Even to consider the question seriously starts the tectonic plates shifting beneath one's feet. If the earth passes away, it takes along with it human consciousness, history, and civilization. As unthinkable as it may be, the impermanence of the earth has been considered even by the biblical writers, although God pronounced his creative act "very good" (Genesis 1:31). The biblical myth, however, is that God once destroyed every living thing on the earth (Genesis 7:4, 21-23), so something went very wrong. The flood event was not understood by the writers as a destruction of the earth, but (as we would say) a global destruction of life, which God promised never to do again by floods (Genesis 9:11-17). God promised that the earth and earthly life cycles would continue "while the earth remains" (Genesis 8:20-22), which is not quite a promise that the earth is permanent. Hence, in this expression the biblical writer raises the specter of the earth's impermanence.
The threats of destruction involving the earth in Hebrew Bible are usually like the flood incident—threats against a particular people for a particular reason (e.g., Zephaniah 1:14-18; 3:1-8). The earth abides, but certain peoples are destroyed. Even the "Little Apocalypse" of Isaiah 24-27 (First Isaiah) predicts only a devastation of the earth and not its destruction. Isaiah 65:17-20 (Third Isaiah), however, foresees a "new heavens and a new earth" and asserts that "the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind."
Paul's letters seem inconsistent. In one letter he suggests that even the (old) earth is anticipating redemption, because of its being in bondage to decay (Romans 8:19-23), which suggests that the present earth will continue after its redemption. Yet in another letter he writes that "the form of this world is passing away" (1 Corinthians 7:26, 31). The writer in Second Peter unambiguously announces the destruction of earth:
The Day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a loud noise, and the elements will be dissolved with fire, and the earth and the works that are upon it will be burned up. (2nd Peter 3:10).
The prophetic writer, John, echoes Third Isaiah in foreseeing the advent of a "new heaven and a new earth," and echoes Paul in announcing the "passing away" of the first heaven and first earth (Revelation 21:1-4).
Do you suppose that God's mind for some reason was changed about the creation being "very good," and as a result what began "good" in God's judgment will end up in a fiery cataclysm? If so, why would God decide to destroy a "very good" and perfectly innocent creation? Animals, plants, and the "material stuff" of earth are not unrighteous, evil, or unethical, and scarcely deserve punishment. Such insentient things and creatures would scarcely even be able to appreciate that they were being punished. Perhaps the biblical writers are wrong in foreseeing the end of the world, for they cannot actually read God's mind. When it comes to God, all of us human beings are limited and see things only "in a mirror dimly" (1 Corinthians 13:9, 12)—even prophets, preachers, and TV evangelists.
Nevertheless, that said, the transience of our habitable blue and white planet earth has always been threatened by natural causes. A large enough wandering comet striking earth would cause catastrophic devastation. In 1908 a comet about the size of a football field, among other things leveled 2000 square kilometers of forest in central Siberia. Perhaps some other cosmic catastrophe might occur, such as a "super nova within ten or twenty light years of the solar system," an event that some conjecture was the cause of the passing away of the dinosaurs "some sixty-five million years ago." Super novae are huge exploding stars.
Our Sun is a star, or put another way, the stars you see in the night sky are suns. They have a limited life span. "Billions of years from now, there will be a last perfect day on earth. Thereafter the Sun will slowly become red and distended," on its way to becoming a red star, then degenerating to a white dwarf; ultimately it becomes a dark and dead black dwarf. Our earth would have then long since become uninhabitable to life as we know it. Sagan's description of the death of the earth echoes Second Peter: Earth will "swelter even at the poles" and then,
The Arctic and Antarctic icecaps will melt…Eventually the oceans will boil, the atmosphere melt away to space and a catastrophe of the most immense proportions will overtake our planet.
Will we earth people be able to survive without our mother, the earth? We were spawned millions of years ago in an earthy primordial soup of dust from the stars and nourished at mother earth's breast on our way to becoming human beings. Perhaps, we will, but what might we become without her?
How does it seem to you?
Charles W. Hedrick
Missouri State University
Carl Sagan, Cosmos (1980): comets, 73-76; death of the sun, 230-32; death of the dinosaurs, 283; origins of life, 30-31; super nova, 238-39.
The earth could pass away any moment in a cataclysmic collision with something of enough mass to either tear the planet apart or knock it out of the orbit that keeps us at the right distance from the sun to maintain life. Whether it is soon or in the distant future, the beautifully balanced circumstances that have graced this planet with an atmosphere and liquid water will not last forever. While there are likely both inhabitable and inhabited planets in other planetary systems, the immense distance of those planetary systems from earth makes it entirely unlikely that we could ever reach them.
The sobering reality that ancient Biblical authors could not allow themselves to imagine is that the universe will go on without us and will not notice our passing. The mortality rate is 100%.
My view is that we won't survive without the earth, but neither will we survive with the earth if we don't recognize the wholeness, inter-connectednness and organic relationships among the biosphere, atmosphere, hydrosphere, and lithosphere (see Geering, Coming Back to Earth, 2009). Further, the earth will survive, but we won't unless we learn the secret of the kingdom of God, which is to develop whole relationships with one another, i.e., walking away from our encounters feeling more complete as a human being.
Good "thought provoking" article, Charlie.
Good evening Charlie,
You mention that man was spawned millions of years ago- how did you come to that conclusion? What physical evidence has been found that suggests mankind existed a million years ago? What are the oldest set of human remains that have been discovered so far? I think it's only a few thousand years if I'm not mistaken.
Since the evidence is pretty lacking with regard to how old humankind is or the earth we inhabit- I would rather get that figured out before I try to contemplate humankind's future prospects in the next few million years.
PS: Thank you Gene and Charlie for the reference material you suggested in regard to Marcion and Paul's use of the Torah in his letters. I have more questions about that but I'll save them for later.
The physical sciences and anthropology are not my strong suite. I have been reading myself into them as time presents itself. The best I can do to answer your questions is to suggest something to read: Preston Cloud, Cosmos, Earth, and Man. A short History of the Universe (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1978). See in particular chapter 11 (the beginning of life) and chapter 16 (the ascent of man). You specifically ask about the oldest human remains. That depends on what you mean by "human." The evolutionary ascent of the species homo sapiens (intelligent man) had ancestors, but evidence exists for homo sapiens from about 20,000 years ago (for a popularized treatment see J. Bronowski, The Ascent of Man (1973), 36-59). One of those ancestors homo erectus 500,000 to one Million years ago, and then there are other ancestors even earlier.
See also Wry Thoughts about Religion June 20, 2014.
Perhaps we have some physical scientists or anthropologists out there who will speak to your questions.
Thank you Charlie... I need to investigate further into the difference between homo erectus and homo sapiens. It's been a long time since I've studied physical science and I've forgotten the evolutionary development between those two species of humans. (I was referring, however, to homo sapiens in particular and forgot to make that distinction) I do recall reading about some remains found in Ethiopia that date between 20,000 to 2 million years ago. That is such a large gap that I can't really conclusively determine whether or not humans existed that long ago. It will be exciting to see what discoveries are made in the future. With regard to your essay dated June 20, 2014... Polarity exists within humans and is an aspect of our human nature. In other words, we contain both positive and negative possibilities. Or as others would say, we contain both positive and negative energy. Does that mean we have to act on the negative energy? Why do so many (in the church particularly) believe that our negative energy is more powerful than our positive energy? Is that empirically true or is it true because that's what we've been taught to believe by our parents and our pastors and our Paul? (the apostle) You don't have to answer that, I just wanted to put it out there for further pondering and reflection.
Hi Elizabeth, regarding human positive and negative energy and our worst and better selves, you might be interested in the following Pew survey:
Here' my summary: A May 2014 Pew Research Center survey of 39 countries asked whether it was necessary or essential to "believe in God" to be a “moral person.” A modest majority in the United States, 53%, voted yes. The majority vote in many western counterparts such as Canada, Europe, Australia, Japan, and Israel was a strong “no.” Twenty-three of twenty-eight countries in the Asia/pacific, middle east, Latin America, and Africa, voted “yes.” Most countries with Muslim majorities produced a “yes” vote in the 70 to 90% range. Worldwide, youth and education were associated with a “no” vote to the original question. For example, in the U.S., 58% of adults over 50 and 46% of 18 to 29 year-olds, and 59% of those without college degrees and 37% of college graduates said it is necessary to believe in God to be a moral person.
That is extremely interesting Gene. I will take a look at the survey myself when I finish typing my reply. Judging from your summary, lesser educated individuals are more fearful of the negative capabilities in themselves. They seem to think a belief in God will prevent them from committing negative deeds. I wonder how that works? I guess Christians would say the Holy Spirit lives inside their spirit and somehow induces them to behave righteously. This gets into the theory of "sinful flesh" and "total depravity" and Romans 7... "We are slaves to the sinful flesh." Many, many church doctrines have been established upon that fear-based belief system.
I hope the Pew survey explains whether or not belief in God actually helps you become a moral person- or does it simply enlighten your consciousness to discern the difference between what is moral and what is immoral? Very interesting as usual, thank you! Elizabeth
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