Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Big Rock Candy Mountain

By Eric Von Salzen

I was interested to read the other day that doomsday for the human race may arrive in 2036. In that year, according to some Russian scientists, an asteroid called Apophis may strike the Earth, with the force of 100,000 atom bombs; dust and debris from the impact would darken skies world-wide and bring on a global winter. It could be the end for us all.

Other scientists claim that when Apophis gives us a near miss in 2029 we’ll know for sure whether the asteroid is on a collision course with Earth on its next pass seven years later, which will give us an opportunity to send rockets to nudge it into a safer orbit.

But if Apophis doesn’t get us, perhaps another asteroid will, like the one that (some say) killed off the dinosaurs 65 million years ago. (“Apophis” is the Greek rendering of the name of the Egyptian god Apep the Uncreator, the god of darkness and chaos; any doomsday asteroid would be “Apophis”.) An asteroid we hadn’t spotted might pop up unexpectedly with no chance to divert it.

Or, if not an asteroid, then perhaps a supernova, a gigantic stellar explosion, will destroy us. If a star relatively close by (say less than 20 light years away) blows up, it could unleash a flood of gamma rays that would strip the Earth of its ozone layer, leaving us naked to deadly solar and cosmic radiation. Such an explosion is thought (by some) to be responsible for the Ordovician extinction 450 million years ago, in which 60 percent of marine invertebrates died (all living creatures in those days lived in the sea).

Or how about this. There’s a federal facility in the western United States that contains something capable of doing the same damage that Apophis could do. It’s not in Roswell, NM, and it’s not an alien space craft. The facility is Yellowstone National Park and what it contains is a super volcano. Yellowstone in fact is the caldera of a huge active volcano. Its last eruption, 640,000 years ago, was a thousand times the size of the eruption of Mount St. Helens, according to National Geographic. A pillar of ash from the Yellowstone eruption rose 100,000 feet into the air, “leaving a layer of debris across the West all the way to the Gulf of Mexico. Pyroclastic flows -- dense, lethal fogs of ash, rocks, and gas, superheated to 1,470 degrees Fahrenheit -- rolled across the landscape in towering gray clouds. The clouds filled entire valleys with hundreds of feet of material so hot and heavy that it welded itself like asphalt across the once verdant landscape.” This eruption may have plunged the entire planet into years of volcanic winter. And yet it was a mere volcanic belch compared to its predecessor 2.1 million years ago. As recently as 74,000 years ago, the human race was almost exterminated by the global winter caused by the eruption of a super volcano in Indonesia.

Even if Earth avoids all these routine disasters, some day our sun will run out of the hydrogen that provides the source of its energy (it’s already half way through its life span). When that happens, the sun will balloon into a “red giant”, which will swallow up the Earth. And if by then the human race has moved on to other planets, that will only delay the inevitable. The universe is expanding from the Big Bang that started it, and one of two things will happen. It may reverse itself and contract into a Big Crunch, or it may expand forever until its temperature reaches absolute zero and all energy and matter evaporates. In either event, we're toast (hot toast or cold toast, but defintely toast). It’s only a matter of time.

I could go on, but the point is that neither the human race, nor the planet on which we live, will last forever.

Does this matter? After all, each one of us is going to die someday, and that would be true even if the world and the human race lasted forever. Yet I think it does matter, because it tells us something about the nature of the world we live in, and our place in it. Not only are we, each of us, dust and destined to return to dust, but the same is true of our entire world.

Most Christians, I think, believe that this world will someday come to an end and be replaced by a better one. Some Christians focus a lot on the notion of the End Times. Some even try to put a date on doomsday using biblical prophecies. In reading up on Apophis, I discovered a YouTube video that associated this asteroid with various passages in the Old and New Testaments; the video asserted that any effort to change the orbit of Apophis was bound to fail, because it was prophesied that the asteroid would, indeed, strike the earth.

That isn't my understanding of what biblical prophecy is all about. The notion that what has been prophesied must come to pass seems inconsistent with the sovereignty of God over the universe. The prophet Jonah prophesied the destruction of Nineveh, but when the Ninevites changed their sinful ways, God spared the city, the people, and the animals, too.

And isn’t it just a bit arrogant to claim that human beings can figure out the date of doomsday from reading scripture? Jesus said, “But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father”. And he went on to say, “Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming.” The whole point seems to be that we should know that this world will pass away, but we aren't supposed to know when.

I think it’s a mistake to focus excessively on the coming of the End Times. But it’s also a mistake to ignore the fact that the world will end some day, and could end at any moment. My impression is that most mainline Christians don’t really keep the transitory nature of the world in mind. Although they may recite in church that “He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and His kingdom will have no end”, they forget about it as soon as the service is over.

This isn’t surprising. When you’re traveling first class, you’re not as anxious for the voyage to end as are those folks down in steerage. Christianity began among people whose lives were pretty rotten. When you told them that the world they knew would pass away, they took it as a promise, not as a threat. We comfortable, middle-class, American Christians (most of us, anyway) aren't in that big of a hurry for our world to pass away. I know that if it were up to me a couple of decades from now, I’d do everything possible to prevent Apophis from wiping us all out.

But there are several reasons why we should remember that our world could end at any time, and will end sometime, and ultimately there’s nothing we can do about it. First, it's true, and it's always a good idea to remember the truth. Second, remembering that this world won't last forever may help us to keep a sense of perspective about the importance of our own little affairs. Third, we are promised that what comes after this world will be far better, and we have that to look forward to.

Here’s how I think about this. I went to YMCA summer camp when I was a kid, and from time to time we’d get to take trips away from camp to hike or canoe somewhere. We traveled in the back of a big open truck, twenty or so boys sitting on wooden benches (of course, they’d never allow anyone to travel this way today, but this was the 1950's). As we drove along we sang camp songs as loud as we could -- Green Grow The Rushes, Ho! Home, Home On The Range. Big Rock Candy Mountain. We called out to the pretty girls as we drove through the towns. We had a grand old time. For awhile I would enjoy the trip so much I thought I didn't want it to end. But that feeling didn’t last, because I knew that when the trip ended we’d be canoeing on Lake George or the Connecticut River, or hiking on Mount Monadnock, or whatever. And that was going to be even better than the trip.