Antichrists and aliens and the end of the universe

Antichrists and aliens and the end of the universe March 5, 2012

Young-earth creationists don’t like astronomy.

That’s understandable, since when we look across the vastness of space we’re also looking across the vastness of time. With the Hubble telescope and the other cool toys we’re using to look farther than ever before, we can see that the universe is really, really old. We have the pictures to prove it. Astronomy lets us take such pictures — photographs that show the age of the universe and that show how it has evolved over all those billions of years.

Young-earth creationists don’t like astronomy because they don’t want to see such pictures. They don’t believe in billions of years or in evolution over time and so they’d prefer not to look.

The only way they can bear to see what astronomers show us is if they subscribe to some version of the Omphalos hypothesis, or Last-Thursdayism — the theory that the universe is only a few thousand years young, but that God created it to appear much older. That idea has the virtue of not being disprovable, but those creationists who subscribe to it still won’t be inclined to enjoy astronomy, since Last-Thursdayism suggests that all the marvels it shows us are, as James McGrath puts it, “beautiful lies told by God.”

But I don’t think it’s just weird fundamentalist notions of origins that create a disdain for astronomy. The same disdain results from weird fundamentalist notions of eschatology.

Premillennial dispensationalism says the entire universe will be destroyed. The rest of the universe may object to this idea.

Consider, for example, the premillennial dispensationalist scheme promoted by Tim LaHaye. It’s the same basic idea that Hal Lindsey taught back in the 1970s — the Rapture-Antichrist-Tribulation-Armageddon scheme popularized by dozens of charlatan preachers and popular movies like The Omen. According to this scheme, the “Rapture” is imminent and at any moment every real, true Christian will be whisked away to Heaven “in the twinkling of an eye.” After that, the Antichrist will take over the world and reign for seven miserable years before Jesus returns, in force, to destroy the Antichrist and his army and the rest of the Earth, solar system and universe.

The end of the entire universe, in other words, will be precipitated by one tiny little human Antichrist on Earth rising up to set in motion all of the supposedly prophesied events leading up to that end.

So if you believe in Tim LaHaye’s End Times “Bible prophecy” ideas, then you’re also not going to want to hear that NASA recently confirmed the existence of a planet in the habitable zone of a sun-like star. You’re not going to want to listen when the astronomers of the Kepler mission describe the vast potential for countless other planets orbiting countless other stars that may be home to countless other forms of life — including intelligent life, peoples and civilizations.

For most Christians that idea is — as it is for everyone else — a fascinating source of speculation, imagination and inspiration. Look up at that stars and the vastness of space. Is anyone like us out there looking back? I like to think so.

For a particular kind of cramped Bible-Christianity, though, the possibility of intelligent life anywhere other than on Earth is frightening and troubling, because our Bible doesn’t say anything about life on other planets. I have a hard time grasping this objection. We humans from Earth read a Bible written by and for humans from Earth. Why should it have anything to say about whatever people might be living somewhere else? That’s not our business. It’s not what our Bible — or who our Bible — is for. If there are people on Kepler 22b, then I’m sure their scriptures don’t have much to say about us either.

It can be fun to think about how such other people on other worlds relate to God. The Vatican Observatory has hosted such discussions. And C.S. Lewis pursued the idea in his space trilogy. But I can’t fully grasp why so many Bible-Christians fear and reject the idea as somehow incompatible with their faith.

For subscribers of Tim LaHaye’s End Times innovations, though, it’s clear why the possibility of life on other planets must be rejected. I’d guess that LaHaye himself wouldn’t strongly reject the idea — he’d simply regard every other intelligent race in the universe as unsaved Space Ninevites who deserve to have their sinful worlds destroyed at the same time ours is. But if any of the thousands of speculative storytellers who have dreamed of advanced alien races are right, then we’d also have to consider this: Those aliens would never let LaHaye’s imagined apocalypse happen.

It’s their universe too, after all. So if we were to stipulate, for the sake of kicks and giggles, that anything like LaHaye’s heretical mythology were true, then every species in the universe would have an overriding interest in making sure that all of the items in his prophecy check list were prevented from occurring.

I don’t just mean there might be some benevolent rogue Gallifreyan racing about to save the Earth once again. It wouldn’t just be the Doctor working to prevent LaHaye’s apocalypse — the Daleks would be trying to stop it too. And the Atraxi, Slitheen, Klingons, Romulans, Vulcans, Rylans, Sykarians, Jedi, Sith, Wookies, Kryptonians, Halosians, Weevils, Cardassians, Ferengi, Skrull and Ood. Any of them and all of them.

My point here isn’t mainly about theology, but about entertainment. I want to see and hear and read these stories.

Imagine a world in which both of the following are true: 1) Tim LaHaye’s notion of the events that will precipitate the end of the entire universe, and 2) A powerful, technologically advanced alien race is secretly monitoring Earth. You’ve got the basis there for a space-invaders movie in which the aliens aren’t coming to colonize or depopulate or to steal our water/air/unobtanium. They’d be coming here to stop the Antichrist — to save the Earth and the rest of the universe along with it. (Although those aliens might also opt for Plan B: destroy the Earth entirely to make sure the prophecies never come true.)

Or imagine that your basic space-federation of technologically advanced alien races is monitoring Earth and they’re not sure whether or not LaHaye’s prophecy scheme about the end of the entire universe is true. It might be prudent, just to be safe, to install some operatives down on Earth who could secretly identify and eliminate any potential Antichrists before they can rise up to bring about the end. I’d watch that movie.

Of course, if you think about it, one effective strategy for preventing the rise of the Antichrist/end of the universe would be for these alien agents to make sure that we Earthling humans were fully informed about the prophecies so that we, too, would be vigilantly working to prevent the rise of any such figure. The aliens might try to spread this information by encoding it into a popular novel — or maybe into a whole series of novels. It’s even possible this has already happened.

On the other hand, as much fun as I think such stories would be to see and hear, they’d also have the troubling effect of reinforcing the cycle of bad theology and pop culture. That’s the cycle in which some theological notion gets extracted and embellished to tell an entertaining story. The story becomes more popular and more widely known than the original, unembellished idea in its appropriate context. The story’s variation of the original idea thus begins influencing the original belief, which mutates into something more like the version from the story. Then the success of the first story leads another storyteller to extract and enhance this mutation of the original belief, adding new twists and new embellishments that, in turn, come to replace the original idea and to be viewed as canonical. And then again and again through the cycle.

Keep that up for a century or so and you end up with the kind of situation in which most church-going American Christians think the book of Revelation is about the Antichrist taking over the United Nations.

Which is why it’s not really possible to say I’m talking about entertainment and not about theology. By this point in the cycle, entertainment is the source of much of our theology.

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