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This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but with a whimper.
T.S. Eliot, The Hollow Men (1925)
If you knew you had exactly 21 days left on this earth, how would you spend your time? Would you reconnect with family and friends? Would you ask forgiveness from someone? Would you tell someone what a despicable person they’ve been to you?
Now suppose it’s not only you who has 21 days to live, it’s the entire human race and planet Earth itself. Would the fact that no one would be left to tell your story — how you lived and how you died — make any difference in how you spent your remaining time on earth?
That’s essentially the question film director Lorene Scafaria poses in the film released last week, Seeking a Friend for the End of the World, starring Steve Carrell as Dodge and Keira Knightly as his downstairs neighbor, Penny.
I recall as a child, age 5 or 6, watching as my Grandmother Moore, then somewhere in the eighth decade of her life, struggling to put on her shoes. For some reason, she paused between gasps, looked straight at me with those deep-set eyes and told me that the end was surely nigh.
Not knowing if she meant her end or The End, I was afraid to say anything. But it was the first time I had ever thought of The End or its possibility.
Still but a child, I quickly put the thought behind me as soon as she had her shoes on.
I later learned in studying the history of Christianity that there are those in every generation who think theirs is the last age. The end is nigh: repent.
But if you knew it was exactly 21 days and it would be over, all over, what would you do?
If you believe life is meaningless, probably the best you can do is take someone’s hand — a friend to help you out of this place. Or your closest companion could be a drug to anesthetize you through the misery. As you look to an empty sky with no god to believe in and no light of hope, you will perhaps descend into the depths of darkness and end it before The End.
Or maybe you would live each day as if there weren’t another, grabbing as much pleasure as is humanly possible in 21 days.
Fyodor Dostoevsky is attributed with the words, “If God does not exist, everything is permitted” and some, as Scafaria depicts them in the film, having lived a practical atheism in upper class suburban American, suddenly throw off all restraints, plunging into drug-enhanced orgies, even pushing liquor on their kids.
But if God does exist, then everything matters, including how we live our last 21 or our last 21,000 days.
When we have peace with this God, who promised that “Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man, the things which God hath prepared for them that love him” (I Corinthians 2:9), we can live whatever time we have with the quiet confidence that God is still in control, even though we don’t understand it all.
A lady once asked John Wesley how he would spend his time if he knew he would die at exactly midnight the next day. The famous theologian is reported to have said, “"Why, madam, just as I intend to spend it now. I would preach this evening at Gloucester, and again at five tomorrow morning; after that I would ride to Tewkesbury, preach in the afternoon and meet the societies in the evening. I would then go to Martin's house ... talk and pray with the family as usual, retire myself to my room at 10 o'clock, commend myself to my Heavenly Father, lie down to rest and wake up in glory."
Maybe we are but hollow men, floating alone on a world that will end not with a bang but with a whimper in a cold, uncaring universe. But who is to say that may be the moment God intervenes for the Grand Finale he had prepared all along?
In the meantime, like Grandmother Moore, I’ll keep my shoes on, believing we are headed toward an end God has planned, seizing the day, trying to make my life extraordinary, loving the ones I’m with until one day, I wake up alive in glory.
David B. Whitlock, Ph.D., is minister of Lebanon Baptist Church and an adjunct instructor at Campbellsville University. He can be reached at email@example.com.