How Can Christians Think Hopefully about the Future at the Present Time of Crisis?

Tim Howles writes: The French, would you believe, have two words for “the future”. The first is “l’avenir”. This word describes the sort of situation that would likely pertain were things to progress along the trajectory that is currently established. It’s the word we might use, for example, to celebrate the prospects of a young couple whose commitment to one another right now surely presages a bright future ahead. By contrast, the second word, “le futur”, is more indeterminate. It encapsulates the sense that events might go one way or the other, for better or for worse. It speaks of a future that is hard to predict, a horizon that is difficult to discern, precisely because the present moment does not provide a ground from which to make confident predictions one way or the other.

Western society currently finds itself at a crucial juncture between these two conceptualizations of “the future”. In fact, I’d go as far as to say that we are in the process of transitioning from one to the other. And, if this is true, the challenge for Christians is as follows: how can we speak into this situation in a way that is truly hopeful?

So what is the anticipation of the future we have taken for granted up to now? Within the modern, western, secular worldview, we have been led to believe in a particular trajectory of history. Through the efforts of science, engineering and technology, and underwritten by the unstoppable phenomenon of globalization itself, the message has been subtly relayed to us: things are moving forward; progress is inevitable; in the future, you can expect to have more than you had before! We are under the sign of what the philosopher Walter Benjamin called “the angel of history”. All we have to do, so the narrative goes, is settle back and allow ourselves to be carried forward on its wings.

In this context, events of recent years have come as a bit of a shock to many. There is a peculiar intensity of feeling right now in the arena of political, social and cultural debate: whatever our views happen to be, I’m sure we can agree on that! But there is more to this than meets the eye. For perhaps this intensity can be attributed to the fact that we are experiencing not just a moment of turmoil, but a transition into an entirely new framework of history. The future that, for better or for worse, we had been led to believe was fixed is now open and up-for-grabs. We are transitioning from “l’avenir” to “le futur”. And with that comes a sense of anxiety and fear that can sometimes be difficult to articulate.

The contemporary environmental crisis serves as a kind of locus for all this. Why? Because every day when we turn on our TV or pick up a newspaper we find ourselves confronted with dire predictions about the future. These cannot be dismissed as mere media sensationalism, for these warnings originate in the mouths of the climate scientists themselves—those who are usually most concerned not to venture onto the delicate ground of advocacy. Take the example of Chris Rapley, Professor of Climate Science at UCL, who begins his stage-play 2071 with the line: “I have been thinking about the future”, and then for sixty excruciating minutes feeds us a series of spine-tingling insights into climate change, biodiversity loss and global emissions. Faced with this information, we have an inescapable sense of foreboding. And we are tempted to lapse into what the French psychologist Jean-Baptiste Fressoz calls a state of “désinhibition”, which describes the sense of inertia we experience when confronted by the apparently impossible scale of the challenge.

The word “apocalypse” seems strangely appropriate to describe the tone of these warnings. It’s as if the challenge posed by the contemporary environmental crisis is so severe, and the requirement that humans change their pattern of behaviour so urgent, that such language alone can attain the necessary register. But whatever this word used to signify, in contemporary usage it seems to be increasingly divested of any sense of redemption. The future we are facing seems to be bleakly, even nihilistically, apocalyptic. This seems to be reflectedin contemporary media. Take the example of Hollywood. During the 1990s, a series of films depicted for us the issue of environmental change (consider: Armageddon, Day after Tomorrow). But these were essentially optimistic visions, the crisis being one that was ultimately manageable within existing governance structures, or at least by the heroic efforts of a character played by Bruce Willis! In recent years, however, these films have taken a post-apocalyptic turn, revolving less around questions of what we can do to resolve the situation, but rather addressing in a passive and resigned tone how it might be possible for a fragment of the human species to survive once the crisis has struck (consider:The Road, Turin Horse, Melancholia).

Christians, however, can tell a different story about the trajectory of history. Moreover, we have a resource to do this in the apocalyptic material of Scripture.

This might sound like a strange move to make. For some, the thrust of biblical apocalyptic is to close down or negate a sense of agency in the present moment. If the future is already set, and is revealed to us by God himself, then what can we do here on Earth that is of enduring value or that might contribute to permanent change?

And yet, might it be that this genre functions in quite the opposite way? Here is the logic:

  1. The apocalyptic material in Scripture serves to temporarily reveal or disclose a future state of affairs.
  2. However, it does so in such a way as to remind us that this state of affairs still lies in the future and is not the reality we see around us now.
  3. Therefore, precisely because this material deals with a “not-yet”, its function is to prompt and inspire new or renewed forms of action in the present moment, with the idea that the direction of history itself might be redeemed.

The apocalyptic material in Scripture does indeed draw back the curtain on a state of affairs that is held in the hands of a sovereign God. But precisely by showing us that this future is “not yet”, its function is to send us back into the world with energy and resolve to play our part in its unfolding narrative “now”. We are inspired to become newly-responsible agents within the flow of history, emboldened and empowered to involve ourselves in the social, cultural and political arenas we occupy.

What a contrast this provides with the stale narrative of modernity, with its implied stipulation of a future to which we must passively acquiesce and that we can do nothing to change.

In recent weeks, I’ve been musing on 2 Thessalonians 2:1–10. What do we discover in this text? The context is clear: it seems that rumours had been circulating among the Christian community in Thessalonica concerning the imminent return (παρουσία) of Christ, generated (it seems) by a letter purporting to have been written by the Apostle Paul himself. In response, Paul reminds the Christian community of the order of things that is to come. The “man of lawlessness”, the adversary of Christ and his followers, is currently “at work” in the world. But the impact of this adversary is currently being held in check by a force or power that “restrains it” (τὸ κατέχον, ὁ κατέχων). Only when this restraining effect is removed will a final confrontation take place, with the triumph of Christ then being followed by the end of history itself. So what are we to make of this restraining force or power? Augustine provides the key to unlock its meaning, when he proposes that God himself is the subject of this verb (City of God,20.19). For Augustine, God is the one holding back the end of time, so as to give opportunity for more people to come to faithnow.

Verses such as these, and the apocalyptic texts of Scripture in general, provide a powerful motivation for Christians to engage in the world with confidence. Because the end is at the end, held in abeyance by God himself, the present becomes the site of real, consequential and purposeful activity. And, as a result, we can convey the Christian quality of “hope” to the world, a hope that is sorely needed as we face together a “futur” that is full of trepidation for many.

For more on this theme, with particular reference to the contemporary environmental crisis, you may like to order my recent Grove booklet Responding Faithfully to the Environmental Crisis.

Revd Tim Howles is an Associate Research Fellow of the William Temple Foundation and is based in Oxford.

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19 thoughts on “How Can Christians Think Hopefully about the Future at the Present Time of Crisis?”

  1. “the trajectory of history”….

    Thank you… I quite like that and it’s a, useful thing to set alongside that otherwise empty phrase “the wrong side of history”.

    “For Augustine, God is the one holding back the end of time, so as to give opportunity for more people to come to faithnow.”

    I’m wondering if this (conversion) is always thought of by churches as within a divine trajectory and one which actually has an end/crisis point? I hear quite a bit about the wholeness there is in Jesus (and that’s good) but not so much about the forgiveness which saves us from” the wrath to come “. Hope seems to have a shortened horizon and feels like a make-over thing.

    • Thanks Ian.

      Indeed, rather than presuming themselves to be on “the wrong side of history”, my argument is that modern people consider themselves to be anything but …. it would be more accurate to say that they see themselves as being on “the inexorable treadmill of history”. Why? Because the real meaning of things has already been uncovered: by science, by economics, by technology, etc. It is as if we are simply waiting for these things finally to bring about the world we deserve. It’s no coincidence that many have theorised the phenomenon of “the end of history”, by which is meant not the stopping of the clocks, but the cessation of the great political and ideological struggles of the past. These have essentially been won. We are now situated on a (more or less) linear line that is moving towards a sure and certain end.

      You can see the bastardised theological discourse this entails. Modern people believe that a decisive event has already taken place (the advent of modernity, the Enlightenment) and that, because of this, history is moving forward in a providential direction. This is the language of “incarnation” and the “kingdom of God” cast in a secular register.

      It’s no wonder that contemporary events have caused such pain for some. If you buy into this narrative, Brexit is not just a moment of disruption or frustration, but the collapse of a quasi-theological narrative. It would be akin to the Christian discovering that history was not in the hands of our God after all.

      • Cheers Tim,

        As a footnote Radio 4 Thought for the day (today) on hope ended with “it’ll be alright in the end”. TBH I was only half listening but I’m pretty sure. It seemed to be mere platitude.

  2. Ive found that knowledge of, for example, Revelation can have the opposite effect – because we know God will work out everything in the end, we need not worry about the present state of the environment etc. I get the impression from many of the Christians I talk to that they are not particularly concerned about climate change and their behaviour has not changed – maybe just recycle a little more, but continue to drive 2 cars, heat their homes with non-renewables etc. I suspect atheists are generally more concerned precisely because they believe this really is all there is.

    • Hi PC1,

      Yes, I agree that some Christians read the apocalyptic material of Scripture in this way. But I would suggest this is a faulty reading – and it is much to our shame. A large part of my own ministry involves talking to people along these lines.

      And yet, it may well be true that atheists or those of no faith are acting more decisively on this issue at this time. We can be greatly inspired by this, no doubt. But it is worth considering the psychological motivation that lies behind the sense of urgency displayed by many. Is this born of panic, or desperation, even of fear? Not always, but motivations like these may be traceable to the narrative we have been fed by modernity, namely, that history is “ours” and that through human efforts we can bring about its apotheosis. At the very least, Christians can testify that we are liberated by our belief in a “God of history” to act from a different motivation. That is a witness that must surely be of interest to our friends and neighbours.

      • Well undoubtedly it is at least partly out of panic and fear that atheists act concerning the environment, fear of what will happen if we dont do what is required. But it seems to me that’s reasonable as Christians have similar fears (perhaps not panic), not because God is not in control, but because human actions have a direct effect on all our lives, whether negative or positive, and noone wants unnecessary suffering. Fear is not always wholly negative but can be a motivating factor. I think we need to be honest about that.

        I am reminded of the Queen song ‘Is this the world we created?’


    • I don’t know why the atheists get so worked up, after all, according to their view , god is not in the picture , but evolution and progress are.
      A cursory glance at archeology and history tells that extinctions have happened before, that the climate has radically changed, possibly several times, eg the dinosaurs , so using their logic and world view , human progress is the result of evolution and will lead to the same outcomes of the past , thats what you get in your world without god .
      So climate change, “progress “ etc are the result of what the atheist has done, he can’t change that ,it’s cemented in his belief and actions , if the atheist truly believes there is no god , then he should accept that what is happening is inevitable and can’t be altered , not by recycling, carbon reduction , or AI , without Christ this IS your future.

  3. Thanks for this, Tim.

    That our future, better state has positive implications for the present is also found at the end of 1 Corinthians 15:
    “Therefore [in light of the resurrection and the victory of Christ], my dear brothers and sisters, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labour in the Lord is not in vain.”

  4. Thank you Tim Howles for this fine piece. I’m sure that this is a vastly important subject that should be getting far more airtime than it is, especially in churches. It’s surely true that looming climate breakdown is slowly but surely changing the narrative of assured progress, and equally true that we have mostly been doing our level best to shut our eyes and ears to it. I came to faith in the late 1970s and spent several years immersed in end-times fervour as explicated by the likes of Hal Lindsey, and then spent many more years extricating myself from it. So it now seems to me exceedingly ironic that we have a genuine apocalyptic threat looming which fundamentalist Christians by and large are in complete denial about.

    I would like to see much, much more written on a Christian response to this topic. What would you say to the view that historically Christianity is complicit in the environmental crisis, due to certain interpretations of what “having dominion” in Gen 1:26 and “subduing … the earth” in Gen 1:28 mean? I also felt that your piece ended rather abruptly, and that what the role of Christians might actually be in this period we appear to be entering would merit a part 2.

    • Thanks John, and bless you as you continue your own spiritual journey.

      I certainly agree that, for many, religion (and the Christian religion in particular) is deemed to be directly responsible for the current crisis. This argument derives from a famous article published in 1967 by the American medieval historian Lynn White entitled ‘The Historical Roots of our Ecologic Crisis’. White read the Genesis creation narratives as assigning to man the role of “master” over nature, having been granted “dominion” by God over its various forms of life. This, he argued, has caused human beings to understand themselves as elevated above the created world and hence as justified in deploying its resources at will for their own consumption. White suggested that this hegemonic attitude has manifested itself with different degrees of intensity throughout human history. But its origin is ultimately traceable to Christian doctrine. And so he concludes as follows: “we shall continue to have a worsening ecological crisis until we reject the Christian axiom that nature has no reason for existence save to serve man”.

      The argument of Lynn White is frequently cited in academic articles. And its influence on popular culture has been significant too. Many people do think of religion (and often the Christian religion) as being in some way to blame for destructive human attitudes towards the natural world.

      The argument I advance in the booklet, however, is that the culprit can be identified closer to home. It is modernity that has generated the idea that human beings are able to observe, control and deploy “nature” for their own purposes. I make the case that this goes back to a moment in the 16th century when “the natural sciences” emerged, since these depended on the idea of nature as “inert” and “mechanistic”, such that it could measured, stored, analysed and “put to work” for the great advances we all enjoy in science, engineering, technology, etc. This was a break with the medieval mind, however, where there was no split between God, nature and human beings. People believed that the operation of the natural world, including the weather and climatic conditions, was directly under the control of a sovereign God. In modernity, that link is severed. But I suggest it is simply transplanted into a secular register. Man takes over from “God” as the one in charge of the world. Hence, my point about the “arrow of time”: it is not the sovereign God, but modern man, who believes himself to be in the driving seat of history.

      With the advent of the contemporary environmental crisis, however, that relationship will have to be conceived in some other way than it has been up to now. We are in a dangerous (apocalyptic) moment. But also a propitious one… if we use it to revisit the place of humankind in the great order of things.

      Can we, as Christians, be part of that message?

      • “This was a break with the medieval mind,”

        Wasn’t Theology called “the Queen of the sciences” by, err, someone once?

        Certainly its fits the bill of understanding the world in the big context.

      • Thank you, Tim. I have a Bachelor in Environmental Management, and that is exactly the text (Lynne White) used against Christianity in the philosophy department. Virtually the sole focus of Environmental Philosophy was on portraying the Judeo-Christian tradition as the antagonist in this whole messy business.

    • The exegesis of “subdue”, “dominion”, “rule”, etc from Genesis 1-2 can be shown quite simply: see, for example, Bauckham, “The Bible and Ecology”.

  5. Aren’t we to live, and work backwards, as it were, from our Blessed Assurance, from our identity, standing, security, inheritance, from our eschatological position now, in and through Christ, but not yet fully realised?: Ephesians 1:3 – 2:10 (ESV)
    3 Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing gin the heavenly places, 4 even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love 5 he predestined us for adoption to himself as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, 6 to the praise of his glorious grace, with which he has blessed us in the Beloved. 7 In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace, 8 which he lavished upon us, in all wisdom and insight 9 making known to us the mystery of his will, according to his purpose, which he set forth in Christ 10 as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.
    11 In him we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to the purpose of him who works all things according to the counsel of his will, 12 so that we who were the first to hope in Christ might be to the praise of his glory. 13 In him you also, when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and believed in him, were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit, 14 who is the guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it,5 to the praise of his glory.
    15 For this reason, because I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love toward all the saints, 16 I do not cease to give thanks for you, remembering you in my prayers, 17 that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you the Spirit of wisdom and of revelation in the knowledge of him, 18 having the eyes of your hearts enlightened, that you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints, 19 and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power toward us who believe, according to the working of vhis great might 20 that he worked in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand yin the heavenly places, 21 far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the one to come. 22 And he put all things under his feet and gave him as head over all things to the church, 23 which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.

    2 And you were dead in the trespasses and sins 2 in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience— 3 among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind. 4 But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, 5 even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved— 6 and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, 7 so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. 8 For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; cit is the gift of God, 9 not a result of works, so that no one may boast. 10 For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.
    Social Justice Warriors, Eco-warriors, Political Systems, work forwards, to some sort of world saved- by- works utopia without God, even if they are optimistic philosophers like Steven Pinker, rather than pessimistic philosopher like John Gray, or pragmatic, materialist realists, who unwittingly are of the Ecclesiastes school of philosophy,all under the sun – there’s no meaning to life -get over it and get on building your own monuments and name for yourself.

  6. Many thanks for this excellent article, Tim. I’m in a homegroup studying Revelation at present and your reflections offer a helpfully balanced perspective on how we apply the text to our daily living.

  7. My principal concern is how Climate Change has been hijacked by the left. I recently read an article wherein it states, “”…the climate’s breakdown is a symptom of a toxic system” of colonialism, white supremacy, patriarchy, Eurocentrism, heterosexism/ heteronormativity, class hierarchy and other oppressions.” I reject the exclusive politics that comes from the Left and proponents of Critical Theory and LGBT activism. I, and others like me, are not welcome in that group. But if the left were serious about the environment on its own terms, they would lower the barriers of entry to include all people who might have similar concerns but who don’t share their extremist dogma and eschatological foreboding.

  8. Hi Simon,

    It’s hard to hijack something when the other side refuses to acknowledge its existence! And the climate’s breakdown is a symptom of larger structural ills–how could it be seen as otherwise? I’ll agree that Modernization (I’m keeping with Svetalana Boym’s argument that Modernity is a critique of Modernization) is the major culprit here, but Modernization is an idea that is linked in no small way to “free market” capitalism, and both systems are Euro-centric and have either fostered or were derived from patriarchy and white supremacy (it seems that these terms need unpacking, but this is not the venue)–is it possible to tease out all of these threads, maybe, but what’s the point because here we are at the starting gate of what looks to be very rough and dismal work and (hands in pockets) all that you can say is you would help more if the people on the other side would only share a shovel?

    Personally, I don’t care if you ever acknowledge the roots of our present condition, but I do wish that the right would stop blaming the left for “hijacking” an emergency and would just get to working. I’ve yet to see the right over here in the US even acknowledge that we have a problem.
    Our situation here is that the right passive-aggressively accuses the left of “politicizing” climate change, which lets the right just keep on muddying things up when they should be pitching their own ideas and solutions.
    And the evangelicals that I know over here don’t seem to want to be “newly inspired agents of history” as they are unconcerned with the demise of humanity because they’re all anticipating a “rapture.” Imagine! Your eschatology, your thoughts and hopes for the future, hanging on a single verse!
    Evangelicals over here voted for a president that actively denies climate change and seems to be doing his literal damnedest to speed up the process by removing regulatory processes on big business. My Republican brethren are satisfied with this quid pro quid because they get a conservative court that just may overturn Roe V Wade and (wait for it!) bring back a more conservative idea of society as the world moves quickly towards a literal hell.

    We should also be clear that some things will survive this coming extinction event; the earth and other species have gone through events like this before. The earth will repair and restore itself, but there will be a lot less humans around to see that happen. In other words, it’s going to definitely be an apocalypse for homo sapiens and many other species, but cockroaches? Not so much.


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