Don`t forget to read the Apocalypse!

Don`t forget to read the Apocalypse! That is the most important for knowing how to live well through the coming difficult days.

Mary

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  1. Are We Living in the Last Days?

    CARL E. OLSON
    The Catholic Faith 5, no. 6 (November/December 2001): 46-47.

    There has been a surge in interest in topics such as Bible prophecy and the Rapture in the last few years, largely due to the surprising success of the Left Behind series written by two devout Protestants. This article seeks to outline Catholic beliefs about the “last days,” relying on Scripture and the Catechism of the Catholic Church and to compare those teachings with the belief in the Rapture as it is found in the Left Behind books and similar works.

    aalahaye.jpg
    Have you ever had non-Catholic friends ask questions such as, “Do Catholics believe in the Rapture?” and “Why doesn’t the Catholic Church interpret the book of Revelation literally?”? Perhaps you or someone you know has read the best-selling Left Behind books and wants to know if they are “biblically sound.” Maybe you saw a televangelist explaining that Christ will come soon to Rapture Christians from earth, but you’ve never heard your priest talk about it.

    There has been a surge in interest in topics such as Bible prophecy and the Rapture in the last few years, largely due to the surprising success of the Left Behind series, co-authored by Tim Lahaye and Jerry B. Jenkins, two Fundamentalist Protestant authors.1 Many Catholics have read the books, and while some recognize that the books do not completely agree with Catholic doctrine, others assume they are compatible. Aren’t the authors devout Christians trying to spread the Gospel?2

    Given this situation, this article seeks to do two things. First, outline Catholic beliefs about the “last days,” relying on Scripture and the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Second, compare those teachings with the belief in the Rapture as it is found in the Left Behind books and similar works.

    Are we living in the “last days”?

    Are we, as many Christians believe, living in the last days? In fact, the “last days” refers not only to the “end of time,” but to the last two thousand years. Scripture teaches that the Incarnation ushered in “the last days.” According to Hebrews 1:1-2, “God, after He spoke long ago to the fathers in the prophets in many portions and in many ways, in these last days has spoken to us in His Son, whom He appointed heir of all things, through whom also He made the world.”

    At Pentecost, Peter preached that “the last days” had arrived, in fulfillment of the words of the prophet Joel: “For these men are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only the third hour of the day; but this is what was spoken of through the prophet Joel: ‘And it shall be in the last days,’ God says, that I will pour forth my spirit on all mankind . . .” (Acts 2:15-17; cf. Joel 2:28-32).

    “The last days” or “the end times,” properly understood, refers to the time of the New Covenant, the gathering together of God’s people in the Church, which is “on earth, the seed and the beginning of the kingdom” (CCC 567, 669; Lumen Gentium) . The Holy Spirit, the “soul of the Church,” has been and is being poured out, because of the redemptive work of Jesus Christ:

    The Holy Spirit is at work with the Father and the Son from the beginning to the completion of the plan for our salvation. But in these “end times,” ushered in by the Son’s redeeming Incarnation, the Spirit is revealed and given, recognized and welcomed as a person. Now can this divine plan, accomplished in Christ, the firstborn and head of the new creation, be embodied in mankind by the outpouring of the Spirit: as the Church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting (CCC 686).

    This understanding of the “last days” differs from that of those who believe in the Rapture. Catholics agree that there will definitely be an “end of time” and that history as we know it will one day be complete. But we also recognize that each of us will face the end of our time on earth, and that this should, in many ways, concern us more than the end of the world (see CCC 1007).

    Church authority and Bible prophecy

    How should we understand the Bible’s teaching on the “last days”? For Catholics, the Bible is truly the Word of God, and when the Word of God says that the Church is the Body of Christ (Ephesians 1:22-23; 5:22-33) and the “pillar and support of truth” (1 Timothy 3:15), it points to a key principle: the task of authentically interpreting Scripture belongs to the Church. And the Church has a certain structure, based on Christ’s own choosing of apostles and granting them authority: “For, of course, all that has been said about the manner of interpreting Scripture is ultimately subject to the judgment of the Church which exercises the divinely conferred commission and ministry of watching over and interpreting the Word of God (CCC 119).

    This does not mean that the Catholic Church has definitively interpreted every single passage of Scripture or that individual Catholics cannot study Scripture for themselves. On the contrary, the Church has definitively interpreted less than a dozen passages, while encouraging Catholics to read the Bible in light of the “living Tradition of the whole Church” (CCC 113).

    The issue of authority in interpreting Scripture is important because so much of what passes for “Biblical prophecy” today is really pseudo-Biblical guesswork, noteworthy for its use of sloppy methods, hazy conjecture, and overt sensationalism. Many “prophecy teachers,” especially in the last three decades, have taken passages of Scripture and applied them to current events and people with little or no regard for historical context or original meaning of the texts. This has resulted, for example, in the Antichrist being identified as the Pope, Hitler, Gorbachev, Ronald Reagan, Saddam Hussein, and other, lesser-known people.

    The puzzling and sometimes shocking images of Revelation are interpreted in clever, bizarre, and often laughable ways. The mark of the beast (Rev. 13:16-18) is seen in bar codes, credit cards, computer chips and laser beams. Most Catholics who encounter such misinterpretations usually scratch their heads and steer clear of the biblical books that deal with apocalyptic themes, Daniel and Revelation. They are content to let their non-Catholic friends battle over these confusing matters.

    This is unfortunate for a couple of reasons. First, Catholics should study all of Scripture, including difficult books such as Daniel and Revelation, because God gave it to the Church for that purpose. Second, the Catholic Church offers two thousand years of reflection and study of Scripture, resulting in a rich, balanced, and nuanced understanding of the whole Bible. If the Catholic Church has the authority that Catholics believe she possesses, then they need to take seriously her understanding of Scripture. At the very least, doing so will help them avoid the serious misunderstandings of some other Christians and will equip Catholics to discuss these misunderstandings with them.

    Defining some terms

    The Left Behind books are based on a theological system known as dispensationalism. This term refers to the belief that God works in history through a series of different epochs, or dispensations. In each of these periods, God tests man in a certain way. Man fails the test, and then God judges man. On this view, man now lives during the “Church Age,” which is so full of apostasy and error that only a remnant of “true believers” remains.

    According to dispensationalism, God is pursuing two purposes in history: one involving an earthly people (Israel) and the other, a heavenly people (the Church).3 Dispensationalists believe that when Jesus Christ came, He offered the earthly people, Israel, a physical, earthly kingdom, but that they rejected Him as their Messiah. Consequently, Jesus formed a heavenly people, the Church, who are not meant to reign here on earth, but will reign with Him in heaven.

    However, God will still fulfill the many Old Testament promises to Israel, His earthly people, because, dispensationalists insist, those promises were unconditional. When Christ founded the Church, all of those promises were “put on hold” until the heavenly people were removed from the earth in the Rapture. Since Israel has now been re-established as a nation, most dispensationalists believe that the removal of the Church via the Rapture can occur at any moment.

    The Rapture will be a secret “snatching up” of all true believers in Christ to heaven; it will be immediately followed according to most dispensationalists by seven years of Tribulation and the reign of the Antichrist. At the end of the Tribulation, Christ will come again to establish an earthly, thousand-year reign, based in Jerusalem, where a new temple (complete with animal sacrifices) will exist.4

    The dispensationalist view of the end times was developed in the 1830s by an ex-Anglican priest named John Nelson Darby, who condemned most of Christendom as apostate and worldly. Dispensationalism subsequently spread throughout the U.S., in the early 1900s, as a result of the popular Scofield Reference Bible, which incorporated dispensationalist ideas into its footnotes. In the 1970s, the doctrine was popularized through the best-selling books such as The Late Great Planet Earth by Hal Lindsey.5

    Some Catholics might dismiss these unusual beliefs as unimportant. But that would be a mistake for a number of reasons. For one thing, despite waning popularity in scholarly theological circles, dispensationalism is still a widespread belief system among Fundamentalists and many Evangelicals, even many of those who are unfamiliar with the term.

    Another reason is that the vast majority of dispensationalists are either actively opposed to, or are very suspicious of, the Catholic Church. Many of them believe the Catholic Church will play a central role in a coming one world apostate religion. In a sense, this shouldn’t surprise anyone, since the core of dispensationalism is incompatible with Catholic doctrine, even though they are compatible on some secondary issues.

    Moreover, many Catholics who leave the Church are drawn towards groups that teach dispensationalism in some form or another. The belief in the Rapture is often what attracts these straying Catholics.

    Finally, through Fundamentalist and conservative Evangelical political activity, dispensationalist ideas and interests have had a significant influence on U.S. foreign policy towards Israel and the Middle East, and on how many of these Christians view the U.S. Many Fundamentalist and Evangelical Christians are staunch allies of Israel for theological, rather than political reasons.

    Two people of God, or just one?

    Eschatology, the study of the last things, flows directly from ecclesiology, the doctrine of the Church. This explains some of the significant differences between what Catholics and many Fundamentalists believe about the end of time. While Tim Lahaye, Hal Lindsey, and other dispensationalists teach that God has two people, the Church and Israel, the Catholic Church asserts that God has always had only one people, or family, throughout history. According to Catechism, “This ‘family of God’ is gradually formed and takes shape during the stages of human history, in keeping with the Father’s plan. In fact, ‘already present in figure at the beginning of the world, this Church was prepared in marvelous fashion in the history of the people of Israel . . . . Established in this last age of the world and made manifest in the outpouring of the Spirit, it will be brought to glorious completion at the end of time'” (CCC 759).

    Therefore, the Catholic Church has always understood herself as being the New Israel (Gal. 6:16; Eph. 2:11-12) and the new People of God (1 Pet. 2:9-10), the recipients of the New Covenant given through Christ (Heb. 8:8-13). The Old Covenant was not rejected by Christ, but fulfilled and taken up into the New Covenant; it concluded with the New Covenant and is included in it. This difference between dispensationalism and Catholic doctrine is the basis for other disagreements, including those involving the Rapture and the nature of the millennium.

    (Interestingly enough, even Luther and Calvin understood the Church to be the true heir of Israel. They also would have rejected dispensationalism, which only emerged as a method of biblical interpretation in the last two hundred years or so.)

    Catholic doctrine also teaches that the Church is intimately related to the Kingdom of God. The Church is “ultimately one, holy, catholic, and apostolic in her deepest and ultimate identity, because it is in her that ‘the Kingdom of heaven,’ the ‘Reign of God,’ already exists and will be fulfilled at the end of time” (CCC 865). The Kingdom is not yet complete, but began with the Incarnation and will be fully realized at the end of time: “The kingdom of heaven was inaugurated on earth by Christ. ‘This kingdom shone out before men in the word, in the works and in the presence of Christ.’ The Church is the seed and beginning of this kingdom. Its keys are entrusted to Peter” (CCC 567). In its fullness, the Kingdom is not an earthly reign, but the final triumph of Christ over the power of sin and Satan, culminating in an eternity spent in communion with the Triune God: “The kingdom has come in the person of Christ and grows mysteriously in the hearts of those incorporated into him, until its full eschatological manifestation” (CCC 865).

    In contrast, dispensationalists believe that the Kingdom will be a thousand-year, earthly reign of Christ, known as the Millennium (from the Latin word for “thousand years”). Belief in a literal thousand-year earthly reign is called millenarianism or millennialism. It has been explicitly rejected by the Catholic Church. In 1944, the Holy Office warned against “. . . the system of mitigated Millenarianism, which teaches . . . that Christ the Lord before the final judgment, whether or not preceded by the resurrection of the many just, will come visibly to rule over this world. . . . The system of mitigated Millenarianism cannot be taught safely” (CCC 676).

    It is true that some of the early Church Fathers before the fourth century believed in an earthly, millennial reign of Christ. This belief was largely formed in reaction to Gnostics, who taught that Christ and His Kingdom had nothing to do with the physical world since, the Gnostics claimed, it was inherently evil. However, St. Augustine, writing in the late 300s and early 400s, interpreted the reference to a “thousand years” in Revelation 20 as a metaphor for the age of the Church. This would become the accepted belief of the Church, going unchallenged for many centuries. Yet the Catholic Church has never made a formal statement about what the Millennium is, although Augustine’s view has usually been accepted by Catholic theologians.6

    In addition, none of the Church Fathers believed in a secret removal of true believers prior to the Tribulation. On the contrary, they taught that the Church would undergo a period of intense tribulation prior to the Second Coming. The idea of a “secret” Rapture, developed by John Nelson Darby in the 1830s, would have been both foreign and repulsive to the early Christians, as it was bothersome to many of Darby’s Protestant allies.7

    The rapture and the second coming

    The Church tacitly rejects the “secret” Rapture based on her doctrine of the Church. It has always been Catholic teaching, of course, that Jesus Christ will physically and visibly return to earth. As we say in the Creed each week at Eucharistic Liturgy, “He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end” (cf. CCC 681-682).

    Yet from the Catholic perspective, the term rapture is problematic. On one hand, it can refer to being taken to be with Christ (1 Thess. 4:17; see CCC 1025). In fact, the term rapture comes from Jerome’s Latin translation of 1 Thes 4:17, meaning “to be caught up.” Catholics believe this will happen at the Second Coming, when our bodies are resurrected (see CCC 989-990).

    On the other hand, the term “Rapture” is, in a sense, owned and copyrighted by dispensationalists. In popular discourse, it almost always refers to a secret snatching away of “true believers,” prior to the Tribulation, and distinct from the Second Coming. Since the term Rapture is rarely used in Catholic circles, it is easy to see how confusion among Catholics might arise. But in any case the Rapture, as dispensationalists use the term, is contrary to Catholic belief.

    Israel, tribulation, and Antichrist

    Another issue is the fate of Israel. What will happen to Israel in the end? According to the Catechism, “The glorious Messiah’s coming is suspended at every moment of history until His recognition by ‘all Israel’, for ‘a hardening has come upon part of Israel’ in their ‘unbelief’ toward Jesus” (CCC 674). The Church, reflecting upon Romans 9-11, believes that Israel will somehow come to recognize Christ for who He is. Precisely how this will occur the Church has not said.

    The Church also says relatively little about the time of trial or tribulation in the final days. The Church will go through the great trial, but we do not know how long it will last. The Catechism declares, “Before Christ’s Second Coming the Church must pass through a final trial that will shake the faith of many believers. The persecution that accompanies her pilgrimage on earth will unveil the ‘mystery of iniquity’ in the form of a religious deception offering men an apparent solution to their problems at the price of apostasy from the truth” (CCC 675; also see CCC 2642).

    This time of trial will be at the start of the “last days” in the sense of the end of history: “According to the Lord, the present time is the time of the Spirit and of witness, but also a time still marked by ‘distress’ and the time of evil which does not spare the Church and ushers in the struggles of the last days. It is a time of waiting and watching” (CCC 672).

    Along with this belief in a time of future testing and trial, the Church teaches that there have been many Antichrists, but there will also be the Antichrist who leads a worldwide system of anti-Christian belief:

    . . . The supreme religious deception is that of the Antichrist, a pseudo-messianism by which man glorifies himself in place of God and of his Messiah come in the flesh. . . . The Antichrist’s deception already begins to take shape in the world every time the claim is made to realize within history that messianic hope which can only be realized beyond history through the [end times] judgment. . . . (CCC 675, 676)
    This last sentence applies to any sort of utopian scheme that ignores man’s fallen nature, the reality of sin, and man’s need for salvation through Christ.

    Interpreting the book of Revelation

    Interpretations of the book of Revelation are, undoubtedly, among the most hotly debated aspects of the Bible. The Catholic Church has not officially interpreted the difficult passages in Revelation. But various Catholic scholars have commented on them, and have debated the various interpretations.8

    There are four main approaches to the book of Revelation: futurist, preterist, historicist and idealist. Futurists believe that most or all of the book of Revelation has yet to be fulfilled; preterists say that most or all of it was fulfilled in the first century; historicists claim that events described in Revelation have been transpiring for the last two thousand years; and idealists believe that the book of Revelation is allegorical and has little or nothing to do with historical events.9

    The Catholic Church allows a wide range of interpretive possibilities, including forms of futurism, preterism, historicism and idealism. For example, a Catholic may believe the book of Revelation describes the conflict of good and evil as experienced by individual Christians or the Church (idealism), and makes prophetic utterances about events still to occur (futurism), and also refers to events that have already occurred, either in the early Church or later Church history (preterism and historicism). Catholic flexibility here is based on the fact that Scripture, inspired by God, often has different, yet complementary, meanings.

    From early times, the Church, following the examples of Christ and the Apostles (i.e., Lk 24:25-27; 1 Cor 10:1-4), understood Scripture to have different senses, a literal and a spiritual sense (CCC 115). As the Catechism explains, the spiritual sense is always rooted in the literal sense: “The literal sense is the meaning conveyed by the words of Scripture and discovered by exegesis, following the rules of sound interpretation: ‘All other senses of Sacred Scripture are based on the literal'” (CCC 116).

    A common misconception is that Catholics interpret Scripture especially the book of Revelation “symbolically,” while Evangelicals interpret it “literally.” This has often been used to explain why the Catholic Church rejects an earthly, thousand-year reign of Christ. Yet few “literalists” bother to interpret literally other images in Revelation, such as the Beast, the dragon, the locusts, and the four horsemen.

    A last word on the last days

    In conclusion, it can be seen that the Catholic Church says relatively little about future events leading up to Christ’s Second Coming. Many of her teachings are rejections (either implicit or explicit), not affirmations, of particular beliefs such as the dispensational dichotomy between the Church and Israel, the “secret” Rapture, and the earthly millennial kingdom. What she does teach is quite clear, as well as succinct: there will be a Second Coming, a time of trial which the Church must endure, an Antichrist, a conversion of Israel to Christ, a definitive judgment of all people, and the fulfillment of the Kingdom that has already begun in the Church. Within those parameters, Catholics may freely roam, search the Scriptures, and seek to better understand the Word of God.

    Endnotes

    1. The first book of the series, Left Behind: A Novel of the Earth’s Last Days, was published in 1995. Seven books have followed, with the last two, The Indwelling and The Mark, reaching the top of numerous best-sellers lists, including the New York Times, Publishers Weekly, USA Today, and Wall Street Journal. The series has now sold over 30 million copies.

    2. Some Catholics with whom I have corresponded have taken this attitude. One Catholic suggested that we focus on the positive things in the Left Behind series and how to use them to evangelize. This correspondent described it as “paranoid” to try to find anti-Catholicism in the books.

    3. Charles C. Ryrie, a leading dispensationalist of the last forty years, writes, “A dispensationalist keeps Israel and the Church distinct” (Dispensationalism Today [Chicago: Moody Press, 1965], 44). He quotes Lewis S. Chafer, another leading dispensational theologian: “The dispensationalist believes that throughout the ages God is pursuing two distinct purposes: one related to the earth with earthly people and earthly objectives involved which is Judaism; while the other is related to heaven with heavenly people and heavenly objectives involved, which is Christianity” (Dispensationalism Today, 45).

    4. This belief is held by almost all dispensationalists and is based on their interpretations of Old Testament prophecies. In his commentary Revelation Unveiled (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1999), Lahaye explains that the prophet Ezekiel “goes into great detail regarding the matter of worshipping in the Temple, even pointing out that the sacrificial systems will be reestablished. These sacrifices during the millennial Kingdom will be to the nation of Israel what the Lord’s Supper is to the Church today: a reminder of what they have been saved from. No meritorious or efficacious work will be accomplished through these sacrifices. Instead, they will remind Israel repeatedly of their crucified Messiah . . .” (Revelation Unveiled, 341). What Lahaye fails to mention is that Ezekiel never states that the sacrifices will merely be reminders this is a completely unwarranted conclusion and is inconsistent with Lahaye’s supposed “literal” interpretation of Scripture.

    5. Lindsey’s Late Great Planet Earth was the best-selling book of the 1970s, according to the New York Times. Translated into over fifty languages, it has sales of thirty-five million copies. Lindsey has authored close to twenty books and still maintains a high profile in the world of “Bible prophecy.”

    6. In writing about St. Augustine’s view of the millennium, Fr. Vincent P. Miceli, S.J. states that “The real meaning of the thousand years is that the saints are reigning at the present time with Christ in His kingdom the Church. For the Church is now, today, His kingdom” (The Antichrist [Harrison, NY: Roman Catholic Books, 1981], 74).

    7. A minority today among Fundamentalists and Evangelicals, historical premillennialists who do not agree with the dispensational distinction between Israel and the Church, but do believe there will be a literal, one thousand-year reign of Christ on earth.

    8. Highly recommended is the Navarre commentary, Revelation: Texts and Commentaries (Four Courts Press, 1992). Another solid Catholic commentary still in print is Dominican H. M. Feret’s The Apocalypse Explained (Fort Collins, CO: Roman Catholic Books, 1958). An excellent, detailed, and scholarly commentary, written by Presbyterian theologian David Chilton, is The Days of Vengeance: An Exposition of the Book of Revelation (Fort Worth, TX: Dominion Press, 1987). Chilton also wrote a shorter, more popular commentary, The Great Tribulation (Fort Worth, TX: Dominion Press, 1987).

    9. A helpful volume is Revelation: Four Views (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1997), a parallel commentary edited by Steve Gregg, an Evangelical teacher. A related work is The Meaning of the Millennium: Four Views (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1977), edited by Robert G. Clouse.

  2. APOCALYPSE NOT: HERE’S WHY YOU SHOULDN’T WORRY ABOUT END TIMES

    AUTHOR: MATT RIDLEY
    WIRED MAGAZINE
    DATE OF PUBLICATION: 08.17.12.

    THIS IS THE question posed by the website 2012apocalypse.net. “super volcanos? pestilence and disease? asteroids? comets? antichrist? global warming? nuclear war?” the site’s authors are impressively open-minded about the cause of the catastrophe that is coming at 11:11 pm on december 21 this year. but they have no doubt it will happen. after all, not only does the Mayan Long Count calendar end that day, but “the sun will be aligned with the center of the Milky Way for the first time in about 26,000 years.” Case closed: Sell your possessions and live for today.

    When the sun rises on December 22, as it surely will, do not expect apologies or even a rethink. No matter how often apocalyptic predictions fail to come true, another one soon arrives. And the prophets of apocalypse always draw a following—from the 100,000 Millerites who took to the hills in 1843, awaiting the end of the world, to the thousands who believed in Harold Camping, the Christian radio broadcaster who forecast the final rapture in both 1994 and 2011.

    Religious zealots hardly have a monopoly on apocalyptic thinking. Consider some of the environmental cataclysms that so many experts promised were inevitable. Best-selling economist Robert Heilbroner in 1974: “The outlook for man, I believe, is painful, difficult, perhaps desperate, and the hope that can be held out for his future prospects seem to be very slim indeed.” Or best-selling ecologist Paul Ehrlich in 1968: “The battle to feed all of humanity is over. In the 1970s [“and 1980s” was added in a later edition] the world will undergo famines—hundreds of millions of people are going to starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked on now … nothing can prevent a substantial increase in the world death rate.” Or Jimmy Carter in a televised speech in 1977: “We could use up all of the proven reserves of oil in the entire world by the end of the next decade.”

    Predictions of global famine and the end of oil in the 1970s proved just as wrong as end-of-the-world forecasts from millennialist priests. Yet there is no sign that experts are becoming more cautious about apocalyptic promises. If anything, the rhetoric has ramped up in recent years. Echoing the Mayan calendar folk, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists moved its Doomsday Clock one minute closer to midnight at the start of 2012, commenting: “The global community may be near a point of no return in efforts to prevent catastrophe from changes in Earth’s atmosphere.”

    Over the five decades since the success of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring in 1962 and the four decades since the success of the Club of Rome’s The Limits to Growth in 1972, prophecies of doom on a colossal scale have become routine. Indeed, we seem to crave ever-more-frightening predictions—we are now, in writer Gary Alexander’s word, apocaholic. The past half century has brought us warnings of population explosions, global famines, plagues, water wars, oil exhaustion, mineral shortages, falling sperm counts, thinning ozone, acidifying rain, nuclear winters, Y2K bugs, mad cow epidemics, killer bees, sex-change fish, cell-phone-induced brain-cancer epidemics, and climate catastrophes.

    So far all of these specters have turned out to be exaggerated. True, we have encountered obstacles, public-health emergencies, and even mass tragedies. But the promised Armageddons—the thresholds that cannot be uncrossed, the tipping points that cannot be untipped, the existential threats to Life as We Know It—have consistently failed to materialize. To see the full depth of our apocaholism, and to understand why we keep getting it so wrong, we need to consult the past 50 years of history.

    The classic apocalypse has four horsemen, and our modern version follows that pattern, with the four riders being chemicals (DDT, CFCs, acid rain), diseases (bird flu, swine flu, SARS, AIDS, Ebola, mad cow disease), people (population, famine), and resources (oil, metals). Let’s visit them each in turn.

    The First Horseman: Chemicals
    Silent Spring, published 50 years ago this year, was instrumental in the emergence of modern environmentalism. “Without this book, the environmental movement might have been long delayed or never have developed at all,” Al Gore wrote in his introduction to the 1994 edition. Carson’s main theme was that the use of synthetic pesticides—DDT in particular—was causing not only a massacre of wildlife but an epidemic of cancer in human beings. One of her chief inspirations and sources for the book was Wilhelm Hueper, the first director of the environmental arm of the National Cancer Institute. So obsessed was Hueper with his notion that pesticides and other synthetic chemicals were causing cancers (and that industry was covering this up) that he strenuously opposed the suggestion that tobacco-smoking take any blame. Hueper wrote in a 1955 paper called “Lung Cancers and Their Causes,” published in CA: A Cancer Journal for Clinicians, “Industrial or industry-related atmospheric pollutants are to a great part responsible for the causation of lung cancer … cigarette smoking is not a major factor in the causation of lung cancer.”

    In fact, of course, the link between smoking and lung cancer was found to be ironclad. But the link between modern chemicals and cancer is sketchy at best. Even DDT, which clearly does pose health risks to those unsafely exposed, has never been definitively linked to cancer. In general, cancer incidence and death rates, when corrected for the average age of the population, have been falling now for 20 years.

    By the 1970s the focus of chemical concern had shifted to air pollution. Life magazine set the scene in January 1970: “Scientists have solid experimental and theoretical evidence to support … the following predictions: In a decade, urban dwellers will have to wear gas masks to survive air pollution … by 1985 air pollution will have reduced the amount of sunlight reaching earth by one half.” Instead, driven partly by regulation and partly by innovation, both of which dramatically cut the pollution coming from car exhaust and smokestacks, ambient air quality improved dramatically in many cities in the developed world over the following few decades. Levels of carbon monoxide, sulphur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, lead, ozone, and volatile organic compounds fell and continue to fall.

    In the 1980s it was acid rain’s turn to be the source of apocalyptic forecasts. In this case it was nature in the form of forests and lakes that would bear the brunt of human pollution. The issue caught fire in Germany, where a cover story in the news magazine Der Spiegel in November 1981 screamed: “THE FOREST DIES.” Not to be outdone, Stern magazine declared that a third of Germany’s forests were already dead or dying. Bernhard Ulrich, a soil scientist at the University of Göttingen, said it was already too late for the country’s forests: “They cannot be saved.” Forest death, or waldsterben, became a huge story across Europe. “The forests and lakes are dying. Already the damage may be irreversible,” journalist Fred Pearce wrote in New Scientist in 1982. It was much the same in North America: Half of all US lakes were said to be becoming dangerously acidified, and forests from Virginia to central Canada were thought to be suffering mass die-offs of trees.

    Conventional wisdom has it that this fate was averted by prompt legislative action to reduce sulphur dioxide emissions from power plants. That account is largely false. There was no net loss of forest in the 1980s to reverse. In the US, a 10-year government-sponsored study involving some 700 scientists and costing about $500 million reported in 1990 that “there is no evidence of a general or unusual decline of forests in the United States and Canada due to acid rain” and “there is no case of forest decline in which acidic deposition is known to be a predominant cause.” In Germany, Heinrich Spiecker, director of the Institute for Forest Growth, was commissioned by a Finnish forestry organization to assess the health of European forests. He concluded that they were growing faster and healthier than ever and had been improving throughout the 1980s. “Since we began measuring the forest more than 100 years ago, there’s never been a higher volume of wood … than there is now,” Spiecker said. (Ironically, one of the chief ingredients of acid rain—nitrogen oxide—breaks down naturally to become nitrate, a fertilizer for trees.) As for lakes, it turned out that their rising acidity was likely caused more by reforestation than by acid rain; one study suggested that the correlation between acidity in rainwater and the pH in the lakes was very low. The story of acid rain is not of catastrophe averted but of a minor environmental nuisance somewhat abated.

    The threat to the ozone layer came next. In the 1970s scientists discovered a decline in the concentration of ozone over Antarctica during several springs, and the Armageddon megaphone was dusted off yet again. The blame was pinned on chlorofluorocarbons, used in refrigerators and aerosol cans, reacting with sunlight. The disappearance of frogs and an alleged rise of melanoma in people were both attributed to ozone depletion. So too was a supposed rash of blindness in animals: Al Gore wrote in 1992 about blind salmon and rabbits, while The New York Times reported “an increase in Twilight Zone-type reports of sheep and rabbits with cataracts” in Patagonia. But all these accounts proved incorrect. The frogs were dying of a fungal disease spread by people; the sheep had viral pinkeye; the mortality rate from melanoma actually leveled off during the growth of the ozone hole; and as for the blind salmon and rabbits, they were never heard of again.

    There was an international agreement to cease using CFCs by 1996. But the predicted recovery of the ozone layer never happened: The hole stopped growing before the ban took effect, then failed to shrink afterward. The ozone hole still grows every Antarctic spring, to roughly the same extent each year. Nobody quite knows why. Some scientists think it is simply taking longer than expected for the chemicals to disintegrate; a few believe that the cause of the hole was misdiagnosed in the first place. Either way, the ozone hole cannot yet be claimed as a looming catastrophe, let alone one averted by political action.

    The Second Horseman: Disease
    Repeatedly throughout the past five decades, the imminent advent of a new pandemic has been foretold. The 1976 swine flu panic was an early case. Following the death of a single recruit at Fort Dix, the Ford administration vaccinated more than 40 million Americans, but more people probably died from adverse reactions to the vaccine than died of swine flu.

    A few years later, a fatal virus did begin to spread at an alarming rate, initially through the homosexual community. AIDS was soon, rightly, the focus of serious alarm. But not all the dire predictions proved correct. “Research studies now project that one in five—listen to me, hard to believe—one in five heterosexuals could be dead from AIDS at the end of the next three years. That’s by 1990. One in five,” Oprah Winfrey warned in 1987.

    Bad as AIDS was, the broad-based epidemic in the Americas, Europe, and Asia never materialized as feared, though it did in Africa. In 2000 the US National Intelligence Council predicted that HIV/AIDS would worsen in the developing world for at least 10 years and was “likely to aggravate and, in some cases, may even provoke economic decay, social fragmentation and political destabilization in the hardest hit countries in the developing and former communist worlds.”

    Yet the peak of the epidemic had already passed in the late 1990s, and today AIDS is in slow retreat throughout the world. New infections were 20 percent lower in 2010 than in 1997, and the lives of more than 2.5 million people have been saved since 1995 by antiretroviral treatment. “Just a few years ago, talking about ending the AIDS epidemic in the near term seemed impossible, but science, political support, and community responses are starting to deliver clear and tangible results,” UNAIDS executive director Michel Sidibé wrote last year.

    The emergence of AIDS led to a theory that other viruses would spring from tropical rain forests to wreak revenge on humankind for its ecological sins. That, at least, was the implication of Laurie Garrett’s 1994 book, The Coming Plague: Newly Emerging Diseases in a World Out of Balance. The most prominent candidate was Ebola, the hemorrhagic fever that starred in Richard Preston’s The Hot Zone, published the same year. Writer Stephen King called the book “one of the most horrifying things I’ve ever read.” Right on cue, Ebola appeared again in the Congo in 1995, but it soon disappeared. Far from being a harbinger, HIV was the only new tropical virus to go pandemic in 50 years.

    In the 1980s British cattle began dying from mad cow disease, caused by an infectious agent in feed that was derived from the remains of other cows. When people, too, began to catch this disease, predictions of the scale of the epidemic quickly turned terrifying: Up to 136,000 would die, according to one study. A pathologist warned that the British “have to prepare for perhaps thousands, tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands, of cases of vCJD [new variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, the human manifestation of mad cow] coming down the line.” Yet the total number of deaths so far in the UK has been 176, with just five occurring in 2011 and none so far in 2012.

    In 2003 it was SARS, a virus from civet cats, that ineffectively but inconveniently led to quarantines in Beijing and Toronto amid predictions of global Armageddon. SARS subsided within a year, after killing just 774 people. In 2005 it was bird flu, described at the time by a United Nations official as being “like a combination of global warming and HIV/AIDS 10 times faster than it’s running at the moment.” The World Health Organization’s official forecast was 2 million to 7.4 million dead. In fact, by late 2007, when the disease petered out, the death toll was roughly 200. In 2009 it was Mexican swine flu. WHO director general Margaret Chan said: “It really is all of humanity that is under threat during a pandemic.” The outbreak proved to be a normal flu episode.

    The truth is, a new global pandemic is growing less likely, not more. Mass migration to cities means the opportunity for viruses to jump from wildlife to the human species has not risen and has possibly even declined, despite media hype to the contrary. Water- and insect-borne infections—generally the most lethal—are declining as living standards slowly improve. It’s true that casual-contact infections such as colds are thriving—but only by being mild enough that their victims can soldier on with work and social engagements, thereby allowing the virus to spread. Even if a lethal virus does go global, the ability of medical science to sequence its genome and devise a vaccine or cure is getting better all the time.

    The Third Horseman: People
    Of all the cataclysmic threats to human civilization envisaged in the past 50 years, none has drawn such hyperbolic language as people themselves. “Human beings are a disease, a cancer of this planet,” says Agent Smith in the film The Matrix. Such rhetoric echoes real-life activists like Paul Watson of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society: “We need to radically and intelligently reduce human populations to fewer than one billion … Curing a body of cancer requires radical and invasive therapy, and therefore, curing the biosphere of the human virus will also require a radical and invasive approach.”

    On a “stinking hot” evening in a taxi in Delhi in 1966, as Paul Ehrlich wrote in his best seller, The Population Bomb, “the streets seemed alive with people. People eating, people washing, people sleeping. People visiting, arguing, and screaming. People thrusting their hands through the taxi window, begging. People defecating and urinating. People clinging to buses. People herding animals. People, people, people, people.” Ehrlich’s conclusion was bleak: “The train of events leading to the dissolution of India as a viable nation” was already in progress. And other experts agreed. “It is already too late to avoid mass starvation,” said Denis Hayes, organizer of the first Earth Day in 1970. Sending food to India was a mistake and only postponed the inevitable, William and Paul Paddock wrote in their best seller, Famine—1975!

    What actually happened was quite different. The death rate fell. Famine became rarer. The population growth rate was cut in half, thanks chiefly to the fact that as babies stop dying, people stop having so many of them. Over the past 50 years, worldwide food production per capita has risen, even as the global population has doubled. Indeed, so successful have farmers been at increasing production that food prices fell to record lows in the early 2000s and large parts of western Europe and North America have been reclaimed by forest. (A policy of turning some of the world’s grain into motor fuel has reversed some of that decline and driven prices back up.)

    Meanwhile, family size continues to shrink on every continent. The world population will probably never double again, whereas it quadrupled in the 20th century. With improvements in seeds, fertilizers, pesticides, transport, and irrigation still spreading across Africa, the world may well feed 9 billion inhabitants in 2050—and from fewer acres than it now uses to feed 7 billion.

    The Fourth Horseman: Resources
    In 1977 President Jimmy Carter went on television and declared: “World oil production can probably keep going up for another six or eight years. But sometime in the 1980s, it can’t go up anymore. Demand will overtake production.” He was not alone in this view. The end of oil and gas had been predicted repeatedly throughout the 20th century. In 1922 President Warren Harding created the US Coal Commission, which undertook an 11-month survey that warned, “Already the output of [natural] gas has begun to wane. Production of oil cannot long maintain its present rate.” In 1956, M. King Hubbert, a Shell geophysicist, forecast that gas production in the US would peak at about 14 trillion cubic feet per year sometime around 1970.

    All these predictions failed to come true. Oil and gas production have continued to rise during the past 50 years. Gas reserves took an enormous leap upward after 2007, as engineers learned how to exploit abundant shale gas. In 2011 the International Energy Agency estimated that global gas resources would last 250 years. Although it seems likely that cheap sources of oil may indeed start to peter out in coming decades, gigantic quantities of shale oil and oil sands will remain available, at least at a price. Once again, obstacles have materialized, but the apocalypse has not. Ever since Thomas Robert Malthus, doomsayers have tended to underestimate the power of innovation. In reality, driven by price increases, people simply developed new technologies, such as the horizontal drilling technique that has helped us extract more oil from shale.

    It was not just energy but metals too that were supposed to run out. In 1970 Harrison Brown, a member of the National Academy of Sciences, forecast in Scientific American that lead, zinc, tin, gold, and silver would all be gone by 1990. The best-selling book The Limits to Growth was published 40 years ago by the Club of Rome, a committee of prominent environmentalists with a penchant for meeting in Italy. The book forecast that if use continued to accelerate exponentially, world reserves of several metals could run out by 1992 and help precipitate a collapse of civilization and population in the subsequent century, when people no longer had the raw materials to make machinery. These claims were soon being repeated in schoolbooks. “Some scientists estimate that the world’s known supplies of oil, tin, copper, and aluminum will be used up within your lifetime,” one read. In fact, as the results of a famous wager between Paul Ehrlich and economist Julian Simon later documented, the metals did not run out. Indeed, they grew cheaper. Ehrlich, who claimed he had been “goaded” into the bet, growled, “The one thing we’ll never run out of is imbeciles.”

    Over the past half century, none of our threatened eco-pocalypses have played out as predicted. Some came partly true; some were averted by action; some were wholly chimerical. This raises a question that many find discomforting: With a track record like this, why should people accept the cataclysmic claims now being made about climate change? After all, 2012 marks the apocalyptic deadline of not just the Mayans but also a prominent figure in our own time: Rajendra Pachauri, head of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, who said in 2007 that “if there’s no action before 2012, that’s too late … This is the defining moment.”

    So, should we worry or not about the warming climate? It is far too binary a question. The lesson of failed past predictions of ecological apocalypse is not that nothing was happening but that the middle-ground possibilities were too frequently excluded from consideration. In the climate debate, we hear a lot from those who think disaster is inexorable if not inevitable, and a lot from those who think it is all a hoax. We hardly ever allow the moderate “lukewarmers” a voice: those who suspect that the net positive feedbacks from water vapor in the atmosphere are low, so that we face only 1 to 2 degrees Celsius of warming this century; that the Greenland ice sheet may melt but no faster than its current rate of less than 1 percent per century; that net increases in rainfall (and carbon dioxide concentration) may improve agricultural productivity; that ecosystems have survived sudden temperature lurches before; and that adaptation to gradual change may be both cheaper and less ecologically damaging than a rapid and brutal decision to give up fossil fuels cold turkey.

    We’ve already seen some evidence that humans can forestall warming-related catastrophes. A good example is malaria, which was once widely predicted to get worse as a result of climate change. Yet in the 20th century, malaria retreated from large parts of the world, including North America and Russia, even as the world warmed. Malaria-specific mortality plummeted in the first decade of the current century by an astonishing 25 percent. The weather may well have grown more hospitable to mosquitoes during that time. But any effects of warming were more than counteracted by pesticides, new antimalarial drugs, better drainage, and economic development. Experts such as Peter Gething at Oxford argue that these trends will continue, whatever the weather.

    Just as policy can make the climate crisis worse—mandating biofuels has not only encouraged rain forest destruction, releasing carbon, but driven millions into poverty and hunger—technology can make it better. If plant breeders boost rice yields, then people may get richer and afford better protection against extreme weather. If nuclear engineers make fusion (or thorium fission) cost-effective, then carbon emissions may suddenly fall. If gas replaces coal because of horizontal drilling, then carbon emissions may rise more slowly. Humanity is a fast-moving target. We will combat our ecological threats in the future by innovating to meet them as they arise, not through the mass fear stoked by worst-case scenarios.

    Matt Ridley (rationaloptimist.com) is a columnist for The Wall Street Journal and the author, most recently, of The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves.

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