A Moneychanger Book Review
Hurtling Toward Oblivion [With an Alien Presupposition on Board]
by Richard A. Swenson, M.D.
Hurtling Toward Oblivion: A Logical Argument for the End of the Age by Richard A. Swenson, M.D. Colorado Springs: Navpress, 1999.
A close friend handed me this book with a request to read it and explain what I thought about it. With all due humility, I think the author is very confused—a Christian theist with a deistic worldview. I suppose that requires some explanation. I suppose also it will open me up to a charge of presumption, but I will just have to run that gauntlet and let you decide.
“I think too many Christian people approach the Christian life the same way their doctor approaches health and disease: find the facts, assemble and relate them in the right order, locate the disorder, correct the chemicals, and health must result. The universe is merely one gigantic chemistry problem (or drug addict).
“How else could they approach life? They have been taught to believe in `science,’ which literally means `knowledge.’ They are only applying the model they have been taught can never fail, the `modern’ `scientific’ mind that believes the whole always equals the sum of the parts, and vice versa.
“Life ain’t chemical.”
My target was rationalism, especially that simplistic 17th century rationalism that still hampers and hinders our thought today. It boxes off the world into supposedly rational and logical categories, tries to isolate their properties, and then reassembles them into patterns that ought to behave—except they don’t. Why not? Any complex system—say, the human body or a national economy or tidal currents—contains forces and counterforces are so multifarious, so numerous, that isolating just a few and their behaviour doesn’t take us any closer to accurately predicting eventual outcomes. (The prosecution calls his first witness, TV weathermen. The next witness, computer global warming models, will please remain in the witness room.)
Another reason rationalism doesn’t work is that it does not faithfully reflect the way the world works. Here I begin to pick bones with Dr. Swenson. Whether he realises it or not (and I suspect he would stoutly resist the charge), throughout most of his book Dr. Swenson operates under a deistic presupposition. Deism, the rationalistic religion that came out of the hyper-rationalistic Enlightenment, believes that there is a God, but he does not much involve himself in human affairs. Having created the universe and thrown it out into space just as you or I would make a clock and wind it, he leaves the day to day operation of the world to the mechanism he has made. What is the key presupposition here? Mechanism rules the universe, rather than the active providence of God. But of that, more later. First let’s listen to Dr. Swenson.
OUR SUBJECT SPEAKS
Dr. Swenson is a medical doctor who by dint of study and research has transformed himself into a futurist. By his own claim he has collected some 50,000 facts (page 43). In the process of trying to relate these facts, one day insight flashed across his mind: “Is history really rounding the last lap for the homestretch?”
The first bone that stuck in my throat came in the introduction, on page 27. Dr. Swenson defines three major Christian eschatological views—amillennialism, postmillennialism, and premillennialism—and then retreats into—incompetence! “While I am not theologically competent to make a confident determination about which millennial viewpoint is most biblically accurate, my independent research does indicate that apocalyptic events await us.”
What a strange place to hide for an expert futurist with 50,000 facts in hand! I am mystified. How he can figure out all the trends pointing to global cataclysm, and yet can’t figure out which millennial viewpoint most faithfully represents the Christian hope? Ah, well, it really doesn’t matter what he says, he disingenuously spends most of the next 102 pages predicting catastrophe, an ipso facto premillennial position.
DISSECTING THE CATASTROPHE
Dr. Swenson first presents certain trends, “irreversible” for purposes of his argument (“fatalistic” and “mechanistic” for purposes of mine). Then he combines the trends to reach a conclusion, viz., the earth probably doesn’t have long to live.
He founds his case upon “profusion” and “progress.” “Profusion” is the phenomenon of more—the unstoppable multiplication of everything. There is always more. Profusion comes from “progress,” the notion that life continually improves through “differentiation” and “proliferation.” Differentiation is “the process of proceeding from the general to the specific, from simple to complex, from the one to the many.” A piece of cloth, for example, will become various articles of clothing. Proliferation is copying the articles after differentiation has produced them. With technology and money, the engine of progress keeps on grinding out stuff. And more stuff all the time, so that there is so much stuff, increasing so fast, that there’s no way to keep up with all the stuff and the people.
Second, progress is irreversible (Doesn’t sound like something anybody with seven kids would write, does it?) Progress is not only a one way street, it is also addictive. We can’t and won’t give it up. Nobody wants to regress. (A huge jump, that. Dr. Swenson ignores hundreds of thoughtful people in the last 200 years who have questioned “progress,” from Goethe to Tennyson and Fitzhugh to Chesterton and Lewis past Lytle and beyond.)
Third, progress is growing exponentially, not linearly. It’s increasing at an increasing rate, and with it, profusion.
Fourth, the world is fallen. Flawed in such a way since the Fall of Adam and Eve that nothing is perfect and things run down. Things don’t work, even though they ought to. Murphy was an optimist.
Fifth, the profusion of negative (bad stuff) is increasing step for step with good stuff. The more stuff there is, the more chance there is that something bad will happen.
Sixth, there is a threshold of lethality that makes the bad outweigh the good. His example: You pull 10 letters out of your mailbox. The first announced you inherited $1 million, and the second through the ninth contain like good news. The last, however, reports that your HIV test is positive. “The positive letter to negative letter ratio was 9:1. Does that mean you’re better off?” (95) “No matter how many benefits of progress the world system enjoys, and no matter how rapidly these benefits accumulate, once the negatives rise to the level of lethality the viability of the entire globe will be threatened.” (98)
Now in all fairness to Dr. Swenson, he doesn’t say when this will happen, he merely presents it as a mathematical certainty at some time.
COUNT YOUR APOCALYPSES
Next he engages in the cheerful process of “counting your apocalypses.” Let’s name all the stuff that might happen to wipe the face of the globe clean of humanity the way you wipe mud off your glasses. First there’s nuclear, biological, and chemical warfare, not limited to classic state-on-state affairs but including terrorist groups as small as two who have enough bucks to buy a pint of plutonium and blow up New York City.
As if these weren’t enough, there’s the threat of infectious pandemics (a pandemic is an epidemic gone global). New diseases are erupting all the time, some of which you can catch just looking up at the sky. They’ll melt your face off before you can look down (Whoops! That’s cheating. I added that last part. In fact he only mentioned AIDS, Lyme disease, Chlamydia, influenza small pox and unknown new viruses.)
Hey, don’t forget eco-catastrophe, where global warming, ozone holes, resource depletion, species extinction, nuclear power plant accidents, etc., etc., eat the earth. Now up until this point I was pretty docile, but when Dr. Swenson started bringing up these old moth-eaten rags of unscience from radical environmentalism I began to dig in my heels. In the late 1980s and early 1990s I spent about five years studying and writing about the environmental movement, and believe me, the Ozone Hole That Might Eat the Earth simply ain’t. I may get goosebumps over weapons of mass destruction and viruses that melt your face, but “eco-catastrophe” just makes me guffaw.
Dr. Swenson’s list of potential cataclysms doesn’t stop there, however. There is also economics (the global collapse), politics, religion (militant Islam is on the march and has nuclear weapons), and tribalism, ethnicity, and nationalism out there, too.
Heaping calamity upon calamity, Dr. Swenson surprises us with this one-liner: “These days will not be dominated ultimately by the chaos of world forces but by the sovereignty of God.” (105) How can that be? All his disaster scenarios rest on Dr. Swenson’s presupposition that mechanism rules the universe. “I cannot foresee any interruption or intervention that will deliver us from the consequences of this process.” (122).
THE OTHER MEANS
What other means than mechanism might rule the universe? The means always accepted by the orthodox Christian faith, the providence of God, the close and conscious and exhaustive rule of the universe by a personal God. Oh, what’s the difference? you might ask. If God created the universe with certain unvarying physical rules and then left it to run while he does something else, isn’t that the providence of God, too? No, not at all. Mere mechanism does not equal providence. The world doesn’t run itself. Rather, it runs by and for the will of God. Worse, this deistic mechanism embodies a passivity that renders God little more than an impersonal force, only distantly involved. God becomes either Impertinence or Fatalism. Why bother to pray? Or to work?
What is this providence of God then? “God’s works of providence are his most holy, wise, and powerful preserving and governing all his creatures; ordering them, and all their actions, to his own glory.” (Westminster Larger Catechism, Q. 18) In the crudest terms, “He’s got the whole world in his hands.” If God did not instantaneously control the subatomic forces that hold matter together, then instantaneously the universe would disappear. Nothing escapes his notice and control, or his active attention. Without interruption he blesses and chastens his people while he controls and punishes the wicked. There are no “accidents,” no “bad luck.” Isaiah writes, (45:7, NASB)
I am the LORD, and there is no other,
The One forming light and creating darkness,
Causing well-being, and creating calamity;
I am the Lord who does all these.
The Authorised Version uses even stronger language:
I am the LORD, and there is none else.
I form the light, and create darkness;
I make peace, and create evil;
I the LORD do all these things.
This active providence of God makes him the God of surprises. In fact, he often allows his people to reach the very brink of extinction before he rescues them and scatters his enemies. He is jealous; he will not share his glory with another. No human agency can claim credit for the deliverance. “God humbles his children under various trials, that his defense of them may be the more remarkable, and that he may show himself to be their deliverer, as well as their preserver.”
In the past he has occasionally done this miraculously, outside the rules of nature that he usually observes. He allowed the Israelites, leaving Egypt, to land between a rock and a wet place—rocks on either side, Red Sea behind them, Pharaoh’s army before. Only then does he deliver them.
Generally, though, he doesn’t use miracles, working instead the same result by his well-set providence. Sennacherib (Isaiah 37; II Kings 19) sends a letter to Hezekiah, “I’m coming to kill you, your whole house, and the mule you rode in on. I’ll raze your city, steal everything you own, and what’s more, your God is on my side. Just try to stop me.”
When Hezekiah prays for relief, the prophet Isaiah sends him a message from God. Sennacherib, you thought you destroyed all those kingdoms and took all those cities in your own power, but I have news for you (Isaiah 37:26 - 29)
Have you not heard?
Long ago I did it,
From ancient times I planned it.
Now I have brought it to pass,
That you should turn fortified cities into ruinous heaps.
Therefore their inhabitants were short of strength …
But I know your sitting down,
And your going out and your coming in,
And your raging against me.
Because of your raging against me,
And because your arrogance has come up to my ears,
Therefore I will put my hook in your nose,
And my bridle in your lips,
And I will turn you back by the way which you came.
In other words, the God of Surprises had prepared a few surprises for earth’s mightiest king—what we might antiseptically call “a discontinuity.” Or some might call just “plain bad luck.”
The surprises weren’t “miracles.” God did not suspend the normal operation of the world to achieve them, although he had long before set them in train.
Come sun-up, the first surprise arrived. The entire 185,000 man Assyrian army camped outside Jerusalem woke up dead. Now there is nothing more common in history than disease attacking armies. This was no miracle, but it still destroyed them. Whatever disease took them away did not arrive that morning, either. They had caught it up the road someplace, in Lachish or Libnah or Nineveh, long enough to incubate and break out at Jerusalem in time to deliver the city..
Sennacherib meanwhile went back to Nineveh. As he stood worshipping his idol, his sons assassinated him. Now there is nothing more common in history than sons plotting the murder and overthrow of their father, the reigning king. No miracle, but it destroyed him still. More “bad luck” for Sennacherib.
If you had been predicting trends, however, you would never have guessed this outcome. For a couple of hundred years the Assyrians had been gobbling up country after country and nation after nation. The trend was toward Assyrian empire—or impalement for those who disagreed. In those days you wouldn’t have given a plugged shekel for the Hebrews surviving as an independent nation. The mechanism was all in place for a total Assyrian victory.
But it didn’t happen, in the providence of God.
IS THERE A DISAGREEMENT?
After piling up all his catastrophes, Dr. Swenson writes, “Our only hope is that God is still God—and that He’s still interested. But then, that has always been our only hope.” (120)
I wholeheartedly agree—so where’s our disagreement? First, with all due respect, Dr. Swenson has aboard a stowaway, a false and rationalistic presupposition about the way the world works. Providence, not mechanism, rules the world. Scan it as closely as we may, God leaves some things hidden from us. In kindness he shrouds the future, past our reason finding out. Second, Dr. Swenson spends 120 pages laying out the mechanism that threatens to destroy us inevitably. Then he tacks on eight pages urging us to live “authentic” Christian lives, where “authentic” means “congruent between what we believe and how we live.” (123) Amen, I couldn’t agree more, but how authentic is his book? What does he really believe? If he believes “all things work together for good to them that love God,” what are we to make of his “inevitable” disaster scenarios?
So disaster looms. Well, what else is new? No matter that the quantity or scope or speed of the disasters looms greater than ever before in history, the quality of the human condition has not changed. Whether the sword of a Roman soldier or an Iranian rogue nuke kills me, I am just as dead. I can’t be deader than dead, whether they bury me in a hole in the ground or scoop me up with a soupspoon. And whether every other living soul is killed along with me or I die unaccompanied won’t make much difference, either. To be dead is to be absent from the body and present with the Lord. How has all this changed? Yes, the Internet ensures that I can find out more about this trouble faster. Does that really make it different? No. It just makes it a little harder to shut out the distractions and keep my eyes and heart fixed on Christ.
Besides forgiveness in Christ no doctrine strengthens us more than the providence of God. A friend of mine used to work in a hospital as a chaplain, and he was horrified to hear other chaplains try to comfort sufferers with this: “Well, you know this couldn’t have come from God.”
Well, my friend asked astonished, if it didn’t come from God, where did it come from? Was it just random? If God is not at the tiller, who is? Where’s the comfort in that?
The Christian patiently bears evil not because he is a stoic so tough you can pull out his toenails with wire pliers and he’ll never wince, but because on the other side of suffering he sees his loving God working out all his holy will in a fallen world. Faith labours unremittingly to believe that the promise of God is true, that all things do work together for good to those that love God. And why? Because God is in charge. God is at the tiller. God is ruling all things. With perfect holiness, wisdom, and power, he is preserving and governing all his creatures, ordering them and all their actions to his own glory.
In this blessed hope, we can live. In a clockwork world, abandoned to our solitary wretchedness, we can only wait for the final cataclysm to bring the pointless curtain down.
1 “[Paul] employs the expression `fleshly mind’ to denote the perspicuity of the human intellect, however great it may be. For he contrasts it with that spiritual wisdom which is revealed to us from heaven in accordance with Christ’s statement, `Flesh & blood hath not revealed it unto thee.’ (Matthew 16:17). Whoever depends upon his own reason, is regulated exclusively by carnal and natural acuteness. Therefore Paul declares him to be `puffed up in vain.’ And truly all the wisdom that men have from themselves is mere wind: hence there is nothing solid except in the word of God and the illumination of the Spirit. And observe that those are said to be `puffed up’ who insinuate themselves under a show of humility. For it happens, as Augustine elegantly writes to Paulinus, by wonderful means, as to the soul of man, that it is more puffed up from a false humility than if it were openly proud.’" John Calvin, Commentaries, Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Books, reprinted 1998. Vol. XXI, p. 97. Galatians 2:18 reads, “Let no man beguile you of your reward in a voluntary humility, and worshipping of angels, intruding into those things which he hath not seen, vainly puffed up by his fleshly mind.”
2 Ibid., Vol. VI, p. 204, to Psalm 138:7.