The Roots of Rapturous Nihilism
From The Big Lebowski:
Donny: Are these the Nazis, Walter?
Walter Sobchak: No, Donny, these men are nihilists, there’s nothing to be afraid of.
Donny: Are they gonna hurt us, Walter?
Walter Sobchak: No, Donny. These men are cowards.
This Saturday, according to one group of Christian fundamentalists, is it. Jesus is coming. Time to close the bank accounts. Clear the calendar. Withdraw from society. Wear a sandwich board that says, “The end is near.” Run around screaming, “The sky is falling! The sky is falling!” Maybe find a tall mountain to climb.
Religiondispatches.org notes that:
“Christian doomsday prognosticator Harold Camping and his sad motley group of followers say the Rapture will take place May 21. This is the day that true believers will be taken up to heaven, while everybody else — Jews, Hindus, Muslims, Buddhists, atheists, agnostics and anyone who supports gay marriage or accepts evolution — will be stuck here on Earth for another six months while war and pestilence rains down on us. Then, on Oct. 21, the world will end.
…Camping’s reasons for why he predicts May 21 will be Judgment Day have something to do with the anniversary of Noah’s Ark, the end of Tribulation, which began 23 years ago (Who knew?) and the mathematical formula 5+10+17=Armageddon.
As one of Camping’s followers explained, the Rapture won’t begin until 6 p.m. Now, I know you’re probably thinking, “Is that in Eastern or Pacific Standard Time?”
Well, because God created time zones — just as he apparently created US international borders — the Rapture will begin at 6 p.m. in each time zone. Also, you’ll know when the Rapture will begin because it will be preceded by an earthquake.
…”starting in the Pacific Rim at around the 6 p.m. local time hour, in each time zone, there will be a great earthquake, such as has never been in the history of the Earth,” he says. The true Christian believers — he hopes he’s one of them — will be “raptured”: They’ll fly upward to heaven. And for the rest?
“It’s just the horror of horror stories,” he says, “and on top of all that, there’s no more salvation at that point. And then the Bible says it will be 153 days later that the entire universe and planet Earth will be destroyed forever”.”
Horror of horror stories. Not exactly how I would describe the biblical narrative. Is that the hope we have in God? That he will pour out the horror of horror stories on the majority of the people he created in his image? That this whole creation of his has really just been a testing ground before he nukes it all? That those who didn’t pass the test will first be tortured for six months, then be annihilated in a detonation worse than Hiroshima? I guess that would be quite a horror story.
Many of these well-meaning Christians are trying to follow Jesus. That is where life has its meaning for them (here’s where we agree!). And they would look at others, non-believers for instance, as nihilists. Nihilism, at least of the existential sort, is the idea that life is without objective meaning. There is no outside, definitive, transcendent reality (to which we have access anyway), which we can point to or build a system of meaning upon. Nihilism causes one to create one’s own system of meaning or purpose. So for these enraptured believers, people who don’t believe in God, particularly in their version of God, are simply nihilists with no meaning or purpose in life, and hence not a source of good for the world.
Hold on for a second…
Couldn’t we turn it around and see those who posit no future for this world as the true nihilists?
Couldn’t you say that those who are unwilling to face the problems we face on this planet represent a sort of Christian nihilism?
Couldn’t you say that those who are unwilling to imagine a future in which the human species, regardless of belief systems, will have to learn how to live with each other – that this is a dangerous nihilism which passes itself off as true belief?
At this point I think it’s appropriate to quote Walter Sobchak of The Big Lebowski: “WHO’S THE F#$&ING NIHILIST HERE! WHAT ARE YOU, A BUNCH OF F#$%ING CRYBABIES?” (Pardon the french, Walter spent some time in ‘Nam.)
As Mark C. Taylor puts it in his book, After God: “The very counterculture charged with leading society down the slippery slope of relativism and nihilism is actually a spiritual or even religious phenomenon, [while] the moral zealots who attack relativism in the name of absolutism are actually nihilists who reject the present world for the sake of a future kingdom they believe is coming.”
It seems to me that a full, existential, meaningful Christian faith is one that embraces the incarnational aspect of Christianity. That God, in taking on flesh, renews his commitment to the creation, rather than acts as an agent to destroy it. Instead of an apocalyptic eschatology, which sees the world as about to end at any moment, perhaps it is time for an embrace of a more realized eschatology. An eschatology that seeks not the end of the world but its rebirth, as instituted by Jesus and continued by his disciples, a historical (rather than transhistorical) phenomenon. Those holding this view generally dismiss “end times” theories, believing them to be irrelevant. They hold that what Jesus said and did, and told his disciples to do likewise, is still how we are to engage the world today. That seems to make sense to me. Eschatology, you could argue, should be about being engaged in the process of becoming, rather than waiting for external and unknown forces to bring about destruction.
Biblical scholar John Dominic Crossan has put forth a notion of what he calls ‘sapiential eschatology’ to refer to a similar concept: “Apocalyptic eschatology is world-negation stressing imminent divine intervention: we wait for God to act; sapiential eschatology is world-negation emphasizing immediate divine imitation: God waits for us to act.”
Those who are ready to kiss this world goodbye, in my view, are the true nihilists who are abdicating their responsibility as stewards of the creation, as agents of the kingdom. They have buried their talents and are in danger of being the ones who will ask, “When did we see you tired, or hungry, or naked, or thirsty?” I’m pretty sure Jesus told us we’d find him by looking around, not by looking up.
Ironically, it seems that Jesus followers who are ready to take responsibility for their own role in the kingdom would find more in common with the atheists, agnostics and humanists who say, “Hey, this world is all we have, let’s make it work.”
May we be those who, regardless of our faith differences, seek to heal and redeem the world rather than participate in its demise.
Indeed, Walter, who’s the bleeping nihilist?