This is the way the world ends?

When I was learning to drive, I remember driving on a particularly hilly, curvy road that had a 50 MPH speed limit. So I was a little tense, because it was the first time I had been driving that fast. There was another car coming toward me, and I was really concentrating on that car because I didn’t want to hit it.

Mom also kept describing the car as a “ton of screaming steel,” which didn’t help much with my stress levels.

And at a certain point, it became clear that I was steering toward the car. My mom, next to me, goes, “Look at your own lane.” After I had safely passed the car, Mom explained that if you focus your eyes on something, you automatically and subconsciously steer toward it. So you should focus on your own lane so that you will steer in it.

The significance of this story will become clear before the end, I promise.

I like to look at old predictions about life in the future. There’s a whole website of these, called Paleofuture. They’re looking deep into the future and trying to predict what kinds of technology we’ll have, how society will change. Sometimes they’re surprisingly accurate; sometimes they’re completely ridiculous. Sometimes they actually inspired the real developments they suggested.

THE DUCKS WON’T KNOW WHAT HIT THEM

What really excites and fascinates me the most about these predictions is how optimistic they often are. And then you compare them to the visions of the future that we make now in books and movies.

So cheerful!

According to a 2010 Pew Research Center survey, resurfaced by the think tank last week in anticipation of Easter Sunday, nearly half of U.S. Christians believe that Christ will “definitely” (27 percent) or “probably” (20 percent) return to Earth in or before the year 2050. Conversely, 38 percent believe that Christ will definitely or probably not return within the next four decades. (source)

It’s not just Christians, either. In 2012 Gawker wrote, A new poll conducted for Reuters found that 1 in 7 people worldwide believe the world will end during their lifetime… According to Keren Gottfried, a research manager at Ipsos, respondents under 35 years old were more likely than those of any other age group to have anxiety about the world ending in their lifetime. (source)

Why do so many of us believe the end is coming in our lifetimes? The Universe is 13.8 billion years old. Earth is 4.5 billion years old. Humanity is about 200,000 years old. Civilization as we know it is 6,000 years old. It’s been 2,000 years since Christ ascended into heaven. What makes us think that NOW is when it’s going to all come crashing down?

I think some of it has to do with the acceleration of world events and warfare in the twentieth century. Wikipedia says, Cultural pessimism arises with the conviction that the culture of a nation, a civilization, or humanity itself is in a process of irreversible decline and explains that Towards the end of the 20th century, cultural pessimism surfaced in a prominent way. (x) There was a surge in cultural pessimism after the end of World War I, especially in Europe, which had seen the largest loss of life and the most horrifying aspects of trench warfare. The US was less affected by the war, and actually benefited economically from the second world war. But after that, the Cold War raised the specter of nuclear armageddon for the US. It wasn’t just western civilization or one’s own country that could come crashing down: it was the entirety of humanity and its necessities for life. The world really could end.

My mom was born in the fifties, one of the generation who had nuclear bomb drills in school, hiding under their desks and hurrying to bomb shelters. She told me that when she was a kid, she fully believed that she would never live to grow up: that the world would end before then, or at least that everyone in the US would be wiped out. She grew up believing she had no adulthood to look forward to.

“Now, children, stick your heads between your legs and kiss your butts goodbye!”

In some ways, I think our culture hasn’t gotten past this mindset. That’s why almost all movies and books about the future these days are dystopias in some way. And it has very real consequences.

If you knew, knew for sure, that you were going to die in a year, or a month, or tomorrow, what might you do differently? What good choices would you make–and what bad choices? Would you make peace with people? Would you enjoy the days you had? Would you make sure to provide for your surviving loved ones? Now think: what if you knew for sure that the world was going to end in a year. What things would you do–and what wouldn’t you bother to do? No point in saving money or planning for the future whatsoever, because there’s no future to worry about. Everybody would quit school: because it’s not going to give you a better income in the future! There would be huge splurges in spending, people would take terrible risks (because if you’re going to die in a year, what does it matter if you die a few months early?), nobody would take care of the environment. Why save endangered species if they’re all going to die in a year? Why pay your taxes? Why support social programs to help the poor if the poor are all going to die, too?

Now, that’s an extreme example, but our thinking can be affected by our vague belief that the world will soon end.

A couple years ago, a satirical news radio show ran a story that a man had just emerged from a Y2K bunker. Despite being a hoax, the story was thought-provoking: especially one statement the man was supposed to have given. When asked what message he wanted to give the world, he said, “We need to realize that the world might not end, after all.”

“I am prepared for every eventuality… except peace, prosperity, and happiness.”

Here’s the question: What would you do differently if you knew that the world wouldn’t end, or at least not anytime in the foreseeable future? What if you knew that younger generations, your descendants and others’, would continue to live in the world we communally construct every day? What things would you change? Would you save more money? Take steps to improve our justice and economic systems? Concentrate more on your children’s education? Work to improve the way we treat the environment? Create social programs and charities that will improve the lives of those to come?

Here’s where the car driving story comes back in. If we’re focused on the world ending, that’s where we will be subconsciously steering our individual and communal lives. If we focus on our lane, if we focus on a road that might not end… think about what we could accomplish!

Christians believe that the Kingdom of God is coming. While some believe that this will be fully realized only after an armageddon event, Christians agree that it is our job to help in bringing in the Kingdom of God that Christ initiated.

Here’s the amazing thing: despite all signs to the contrary, the world is ACTUALLY getting better.

Since the beginning of the 20th century, global life expectancy has increased by 118%, infant mortality has declined by 81%, per person income has improved by 403% (in real dollars), all while human population has increased by more than 4x from 1.7 billion to 7.1 billion. As a species, we’ve made immense progress over the last century. We’ve made this progress during a period in which we saw the Green Revolution in agricultural productivity, the invention of personal computing, and the creation of the internet… In his 2011 book, The Better Angels of our Nature, Harvard professor Steven Pinker makes the case that we may be living in the most peaceful time in human history, at least since the advent of agriculture and the beginnings of more densely populated cilivilizations 12,000 years ago. After a tumultuous 20th century … it seems that over the last quarter century since the fall of the USSR and the beginning of the widespread use of the Internet we’ve entered a time of substantially less deadly conflict between and within nations, even including events from terrorism… Since the mid-19th century, global adult literacy rates have greatly improved, from an estimated 10% in 1850 to 84% today in 2013. (x)

Here’s the point: Things CAN improve. Things HAVE improved. The world might NOT end. What can we do to improve the world of the future for all people who come after us? …And why aren’t we doing it RIGHT NOW?

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