Let it be said first off that I am a last days cynic. It’s not that I think many current ideas of apocalypticism are weird (I mean, I don’t just think they’re weird). I just really hate them. This is likely partly due to growing up in the 90’s right when apocalyptic fervor was still enjoying a level of mass popularity that put it up in the doctrinal hierarchy somewhere in between the Resurrection and not committing murder. I vividly remember sitting in seminary and Institute and Sunday School classes brooding, teenage-like, as I listened to lesson after lesson about all the cruelty and abuse and carnage hanging like a sword over our heads that was going to fall any moment now and there was nothing you could do about it except get food storage. (How food storage was going to help protect us from the nuclear war which was apparently imminent I did not know, but it seemed to make sense to people.) Since this was a time in my life that I was in desperately profound need of hope and comfort, hearing that God was going to unleash terror unlike anything the world had ever known but that it was for our own good was, needless to say, not super faith instilling.
This got to the point that by the time I was an adult I had shut my eyes and ears to the last days. My heart was hardened in layers of calcified apocalyptic angst. The thought of a pantry full of dehydrated food failed to move me. I felt no fervor to build up an arsenal of assorted weaponry to protect my house against my selfish neighbors who were, apparently, going to attempt to plunder it. I rolled my eyes at warnings of Russian or Chinese or North Korean invasions. I folded my arms and pursed my lips in defiance whenever a lesson turned to the last days, gleefully reminding everyone about all of the people throughout history who were convinced that the signs proved that they were living in the end times, and yet, here we all still were. I became, in short, an apocalyptic heretic. (I have to confess, however, my mind did change pretty quickly in March regarding the practicality of emergency preparedness when I realized that any satisfaction I might feel in screaming out to the universe that I live by my principles as I sat on a toilet with no toilet paper in sight was going to be fairly limited.)
Maybe weirdly, however, I love ancient apocalyptic texts. But not because they hold some fatalistic key that used just the right way unfolds exactly how the last days are going to go down. (For all you preppers out there, I’m not saying they don’t, that’s just not what I like about them.) Apocalyptic texts are the stories of regenesis. Of resurrection. Of life that comes through death. In this sense I see the Book of Mormon as an apocalyptic text. Because the Book of Mormon is the story of the end of the world. I don’t just mean The End of the World—Angels of death and famine and blood and kingdoms tumbling to dust and the whole wrapping up ordeal. The Book of Mormon is the story of the end of the world as its authors knew it. The end of the world as they knew it for a wealthy Jerusalemite family separated from their home and friends and stability and family peace forever. The end of the world as he knew it for a priest who spent his money on alcohol and idols and prostitutes and his life exploiting the poor and encouraging wickedness in his people. The end of the world as he knew it for an anti-Christ who only changed when he was threatened with death and realized for the first time what that would really mean. The end of the world as they knew it for a King and Queen to whom it had never occurred that it was wrong to kill others for their mistakes. The end of the world for a general who had given his entire life to serving and protecting his people, only for them to throw it away. The end of the world for a prophet who couldn’t keep from teaching the people who hated him, and was burned alive for it. The Book of Mormon is full of endings; it even begins with one. Nephi is shown, before he has even had the chance to write a single word of his story, how his people’s world will end in spiritual death and systematic genocide. From its very genesis the story lives in the shadow of its ending.
But the ending also takes place in the hope of its beginning. Yes, the world of the Nephites has ended, but its end signals the future covenants for the Lamanites, as promised in the earliest pages. The world the Nephites left behind in text would someday give birth to the promises of God for their family who remained. For each ending in the story a seed is planted for a new beginning born from the loss. From Nephi to Abish, Ammon to Moroni, the text is rich in its account of loss and endings, but each time something ends a person, a community, a nation, someone somewhere is reborn in the realization that that loss is a beginning for something new, and something better. Usually the something better is not quiet and peace and comfort. Usually the new world is much, so, so much harder in some ways than the world that ended. Neither Almas went home to spend the rest of their lives reading by the fire. The Ammonites were not left in peace to worship according to their conscience. Lehi and Sariah’s family never did find real security again. But their new world, while laden with challenge and responsibility, is rich with meaning; it is lasting.
The Book of Mormon is the description of how to let one world end so that another may begin. It is the account of how life is born out of death, and meaning out of loss. Importantly, however, it is not from the perspective of the ascetic who would use such teachings as reason to separate from the world that must eventually end. Quite the reverse, the Book of Mormon endings are the endings of those worlds where people are cut off from each other, into a new world of deep engagement and boundless love.
I make no attempt to suggest I know how the world will end. Obviously someday it will. Perhaps it will be in the worst-case scenarios as propounded in countless books, movies, and Sunday School lessons (during which time I will doubtless hear “I told you so” from a great many people, assuming I don’t go out in the first wave which seems likely). Perhaps it will be as Jesus taught, quietly sneaking up on us on a day just like any other. What I do believe in is the revelations of the world in which our Heavenly Parents live, and which we are invited to live in now. But to do so means we must let the world of hierarchical posturing and envy and accumulation and zero-sum gaming come to an end in us. We have to experience our own apocalypse. With our Heavenly Parents as our guides, the endings we undergo will be seeds giving birth to something new and enduring; and by their grace that growth can happen in us now. The ending of the world as we know it can give birth to a new world of hope, where we need not live in constant fear of loss—and being unafraid of losing what we have, we can be free to truly see and care for the world around us instead of merely protecting our ownership of it and place within it. Living the way the gospel teaches, when the world does finally end, it will be but another seed in a series of those already planted with our Heavenly Parents; and the new world we see will be, not a terrifying ending of the loss of all the things we gave up our lives to pursue, but rather the final revelation of the world which has already been living in us. The final revelation of the home which it turns out we were already helping to build.