I spoke at a graduation last night. I challenged the graduates to resist the apocalyptic mentality of so much of American Christianity. You know, the world is going to end soon because everything is so bad and just getting worse. There will be no progress because there's nothing left to discover, invent, or explore. You can't polish brass on a sinking ship. You know the routine.
People who can't envision what might come next, lazily believe that therefore nothing is yet to come. It's all over. Jesus is coming to rescue us from this mess. Isn't that wonderful?
Well, no, it's not only not wonderful, it's not true. Such resignation does not come from faith but faithless abdication of our Christian responsibility. Thinking that Jesus is going to come at any moment and get us out of this earthly mess is not the kind of vision that inspired the development and progress of Christian civilization. And by "Christian civilization" I mean all the freedoms, luxuries, and benefits we daily take for granted in the West.
When, for example, in the 4th and 5th centuries AD Christian leaders stood at the crossroads and contemplated the meaning of the disintegration of Rome and her culture, they didn't all gather on a mountain and wait for Jesus to come and rescue them. They went to work on a new foundation for culture. Augustine wrote his massive City of God, and it inspired a new world. You don't write 800-page treatises for future generations of Christians if you think history is going to end in a few months.
But there were many around Augustine who thought that the world was indeed about to end. They could not imagine a world that was not governed by Rome, therefore such a world could not exist, would never exist. Wrong. They were too provincial in their contemplation of what the future might hold.
At the turn of the first millennium of the Christian era people thought it was all over. How could it get any worse? What else could there possibly be in store for humanity? They were wrong. There was more, much more.
Luther believed that he was living in the end times. The anti-Christ was powerful. Everything was a mess. The world was obviously almost over. How could it get much worse? Was there anything new or different that could be discovered? Luther died thinking that the end would come shortly, but human history did not end. God had more to do, more for man to discover and learn.
In the American church there has been wave after wave of eschatological speculation about the nearness of the end of the world and Jesus imminent return. It's an obsession with Americans. All of it has been silly and counterproductive, to put the best face on it. In each instance the world did not end and Jesus did not come again. Short-sighted Christians just could not imagine anything new, any future that might be different than what was past. They were faithless and lazy thinkers when it came to these questions.
When will we learn our lesson? Five hundred years from now Christians will look back on our culture and shake their heads. They will ask questions like this: How could they be so narrow, so self-absorbed? How could they have been so provincial in their outlook? Why didn't they learn from the mistakes of Christians in the past? What happened to sanctified imagination in American Christianity?
We have many thousands of years left for human history to learn, grow, mature, and continue God's program given to Adam and Eve. The future is open. Jesus is still on the throne. We are his bride, left behind to complete the work that he began. We should recognize that our failure to embrace an open future is actually a refusal to deny ourselves and live to serve our children and our children's children. We are so self-absorbed that we think human history has culminated with us. Think about it. We have become so self-centered that we refuse to follow Christ in sacrificial service for future generations.