Ponzi scheme to something closer to retirement savings.

  16. ceejay
    July 10, 2010 at 10:39 pm

    I think most people believe they must adopt the attitude from the serenity prayer.

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