By ROBIN GLOBUS VELDMAN
5 July 2013
(Religion Dispatch) – End time belief has an almost salacious appeal in America—and not just to the four out of ten Americans who believe that Jesus Christ will return to Earth by 2050. At least since the Millerites were laughed off the national stage in 1844, watching prophecy fail has become something of a national pastime. The attitudes of the two groups—heavenly-minded believer and smirking spectator—are well captured in a pair of bumper stickers: “In case of Rapture, this car will be unmanned” and “In case of Rapture, can I have your car?”
But some in the spectator camp hold that America’s remarkably durable “rapture culture” is no laughing matter; that it might, in fact, be a menace to society. At issue is end time believers’ perceived lack of investment in the earth’s future. That is, if they believe Jesus is coming back, do they have any incentive to preserve and protect the environment for future generations?
Many who are concerned about the environment—including prominent figures like Al Gore, E.O. Wilson, and Bill Moyers—argue that for such believers the answer is no.
Although mistrust of end time believers’ earthly intentions has smoldered for decades, a new study about “End Times Theology” has added fuel to the fire. According to the study’s authors, political scientists David Barker and David Bearce, when it comes to climate change, “a belief in the Second Coming reduces the probability of strongly agreeing that the government should take action by more than 12 percent.”
The reason, according to Barker and Bearce, is that while
“non-end-times believers have little reason to doubt humankind’s infinite persistence, all else being equal, end-times believers ‘know’ that life on Earth has a preordained expiration date, no matter what—and that all Christians will be raptured before the going gets too tough.”
With 76% of Republicans identifying as end times believers in their sample, they argue that end time belief may be a key factor stymieing climate change legislation.
But as someone who spent 14 months doing interviews and focus groups with conservative Christians on their views about climate change and the end times, I see major problems with their approach. […]
In my own research I did find some evidence of apathy about climate change that seemed to be related to end time belief. This only seemed to be the case among those who were truly passionate about the end times, however. In a small-town Pentecostal church I visited, for example, during a Sunday service the pastor painted a vivid picture of a world descending into chaos, listing a coming “holy war” with Iran, Christians being persecuted around the world, the inability to pray in school (“These days you get in trouble if you say ‘bless you’ when someone sneezes at school!”), and the way society increasingly “exalted the homosexual lifestyle” as signs that the end times were near.
“The Bible says this will happen in the Last Days, before the Rapture. We should expect suffering if the Lord tarries. Jesus Christ is coming back!” he concluded exultantly.
Not surprisingly, when I conducted a focus group at this church, the end times seemed to be on everyone’s minds. When we talked about caring for the environment, for example, Craig cautioned that it was important to draw the line between protecting the creation and worshipping it, while Julie agreed, adding that, “like with the polar bears and stuff, of course I don’t want them to die, but you also have to realize this is just a part of the world coming to an end like it’s supposed to. And there’s nothing really that they can do.”
After Sarah chimed in “Yeah, we can’t stop it,” Julie continued, arguing, “That’s why we need to be educated in the Bible, so we know what signs to look for. Because you’re just wasting all that money on research when it’s, sadly, not going to help.”
Such views contrasted with those I heard from people who believed that Jesus would return to Earth but did not actually think they were living in the last days. There, I almost invariably heard statements expressing ethical responsibilities vis-à-vis the environment. For example, Jessa pointed out that
“we constantly talk about the end times and as Christians we look forward to that but the Bible didn’t tell us to be stupid. When the Bible says if you have faith as the grain of a mustard seed you can move mountains, it didn’t literally mean for us to go and start trying to pick up a mountain... [W]henever He tells us that we’re going to see these signs of the end times, He doesn’t tell us to stop living because the world’s coming to an end. He wants us to live for Him every day, and living for Him means taking care of the world, and seeing that the environment is changing, and that we have an effect on that.”
In many cases such comments may have reflected ideals more than practices, as I did not see much evidence of dedication to environmental stewardship beyond recycling. But the majority of my respondents rejected the logic that end time belief justified inaction of any kind, pointing out that they still held bank accounts, sent their kids to college, and otherwise planned for the future. [more]