Armageddon and Tipping Points

By David Spence, MD

Most people will agree with the following (fortune cookie or horoscope) advice: “Consider a variety of viewpoints and opinions before choosing your own path.” In our spiritual journey, we read all four gospels and the letters of Paul and John. In our quest to understand climate change and our personal response to this existential threat we read reports from scientists and stories of persons on the front lines of severe weather, wildfires, and a rising sea level.  As a person of both science and faith, I have titled this article the way I have in an attempt to connect viewpoints from scripture and science. Read on, Dear Reader, to get the connection.

First, from Scripture: The book of Revelation, which relates a divine vision given to John through an angel, provides a vivid image of eschatological conflict — the clash between good and evil at the end of the present age that will culminate in the victory of God and the final defeat of all evil.  From Revelation we get several popularized images of “end-times” including Armageddon, the place where forces of evil assemble the kings of the whole world for battle, and “the four horsemen of the apocalypse”, four riders on colorful horses representing Conquest, War, Famine and Death, who are unleashed by the Lamb of God as the scroll containing the divine plan of judgment and salvation is unsealed.

Jesus also spoke directly about “end times.” In Matthew (25:31-46) his parable dealt with separating sheep from goats, based on our behavior toward persons whom we encountered during our life: the hungry, thirsty, stranger, naked, and imprisoned. In Mark (chapter 13) and Luke (chapter 21), one of his “end times” parables likens a fig tree in the spring to the nearness of Heaven and earth passing away. In both the synoptic gospels and in Revelation, the end times can be personal and/or societal, depending on theological interpretation.

Second, from science: “a tipping point” means a shift in a climate system from a stable (or even steadily worsening) stage to a run-away, self-reinforcing, catastrophic stage. For starters we can list the following known climate systems that are subject to becoming tipping points:

  1.   Arctic Ocean snow and ice cover. Since our planet’s entire northern ice cap is floating, its under-surface is subjected to the influence of our warming oceans. At the same time, our warming atmosphere increases the rate of melting snow/ice from above. Finally, there is a self-reinforcing feedback loop in which the shrinking summer ice allows the darker ocean’s lower albedo effect (ability to reflect light) to absorb even more of the incoming solar radiation.
  2. Methane is stored in arctic regions’ permafrost and ocean floor clathrates. Huge amounts of the potent greenhouse gas, methane, have been locked in marine sediments as clathrates, methane ice, and permafrost for eons. Warming atmosphere and oceans will release the trapped methane at an increasing rate under the influence of global warming. This risks initiating another feedback loop in which the extra methane in the atmosphere causes even more warming.
  3. Tropical rain forests becoming grasslands. Warmer air and altered trade winds have the potential to dry out the tropical rain forests, turning them into savannah. Such grasslands have only a fraction of the CO2 absorbing capacity compared to the rain forest, resulting in higher atmospheric CO2 levels, another feedback loop in the wrong direction.
  4. Other tipping points. In addition to the above “known” tipping points, there probably are “unknown” tipping points, yet to be discovered as climate researchers explore other climate systems.

Now, for the promised connection between Scripture and science. In my view, there is a connection based on a person’s pessimistic vs optimistic worldview. The pessimist reads the apocalyptic scripture passages and the grim tipping point analyses and concludes that fate is predetermined to the point that individual actions will not change the outcome of end times, theologically or climate-wise. The optimist interprets the same scripture and science as a call both to repudiate the forces of evil, become co-creators of a new creation, by loving more, and reduce negative impacts on climate systems by adopting the 5 “Rs”: reduce, renew(able energy), recycle, repair and reuse.

So, back to the choice of a path. Let’s choose to follow Jesus’s second great commandment:

“Love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:39). This love connects the scriptural and the scientific viewpoints and can better lead to personal as well as global salvation. “Two for the price of one” as another fortune cookie predicts.

Dr. David Spence is a parishioner and former Junior Warden at Church of the Epiphany, Flagstaff, and is a member of the diocesan Creation Care Council.