by Rodney Kennedy
Rodney Kennedy has his M.Div. from New Orleans Theological Seminary and his Ph.D. in Rhetoric from Louisiana State University. He pastored the First Baptist Church of Dayton (OH) – which is an American Baptist Church – for 13 years, after which he served as interim pastor of ABC USA churches in Illinois, Pennsylvania, and Kansas. He is currently interim pastor of Emmanuel Friedens Federated Church, Schenectady, NY. His sixth book – The Immaculate Mistake: How Evangelicals Gave Birth to Donald Trump – has recently been published by Wipf and Stock (Cascades). And his newest book, Good and Evil in the Garden of Democracy, will come out this December.
Bill Nye, the science guy, has a new Peacock TV series, entitled “The End is Nye.” The series examines “the mystery and reality of such threats as viruses, volcanoes, asteroids, authoritarianism, climate change, and chemical warfare.”
The revelation that science was going apocalyptic stunned my evangelically trained ears and mind. You can’t have 18 years of evangelical Sunday school classes and King James Version Bible reading in your system and not gulp when someone says, “The end is nigh!”
“The End is Nye” is a very clever title. But this is more than clever programming, as it builds on almost two centuries worth of doom-and-gloom preachers telling us the end is nigh.
The King James Version word that the end of time is “nigh”, and the television program is “The End is Nye.” Clever. But this is more than clever programming. We have had almost two centuries worth of doom-and-gloom preachers telling us that the end is nigh. These preachers love to quote Jesus from Matthew 24:33 – 37: Jesus says,
Now learn a parable of the fig tree; When his branch is yet tender, and putteth forth leaves, ye know that summer is nigh: So likewise ye, when ye shall see all these things, know that it is near, even at the doors.
Robert Jeffress, in Countdown to the Apocalypse, makes much of Jesus’ words in Matthew 24. According to Jeffress, “Jesus gave a detailed outline of the end times of his return.” While Jeffress criticizes those preachers who have predicted the exact time of Jesus’ return, he too is unable to completely distance himself from the allure of making a prediction:
I am more convinced than ever that we are living in the period the Bible calls “the last days.’” If that is true, then we may be the generation that sees the Second Coming of Christ.
There’s an eerie connection between Jeffress and his certainty about the end of time, and the scientific analysis of the approaching end. Both sides are apocalyptic but have different understandings of what apocalyptic means.
The details of the rapture/tribulation/second coming of Christ/millennial reign/final judgment are well-known and endlessly repeated in evangelical sermons and books. Suffice to say here that Jeffress is “pre-trib” (Christ will return in the air to rescue all true Christians, an event followed by seven years of tribulation) and “pre-mill” (after the tribulation Christ will return to Earth with the army of saints to slaughter the non-believers, after which he will establish the millennium on Earth.
Jeffress also believes the second coming will happen in his lifetime. (Ironically, he is 66 years old, a number he probably never mentions since 666 is the alleged “mark of the beast” in Revelation.) If Rev. Jeffress lives to be 96, he is telling us that Jesus will return at some point in the next 30 years.
The evangelical apocalyptic plan insists that the apocalypse is God’s doing. Jesus is coming back to make things right. Jesus is returning to make sure that those who have it coming are finally going to get it. The end becomes a violent act of divine revenge, a planetary genocide.
Into this melodramatic fiction of a God-caused apocalypse, science bravely offers an alternative plot. I don’t always trust scientists when they venture into the briar patch of theology, but I respect their dogged pursuit of truth.
While the idea that science and religion are at war is a fiction, the reality is that science has frequently disagreed with the evangelical take on the world. For the past two centuries or so the center of the dispute has involved the scientific consensus that the universe is billions of years old. Many evangelicals have responded by arguing that the Earth is only about 6,000 years old. Evolution, for evangelicals, like Ken Ham, is a lie of the devil, and evidence for the age of the universe is dismissed as unbiblical, unchristian, and dangerous.
Visitors to the Creation Museum travel on Kentucky Route 20 to arrive at Ken Ham’s monument to young Earth creationism. This highway cuts through part of a famous rock formation known as the ‘Cincinnatian’ that contains some of the richest fossil beds in the world. In other words, visitors to the museum pass through the road of evidence and truth about the age of the Earth in order to pay a lot of money to see a false idol attesting to a young earth. It seems that evangelicals prefer shouting, “The evidence be damned” to being damned by the evidence.
Science has never faltered, fumbled, nor failed in dismissing the pseudo-arguments of creationists. At the same time, creationists have continued to fire back at science without any success except in the alternate universe of evangelicals determined to believe whatever they like despite the facts. For several years in the late 20th century, creationists attempted, in lawsuits, to insert the teaching of Intelligent Design into biology textbooks. An impressive array of our best scientists testified in state courts across the country to the validity of evolution and the “nothingness” of Intelligent Design. Like people predicting the rapture, creationists became members of the 100% wrong club. They lost every case because the truth has always been that Intelligent Design is a religious theory and not a science of any kind.
Science, then, is no stranger to disputing the false claims of evangelical Christians. From the Scopes Monkey Trial to the most recent case of Kitzmiller vs. Dover in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, science has prevailed. Professor Kenneth Miller, biology textbook co-author, and cell biologist, testified in many of the court cases brought by creationists. He says, “In almost every respect Darwin did get it right. The very ground on which we stand is eloquent testament to the age of this planet.”
For evangelicals, there is no retreat from the daily pounding they take from science. There is no acceptance of truth, facts, or reality. When science, in its relentless pursuit of truth, discovers new evidence, creationists dispute the evidence – including the fact that the recent drought in the Southwest has revealed dinosaur footprints dating back over 113 million years – and cling to a literal reading of Genesis and a nonsensical creation “science.”
The Creation Museum obsesses about dinosaurs even though there would not have been room on the Ark for these ancient creatures. Ironic that dinosaurs are supposed to be evidence of a literal creation, but virtually all – in their telling – are destroyed in the Flood despite not ever being guilty of anything other than being created by God. The dinosaur ruse attempts to cover how evangelicals refuse to accept scientific facts, truth, reality.
Faced with the scientific consensus that climate change is the most dangerous reality humanity has ever faced, evangelicals have chosen to take the same approach that they take to creation. Already battle-tested in the battle over how the universe began, evangelicals appropriate these arguments and apply them to how the earth will end. They insist that God created the earth in six literal days, and that God will destroy the earth at the end of time. They seem unfazed that the god of their version of the beginning and the end appears to be a capricious, meddling, bad-tempered god with more in common with the gods of the Greeks and the Romans than the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. At the Creation Museum, Mr. Ham has recently added Jesus exhibit, but it is the militant, military, wrathful rapture Jesus that is celebrated. It’s the same old apocalyptic fear-mongering.
Apocalypse in both evangelical and scientific variations posits an impending catastrophe, a prophetic burst of signage, and a promise of salvation. On the evangelical side, there is the promise of divine intervention that will save the true believer and condemn the rest to eternal flames. On the scientific side, there is the inevitable collapse of civilization consistent with widespread destruction caused by human beings. In the book of Revelation, evangelicals point to the four horsemen of the apocalypse as pestilence, war, famine, and death. In the world of climate change science, the four horsemen of the apocalypse are nuclear winter, global warming, economic collapse, and pandemics.
The evangelicals can’t be trusted in the beginning, in the middle, or at the end. The scientific reading tells us the truth that we still have time to change. That is, the End is nigh (or Nye), but it can be different. Stewardship, environmentalism, and an array of steps to change our greedy, self-destructive ways are all within our grasp.
A character in an Allan Gurganus story engages an angel in her backyard. The angel has fallen from the sky and injured one of his wings. The old woman gives the angel warm milk. She gets the impression that the angel, in gratitude for her hospitality, wants to take her back to heaven with him. Gurganus describes the moment: “She presses both palms flat to dirt, says, ‘The house is finally paid off – Not just yet,’ and smiles.”
With a smile, a wink, and a nod to my evangelical brothers and sisters, “Not just yet.” We have a planet to save one planted tree, one removed piece of plastic, and one responsible habit at a time. The end may be nigh/Nye, but not just yet.