This evening’s Bible Study that began the Northwest Weekend from our local congregation’s pastor dealt with the contrast between Peter and Paul in how they thought of the end times as coming soon in earlier writings and then realizing that there was a lot of time before the end as their deaths approached. As someone who has studied millennial movements and general pessimist about the end times throughout human history a good deal , it is a well-recognized fact that there has always been a large degree of belief in certain parts of the population that evil days threatened and that disaster was looming. At times this has led to panics about immigrants or negative trends in morality while at other times this sentiment has been fed by climate panic and concerns about sufficient amounts of food or the threats of diseases and so on and so forth. It is not so much that the specific aspects of this attitude of fear are so important, but more that there has long been and remains a strong degree of negative feelings about the state of the world and a belief that the end is always near, regardless of how long human civilization and existence last.
Does this pessimism have a good purpose? I must admit that by nature I tend to be a fairly pessimistic and dark person. Obviously, this sentiment is something that I would be keen on justifying, not only for myself but for others who tend to have a native bias towards negativity or fear or concern, or call it what you will. This sort of bias in me and in others leads to a sort of temperamental conservatism that views claims of progress as being in general suspect and in being aware that a great deal can be lost in the attempt to grab more. It counters the tendencies of greed and the limitless desire for more by reminding one of the reality of scarcity and the limits of our existence that we run up against continually. It provides a realistic perspective that counters those whose ideals lead them to have their heads in the clouds and can certainly be seen as part of a dialectic that certainly has some negative aspects but undoubtedly some positive ones in preserving a sense of balance with the more optimistic side that is often found more enjoyable in our heedless times.
What good results from thinking that the end may be near? How does an awareness of the possibility that one may not have a lot of time serve to our ultimate benefit? In one sense, the end may be near for all of us at any given time. No matter how healthy we may be or how privileged and pampered our existence, we are all subject to the randomness of time and chance. Our health could suddenly and catastrophically fail, as it did for my father when a lifetime as an active but portly gentleman with a terrible diet brought on a stroke, kidney problems, a diagnosis of diabetes, and then a fatal heart attack over the course of six weeks from late 2005 to early 2006 at the age of 59. The conditions of our world could suddenly fail, whether that is by accident or through the malice of evil revolutionaries. Since none of us can ensure our survival for any given length of time, we must live our lives with at least the awareness of the possibility that it may end at any time. And the more we are aware of the folly and darkness that lies in the hearts of those who rule over societies and institutions, the possibility of institutional or societal collapse cannot be viewed as being safely distant either, because there is no shortage of corrupt and short-sighted elites who led their people into total disaster without any awareness or recognition of the harm that they were causing. Having at least the knowledge of the possibility that the end is always near keeps us motivated to mend our relationships with others and make efforts to reform our character.
And this is a good thing. Complacency, after all, is a decidedly bad thing, as it leads us to act corruptly because we no longer believe that we will be held accountable for what we do and no longer have any sense of the urgency of questions of justice and equity. All of this leads us to be worse people to others. The belief that we could at least theoretically be put on the dock before God and held accountable for our deeds has a salutary effect in making us act better towards others. When we lose this sense of urgency, we correspondingly lose one of the major elements that restrains our conduct from wallowing in the exploitation of others for our own selfish benefit. In order to behave towards others with justice, we often require a strong belief that we ourselves will be held to account for our behavior. There are moral benefits to a belief that our end or the end is at least possibly near. And while the writings of Peter and Paul are from nearly 2000 years ago, it is clear that by the time Paul and Peter were writing their last letters that they were aware that their own end was near, which correspondingly allowed them to see that there was possibly a lot more time for humanity at large. Sometimes staring into the face of eternity reminds us that we are but a small part of a much larger story, and if we are much nearer to the end than when we started, we do not know how much time remains in the overall stories in which we are only bit players.
 See, for example: