It used to be that apocalyptic warnings about the approaching end of time came from sign-holding religious nutcases. Now they come from hard scientists. Most discussion of the threat of global warming is conducted in measured tones, with even dire projections offered with the necessary proviso that the future is uncertain. But as governments fail to act strenuously enough against the villainous carbon emissions, and as the broad public continues in a state of environmental quietude, if not indifference, scientific voices are sharpening the alarm.
E.O. Wilson, in his book “The Creation,’’ used the word Armageddon to describe the rapid shrinking of Earth’s biodiversity. James Lovelock has foreseen a small remnant of the human population in retreat to the Arctic by the end of this century. Less extreme, but still pointed, is this assessment from Jagadish Shukla, a member of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change: “The potential for catastrophic climate change that can adversely affect the habitability of the entire planet is quite real.’’ Bill McKibben declares that the time to mitigate disaster is upon us: “2009 may well turn out to be the decisive year in the human relationship with our home planet.’’
We may be inhibited in our ability to properly respond to such warnings because the apocalyptic imagination has so often proven to be unreliable. But it is not just the fact that so many end-of-the-world predictions have proven false that defines the problem. Apocalyptic thinking itself is anti-human. Though it comes to us out of the treasure chest of our civilization, the Bible, and though it is a staple of Hollywood disaster films (see the new “Transformers’’ movie), the readiness to see catastrophe as looming has itself produced catastrophic consequences down through the centuries. Even more destructive has been the religion-sponsored (and Hollywood-advanced) inclination to see catastrophe itself as a good thing, for what is the biblical Apocalypse if not God’s destroying of the world in order to restore it?
What kind of God does that? What sort of religion preaches such a gospel of violence? And why are we entertained by it?
The apocalyptic tradition, represented in the Bible by only two books, comes out of the experience of savage war. “Daniel’’ and “Revelation’’ (neither of which is universally accepted as canonical) are wartime literature. Each attempted to make sense of merciless violence by imagining a cosmic conflict between forces of good and evil. To be faithful to God was to be on God’s side in the great final struggle against Satan. This idea helped a besieged and frightened people to stand fast - against the Seleucid tyranny in the 2nd century BCE and against Rome in the late 1st century CE. Even apparent defeat (represented by the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE) could in this way be perceived as an ultimate victory, even if in another realm. The otherness of that realm became the point.
The apocalyptic imagination, unlike the broader biblical view, was bifurcated, not only setting God against an evil nemesis but also dividing the temporal order (time against eternity) and space (earth against heaven). The present life is not what matters. The next life (millennium, afterlife) is everything. This cosmic dualism seized, especially, the Christian mind, and its elements are regarded as essential to the religion. When Revelation foresees famine, mass slaughter, rivers of blood, the chaos is presided over by an avenging Christ. Obviously, a worldview informed by such contempt for earthly existence will be hard put to take the slow-motion violence of environmental degradation as problematic.
But what about the Jesus of the Gospels? Against even his friend, the apocalyptic John the Baptist, he insisted on the preciousness of life here and now. His message in no way devalued the present world in favor of a future heaven, any more than the author of Genesis denigrated the created world when God saw it as “good. . .very good.’’ Uncriticized theological assumptions, in other words, are part of what inhibits the human capacity to respond appropriately to Earth’s new vulnerability. The overwhelming message of the Bible, read critically, is that this world is the world that counts. Any notion of afterlife that suggests otherwise, undercutting care for the home planet, must be discarded, along with the habits that have put us at this precipice.