What is the end of the story?
Each time a major crisis occurs in our country or world, the inevitable question comes forth from my eldest daughter: “Do you think this is the end of the world?!”
Over the years, I have found the topic of “end times” to be of great interest not only to my daughter but to my Leadership Forum students, and many U.S. teens as well.
In 2018, Imago Dei Leadership Forum commissioned The Barna Group to ask close to 1000 Gen Z students (ages 13-18) if they believe that the physical world we live in will eventually end, and if so, what they believe will most likely cause the end of the world?
Interestingly, Barna found that 7 out of 10 U.S. teens believe the world will one day end. Of this group, 33% believe the world will end when Jesus physically returns to earth, 35% believe it will come to pass by environmental causes, 17% by war or nuclear/explosion, 4% by disease or sickness (although I wonder what they would say now), 6% by other causes, and 4% not sure.
As I considered where their ideas were formed, I couldn’t help but wonder about the influences that brought these students to their conclusions—especially comparing scenarios of despair with one of hope.
These students’ responses reflect the major genres that Hollywood filmmakers have used for decades to portray apocalyptic worlds.
Starting with the alien invasion movies of the 1950s—The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), The War of the Worlds (1953), and Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)—apocalyptic films captured viewers’ imaginations (and fears). This theme has remained extremely popular today as evidenced by the box office success of the Marvel Cinematic Universe over the last decade.
With the looming anxiety of nuclear catastrophe in the Cold War era, the apocalyptic film genre expanded to include the aftermath of war holocausts featured in such hit films as Dr. Strangelove (1964), The Planet of the Apes (1968), the Mad Max series (1979, 1981, 1985), cyborg films such as Blade Runner (1982) and The Terminator saga. It is worth noting that many of these films have been rebooted for Generation Z in the 2000s. As an aside, nuclear catastrophe is not limited to the big screen. Fallout, the popular role-playing video game series, has sold over 38 million copies.
Popular environmental disaster films in recent years have included Deep Impact (1998), Armageddon (1998), The Day After Tomorrow (2004), and 2012 (2009). And last but not least, pandemic films such as 12 Monkeys (1995) Outbreak (1995), I Am Legend (2007), and World War Z (2013) have garnered significant audiences as well.
In regard to Gen Z, the apocalyptic film Bird Box was watched by 80 million viewers on Netflix in its first four weeks of release in 2018 alone, and the highly popular AMC series The Walking Dead (whose 11th season has been ironically delayed by the novel coronavirus) continues to strike a chord with audiences, as the protagonists battle against disease and Zombies.
What I find most fascinating about these end-time themes, however, is how they correspond with the Book of Revelation’s “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse”—from the Pale Rider (Death/Disease), to the Black Horse (Famine), to the Red Horse (War) to the White Horse (Conquest).
But the power of aliens and/or superheroes depicted in the apocalyptic films of the last 70 years are no comparison to the supernatural power shown in Scripture. For the One who opens the seals of judgment and sovereignly controls the end of days–The Lamb of God, Jesus Christ—demonstrates the difference between utter despair and true hope.
Along these lines, few if any of the popular apocalyptic novels and/or films ever “involve a moral reckoning, a Judge, a conscious afterlife, or anything that might assign meaning to our existence,” notes author Regis Nicholl. “The only hope of significance lies in the idea of becoming a link in the evolutionary chain of progress on a gene, a memory, an artifact.”
Consider the best-selling trilogy The Hunger Games. The protagonist Katniss Everdeen shows amazing compassion, courage, and self-sacrifice, as she battles and defeats the Capitol and President Snow. Nevertheless, at the novel’s end, we find a broken heroine with little to offer her children and husband as they face a hopeless future together.
This dystopic outlook parallels the messages teens are receiving today—from fear of a planet with a coming scarcity of natural resources, to global warming, to pandemic disease, etc.
In contrast, while showing the hardships and brokenness of their worlds, best-selling writers C. S. Lewis (The Chronicles of Narnia) and J.R.R. Tolkien (The Lord of the Rings trilogy and The Hobbit) offer a thought-provoking hope that has moved readers and audiences for decades.
In The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe, C.S. Lewis depicts a clear battle of good vs. evil between the Christ-figure Aslan and the evil White Witch Jadis—portraying true sacrifice with the execution and resurrection of Aslan in the place of Edmund. And with the decisive defeat of the White Witch at the tale’s end, readers glimpse a picture of the hope believers in Jesus have to look forward to in their eternal reign in heaven through the crowning of Peter, Susan, Edmond, and Lucy as kings and queens of Narnia.
J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings echoes similar optimism in the midst of crises. For instance, when all hope seems lost for Gondor, Gandalf comforts and inspires the hobbit Pippin to continue fighting, regardless of the odds and possible death by sharing that this world is just the beginning to an amazing afterlife to come.
This type of hope is represented by Christ-figures throughout Tolkien’s trilogy—from the resurrection of Gandalf, to the Return of Aragorn, the King of Gondor, to the sacrificial quests of Frodo and Sam to destroy the evil ring of Sauron, and the final journey of Gandalf, Bilbo, Frodo, Elrond, Celeborn, and Lady Galadriel to the Undying Lands.
Growing up with the fear of nuclear war in the 80’s, J.R.R. Tolkien’s works provided a much-needed message of hope for me during my 8th grade year. But it wasn’t until my conversion to Christianity during my ninth-grade year that I had a true peace about the future based upon the assurance and promises of God—even in the midst of the warnings found in Scripture of suffering to come.
Interestingly, several of my 8th grade Leadership Forum students brought up concerns about “the end times” as we were winding up our Zoom meeting this past weekend. As I discussed God’s assurance with them, I shared that fear is a common emotion during times of crisis. Nevertheless, I reminded them of the words of theologian James Montgomery Boice that “[In] spite of these things, God is in control of history and will yet work all things out in accordance with his just and all-wise plan for humanity.”
In addition, while I acknowledged the Bible’s warning that we will face persecution and various trials in this world, I pointed to the freedom from fear, death, and suffering when we trust in Christ as our eternal hope. For not unlike the battles and judgment that come to Narnia and Middle Earth, Lewis and Tolkien end their tales with hope–ultimately pointing to the return of the Savior they believe will make all things new.
As we study the promises of God this Holy Week, it is amazing opportunity to share with our children the hope found in Jesus Christ’s victory over sin, death, and the devil on the cross. Instead of facing the wrath of “mother nature” in environmental disaster films, the power of “alien races” and their devastating acts of judgment, or “man-made devastation” reaping what was sown by unrepentant humans, we experience true joy, peace and hope through the Resurrection and the promise of His Second Coming.
And although we don’t know the day or the hour, the Apostle Peter leaves us with this challenge: “But the day of the Lord will come like a thief. The heavens will disappear with a roar; the elements will be destroyed by fire, and the earth and everything done in it will be laid bare. Since everything will be destroyed in this way, what kind of people ought you to be? You ought to live holy and godly lives as you look forward to the day of God and speed its coming.”
A great charge for us to remember, as we prepare to celebrate Easter Sunday.
John A. Murray is President of Imago Dei Leadership Forum and author of In Whose Image? (IDLF Press, 2019)