Afficionados of Larry Norman will know that the line from I wish we’d all been ready continues, “A piece of bread would buy a bag of gold.” The reference is to the days after the supposed ‘Rapture’: “The Son has come, and you’ve been left behind,” is the ‘punch-line’ to the song. The idea is that in the days before the Tribulation (with a capital ‘T’) the condition of the world would become worse and worse, until the Christians were finally removed, leaving the planet to its own, or rather Satan’s, devices.
This is a concept with which I have very little theological sympathy. I think that the notion of the Rapture is based on a misreading of a Scriptural image (specifically, 1 Thess 3:17). In that sense, I am a classic amillennialist. But, perhaps controversially, I am not one of those who believes that Christ could return ‘at any moment’. It seems to me that the argument of 2 Thess 2:1-11 (“that day will not come until the rebellion occurs and the man of lawlessness is revealed”, v3) depends on their being certain discernible events taking place before the Second Coming of our Lord.
Less controversially (maybe), it also seems clear to me in the Scripture that Christians will not be preserved from the world’s sufferings before the End. The bad news, from that point of view, is that we will have to stick around.
Back in the realms of controversy, however, I am entirely unconvinced by the Post-millennial scenario expressed in one of my favourite Christmas songs, “It can upon a midnight clear,” with its reference to the “age of gold” which will come round “with the ever circling years.” It is a wonderful idea with a long pedigree, that the Church will prove triumphant and, through the gospel, bring an age of peace and prosperity, but again I do not believe it fits the Scriptural evidence. Rather, the evidence points (I am persuaded) to increasing difficulties and a final outbreak of rebellious evil.
At the same time, I am aware that previous generations which thought they were living in the end ‘end times’ have all been wrong, whether they were the pessimists of medieval millenarianism or the optimists of the nineteenth century Student Volunteer Movement with its slogan of “the evangelization of the world in this generation.” History teaches us caution. Yet I cannot help feeling a certain resonance between Norman’s angst and what appears to be coming towards us just over the horizon.
The immediate cause of these musings is an article I came across by a gold analyst (here as a pdf), warning of the potential danger of hyperinflation. I am not an economist, and am therefore not in a position to judge his prescience, but I know a Christian who is, and he is making exactly the same prediction for similar reasons, namely that far from being almost out of the recession caused by the credit crunch we are about to have our ‘swine ’flu’ moment as a second wave of problems hits us in the form of runaway inflation.
The heart of it is that the First and Second worlds have accumulated debts which make Third world debt a thing of, if not indifference, certainly insignificance in terms of the global economy. The Christian’s view is that the measures taken by Western governments have done the trick and saved the economy from simply going ‘pop’. However, they have done it because governments have an advantage with regard to debt which is not possessed by the ordinary citizen and it is called ‘the printing press’. That is to say, governments can create money. The posh name for this, as most people know, is quantitative easing. The Analyst and the Christian both agree that the way governments have been buying their own bonds has averted the immediate disaster. But they both also agree that this still has to be ‘paid’ for.
Who, then, will pay? The answer (because there is no-one else) is that we will. In the immediate short-term it may be by the traditional method of taxation, for the other thing governments can do which ordinary citizens cannot is to raise revenue from ordinary citizens. In the long term, however, we will pay by massive (perhaps hyper) inflation. If multiple trillions of dollars (that is $N,000,000,000,000) are ‘owed’ —and they are —then somehow the debt has to be reduced. The good news is that you can do this by printing money. The bad news is that printing money is inflationary. The very bad news is that an awful lot of money is going to have to be printed. The good news —maybe, if I’ve understood this correctly —is that when the £20 note in your pocket is actually a £20,000 note, that debt mountain has just had a useful number of zeros knocked off its effective ‘value’.
All this, however, brings me to two questions —or rather one question with two aspects, and it is this: are we, the Christian church, ready? Readers will not be surprised to hear that I think we are not. On the one hand, we seem to be saying nothing, and to have nothing to say, about the current economic situation, beyond an easy criticism of ‘the greed of the bankers’. Yet we could just as easily criticize ‘the greed of the man in the street’, for all that debt, whether amassed by governments or corporations, is allowing us all to live beyond our means, right down to the level of ‘schools and hospitals’ so beloved by our political leaders.
As the Analyst points out, we have already had one scary foretaste of what the future will hold with the spike in basic food prices, especially rice, that occurred in 2008. The difference next time is that whereas previously the impact of such ‘spikes’ was absorbed by people in the Far East doing without, next time they will have the economic clout to compete, and the pinch will be felt here. The indebtedness of our societies puts us in an increasingly poor position (in every sense) as global economic competitors, and the balance of economic power is undoubtedly shifting to China and India.
The Western church, at least, seems to have nothing to say, just when a ‘prophetic’ voice might actually come in handy. We could, for example, be denouncing First and Second world debt, or warning about the credit-card culture, but we are not. Instead, we are paralysed by the headlights.
But the Church also seems unready for the spiritual challenges this implies and entails, for (as history again shows) economic hard times bring with them spiritual risk. This may not be the time before the End Times, but it certainly provides the opportunity for spiritual forces which have been at work throughout history to manifest themselves in ways which will be simultaneously both deeply attractive to the mass of humanity and deeply inimical to God’s people.
I am constantly reminded of the verses from Revelation 13 which express, I believe, not so much a prediction as a recurring theme of history: “He [that is the second beast who is the ‘false prophet’, 19:20] also forced everyone, small and great, rich and poor, free and slave, to receive a mark on his right hand or on his forehead, so that no one could buy or sell unless he had the mark, which is the name of the beast or the number of his name.”
Who, in 2009, could imagine the free countries of the West succumbing to a system of economic dictatorship? Yet who in 1950s England could imagine a London bus ticket costing over a pound? And who, in early Weimar Germany, would have imagined Christians would be unsure how to respond to a man who offered them economic security and a glorious future at the price of complete obedience?
Revd John P RichardsonAnonymous users wishing to paste in the comments box need first to select the 'Anonymous' profile, then type in a couple of letters, select 'preview', then close the preview box and delete these letters.
6 October 2009
6 October 2009
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