01/17/2012 11:50 am ET Updated Mar 18, 2012

What Are Christians Talking About When We Talk About The End Of The World?

According to some commentators on the ancient Mayan calendar, we have until the end of this year to enjoy the world, because it will be wiped out on December 21. On that day, an epochal cycle will conclude and a catastrophic event or sequence of events will destroy the earth. This is an idea that has been stewing for some time. (A Hollywood doom-fest depicting all of this was released back in 2009.)

Why are we so fascinated by prophecies of our destruction? Feeling that we know what lies ahead of us -- even if what is coming is unpleasant -- allows us to read meaning into our lives. It also gives us a sense of security, control and stability.

Certainly, the Bible is shot through with apocalyptic scenarios. There are elaborate visions of the "last days," the sky rolling up like a scroll, the destruction of the world by fire, the reward of the righteous and the eternal punishment of the unjust. Jesus is depicted in the Gospels as preaching the imminent end of the world. Paul's letters indicate he taught the same.

But is this the whole story? Is annihilation the only way to understand "the end" biblically?

Zen Buddhists sometimes speak of two ways of reaching enlightenment. One way is through a quick, immediate, earth-shattering insight that completely revises everything the devotee thought he or she knew, replacing it with a totally different perspective. In a flash, the old person is wiped out. The other way is through gradual transformation, as insight builds slowly over time and nearly imperceptible changes take place within the practitioner, bringing him or her closer toward enlightenment by degrees.

Biblical ideas about "the end" seem to be like this, too. As in the first way to Buddhist enlightenment, there are in the Bible depictions of a cataclysmic and unexpected end of the world -- sudden plagues and natural disasters, a final battle between the forces of Christ and Satan, an end of the world that comes "like a thief in the night." The texts in this category reflect the yearnings of a people living under severe oppression for God to intervene, to destroy the current evil world, usher the faithful into God's presence, and condemn the oppressors to eternal torment. It is a plea for ultimate justice in the face of brutality, suffering, and evil.

But there is another set of images for the end in the Bible, one that shares an affinity with the second path to enlightenment. Instead of describing destruction, it speaks of newness. Instead of annihilation, it envisions transformation. Instead of condemnation, it celebrates reconciliation. This is the biblical vision of "the end" that describes lions lying down with lambs, the beating of spears into plowshares, the wiping away of tears, a river of life, and a tree with leaves "for the healing of the nations." According to this view, the apostle Paul says, the evils of the world as we know it are like the labor pains of a creation about to give birth to a new reality, a reality in which God will be all-in-all. Jesus referred to this reality as the Kingdom of God.

It was this coming Kingdom that was the heart and soul of Jesus' entire mission and the content of his preaching. To approach that Kingdom of peace and justice is to work with God, slowly and over time and always in a halting and imperfect way, to bring about this vision of the end of the world--an end to the way the world is now, but not an end to the world itself, in order for God's ultimate promise of the Kingdom to come ever closer. So really, the two ways in which the Bible envisions "the end" can actually be understood as two sides of one coin, the annihilation images pointing toward the deeper promise of a new reality slowly emerging in God's own time.

Will 2012 be the year that the world ends? A biblical view would seem to suggest it won't be. And why, after all, would God destroy a world that God loves, a world full of lives, each and every one of which is precious to God? However, 2012 could find us one step closer to the end of the world as it is now, one step closer toward God's Kingdom of justice, peace, and love. Whether that end -- that new beginning -- takes place or not has nothing to do with any civilization's calendar. It has everything to do with the kind of end we choose to imagine. And it has everything to do with how we decide to live our lives in light of it.