Cool Takes: Of Blood Moons, Papal Visits, and the End of the World
Every Wednesday in Cool Takes, S. D. Kelly offers a fresh reflection on hot topics by exploring the intersection of faith with high and low culture.
I see rising a super world church. I see the formation of a super world church council, consisting of a union between liberal, ecumenical protestants and the Roman Catholic Church, joining politically hand in hand to create one of the most powerful religious forces on earth. And this union is going to start as a cooperative charity program and will end in a political union.” ~David Wilkerson, The End Times Vision, 1973.
For a certain kind of American evangelical, the events of September 2015 have proved a perfect storm of biblical prophetic fulfillment — or at least the potential of fulfillment — a satisfying start to the end of the world. The blood moon and the Pope visited America at the same time, both to great acclaim. The appearance of the blood moon directly preceded the 70th United Nations General Assembly, at which an entire series of headlining world leaders took to the dais, intoning about this or that solution to a variety of global problems while translators murmured into microphones. Meanwhile a whole bunch of noteworthy stuff has been going on elsewhere in the world: refugees and migrants pouring out of their own countries and into other ones, for example. It seems that the population of the Eastern hemisphere is practically draining into the West, threatening the delicate ecological and emotional balance of the denizens of western civilization in the process, not to mention their jobs.Every day is an apocalypse of sorts as we make our way back to God, one soul straggling in at a time, seeking shelter.
From my perspective as somewhat of an end times expert — as any person would be, raised as I was in a foment of fundamentalist eschatology — the arrival of Pope Francis on American soil is the most significant of all these autumnal portents. The Pope figures heavily into talk of the Antichrist for the apocalypse-minded. He’s the guy who either is the Antichrist or precedes the Antichrist, I can’t remember, but either way it is generally agreed among certain parsers of the book of Revelation in the Bible that the Catholic Church is the Whore of Babylon as mentioned in chapters 17 & 18. And who better to represent the Catholic Church than the Pope?
Metaphorically, the Whore of Babylon allusion makes for some uncomfortable reading. And literally, it makes no sense, but then no one could accuse Revelation of making sense, which is precisely why we love it so much. Revelation has provided nearly two millennia of theological maze-running: biblical thickets for Christian scholars and armchair Bible-commentators to get lost in while attempting to comprehend the various visions and dreams of John the Apostle and in the process discover just when, exactly, Jesus will be coming back to earth and just who, exactly, he will be taking with him when he leaves. Or stays for a thousand years, depending on your understanding of what this Kingdom on Earth business is all about.
The funny thing about interpreting Revelation is that it always takes place, by necessity, within the limited framework of one’s own place and time. For a while in the 1980s it looked fairly likely that Mikhail Gorbachev was the Antichrist — or maybe just the guy who precedes the Antichrist. Either way, the red birthmark on Gorbachev’s shiny bald head, the one in the shape of a leprous whale, was pretty telling. It was a mark of great significance, figuring highly into interpretations of Scripture circa the year of our Lord 1987. But in spite of Gorbachev entering the world stage with a bang, he exited with a whimper, clearing the way for other Antichrists-in-waiting. As of this writing, no obvious Antichrist has appeared, though there are a few prominent contenders, and Christians are left scanning the skies waiting for Christ’s return. In the meantime we will peruse Scripture for what all that stuff in the sky we’re looking at really means.
I shrug my shoulders at all of this, dismissing end times speculation as a waste of evangelical resources more properly diverted into less abstract biblical injunctions having to do with such things as taking care of widows and orphans. I didn’t inherit my father’s obsession with all things apocalyptic even if I inherited his faith, but here’s the thing (in the spirit of popery I’ll make a confession): the blood moon was unnerving. I felt distinctly unsettled staring at September’s super moon, watching as it was obscured by the earth’s shadow, bloody but intact. I don’t know if this fear can be attributed to nature or nurture, the former providing the panic I feel at the onset of a thunderstorm (a panic I believe to be an early-warning system built into the DNA of every living human, cautioning us to take shelter because nature is trying to kill us) or to the intense nurturing of my parents, who believe that Satan has a plan for this world (and it’s not pretty), but either way I didn’t enjoy the convergence of the super moon and the blood moon much.
This personal revelation drove me straight to Facebook, the sacred text of our time, to survey the mob — to crowdsource, as it’s now called — in the effort to understand where this doomsday-loving impulse comes from. The number of posts on the blood moon and papal visits was astounding from across every ideological persuasion, extreme right to extreme left, with more than a few posts conflating the topics. Facebook gave me, via one one of my more conservative Christian friends, the quote from David Wilkerson, in which he predicts protestants and Catholics will first do good in concert before doing bad together. The ominous tone of which still resonates forty years after it was first inscribed and four years after Wilkerson’s own Day of the Lord arrived: his death in 2011.
Which brings me to the real point here. Knowing just when the Day of the Lord arriveth does not alter, in any meaningful way, what evangelicals already believe to be true: our own personal Day of the Lord comes at the moment of our death. Reckoning with what comes after death — the great, yawning void of the unknown and our place in it — is not enhanced by speculating about just when eternity will be ushered into each of our lives.
People who don’t believe in God or the afterlife have their own, more secularized expressions of obsessing over just when and how the world will end, of course. The spirited debates over what to do about climate change come to mind as various models of a planet headed toward unmitigated heat or even another ice age are trotted out. But this sort of obsession makes sense from a secular perspective; the material world is all that is available to the humanist, and determining whether the world will end in fire or ice is highly pertinent to avoiding either fate.
But for Christians, the immaterial is just as much a reality as the material. Believing that all of creation, including every created soul, is in need of redemption is at the center of our theology. This belief informs every expression of humanity from the cradle to the grave, and in that sense every day is an apocalypse of sorts as we make our way back to God, one soul straggling in at a time, seeking shelter. We don’t need signs and wonders, earthquakes and blood moons and mitre-wearing pontiffs, to point the way to the beginning of the end. The end is already determined by the act of being born, a personal apocalypse inevitable without divine intervention.
Astronomers tell us that a convergence of a blood moon and supermoon won’t happen again until 2033. No word from the Vatican on whether or not a papal visit to America is planned for that same year — not even the pope’s secretary can see that far into the future. The United Nations hasn’t released information on their plans for 2033 either, but chances are good that world leaders will take to the dais at the U.N. and intone about fixing this or that while refugees race from one side of the globe to the other. All of this leaves us with plenty of time to speculate before the next super blood moon, to read and reread Revelation in light of the dispensation we occupy and all the ones we’ve left behind — or in light of some other interpretation altogether, depending on your favorite exegesis. He who endures to the end is the continual refrain of Revelation. He who endures to the end will be saved. He who endures to the end, whenever, and however, the end comes.
Image courtesy of Inquisitor.