Are We at the End of the World? Or the Beginning?
27 June 2020
What a spring! Pandemic, shutdowns, layoffs, protests, riots – not to mention earthquakes and rumors of, what, murder hornets? I wouldn’t blame you if you’re tempted to think it’s the end of the world.
But I’ve got a proposal for you. Instead of the end, maybe it’s the beginning.
I’ve been spending some time thinking about scriptural prophecies. And I’m clearly not alone. Videos about prophecies in the Bible have been around a long time. But, right now, they’re getting many more views and shares than usual.
One video, shared with me by a friend, uses prophecies from the book of Daniel to make the case that we’re living in what the scriptures call the “end times.” And a family member shared with me another video that even tries to use the book of Revelation to calculate the timing of Jesus’ return. No one knows the day or the hour, says the Bible. But the person in the video claims that we can know the week.
The family member who shared the second video with me asked for my opinion. So here’s what I told her.
I think the primary value of prophecy is how it affects us – how it affects our thoughts, our words and actions. I don’t think that we should understand prophecy as fortune-telling or fate. But instead we can understand it as something like forth-telling.
Forth-telling would be an expression of envisioned possibility. It can be about good possibilities, or bad. But it’s always conditional on our faith – on our practical trust and action. And it’s always intended to provoke us, either to pursue the good or to avoid the bad.
It’s like the story of Jonah and Nineveh, in the Bible. God tells Jonah to tell Nineveh that they’re going to be destroyed, without qualification. So Jonah tells them. But they repent, God spares them, and Jonah gets mad at God for not fulfilling his prophecy.
Likewise, prophecies about the end of the world have different meanings for different people. Some who lived two thousand years ago thought these prophecies entailed the end of the world in their time. Some people who lived one thousand years ago, one hundred years ago, and even ten years ago thought the same.
Humans are highly capable of finding and making purpose from symbols. When we make an effort, we can apply any prophecy to ourselves and our time. And, as Nephi points out in the Book of Mormon, that can be a good thing. But it can also be a bad thing, depending on how our interpretations affect us.
For example, do our interpretations of prophecy give us hope? Do they motivate us to be more courageous and compassionate? Do they provoke us to work, to serve, and actually to show our love for each other in real action?
Or do our interpretations of prophecy weigh us down with distress? Maybe they motivate us to say cruel things or even to act violently? Or maybe they just make us apathetic to others’ suffering? We might tell ourselves, “they had it coming!”
I think that, at least on reflection, we each have a choice to make. We can choose how to think about prophecy. We can choose how to talk about it, and how to act on it. And that choice can have serious practical consequences.
So is this the end of the world? Well, it might be the end of some things. And let’s hope so! Poverty, war, disease, even death: they should all end, so far as I’m concerned.
And the scriptures seem to agree. Remember the prophecy of Joseph Smith, who wrote that the day would come when poverty and enmity will end. Remember the prophecy of Paul the Apostle, who wrote that the day would come when even death will end – the dead resurrected, and the living transfigured.
And where there are endings, there are always beginnings. We can see this in the book of Revelation, where John concludes his prophecy by describing the beginning of “a new heaven and a new Earth.”
I don’t know about you. But I find – I feel – hope when I think about these new beginnings. And that feeling leads me to wonder, is there anything that I can do to help realize that hope? Is there anything that you and I, together, can do to make that better world sooner rather than later?
So it seems to me, when we hear a prophet say that it’s the end of the world, we get to choose. And we can be like Nineveh. We can understand that prophecies, even dark ones, are always invitations to new beginnings.
Of course each new beginning requires change. And change ultimately has to be more than just nice thoughts and words. It has to be the active and transformative change that the scriptures call “repentance.” It’s a difficult change.
But I feel like it’s at least a little easier, and way more effective, when I imagine the needed change as a new beginning. With that hope in mind, I’m more likely to “stand up and do something more than dream,” like we sing in the hymn. Then “doing good [really] is a pleasure” and less of a chore.
Okay. Here’s one last prophecy to think about. John in the New Testament and Moroni in the Book of Mormon both prophesy about the return of Christ. And they both say that “when he appears, we shall be like him.”
If they’re right, as I trust they are, the return of Christ seems to depend on our new beginning as better people – and not the other way around. In other words, Jesus isn’t going to force the new beginning on us. Instead, it looks like we have choices to make and work to do.
So, what’s next? What will next month bring? What comes after pandemics and riots? Honestly, I think that mostly depends on us.