FAITH MATTERS: The tsunami last week and the Apocalypse . . . eventually
The Bible cautions believers against speculating about the date and time of the Apocalypse, although current world events and calamities seem to invite such conjecture. There are the uprisings in the Middle East. In Japan, the tsunami and earthquake disasters are fueling nuclear fears. And then the nuttiness of clergymen fitting Luther’s definition of “false clerics and schismatic spirits” reminds us that Christ listed some signs of the looming end of times, for example the appearance of many bogus prophets. The Rev. Steve Fawler, part-time rector of St. Stephen’s Episcopal church in Ferguson, Missouri, might just fit this rubric.
Fawler decided to “give up church for Lent,” and to adopt Muslim rituals and dietary rules for the 40 days until Easter. Thankfully, his bishop threatened to defrock him if he continued this practice, which manifestly confirms a Roman verity that preceded Christianity: Whom the gods want to destroy they first make mad. As Bishop George Wayne Smith told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, “He can’t be both a Christian and a Muslim. If he chooses to practice as Muslim, then he would, by default, give up his Christian identity and priesthood in the church.”
If the times weren’t so dire it would be fun to spin Fawler’s rationale further: How about giving up love for marriage in Lent? How about giving up death for funerals, or birth for adolescence, or motherhood for fatherhood? One must cheer the bishop for trying to maintain theological sanity, which isn’t easy in today’s religious environment where major denominations are degenerating into post-Christian neo-Gnostic sects, to wit the joint celebration of the Eucharist by Episcopalians and Hindus three years ago in Los Angeles, or a same-sex wedding in a sanctuary of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), also in southern California. The most titillating moment during this betrothal came when the woman pastor placed a consecrated host on the tongue of a seeing-eye dog; it is worth remembering in this context that according to Lutheran sacramental theology communicants receive Christ’s true body and blood “in with and under” the bread and the wine.
Taken by itself, the emergence of Gnostic sects is of course insufficient evidence for the imminence of Judgment Day. Gnosticism, a set of diverse syncretistic religious movements, has been around since antiquity and a huge threat to the early Church; yet the Church prevailed. St. Augustine of Hippo (354-430) was a Gnostic before his conversion to Christianity in 386 A.D.; be became one of the most important Fathers of the Church.
Spurious end-time prophecies also have a long track record. As Anglican theologian and philosophy professor Gerald R. McDermott points out, Christians in the days of Pope Gregory the Great at the end of the sixth century thought that Judgment Day was nigh when the Lombards, a northern Germanic tribe, invaded present-day Italy. In the 16th century, Martin Luther was certain that the Apocalypse would occur in his lifetime or shortly thereafter. Later less formidable characters obtained their 15 minutes of glory, to paraphrase Andy Warhol, by prophesying precise dates for Christ’s return (parousia), never mind that Jesus said in Matthew 24:25 that nobody could know the time and day.
In 1856, the prophetess of the Seventh-Day Adventists, Ellen G. White, reported that an angel had announced to her the nearness of Christ’s return. The angel, she said, told her what would happen to most people: “Some (will become) food for worms, some subjects for the seven last plagues.” Also in the mid-19th century, Joseph Smith, the founder of Mormonism, predicted that Jesus would be back within 56 years.
Then in the 1970s and 1980s, Hal Lindsay achieved notoriety by informing his millions of readers that 1988 would be the year of the parousia; well, it turned out it wasn’t. This list can be continued ad infinitum and include the fear-mongering forecasters of the impending Rapture.
The craze to hypothesize about the end of time or even advance this event by human means, which according to Martin Luther is the ultimate form of utopianism, spills over to other religions as well. In Japan in the 1980s, a semi-blind charlatan by the name of Shoko Asahara founded a “neo-Buddhist” sect called Aum Shinri-Kyo. It recruited primarily graduates of leading universities and gained worldwide infamy by producing huge amounts of Kalashnikov rifles and developing chemical and biological weapons of mass destruction. In 1995, they set off a sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway system killing 12, injuring 54 and affecting thousands of others, a misdeed for which Asahara was sentenced to the gallows; he is now awaiting his execution.
What was that all about? In an interview one of his top lieutenants told me that it was the purpose of this crime to trigger World War III between Japan and the United States, which would result in the destruction of the universe. Why would a bunch of young scientists wish to do that? “Well,” he said, “the Lord Shiva has commanded us to give him a helping hand;” Shiva is the destroyer in the Hindu trinity. When he’s done, Brahma, the Creator, would be able to begin a new cycle of creation.
So here we had a “Buddhist” sectarians killing in behalf of a Hindu god, and to top the syncretistic madness, they explained this in Christian terminology. With his hands on a Bible, Asahara’s white-robed henchman informed me that he and his co-religionists were Christ’s soldiers in the Battle of Armageddon. But who was Christ to them? “An incarnation of Shiva, the god of destruction,” he said.
All this would be hilarious if it weren’t so deadly and in total contradiction of what Scripture is saying. It is possible, suggests Gerald McDermott, that calamities such as the current disaster in Japan, are a warning or even temporal punishment from God. In fact, a prominent devotee of the Shinto religion suggested the same thing. “The character of the Japanese people is selfish. The Japanese people must take advantage of this tsunami to wash away their selfish greed. I really do think this is divine punishment,” Shintaro Ishihara, governor of Tokyo, told a press conference.
As for the ultimate Day of Judgment, the Christ’s message is clear: repent and be watchful! “If you are not watchful, I will come like a thief, and you will never know at what hour I will come upon you” (Revelation 3:3).
Uwe Siemon-Netto, the former religious affairs editor of United Press International, has been an international journalist for 54 years, covering North America, Vietnam, the Middle East and Europe for German publications. Dr. Siemon-Netto currently directs the League of Faithful Masks and Center for Lutheran Theology and Public Life in Irvine, California.