A Soft Closing for the End of the World

Let it be said first off that I am a last days cynic. It’s not that I think many current ideas of apocalypticism are weird (I mean, I don’t just think they’re weird). I just really hate them. This is likely partly due to growing up in the 90’s right when apocalyptic fervor was still enjoying a level of mass popularity that put it up in the doctrinal hierarchy somewhere in between the Resurrection and not committing murder. I vividly remember sitting in seminary and Institute and Sunday School classes brooding, teenage-like, as I listened to lesson after lesson about all the cruelty and abuse and carnage hanging like a sword over our heads that was going to fall any moment now and there was nothing you could do about it except get food storage. (How food storage was going to help protect us from the nuclear war which was apparently imminent I did not know, but it seemed to make sense to people.) Since this was a time in my life that I was in desperately profound need of hope and comfort, hearing that God was going to unleash terror unlike anything the world had ever known but that it was for our own good was, needless to say, not super faith instilling.

This got to the point that by the time I was an adult I had shut my eyes and ears to the last days. My heart was hardened in layers of calcified apocalyptic angst. The thought of a pantry full of dehydrated food failed to move me. I felt no fervor to build up an arsenal of assorted weaponry to protect my house against my selfish neighbors who were, apparently, going to attempt to plunder it. I rolled my eyes at warnings of Russian or Chinese or North Korean invasions. I folded my arms and pursed my lips in defiance whenever a lesson turned to the last days, gleefully reminding everyone about all of the people throughout history who were convinced that the signs proved that they were living in the end times, and yet, here we all still were. I became, in short, an apocalyptic heretic. (I have to confess, however, my mind did change pretty quickly in March regarding the practicality of emergency preparedness when I realized that any satisfaction I might feel in screaming out to the universe that I live by my principles as I sat on a toilet with no toilet paper in sight was going to be fairly limited.)

Maybe weirdly, however, I love ancient apocalyptic texts. But not because they hold some fatalistic key that used just the right way unfolds exactly how the last days are going to go down. (For all you preppers out there, I’m not saying they don’t, that’s just not what I like about them.) Apocalyptic texts are the stories of regenesis. Of resurrection. Of life that comes through death. In this sense I see the Book of Mormon as an apocalyptic text. Because the Book of Mormon is the story of the end of the world. I don’t just mean The End of the World—Angels of death and famine and blood and kingdoms tumbling to dust and the whole wrapping up ordeal. The Book of Mormon is the story of the end of the world as its authors knew it. The end of the world as they knew it for a wealthy Jerusalemite family separated from their home and friends and stability and family peace forever. The end of the world as he knew it for a priest who spent his money on alcohol and idols and prostitutes and his life exploiting the poor and encouraging wickedness in his people. The end of the world as he knew it for an anti-Christ who only changed when he was threatened with death and realized for the first time what that would really mean. The end of the world as they knew it for a King and Queen to whom it had never occurred that it was wrong to kill others for their mistakes. The end of the world for a general who had given his entire life to serving and protecting his people, only for them to throw it away. The end of the world for a prophet who couldn’t keep from teaching the people who hated him, and was burned alive for it. The Book of Mormon is full of endings; it even begins with one. Nephi is shown, before he has even had the chance to write a single word of his story, how his people’s world will end in spiritual death and systematic genocide. From its very genesis the story lives in the shadow of its ending.

But the ending also takes place in the hope of its beginning. Yes, the world of the Nephites has ended, but its end signals the future covenants for the Lamanites, as promised in the earliest pages. The world the Nephites left behind in text would someday give birth to the promises of God for their family who remained. For each ending in the story a seed is planted for a new beginning born from the loss. From Nephi to Abish, Ammon to Moroni, the text is rich in its account of loss and endings, but each time something ends a person, a community, a nation, someone somewhere is reborn in the realization that that loss is a beginning for something new, and something better. Usually the something better is not quiet and peace and comfort. Usually the new world is much, so, so much harder in some ways than the world that ended. Neither Almas went home to spend the rest of their lives reading by the fire. The Ammonites were not left in peace to worship according to their conscience. Lehi and Sariah’s family never did find real security again. But their new world, while laden with challenge and responsibility, is rich with meaning; it is lasting.

The Book of Mormon is the description of how to let one world end so that another may begin. It is the account of how life is born out of death, and meaning out of loss. Importantly, however, it is not from the perspective of the ascetic who would use such teachings as reason to separate from the world that must eventually end. Quite the reverse, the Book of Mormon endings are the endings of those worlds where people are cut off from each other, into a new world of deep engagement and boundless love.

I make no attempt to suggest I know how the world will end. Obviously someday it will. Perhaps it will be in the worst-case scenarios as propounded in countless books, movies, and Sunday School lessons (during which time I will doubtless hear “I told you so” from a great many people, assuming I don’t go out in the first wave which seems likely). Perhaps it will be as Jesus taught, quietly sneaking up on us on a day just like any other. What I do believe in is the revelations of the world in which our Heavenly Parents live, and which we are invited to live in now. But to do so means we must let the world of hierarchical posturing and envy and accumulation and zero-sum gaming come to an end in us. We have to experience our own apocalypse. With our Heavenly Parents as our guides, the endings we undergo will be seeds giving birth to something new and enduring; and by their grace that growth can happen in us now. The ending of the world as we know it can give birth to a new world of hope, where we need not live in constant fear of loss—and being unafraid of losing what we have, we can be free to truly see and care for the world around us instead of merely protecting our ownership of it and place within it. Living the way the gospel teaches, when the world does finally end, it will be but another seed in a series of those already planted with our Heavenly Parents; and the new world we see will be, not a terrifying ending of the loss of all the things we gave up our lives to pursue, but rather the final revelation of the world which has already been living in us. The final revelation of the home which it turns out we were already helping to build.

9 comments for “A Soft Closing for the End of the World

  1. Thank you Mary for this thoughtful and hopeful post.

    Also, growing up in the 90s and early 2000s, I originally got caught up in the apocalypse mentality, but by the time I reached adulthood, I had the same reaction of becoming a last days cynic. It is nice to know I’m not the only one who feels that way.

  2. Being a like-minded LD cynic, I love this. But it’s right there in our (now mandatory) branding. I can’t count the number of times in the last few years that non-English speakers looked at the tag on my chest and asked, “So… you believe the world is about to end? How old is your church?”

  3. The fascination with apocalypticism among Christians seems to have passed its peak. Whatever the reason for the interest, it didn’t take much more than a taste of the end of the world to dampen the enthusiasm for it. (And I think your initial reaction was not off base – we really should not be getting excited about calamities that could have tragic consequences for many people.)

    But in retrospect, a lot of the fascination with the apocalyptic warnings in the scriptures seems to have missed the point. The warnings of calamities to come are tied to requests for specific action – repentance, preaching the Gospel, and gathering in the faithful being prominent among them. The focus is on spiritual preparation; temporal preparation is a secondary theme. It is, as you indicated, an opportunity for us to change for the better.

    On a side note, the emphasis on apocalypticism among Christians in the 20th Century may have been partially in response to the utopianism of various secular movements. Secular ideologies promoted the idea that mankind could build an ideal society – or at least one good enough for pretty much everyone – and didn’t need any help from God to do so. Christians pushed back against that by pointing to the dire warnings in the Scriptures that were tied to the abandonment of God.

    Curiously, that seems to be shifting – as secular ideologies have failed or at least hit rough waters, there has been a certain loss of faith in humanity, and a corresponding rise in a sort of secular apocalypticism. Fears about the end of the world as we know it are just as likely to be put in terms of climate change or social inequality as they are in terms of divine judgment (the two perspectives are not mutually exclusive, to be sure.) But apocalyptic alarmism can be just as unproductive coming from a secular perspective as from a scriptural one, if it isn’t tied to a call for faith and change.

  4. The End of the World comes quietly every day for thousands of us, no big deal, mostly it’s called “natural causes.” Apocalyptalism is religious theatre that simple souls take seriously and dehydrated foods purveyors exploit. There’s a bit of $ in it.

  5. I graduated from High School in the year 2000. I was a dutiful Seminary attendee, and I don’t recall any lesson involving nuclear war, or foreign invaders. Any last days lessons were all based on how Christ would come as a thief in the night, and how you should be obedient to the commandments so you wont find it dreadful. There would also be going over all of the metaphors in the revelations of the last days and making speculations as to what they were, but always an acknowledgement that we might be understanding all of the symbolism incorrectly.
    As for why it would have it pitch fever for the year 2000, that has to do with the seven seals, being seven thousands years. If Adam emerged from the garden of Eden circa 4000 B.C., and there’s 7000 years before Christ comes again, and given that we use a base 10 math system, 2000 A.D. is a nice round number. Perhaps one day we’ll find out that the Gods use a math system based off of a power of 2, and it turns out when the prophets wrote down 1000, they were really being revealed 1024, but just rounded down when they wrote it.

  6. Thank you for sharing your thoughts. It gave me a new way to look at The Book of Mormon and I appreciate it.

    I only remember one lesson from seminary that stood out related to the end of times and it was what was shared after the lesson to a group of then panicked teenagers. Our teacher pointed out that no matter what the last days looked like, our last day could come when we stepped out to cross the street at the high school (end of school traffic was crazy). That the main point we as individuals should focus on was how we lived our day to day lives because our end could come by some other means. That is what I think of when discussion goes to “the end of times”, how am I living my life and what do I need to change.

  7. Beautiful post, Mary, with a great way of looking at both the Book of Mormon and apocalyptic literature more generally. I hope some of the death and (re)genesis can happen within rather than just between lives—which in my opinion is one of the insights the Restoration offers to Christian narratives concerning the relationship between this world and the next.

    Additionally, I think that your apocalypse qua revelation (i.e., literal apocalypse) and rebirth applies to the nature of our dispensation. It’s not merely that any of us as individuals will soon (any day now) confront our own personal parousia in death, nor that lives and epochs pass away, allowing for the rise of additional lives and epochs. It’s also that this process in which we are always embedded is part of the fulfillment of the original covenant.

    I also think that God wants us to live apocalyptically—not in the prepper sense, but in the sense of committedly holding on to both the fact of this being a winding up and a rebirth scene that we’re living through. Hence the name of our church. Hence the almost-every-section-of-the-D&C refrain, “And lo, I come quickly.” We are meant to live in a dispensation characterized by that kind of fervency and intensity; but one that is aptly named a Restoration.

  8. Also, just randomly came again across Yeat’s poem The Second Coming. “The best lack all conviction, while the worst/are full of passionate intensity” seems to fit part of your thoughts here.

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