Is It the End of the World as We Know It?
We live in divisive times. But you don’t need me to tell you that. Just turn on the news or (at your own risk) browse Facebook or Twitter.
Speaking of social media, someone joked recently that scholars discovered that the Mayan doomsday prophecy predicting the end of the world in 2012 was based on a faulty calendar. Apparently, the Mayans were off by eight years.
Even if the world isn’t coming to an end, it may feel like it is — at least the world that we’ve known. I wonder if historians will look back on 2020 as a year akin to previous American revolutions in 1776 (The Revolution for Independence), 1860 (The Southern Revolution), and 1969 (The Cultural Revolution/Woodstock). Some revolutions lead to unity, justice, healing, and prosperity, while others tear asunder, leaving gaping wounds that even time has trouble healing. Whether it is a just or unjust revolution, things get broken either way.
I don’t know if 2020 is a revolutionary year. But it feels like it. At least there is a lot that’s broken. Frustratingly, we don’t have eyes to look ahead with the vision of a historian to know how it will all play out.
One thing I anticipate chroniclers to critique is how politicians use the phase The American People as if they are a monolithic voting block. Pundits speak of the American people assuming everyone shares the same worldview — their worldview. But we don’t. Never has this been more apparent than 2020.
Can the cultural, political, social, and regional polarizations be mended? Is it possible to salvage and repair the American experiment? What needs to be overturned and overhauled? Maybe we are too far gone and are experiencing the natural result of how nations rise and fall in a sin-infested world.
A Case Study: The Roman Empire
The citizens of the Roman Empire could not have envisioned their own cultural collapse. The Kingdom of Rome was established in 753 B.C., followed by the inauguration of the Roman Republic in 509 B.C. When Augustus, the first Ceasar, ascended as Emperor in 27 B.C., Rome was a global superpower that would dominate the Mediterranean and surrounding world for centuries.
Those living in the confines of the Empire from its inception through the second century A.D. would experience what Senneca coined in 55 A.D. as the Pax Romana or Roman Peace. This did not mean that there was no disruption or conflict in the Empire. Not at all. Christians living in persecution in those years certainly would not have experienced peace from the Roman authorities.
The Roman Peace represented the strength of the Empire against the invading forces from outside the boundaries of the kingdom’s ever-expanding domain. The average citizen in the central Roman towns lived a largely “modern” existence with the assurance of protection, good roads for travel, and the potential for prosperity. This lasted for hundreds of years.
But not all was well in the Empire.
- Government corruption was rampant. Politicians were not statesmen for the people but power-hungry and ambitious, driven by self-interest. During one seventy-five year span, more than twenty men took the throne, usually after the murder of their predecessor. It became common for the Praetorian Guard — the Emperor’s personal bodyguards — to assassinate and install new leaders at will, and on one occasion, auctioned the position to the highest bidder. With political decay extending to the Roman Senate, civic enthusiasm declined and disdain grew for those in leadership.
- Governmental overspending led to economic instability and financial crisis. At its height, the Empire stretched from the Atlantic in the west to the Euphrates River in the east. However, its glory may have also been its ruin. With such a vast region to govern, the Empire faced colossal administrative and logistical challenges — not to mention a massive economic burden. Paying for the military needs to protect the kingdom sucked the coffers dry and civil projects were neglected.
- Political divisions essentially created two-separate kingdoms when Emperor Diocletian split the Empire into two geographically distinct halves, East (centered in Byzantium, which later would be named Constantinople after Emperor Constantine) and West (centered in Milan). Over time, the two sides failed to work as one to face outside threats and often argued over financial resources and when to deploy the military to assist with barbarian invasions. Heightening tensions, the two sides spoke different languages — Greek in the East and Latin in the West.
- Eventually, with the Huns invading from the north, the Romans gave fleeing Germanic tribes safe-haven in the Empire. However, the immigrants were severely mistreated. According to the historian Ammianus Marcellinus, “Roman officials forced the starving Goths to trade their children into slavery for dog meat.” To this point, Evan Andrews writes,
“In brutalizing the Goths, the Romans created a dangerous enemy within their own borders. When the oppression became too much to bear, the Goths rose up in revolt and eventually routed a Roman army and killed the Eastern Emperor Valens during the Battle of Adrianople in A.D. 378. The shocked Romans negotiated a flimsy peace with the barbarians, but the truce unraveled in 410, when the Goth King Alaric moved west and sacked Rome. With the Western Empire weakened, Germanic tribes like the Vandals and the Saxons were able to surge across its borders and occupy Britain, Spain, and North Africa.”
There is much more to say about the fall of the Roman Empire. For example, a culture that is known for infanticide, for love of violent, blood-splattered sport, and for developing such an inhumane form of execution as crucifixion was bound to crumble from within like termites eating away at an unseen, wooden foundation. It is not a stretch to note significant parallels with our own context.
The termites are alive and well.
The City of God
An early church leader named Augustine served as a pastor in the city of Hippo in north Africa from 396 A.D. until his death in 430 A.D. If you remember your history from junior high, the date 410 A.D. may sound familiar. This is the year that the Germanic Visigoths, under King Alaric, invaded and sacked the city of Rome.
It was Rome’s 911 — an unthinkable attack upon the heart of the Western Empire. The shock waves reverberated through Italy, across the Mediterranean, and down to Hippo. If there had been internal signs of decline in the Empire, the rotten core had been exposed on the surface. By 476, the Empire literally would be history.
In the wake of Rome’s defeat in 410, Augustine wrote a book called The City of God, partly to defend the church from attacks by those who blamed the defeat on the rise of Christianity that had taken place since Emperor Constantine declared Christianity the official religion of the Empire. Augustine’s other purpose was to console Christians.
It was the end of the world as they had known it. The Empire, which was now their Empire, was crumbling under their feet. Would they despair or live with courageous hope?
The same question could be asked of believers today.
Augustine’s answer to the question centered on the dual citizenship every Christian possesses as a disciple of King Jesus. Yes, we are citizens of earthly, geopolitical nations (or cities, to use Augustine’s terminology). But we also are citizens of a spiritual, heavenly kingdom — the City of God.
Our citizenship in the earthly city is temporary while our residence in the heavenly city is eternal. Earthly nations will rise and fall. Not the Kingdom of God.
When believers have this trust, we no longer put our hope in political agendas. We place our confidence in the greater and ultimate King, who reigns over the nations, sovereign over their rise and their fall. This is why believers do not despair, whether the earthly kingdom prospers or suffers. The King is still on the throne, unfolding his will on earth as it is in heaven.
Agents of Grace in the City of Man
Early in his ministry, Jesus proclaimed something foundational to his message.
Mark 1:14 After John was put in prison, Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God. 15 “The time has come,” he said. “The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!”
With great zeal, the Savior introduced the hope of the Kingdom of God, the reconciling movement from heaven that would welcome citizens from all peoples on earth. The entrance exam was simple: “Repent and believe the good news!” Confess that you’ve been living in rebellion to the true King and receive the pardon of all crimes with faith in the King’s substitutionary death in place of traitors.
But don’t miss the importance of a significant part of the gospel message. The Kingdom of God has arrived. This is central to the good news!
As citizens of heaven, we need not fear for the city of man. God is at work in the good and the bad, through success and failure, to bring the lost home as citizens of an eternal land of peace and joy. Even better, we are brought home as children, adopted in love to be part of the royal family of God.
Our calling now is not the burden to fix the world or fight for a political agenda. Should we be active in politics? As citizens of the city of man, absolutely. Should we vote? Of course.
Should we be involved in promoting social justice, defending the right to life of the unborn and affirming the value of life for the elderly, caring for the poor, liberating trafficked women and children, seeking to stimulate economic growth, serving in the fields of education, art, business, medicine, etc.? Without question. For example, believers working on a COVID-19 vaccine are doing holy work as they labor for the health of the earthly city much like Jesus healed the lame during his Palestinian ministry in the first century.
In books such as How Should We Then Live, Francis Schaeffer was prophetic in declaring that Christ is Lord over all of life, not just in obviously religious matters. Every aspect of culture is a worthy investment for the disciple of Jesus. The question isn’t should we be involved in societal renewal for the glory of the King, but how.
As we engage in our secondary citizenship, let me encourage believers to do so as citizens of our primary citizenship, demonstrating with respect and kindness that our ambition is not to impose our personal will but to reveal the redemptive will of the Father, who invites all who will come to enter his gates and feast at his table, safe, secure, and well-loved. In this way, we will live as agents of grace for the world pointing to the hope of the world in the person of Jesus… who reigns now as King and will return to make all things new.
By the way, this is not the final word on issues related to the cultural turmoil of our day, and my purpose in this article is not to advance a political agenda. Just the opposite. I long to see weary believers find hope and peace in the Lord of Lords, our King of Grace, Jesus. Oh, that we would see him reigning now and receive the gift of rest. And once well-rested, engage the world with truth and grace.