Have you noticed that people have been thinking a lot about the End of the World lately? Okay, so they’ve also been thinking about it for the last few thousand years. But whenever we have a combination of natural disasters, political upheaval, moral decay, doubt, defiance, and the open celebration of sin, some of us start to think: “It’s gotta be just about over…”
And yet, as you have also noticed, the world hasn’t ended. Unless, of course, you count all the times it has ended in the past. History is full of fallen empires, and the landscapes of the earth are littered with the ruins of great cities and civilizations that are no more. It is both a caution and a comfort, direct evidence that the world indeed does end, but that it’s not The End. G.K. Chesterton says, “It is very natural but rather misleading, for supposing that this epoch must be the end of the world because it will be the end of us.”
Have you also noticed that while people don’t want the world to end, they don’t seem very happy about the world that hasn’t ended yet? They recognize that things are coming apart, that the normal is not considered normal, that in spite of contemporary comforts, everybody is miserable.
Chesterton observes this also, in his book, The Everlasting Man, which, keeping right on topic, contains a chapter entitled “The End of the World.” He is referring to the state of society leading up to the birth of Christ. The triumph of reason that had sprung from the birth of philosophy in Greece and spread to Rome had fallen into mere skepticism and pessimism. The pagan religions no longer produced any poetry, only perversion. Wealth and power provided no satisfaction. Chesterton says: “Pessimism is not in being tired of evil but in being tired of good. Despair does not lie in being weary of suffering, but in being weary of joy. It is when for some reason or other the good things in a society no longer work that the society begins to decline; when its food does not feed, when its cures do not cure, when its blessings refuse to bless.”
If that sounds familiar it is because we find ourselves in the same position today, as we wait for Christ to come a second time. In this age of “progress” where have we have seen improved technology, transportation, communication, and cookies, where we keep telling ourselves everything keeps getting better, we look around and only see how dissatisfied we are. In spite of progress, we seem farther from utopia than ever.
When the guy from the phone company came to hook up my wireless network, we did not discuss the miracle of cordlessness, we instead got to talking about how messed up the world is. He said the word “distopian.” And after he said it, he said, “I try to use the word ‘distopian’ in a sentence every day.” Spreading the gospel.
The thing about the end of the world is one of these days it’s really going to happen. Chesterton says, “The end of the world is more actual than the world it ends.” A characteristic paradox pointing to the ultimate reality. The end of the world is more real than the world. The Creator is more real than the creation. The end of time is the beginning of eternity, when time’s urgencies dissolve.
While the prospect of the end of the whole world has always loomed, it is sometimes a distraction from the more immediate end of our personal world, our own death. But the issue is the same. We don’t fear the end of the world, we fear what happens after that. We don’t fear death, but judgment. At the same time, we are curious about death…and even curious about judgment. We want to know the ultimate meaning of things, the solution to the riddle. Chesterton says, “For the world really has an end, since it has an aim.”
He also makes the valuable point that Christianity has something in common with the ordinary detective story. “The judgment at the end of any silly sensational story is like the judgment at the end of the world; it is unexpected.” Jesus promised that there will be a final judgment, and that it will come when we least expect it. This points to a paradox that I’ve never seen Chesterton point to: it is those times when we think things are so bad that God needs to come and end it, that He is probably least likely to do so. It’s when we think, “Things aren’t so bad…” that we forget about God, and are in greater danger.
In discussions about the end of the world, Chesterton observes that some people demonstrate a very small view of God. This was the case with a certain theologian of Chesterton’s time, who when speaking of the extinction of the material universe, actually said: “What will God have to think about?” Chesterton is astonished at the shallowness of the remark.
He responds with restraint. “Not having seen the Beatific Vision, we cannot, of course, say exactly how it is beatific or how it contains in itself its own beatitude. But one would suppose that anybody believing in God at all would postulate that He has in His own nature the secret of beatitude; and does not require a material universe to amuse Him, like a morning paper every morning…” It is typical of the progressive thinker that he never thinks about the old Church dogmas, “which he has always spurned as if nobody wanted them, and which in this very case offer him everything that he wants. God will have, even in that sense, a great deal to think about; and man will have a great deal to think about; in his final relation to the source of all thought. But would it not be as well if man began to think a little, even now?”