Easter and Dominion
I write this on the day before Easter. Tomorrow, Christians around the world will celebrate the resurrection of a man who, by his act of being reborn, rendered death meaningless. Instead of life being an illusion, death became one.
Most religions describe an afterlife, some continued existence for our souls once our bodies are gone. Many people find comfort in the belief that death is not the end. The story of an Easter that takes away death’s sting brings a similar sense of peace.
Without a fall, however, there would be no resurrection. Once upon a time, Adam and Eve lived as if one with nature. Knowing this, God gave them “dominion over” (Gen. 1:26 and 1:28) all the creatures that crawled, and swam, and flew, and burrowed. The Lord made that first couple responsible for everything He had created. When imperfection arose, it brought with it disobedience, emptiness, desire, greed, selfishness, and death. Reality split into good and evil, sacred and profane. Adam and Eve decided that “dominion” wasn’t about serving or caring for, but about subduing, ravaging, using, consuming. How else to understand what we humans have done to our own home?
Earth Day and the Rapture
This year, Earth Day is the Monday after Easter. Unlike the joyful celebration of rebirth and regeneration that commemorates Jesus’s return from the dead, Earth Day reminds us that, in our righteousness and pride, we have pillaged and tormented all that God gave to us. We have neglected our duty as stewards partly out of laziness, thoughtlessness, denial. For some, there’s also the belief that the body and the natural world are profane. The body and its urges feel shameful and disgusting.
If we cannot tolerate our lusts and longings, we will appreciate an afterlife in which our spiritual bodies will be free from sinful desires. We will see earth as a temporary home. If, in the end, the planet will be destroyed, why bother taking care of it?
In her article, “Yearning for the End of the World,” Dina Nayeri gives an example of this disdainful attitude. She tells the story of some youth who were asked by their pastor whether they would stop using cell phones if they knew for certain that by using them they were killing honeybees. Most of the teens said they wouldn’t. One of them explained that he didn’t care if there were honeybees or not. “This world is coming to an end anyway,” he said. “We’ll all be raptured.” 
Letting Go of Care
Admittedly, this is an extreme response. Belief in an afterlife doesn’t necessarily lead us to think that one day all good Christians will be lifted bodily by God into heaven, leaving behind the rest of us to perish in flood and fire. Most rapturists substantiate their claims with a literal reading of the Book of Revelations, an arcane and cryptic text written toward the end of the first century by a mystic named John. It speaks of a great battle between the forces of good and evil. In the end, God, and the faithful, are triumphant. 
I first heard about the rapture years ago when I was a seminary student. At first, I doubted that anyone could actually believe Jesus would return to Earth in human form to whisk the chosen into the sky where they would sit forever at God’s feet. When I was told that some people not only believed that, but were actively trying to make Jesus come to earth faster by encouraging the wars, famines, and disasters predicted by the Book of Revelations, I was stunned. I imagine most rapture fanatics aren’t really trying to make things worse. Mostly they’re like the teenagers Nayeri describes. They simply have no interest in making things better.
Nayeri writes that “the Rapture is about unfastening,” separating ourselves from earthly concerns, even from human relationships.  If we will soon be taken away from all this pain and hardship, why engage? Instead of being responsible for the natural world we have been given dominion over, we ignore it or destroy it, according to our whim. We “don’t have to care.” 
For some, not caring feels like relief.
Of Gods and Floods
Of course, you don’t have to long for the rapture to care little about the fate of our planet. Less religious politicians and business leaders are no less eager to burn fossil fuels, pollute our water and air, and pave over sensitive habitat. Our greed always seems to overwhelm our better judgment. Perhaps we do need God to intervene, if not with a rapture, then with natural disasters that will wipe us all out so at least the plants and animals might survive.
Many religions tell stories about such punishing disasters. For instance, there’s the Hebrew tale of the great flood. God washed away every human on earth except Noah and his family, for Noah was the one righteous man he could find.
The Greek myth of Deucalion tells a similar tale. The son of Prometheus, Deucalion was a pious and generous man. He married Pyrrha, the daughter of Pandora who, as we know, let all manner of plagues and evils loose into the world. Like Adam and Eve, she ruined creation’s perfection. By the time Deucalion and Pyrrha were married, society was a mess. Unable to stand it, Zeus decided to wipe everyone out with a flood and start again. Depending on what version you believe, he either searched the world for one good man, finding him in Deucalion, or he planned his disaster without concern for the humans he would kill. Deucalion and his wife survived because Prometheus warned his son of Zeus’s plans. The couple had time to climb onto a mountain top where they managed to avoid drowning. Afterwards, life returned, for the surviving humans repopulated the earth.
So we survived Armageddon.
The Pain of Resurrection
Easter tells a slightly different story than these flood tales. In the Christian narratives, a god was born into a human body so he could die and be born again. Other cultures have similar myths. For instance, Odin, the Viking god, died on Yggdrasil, the World Tree, so he could be reborn and gain the power he needed to bring healing and hope to his people.
Resurrection is a great thing, but you can’t have new life unless you die first. To be resurrected, both Jesus and Odin had to enter the underworld where they went through a deep, soul-wrenching change. For us to be resurrected, something must scour us, wound us to the point where part of us dies. Only then, can we become as one new.
But that’s painful. Not everyone is willing to go through such a transformation. Rapturists, for instance, believe they can have eternal life without dying first. They’re not interested in internal change, soul-searching, questioning, or reconciling inconsistencies. As Nayeri points out, those who await Jesus’s second coming have stagnated. Jesus did the dying and the resurrecting for them. They need learn nothing new, face no internal demons. They believe hey have the answers, that the evil one exists only outside of them.
Getting to Know a Rapturist
During my chaplain career, I have known a few rapturists. One in particular was special to me. Over the course of several years, I got to know her fairly well. She figured we were living in the end times, and she thought the rapture would come before she died. She was looking forward to experiencing that blissful moment when Jesus would carry her off in his divine arms.
I enjoyed my visits with her. She was intrepid, a strong and independent woman who had a great sense of humor and faced challenges with enthusiasm. I was touched by the love she shared with her family. She wasn’t particularly generous, nor did she feel any civic duty. She did what she liked and prayed that the end of the world would come soon, because she wanted to see it. Unfortunately for her, she died before Jesus made it back.
Many people who believe in the rapture love their children, do their chores, visit their neighbors, and bake casseroles for the bereaved. They aren’t trying to make things worse. They just don’t bother trying to make them better. The world they see outside their doors is so evil, it feels overwhelming. This has to be the end of days, for how could it get any worse? How much longer must people suffer before God comes to take the decent, God-fearing Christians to their true home?
Yet ever since Jesus died, believers have been expecting to come back at any time. It’s been thousands of years, and we’re still waiting. Things are bad now, but they’ve been worse before.
Climate Change and Environmental Disaster
What has not been as bad in the past, however, is the destruction we are wreaking on our planet. When our leaders deregulate one industry after another; relax laws against pollution; encourage mining, fracking, and other operations that destroy habitat, we might be excused for believing someone is purposely trying to incite riots, protests, wars. Could the rich, who rule our country as much as our legislators do, be closet Rapturists?
Doubtful. They probably figure that, no matter what happens to the environment, their money will allow them to survive. If the rest of us perish, who cares? Why bother trying to save anything? It’s not just rapturists who are apathetic. Few of us are interested in making sacrifices.
Yet what if resurrection is not the end? We tend to like those myths that assure us that no matter how much death and destruction we or the gods cause, life goes on. But not every culture believes in eternal resurrection. Not every religion has its Easter.
Similar in some ways to the Christian book of Revelations, the Viking story of Ragnorak talks of disasters and wars. Unlike in the Christian text, however, no one, not even the gods, survive the destruction of Ragnorak. It reminds of the theory of entropy, in which, instead of collapsing on itself, the universe expands forever until all is cold and still. Mass and form exist, but there is no movement, no energy of any kind, no life. Even death is no more, so there can be no resurrection.
None of us know what will happen in the end of days. Like the patient who expected Jesus to return that day or next week, we will die before we Son of Man leads the angels to earth with his battle cry.
Climate Change as an Emergency
That doesn’t mean things won’t get worse.
In February of 2018, our president declared a national emergency because of immigration, which congress vetoed. Before they voted, Senator Marco Rubio argued for the veto, saying, “If today, the national emergency is border security, . . . tomorrow the national emergency might be climate change.” 
There are at least a few ironies here. While individuals flee their homeland because of political persecution and financial collapse, swarms of people are being forced from their land because of the instability and insecurity caused by global warming. They have no food or water, violence is rampant, natural disasters are frequent, and disease is spreading. Justin Worland writes in Time that experts agree “that climate change is one of several primary drivers behind global migration.”  The World Bank has estimated that, over the next thirty years, as extreme weather makes crops fail, as many as 1.4 million Latin Americans will seek refuge. 
If this isn’t an emergency, what is? True, enemy soldiers from other nations aren’t spilling into our cities; their tanks aren’t threatening us. At least, not yet. But rising temperatures in the United States have already killed plants, insects, animals, and people. In other parts of the world, it is worse.
A New Theology
If we’re going to save ourselves, and even more importantly, if we’re going to save the planet, we need a new theology of death and resurrection. We need to accept that it’s not up to the gods to punish us, nor up to them to carry us away from it all. We need to learn some self-restraint. We need to become true stewards.
To do this, though, we must make sacrifices. As Anna Sauerbrey states in her article, “Germany’s Climate Warfare,” although policies designed to help us avoid the worst ravages of global warming won’t make things better right away, their “costs are immediate.”  Few people tolerate delayed gratification well, especially when they feel it is forced upon them.
No wonder scores of people find comfort in the rapture. As Nayeri explains, when people feel powerless, their “despair leads to denial and fantasy.”  They retreat, hide, sleep, tell themselves stories of a god who will take care of everything, who will absolve them of the need to be have “dominion over” anything. How, then, can we make a new theology of stewardship palatable?
Changing Our Stories
Perhaps it will help if we change our stories. In her feminist analysis of Revelations, Christine McLachlan notes that “the therapeutic value of myth and psychoanalysis lies in their unique ability to manipulate symbols and in so doing to change reality.’” 
Easter tells of a god who vanquished death. Earth Day tells of a planet that needs our care. To reconcile the two messages, to make them work together for the good of our planet and all who live on her, we may need to reclaim not only Genesis and the definition of dominion, but also texts such as Revelations that lead people to give up on a planet that so desperately needs our affection. Since liberationists and feminists rarely refer to this apocalyptic tale, literalists have been free to define its parameters and explain its symbols.
Regardless of what myths you prefer, the Hebrew and Christian stories have a power that can change us and change our reality. If we reframe them, use them to tell a message of resilience and solidarity, justice and liberation, care and compassion, we might be able to find the strength and the will to stave off the worst effects of global warming and return beauty and kindness to the world.
In faith and fondness,
- Nayeri, Dina, “Yearning for the End of the World,”The Guardian, August 25, 2017, https://www.theguardian.com/news/2017/aug/25/yearning-for-the-end-of-the-world , accessed 4/19/19.
- See Gopnik, Adam, “The Big Reveal: Why Does the Bible End that Way?,” The New Yorker, February 27, 2012, https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2012/03/05/big-reveal, accessed 4/20/19.
- Lovelace, Berkeley, “Sen. Marco Rubio Warns Trump a Border Emergency Could Embolden a Future Dem President on Climate Change,” CNBC, January 9, 2019, https://www.cnbc.com/2019/01/09/sen-rubio-trump-declaring-a-national-emergency-over-border-security-is-a-slippery-slope.html , accessed 3/19/19.
- Worland, Justin, “The Real Culprit Behind Trump’s Border Emergency? Climate Change,” Time, February 22, 2019, http://time.com/5535086/trump-climate-change-national-emergency/ , accessed 4/19/19.
- Semple, Kirk, “Migrants Flee New Threat: Climate Change,” The New York Times, April 14, 2019, 1.
- Sauerbrey, Anna, “Germany’s Climate Warfare,” Op-Ed, The New York Times, April 20, 2019, A19.
- McLachlan, Christine, Fear of Freedom: A Feminist Theological Perspective on the Book of Revelation, Thesis for the degree of Master of Arts in Biblical Studies, Johannesburg, South Africa: Rand Afrikans University, May 2000, 1.
Copyright © 2019 Barbara E. Stevens All Rights Reserved