The Lake of Fire

For much of my childhood I avoided the book of Revelation. Its apocalyptic message, fraught with fire and death, frightened me. I could find no good news the book of Revelation, much less a pleasant image of God who, at the time, I believed looked like Michelangelo’s fresco on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel: muscular, wise, and replete with long, flowing white hair, peppered with strands of gray. I could find no relevancy to my life in the book of Revelation; it did not seem like a good closing to the Bible, which was supposed to be filled with good news. This, to me, did not smack of good news:

Then I saw a great white throne and the one who sat on it; the earth and the heaven fled from his presence, and no place was found for them. And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Also another book was opened, the book of life. And the dead were judged according to their works, as recorded in the books. And the sea gave up the dead that were in it, Death and Hades gave up the dead that were in them, and all were judged according to what they had done. Then Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire; and anyone whose name was not found written in the book of life was thrown into the lake of fire.

In my college years I read another disturbing book from the Bible, the book of Daniel. The first half of this book is made up of Daniel and his companions decrying the superiority of their God, and the second half is made up of visions. I eventually came upon a passage in Daniel that reminded me of the book of Revelation:

As I watched, thrones were set in place, and an Ancient One took his throne, his clothing was white as snow, and the hair of his head like pure wool; his throne was fiery flames, and its wheels were burning fire. A stream of fire issued and flowed out from his presence. A thousand thousands served him, and ten thousand times ten thousand stood attending him. The court sat in judgement, and the books were opened.

I warm my house with fire; it helps keep me warm during winter in the North Cascade Mountains. But the fire in the book of Revelation and Daniel has been haunting my dreams for several weeks.

At the end of November I returned from three weeks of teaching creative writing in the Bakken oil field of western North Dakota. The state bears little resemblance to the memories I have from my childhood and late teens. Pump jacks now pull oil from over 9,000 feet below the earth’s surface; the largest inland oil spill, which leaked over 865,000 gallons of oil on a farmer’s land, took place near Tioga, North Dakota; flares fly 24 hours a day burning natural gas, warming and weirding the planet.

I have smelled not only sulfur in wheat fields as I’ve driven to Crosby, North Dakota, but propane as I have driven back-country gravel roads.

Flares now haunt my dreams. The lake of fire in the book of Revelation seems like a pleasant summer vacation compared to traveling through the western half of North Dakota. The books of the Bible that I feared in my youth now seem like pleasant bedtime stories compared to the lived reality of environmental destruction plaguing western North Dakota.

As I drove at night along Highway 2, which cuts across the northern part of North Dakota, it was not so much the flares along the highway that struck fear in my heart, but the flares in the distance, painting hills yellow, orange, and red; it looked like a scene from Macbeth, with the witches of the oil industry mumbling, “Double, double toil and trouble; fire burn, and cauldron bubble…For a charm of powerful trouble; Like a hell-broth boil and bubble.”

The plain fact is that the earth is starting to bubble and boil like a hell-broth. The ozone layer is shrinking. Aquifers are being drained in the process of hydraulic fracturing. Saltwater is spilled on cropland, leaving fields forever changed and unusable.

We know that coal and oil do one thing: they warm and weird the planet. We have already increased the world’s temperature by one degree Celsius in the past 25 years, which has caused the rapid melting of the ice caps and glaciers; and it has given us storms like Hurricane Katrina and Sandy, and now Typhoon Haiyan. Like a drug addict, we cannot break our habit and, instead, stay addicted to coal and oil. We gladly take another hit.

Over the next century we are on track to increase the global temperature by another two to three degrees Celsius, which makes me believe that storms such as Hurricane Sandy and Typhoon Haiyan will look like pleasant afternoon strolls in the park.

But the temperature increase does not only mean larger storms fed and fueled by saltwater, it also means a shift in crop belts. For every degree the planet warms, plants must move an average of 40 miles farther north to adjust to new temperature demands. It takes trees ten years to move one mile. That means, that for every degree the planet warms we will need 400 years of buy-time for plants to adjust. With the prospect of the earth warming two to three degrees this century, we will need at least 800-1,200 years of buy-time.

So what might we do? For starters, we might seek humility and look to the book of Job in the Bible to get reacquainted with some very old questions.

Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding.

Have you commanded the morning since your days began, and caused the dawn to know its place, so that it might take hold of the skirts of the earth, and the wicked be shaken out of it?

Have you entered into the springs of the sea, or walked in the recesses of the deep? Have the gates of death been revealed to you, or have you seen the gates of deep darkness? Have you comprehended the expanse of the earth? Declare, if you know all this.

On and on the list goes, making the book of Job a sourcebook for humility. We do not need to be intimidated by the questions posed in the book of Job, but we do need to turn to them in our contemplations of what it means to be the stewards of God’s good creation.

In America we have set the standard for excess and exploitation, we have continued to fuel our dependency on oil and coal–and seeking to get off our dependency upon foreign oil does not help solve the problem of a changing climate.

Solar and wind energy are in abundance, giving us clean and renewable energy. Instead of being children with poor excuses, we need to be visionaries who find ways to create and build jobs in green energy; we need to reconfigure the true cost of environmental destruction in our economic models; we need to vote in politicians with political courage, rather than ones who mimic a generous grandmother saying, “Take what you want.”

The Bible helps move us towards asking interesting and insightful questions as we strive to be the caretakers of this planet–it helps us know our place in the family of things rather than being the dictators of it. The Bible might also be a book we look to in the future and realize the beauty in the book of Genesis, where it says, “And God saw everything [S]he had made, and it was very good.” It’s our job to keep it that way.

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