The myth of the failing world

The myth of the failing world September 18, 2010

The end is near, it’s nigh at hand
The bride is gathering, the world is failing
Israel’s awakening, nations are breaking
Our prophet taught us, we believe
The end is near

This is the refrain of a song frequently crooned after services by the song leader in my church. It is accompanied by a mournful, minor-key melody that instills a sense of cold urgency in the hearer. I used to sit through it, my teeth gritted, afraid to walk out of the service during this song (however much I hated it both for its doom-and-gloom message and its lack of musical quality) because I was afraid that someone (be it the Holy Spirit or the song leader) would suspect that I was making some sort of rebellious statement against the song. Other people in church came and went freely, but I sat rooted to my chair, contemplating the politics of when to leave after the church was dismissed. This was complicated by the fact that I was a musician, and already felt compelled to stay long after everyone else to maintain the spirit of the service. But I digress.

I want to talk about the dismal outlook of Message believers on “the world.”

Nations are breaking, Israel’s awakening
The signs that the prophets foretold
The gentile days numbered with horrors encumbered
Return, O dispersed, to your own
The day of redemption is near
Men’s hearts are failing for fear
Be filled with the Spirit, your lamps trimmed and clear
Look up, your redemption is near

Growing up, I sometimes idly daydreamed about a better world: one in which men and women were equal and I could choose whether or not to be a homemaker and mother. I imagined a world in which God’s people were free to explore nature and make discoveries and invent machines that would take them on long expeditions into space. I imagined a world without an expiration date glaring in high relief. What would it be like if the plan of salvation were different? I occasionally pondered. What if God could save the world, the whole world, without killing 99% of the people on it? What if it didn’t have to be baptized by fire? What if things had gone differently in Eden, and men and women could be equals?

Why did I accept that the plan of salvation was what it was purported to be? Why would anyone, especially a woman, accept a set of  beliefs that kept her in perpetual slavery to her father and husband, telling her that she was mentally, physically and morally inferior to men? Why would she accept a lifetime of constant pregnancies and subservience? Why would we all accept a plan of salvation that only managed to save less than 2% of the world’s population and condemned the rest (our friends, our families, our unbelieving neighbors) to a grim, tormented end?

The appeal of the Message would collapse were it not for the careful construction and maintenance of the idea that the world outside was going to hell in a handbasket. Message believers are painstakingly taught that there is no alternative: it is the way it is. And we’re taught to rejoice in our deliverance from the horrible fate of the world.

This world is falling apart
I’m so glad Jesus lives down in my heart
I’m carried away by the light of today
While the world gets so dismal and dark
While there’s trouble and struggle outside
Something is stirring inside of the Bride
As the world gets so dark and it all falls apart
I’m glad Jesus lives down in my heart

I had trouble being glad about my apparent rescue, because to rejoice in my own escape when millions of others were dying in agony seemed just a little selfish. It seemed to me that rejoicing in the end of the world was horribly inappropriate for believers who supposedly embodied the spirit of Christ: Jesus himself ought not to be happy about this state of affairs. I sometimes used to lie awake at night, bargaining with God, “If you send me to hell, will you save five or six of my friends?” I realized with a blush that I was asking to be the next Jesus, but felt the thin, pale comfort of realizing that such a wish might actually indicate that I had the Holy Spirit and was safe. Only – the loop continued – I didn’t want to be safe when everyone around me was in peril! I imagined a world in which Jesus’ sacrifice actually counted for everyone, and wondered what kind of God wouldn’t rather have chosen that one. Surely it had occurred to Him if it occurred to me!

In the meantime, Message pastors gleaned stories of deadly new technologies and kept a running tally of earthquakes (especially those near California) to keep us in a perpetual state of certainty that the world around us was crumbling. As a teenager, I mistook thunder for bombs and bright lights for nuclear explosions in the distance. I became terrified of loud noises, certain that at any moment the ground would crumple beneath my feet. I imagined my own congregation getting raptured away while the earth opened up to swallow me and the unbelievers outside. I was caught in a carefully concocted web of certainty that the world was inherently unstable. Indeed, it was getting worse and worse as the end drew near – “birth pains” anticipating the return of Christ.

And so I was stunned when I took a breathless leap into the churning abyss of the world outside, and found… a grassy field? sunshine? a lazy Saturday afternoon in a cafe, with stacks of books and frothy cappuccino? Men who listened to my opinion and treated me as an equal? Access to college? A fulfilling career? Why did no one ever tell me about this part of the world?

Simple. I would have left a lot sooner.

If the Message can’t convince you that you need it (that the world is a dismal, failing place and your own life is going down the tubes), you won’t buy it. Especially as a woman.

Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!