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Taylor Halverson: When should we be afraid of the future?

Jesus Christ at the Second Coming in this painting by Harry Anderson.
Jesus Christ at the Second Coming in this painting by Harry Anderson.
Harry Anderson

Sometimes we may feel gripped by fear of the future, especially when we hear the news coming out of the Middle East.

Fear can be replaced by hope when perspective is available.

The Lord urged us to “study and learn, and become acquainted with all good books, and with languages, tongues, and people” (Doctrine and Covenants 90:15) and to “obtain a knowledge of history, and of countries, and of kingdoms, of laws of God and man, and all this for the salvation of Zion” (D&C 93:53).

With a fuller understanding of the past and present, and as we trust in the Lord, our fear will be replaced by hope and perspective.

If we follow the Lord’s admonition to study and learn about history, languages, peoples, countries and laws, we are more likely to not make happen the future we fear. The most likely way to bring about the commotion of nations is to not understand one another, to not be empathetic to others, to not understand history, cultures, languages and traditions.

In sum, conflict happens when we act on false ideas, false perspectives and misunderstanding. As I've previously written, if we seek to resolve the conflicts of the present, we must first understand and resolve the conflicts of the past.

In addition to not having informed perspectives on the past and the present, apocalyptic thinking may contribute significantly to the fear some may feel about the world around them.

Apocalyptic thinking believes that the world is about to end, that all the brutish events we see in the world around us or read in the news, especially concerning the Middle East, are simply evidence that even more fearful suffering is immediately upon us, that soon the world will be destroyed in a Second Coming conflagration.

Yes, we do believe we live in the latter days. That belief is part of the official name of the church: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

We all look forward with anticipation and hope for that great day when Christ will return. Even so, belief in the Second Coming of Jesus Christ does not give us license to engage in fearful apocalyptic thinking.

Jesus taught about his own return, “But of that day and hour knoweth no man, no, not the angels of heaven, but my Father only” (Matthew 24:36). Consider that for a moment. No one knows, not even Jesus, when he will return again. Only God the Father knows.

In addition, as I have written elsewhere, “there is a long historical trajectory of apocalyptic theology among biblical interpreters, much of it misguided. Many have preached that the end is nigh, using the Book of Revelation (and/or the Old Testament Book of Daniel) to make elaborate predictions about world events, riling up huge masses of people to give up society, their money, or their livelihoods. The unscrupulous among these false interpreters make loads of money selling their books and seminars. The earnest among these interpreters simply waste people's time and money when everyone could have been more appropriately engaged in constructive pursuits. … Apocalyptic ideology has been deeply misplaced and incontrovertibly wrong throughout the past 2,000 years. If the apocalyptic mindset has not been advantageous to civilization and society in the past, it will not be so now” and should be avoided.

The reality is that we live in the most peaceful time the world has ever known. For more on this startling reality, see Steven Pinker’s book "The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined."

Anyone who has studied history, and I mean not just the past century but studied history since the dawn of human civilization millennia ago, will recognize that every generation has had its troubles. Our time is no different, though it can make us feel better to believe so. To believe that we are special and that our time is far worse than any other time period may cause us to misread the realities and opportunities for peace and progress now and in the future.

Will the future have difficulties, trials and troubles? Yes. Will fearful response to them help us? No. On this matter, Christ comforted us during the inimitable Sermon on the Mount, saying, “Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own” (Matthew 6:34, NIV translation).

The addiction to fear of the future is likely to create the very challenges we hope to avoid. Instead we should seek after peace, forgiveness, repentance, kindness and understanding.

Taylor Halverson (Ph.D.s biblical studies, instructional technology) is a BYU teaching and learning consultant. His views are his own.