The subject of the end times came up at dinner the other night, apropos of the recent hurricanes: it seems that one of my daughter’s teachers suggested that they might be a sign of the end. I doubt that, myself. For one thing, hurricanes of this strength are far from unheard of, although it’s true that these have been unusually close together in time, were unusually strong at least while they were still well out at sea, and have struck in unusually close proximity to each other. Ivan, Dennis, Katrina, and Rita were all very strong storms, and they all struck a section of coastline from the Texas-Louisiana border on the west to the Alabama-Florida border on the east, a span of roughly four hundred miles, perhaps an eighth (I’m looking at a map and guessing) of the coastline bordering the Gulf of Mexico. I think those of us who live in that area can be forgiven for wondering if there is some design at work here. Still, if the events have been unusual, they can’t be said to have been so improbable as to be anomalous, and the fact is that more and more severe hurricanes struck the United States in the decade of the 1940s.
There’s a simple reason why Americans are engaging in apocalyptic speculation: these hurricanes have affected us dramatically. I don’t remember hearing any of us talk this way in 1998, when Hurricane Mitch, a late-season (October 29) monster, struck Nicaragua and killed some 11,000 people.
I’m a resolute agnostic as regards the end of the world, and in fact tend to believe that the more widespread the belief that it is near, the less likely it is to be so. Sooner or later, of course, someone is going to be right in predicting it, but every age has provided ample reason for those living in it to believe that wickedness is so widespread that it meets the criteria of prophecy, that the end must be soon or else the world will be utterly given over to evil, and so I neither make nor believe any very specific predictions.
There is, however, one thing that gives me pause. The old familiar wickedness of the human race we know very well: the wars, the tortures, the oppression, the lust and the lying. C. S. Lewis once speculated that the quantity of good and evil in the world remains more or less constant, but gets distributed differently in every age: so (for example) our age is horrified by the brutality and cruelty of punishments once handed out for very minor crimes, but has positively encouraged people to abandon on a whim marriage vows made before God, and to throw over the whole concept of sexual morality. Perhaps it all adds up to equal measures of virtue and vice.
But we have invented a new crime. We propose to meddle with the very substance of human life. We propose to destroy human embryos in order to improve our own health. We propose to tinker with the genes of the newly conceived so that when they grow up they will look like we want them to look and behave as we want them to behave. We propose to grow duplicates of living people in a laboratory for purposes of our own.
Once, back in the 1970s when I was more or less testing the waters of Christianity after a long absence, I had a conversation with an Episcopal priest known for his “liberal” views. I had the feeling that he was trying to impress me, under the mistaken impression that I was looking for a modernized and contemporary religion, long on secular enlightenment and short on revelations and commandments. I only remember one specific thing from the conversation; as best I remember, he said something like this: “We (the Episcopal Church) don’t hold the sort of only-God-can-make-a-tree position that the Roman Catholics do. We would see nothing wrong, for instance, in genetically engineering people with gills so that we could mine the bottom of the sea.”
I was dumbstruck and horrified by this, not yet being aware of the apostasy happening within every Christian community at the time. Ten years or so later I related the conversation to a great-aunt of mine, who as far as I know had no religion and was in her late 80s at the time. She considered what I had said for a moment, then replied simply “Well, I suppose people will always want to have slaves.” She saw plainly what the Christian bien-pensant could not.
Perhaps our experiments with cloning and genetic engineering and all the rest of it will prove to be unfeasible. Perhaps they are just slavery under a new name, and perhaps God will let us get away with it, as he has let us, individually and collectively, get away with so much. But it seems to me that they have the potential to distort beyond recognition the elementals of human life: the bond between parent and child, husband and wife, brother and sister, one generation and the next. And I find myself hoping, if not expecting, that God himself will put an end to these obscenities, since it seems unlikely that we will voluntarily turn aside from this path, those of us who oppose it being, apparently, in the minority.