Flirting With Disaster: Why We Find The End of the World Fascinating

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It’s the End of The World As We Know It, And I Feel Fine!

You’re driving along, and either R.E.M.’s It’s The End Of The World or Molly Hatchet’s Flirtin’ With Disaster is playing on the radio. Traffic ahead of you suddenly slows to a crawl. There was a car accident. Yes, emergency personnel are slowing people down. Highway patrol is blocking off one or more lanes while they work. But that isn’t the only thing delaying you. Morbid curiosity is in the mix. Everyone ahead of you is trying to get a good peek as they pass the wreckage. Do you also strain to look as you get closer? Yes, of course you do. Everyone does.

The same thing plays out on a much larger scale all over the country and all over the world every time a headline on the internet, TV, radio, or in print spells out disaster. Whether large or small, real or imagined, described in recent hindsight or in speculative forecasting – danger and destruction gets our attention.

For instance, a rather apocalyptic article got mine last week when it popped up in my newsfeed on Facebook. Published in The New Yorker, shared by a friend of mine from Ohio who loves geology, the title caught my eye: The Really Big One – The Earthquake That Will Devastate the Pacific Northwest. My imagination was provoked as I thought about friends and family living in California and Oregon who would certainly be in the path of such a disaster, as well as the economic, social, and political ripple effects such a large-scale event would cause far beyond the West Coast, including in Eastern Montana – my neck of the woods. Wanting to get more details, I clicked the link and read the article.

Besides the specific scientific predictions laid out in the piece, which were all very serious and interesting, one paragraph toward the end caught my special attention:

“This problem is bidirectional. The Cascadia subduction zone remained hidden from us for so long because we could not see deep enough into the past. It poses a danger to us today because we have not thought deeply enough about the future. That is no longer a problem of information; we now understand very well what the Cascadia fault line will someday do. Nor is it a problem of imagination. If you are so inclined, you can watch an earthquake destroy much of the West Coast this summer in Brad Peyton’s “San Andreas,” while, in neighboring theatres, the world threatens to succumb to Armageddon by other means: viruses, robots, resource scarcity, zombies, aliens, plague. As those movies attest, we excel at imagining future scenarios, including awful ones. But such apocalyptic visions are a form of escapism, not a moral summons, and still less a plan of action. Where we stumble is in conjuring up grim futures in a way that helps to avert them.”

In other words, we like to watch TV shows and movies about the end of the world as we know it, but that doesn’t mean we’re any better prepared for it physically as a result of watching. And why is that? According to Kathryn Schulz, the author of The New Yorker piece I just quoted, it’s because we don’t take fictional portrayals of disaster seriously. Instead of using them to fuel a preparedness to face the reality that may come, we all too often trivialize them as an escape from our real lives, and subsequently dismiss them once we’ve had our fun.

Is that really true, though? I can only answer that question for myself. Whatever the many reasons that drive you or others to slow while passing the wreckage of a car accident, read articles in The New Yorker about devastating earthquakes, or watch movies about the end of the world as we know it, I believe my own reasons share a common thread, and I believe yours may also.

Are you ready for the end of the world as we know it?

“War… War never changes.”

For example, the fourth and newest video game in the very popular Fallout series was released this past November. To give you some idea of how long the Fallout games have been around, the original debuted 18 years ago on DOS. That the franchise has lasted as long as it has says something of its enduring market success, and the premise of Fallout continues to retain a sort of timeless appeal over almost two decades.

If you’re not familiar with the Fallout games, I’ll summarize. Thermonuclear war between China and the U.S. destroys a retro futuristic American society resembling the 1950’s in its prim and optimistic culture and aesthetic. Right before the devastation begins, as the air raid sirens are blaring, your character in the game is put into suspended animation in an underground vault. Two hundred and ten years after the bombs begin dropping, you wake up from your cryogenic slumber and emerge into a chaotic wasteland of cities and homes in ruins filled with mutants, robots, raiders, vigilantes, and desperate drifters all fighting and competing with one another to survive. Your task? Stay alive as you navigate the devastation. Scrap, sneak, fight, negotiate, make allies, choose to help others or use them for your own purposes, and explore what has become of the world you once knew.

Having greatly enjoyed Fallout 3 when it came out several years ago, I had this latest iteration in the series on pre-order as a birthday gift. Now that I’ve played Fallout 4 over the course of several hours in the past few months, I could go on and on about my exploits in the game. I could tell you about how I’m building a handful of settlements from the ground up and trying to organize disparate wandering survivors into safe and productive communities. I could tell you about my foraging in the burned out rubble of cities for spare parts to build things that improve my settlements and take care of those growing communities. I could tell you about my personal robot or pet dog in the game and how they take turns accompanying me on my scavenging trips, helping me fend off the giant mutated mole rats and murderous raiders I invariably encounter on my errands. I could go on and on about things like these, but I’m not going to. Instead I’m going to try to stay on topic here. Suffice to say for now: this game has me hooked.

What should interest us about Fallout for the purposes of this blog post is how the core element in the appealing premise of the incredibly popular Fallout games is found in so many other forms of media we consume. The same curiosity driving us to look as we pass by a car wreck or click on an earthquake article in The New Yorker also inspires us to play games like Fallout. To drive this point home, let me give you another example.

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Stuff and Things in The Walking Dead

The Walking Dead is for me the television equivalent of what Fallout is in videogames. Based on a series of graphic novels by Robert Kirkman, the AMC series follows a host of characters, but principally centers around one in particular: a man named Rick Grimes.

At the start of the show, before hordes of zombies devastate what for all intents and purposes is our own modern America, Rick Grimes is a sheriff’s deputy in Kings County, Georgia. After being severely wounded in a shootout with some criminals before the zombie apocalypse starts, Rick slips into a coma and is admitted to the local hospital. When he wakes up from his coma, Rick finds the hospital torn to pieces and abandoned. He stumbles across town to his home. He’s dazed and weak. Everyone is gone, including his wife and son. Setting out on a search for them, Rick is saved from a horde of the undead in Atlanta by a group of scavengers who just so happen to be from the impromptu camp in the woods where his wife and son are safe and sound.

The Walking Dead has been an extremely popular TV series and is currently up to six seasons, not to mention another season of a spin-off show called Fear the Walking Dead. Of the six seasons that have aired of TWD proper, I’ve watched five, and I’m itching for the sixth to come out on Netflix so I can get caught up again with what’s happened. Gripping action and drama have always appealed to me, but horror has never been my cup of tea. As a matter of fact, horror movies are really the only genre of film I’ve made a point to mark and avoid. So you can imagine my surprise when The Walking Dead ended up being one of my all-time favorite shows! After all, what could be more horrific than a world of flesh-eating zombies trying to devour the last living remnants of mankind?

Make no mistake, The Walking Dead is routinely horrific, and oftentimes tragic. Yet there’s a diverse cast of varied personalities, the show has excellent writing and acting, and it all adds up to a compelling look at what people would do if the world fell apart tomorrow. Some people would give up right away, unable to say goodbye to their old comforts and securities, unwilling to come to terms with the new reality. Some would accept the new world immediately and decide to survive at all costs, whatever it takes, even becoming monsters themselves as they preyed on and manipulated the weak and vulnerable in their desperate struggle to be the one in control, the top predator. And then there would be some, hopefully more than just a few, who would find new purpose in the hardships of those “times that try men’s souls” by helping others keep their courage and live on, choosing to love and hold on to some hope of better days for the sake of those looking to them for leadership.

All these types are portrayed in The Walking Dead in several variations. Each character goes through their own journey and struggle of ups and downs as the episodes and seasons roll on. Because of the excellent writing and acting, you find yourself drawn in and inevitably imagine you yourself are with these characters in this world of “walkers” – what the zombies in the show are referred to as. With each new crisis and fork in the road, you ask yourself ‘What should they do now?’ and ‘What should they have done differently before this point?’ and ‘What would I do in their situation?’ This is not only the inevitable effect of watching the show, I would argue it is the only best reason to start in the first place.


Macro, Micro, and The End of the World As We Know It

Perhaps video games aren’t your thing and you’d never even heard of the Fallout series until I just told you about it. Maybe you’ve only heard of The Walking Dead, but you wouldn’t be caught dead watching it yourself. That’s totally fine. Nevertheless, you’ve no doubt still found in yourself and those around you at least an occasional fascination with disaster.

While listening to the radio, do your ears perk up when you hear about cops foiling a massive terrorist plot just in the nick of time? When you were watching the news on TV last year, did you stay tuned through the commercial break when the anchorman promised a hard-hitting story about the Ebola virus in America when they came back?

The common thread is this: though Kathryn Schulz in The New Yorker asserts that our imagining the end of the world doesn’t necessarily equate to adequate physical preparation for it, we are time and again drawn to apocalyptic visions both real and imagined because we want to feel at least mentally prepared for the worst-case scenario.

When I’m driving to work on a cold January morning, roads covered in ice and packed snow, seeing a truck or two turned over in the ditch has an immediate effect on me. No doubt I already knew the roads were slick, but if I was pushing the limits with my driving before, you can be sure I’m going to slow down once I see what might happen to me if I don’t. To avoid slamming into the guy ahead of me when the roads are icy, I’m going to increase my follow-distance. If at all possible, I’m going to avoid any hard braking or quick acceleration and turns. Nobody wants to end up with their truck in the ditch like those other guys I just saw, least of all me.

The mental preparedness that comes from identifying the hazards and their possible effects is a precondition to my taking tangible physical precautions.

Now you may be thinking to yourself that having a car accident isn’t exactly the end of the world. And you’re right, it isn’t. Yet on the micro level, it all too often might as well be. Crippled is crippled and dead is dead, whether because of a local, regional, or global disturbance. Whatever the cause – whether you’re caught in a massive West Coast earthquake, thermonuclear war with China, or a zombie apocalypse – you or someone you love being critically injured or killed in an unexpected event will likely be the end of the world as you know it. When you boil it down to that, there really isn’t any difference between having a personal disaster on your own and having the whole world around you experiencing that disaster at the same time.

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It Was the End of the World as They Knew It

After Yahweh God concluded making everything He made, the book of Genesis tells us He looked at it and gave the rather succinct evaluation that “It was very good.” Though He originally made man in His image to live forever, Adam and Even sinned in Eden when they disobeyed God’s command to not eat of the fruit of the tree He had forbidden them to eat of. And so death came into the world.

Fast forward 1,600 years to the days of Noah where Genesis tells us:

“Yahweh saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. And Yahweh regretted that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart. So Yahweh said, “I will blot out man whom I have created from the face of the land, man and animals and creeping things and birds of the heavens, for I am sorry that I have made them.” But Noah found favor in the eyes of the Lord.

Genesis 6:5-8

So God commanded his faithful servant Noah to build an ark in which Noah’s family and a breeding pair of every kind of living creature would be safe from the coming destruction, and Noah believed God and dutifully obeyed. True to His Word, God sent the global flood He’d promised and thereby wiped out all life on Earth, with the exception of Noah and his family and the animals aboard the ark.

“By faith Noah, being warned by God concerning events as yet unseen, in reverent fear constructed an ark for the saving of his household. By this he condemned the world and became an heir of the righteousness that comes by faith.”

Hebrews 11:7

Modern science with its devotion to secular humanism rejects the truth of God’s Word or any evidence to support the Bible’s claims, not least in the case of the global flood. But Christians must take God at His Word and believe Him as Noah did. And, believe it or not, there’s good reason to.

Consider, for instance, the uncanny prevalence of global flood stories found in the ancient mythologies of cultures the world over. Though the details vary, the similarities are striking. The Bible tells us Noah’s descendants dispersed all over the world after that flood, and we find even in our day that though his descendants’ languages and cultures and religious beliefs became extremely diverse in the millennia since Noah’s family stepped off the ark, a reasonable person must conclude that God’s judgment of the Earth with a global flood was a genuine historical event. The stories from all over the world of a global flood as divine judgment and a favored remnant being saved from it clearly point to a shared experience of such monumental importance that it could not be forgotten.

Yet the wickedness of man did not end with that global flood. If the world were an Etch-a-Sketch, God shook it and cleared the screen, but man went right back to doodling.

As you’re no doubt familiar, human history since Noah’s day has been rife with disobedience, infidelity, idolatry, murder, deceit, and perversion of all kinds. Man conquers and oppresses his fellow man, and even a casual observer of modern events can’t help questioning why God wouldn’t send another global flood right about now.

The reason Yahweh God doesn’t is simple: He promised not to.

After the flood waters receded and Noah’s family was able to disembark onto dry land again, God gave Noah His assurances:

“I establish my covenant with you, that never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of the flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth.”

Genesis 9:11

That’s the end of the story, right? God promised not to destroy the world and all the people in it again, so we can stop worrying about disasters like earthquakes, meteors, thermonuclear war, and zombies… Right?

No, not exactly. Except zombies. You can maybe stop worrying about zombies.

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“It is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment.”

After Adam and Eve sinned in Eden and thereby brought death into the world, God as divine Judge handed down sentencing for Adam, Eve, and the serpent who had tempted them into disobeying their Creator. During the sentencing phase, God reiterated the original assurance He’d given when forbidding the eating of the fruit of that one tree: that death would come with sin.

As the Apostle Paul wrote many years later in his letter to the church at Rome:

“…Sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned…”

Romans 5:12

Yet as a glimmer of hope for mankind, God inserted a promise of things to come when He pronounced the curse on the serpent:

“I will put enmity between you and the woman,

and between your offspring and her offspring;

he shall bruise your head,

and you shall bruise his heel.”

                Genesis 3:15

In other words, God promised here for the first time to send mankind a Savior to conquer sin and death. We now know this Savior to be Jesus the Messiah, fulfiller of numerous prophecies throughout the rest of the Old Testament. As the ark was God’s salvation from judgment for Noah and his family, this Jesus is God’s salvation from a coming judgment for those who believe on him.

But that of course implies a coming judgment similar to the flood God sent in Noah’s day. How can that be when God promised not to destroy the world again?

That’s just it: He promised not to destroy the world again with a flood; He never took other methods off the table.

At one point in Jesus ministry a group of religious teachers who didn’t care too much for him asked about the coming kingdom of God. Jesus’ reply was stark:

“Just as it was in the days of Noah, so will it be in the days of the Son of Man. They were eating and drinking and marrying and being given in marriage, until the day when Noah entered the ark, and the flood came and destroyed them all.”

Luke 17:26-27

There you have it, directly from the Son of God himself: there will be an end of the world as we know it similar to the global flood during Noah’s day, only this time it won’t be global destruction by water, and this time the judgment will be lasting and final. God will destroy the wicked world that is and make a new one where goodness and righteousness and life are everlasting.


The Big Finale – Are you ready for it?

Just as cultures all over the world still remember the global flood God sent in Noah’s day, even where ignorant of God’s Word or rejecting it as authoritative, all peoples have also carried with them an ancient memory of a prophesied final judgment for sin.

The New Yorker, Fallout 4, The Walking Dead, and countless other varied examples – this is why we continue trying to imagine and evaluate apocalyptic scenarios, because we instinctively know the end of the world is coming and a part of us wants to be prepared.

Consider the words of the Apostle Paul from his letter to the church at Rome:

“For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things.”

Romans 1:18-23

What is Paul saying here? God is angry and will judge the world because man knows in his heart of hearts the plain truth about God – who He is, and who He created us to be – and yet wickedly suppresses the truth so he can continue on worshiping and honoring created things in replacement of Yahweh God.

Just as we instinctively know who God is, just as the truth about Him is plain, so also is the fact of a coming judgment and of our need for salvation from it.

This is also why Christians can remain calm and at peace in the face of death and destruction. We have no fear of God’s judgment on us for sin because our hope is in the saving grace of Jesus the Messiah.

“For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first-fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.”

Romans 8:18-23

In other words, creation as a whole is actually eager to get the end of the world started because it doesn’t want to be continually subjected to sin and death. God’s creation is tired with Him of the consequences of man’s disobedience to and rebellion against God. Perhaps this even includes those men who continue on in that disobedience and rebellion?

Think about it: as terrible as the devastation of thermonuclear war in Fallout 4 or the zombie apocalypse of The Walking Dead would be, a part of you imagines the upside to such a massive reshuffling of the deck. It would be as if the reset button were hit. Supposing you survived, you might be given a fresh start in life to be someone new you don’t currently feel free to be.

The only problem is that apart from the power and truth of God’s renewing grace to cleanse us from all unrighteousness and guilt, we must either hope in our own strength, cunning, and quick wits in a desperate Darwinian fight to merely survive a little longer physically, or else we must despair as we meet others who are stronger, more cunning, with quicker wits and greater ruthlessness.

Yet by the power of God’s grace, we can truly be prepared for the end of the world in all ways, however or whenever it arrives for us individually.

“By this is love perfected with us, so that we may have confidence for the day of judgment, because as he is so also are we in this world. There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love.”

1 John 4:17-18

In other words, put your hope in God’s love and grace, and if you’d like to know how the world is truly going to end, read John’s Revelation to get the full scoop.

Follow Garrett Mullet:

Christian, husband to a darling wife, and father to seven children - I enjoy pipe-smoking, playing strategy games on my computer, listening to audio books, and writing. When I'm not asking you questions out loud, I'm endlessly asking myself silent questions in my head. I believe in God's grace, hard work, love, patience, contemplation, and courage.