Friday, 15 January 2010

Doomsday Fever

In the Daily Mail this week, Christopher Booker has an article with some insightful observations on the modern phenomena of mass panic. It is quite interesting to survey a list such as this:

  • HIV
  • BSE / CSV ("mad cow disease")
  • The Y2K / "Millennium" bug
  • The salmonella scare
  • SARS / bird flu
  • Carcinogens in food
  • Asbestos poisoning
  • DDT
  • This last year - swine flu
Of course, each of these is/was a real problem, and there have been real fatalities. The point is, though, that in each case the presentation from government and media was in terms of a very high probability (certainty?) of immense number of deaths - pandemics to rival the bubonic plagues that killed 1/3 of Europe, etc. - unless urgent and wide-ranging, expensive action was taken. The current one is global warming; again we're urged that unless we act in a big way right now, then apocalyptic doom may no longer be possible to prevent. This observation on its own, of course, does not prove one way or the other that global warming is no more of a real problem likely to kill more than a few dozen people (as the cold snap in Britain has in the last fortnight) than mad cow disease - but it certainly ought to give us pause for thought and mean that we should require a higher standard of proof than simply "the experts and the governments agree".

What's also remarkable about that list above is that they've all come up in quite a small amount of time - within the last decade or two. Have I missed any? That's an awful lot of doom - amazing we've managed to avoid not just one or two of them, but the whole lot!

Meanwhile, all kinds of real disasters that have decimated the West - the massive rise in family breakdown, sexualisation of childhood, pornification of mainstream media, progressive mortgaging of our children's futures to pay for present over-spending, the collapse of community life, the plummeting standards of state education - have all gone on at a pace observed often with just a sad resignation or futile grumbling. None of these though has been an immanent doomsday scenario, but rather the slow but sure undermining of foundations one brick at a time.

I remember when a child watching the news. I didn't really understand the disease of HIV; but it seemed pretty certain from the tombstone graphic and the grave tones that accompanied every story, that pretty much most of the world would be dead of it by the time I was an adult. HIV is a significant problem in my adopted country of Kenya; but it's not apocalyptic doom, and it's an extremely easy disease to avoid. That's why it's a significant problem in Kenya - sadly adultery and fornication aren't things that a good number of people people have sufficient desire to avoid.

My point though is not just this armchair commentary. It's to ask why the Western public and media evidently feel such a deep resonance for scenarios of immanent apocalyptic doom?

I think that a Christian answer to this question would need to mention at least two key factors. We need to go a lot deeper than just the simplistic "people are sheep, not as clever as me" kind of response. I haven't particularly noticed that the communities who pride themselves on being rationalists and skeptics have been particularly immune to these things - in fact, it seems to have been as our governments have gone more secular and left-ward that these things have increased.

At the root of it (this is the first key) is man's alienation from God. Try as we might - iPhones, career paths, the X-Factor, fantastic hobbies and adventures etc. - nothing can stub out the basic sense of unease which is in every human being. The fear of death, the Bible says, holds all of mankind in bondage - though it manifests itself in very different ways. Man cannot escape the basic sense that all is not very well - and in fact that something very massive is quite wrong. But because until he is born again he has no will or desire to confront the basic problem - personal sin - or to seek out the God who is his true need, the real solution to this sense cannot be found. And so it must manifest itself elsewhere in life. Man has a residual knowledge that something is very wrong - but if he won't admit what it really is, this knowledge will have to poison his rationality in all kinds of other areas instead. If you won't fear God, you'll have to fear an awful lot of other things.

The other key factor in my opinion more specifically that there is a residual cultural awareness of sudden apocalyptic doom. This is because in fact sudden and global apocalyptic doom is a real phenomena. It's just that it's not going to come from swine flu - it's going to come when God suddenly intervenes to judge the world on the Last Day. This event was made known to man from the very moment he fell. In history, its prime warning was in Noah's Flood. The Bible itself (2 Peter 3) anticipates men scoffing and trying as much as they can to forget this immense event - but it cannot be done.

Once, God destroyed the whole world in a sudden deluge that came with no announcement other than the ignored and rejected preaching of godly Noah. Peter tells us that the same will be so on the day that Jesus is revealed in fire. Sudden global doom will always be a belief that keeps surfacing in the culture. Rejecting Christianity, the West is doomed to worry itself silly over a succession of non-dooms (serious as each danger might be in its own right).

In other words, man does not have a choice - he must, somewhere in his belief system, believe in apocalyptic world-wide doom. The only choice is which he's going to believe in - the real thing, or an endless succession of impostors. It's wired into our make-up and into our history - it's real. We can't get away from it because we can't get away from ourselves. Let he who has ears to hear, hear!

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