Is the Apocalypse Coming? Is it Something We Did?

We talk to local religious leaders and find out if God is unleashing His wrath upon us

When that horrendous storm hit on the evening of April 27, the exclamation point on a season of freak snow storms followed by torrential downpours, the word "apocalypse" got tossed around a lot. As in, "That sure was an apocalyptic storm!" or "Maybe the apocalypse really is gonna happen in May."

The Rapture did not occur, but the terrifying storms have continued. Even if you're not a person of faith, it's hard not to think at times that maybe God is trying to tell us something, like that he hates the South—or maybe he's just annoyed at the SEC, given where these storms keep landing (although Gainesville does seem to keep coming out okay).

That led us to wonder whether these tempests and their damage were causing any Knoxvillians to question their faith, like Job. Or whether the horrors of the winds were perhaps enough to convert the sinners into the saved. Or if maybe, just maybe, God really is trying to send a message.

A Catholic View

"Certainly it's hard to look at the past months and not feel like it's the beginning of the end times," says Paul Simoneau, the Director of Justice and Peace Office in the Diocese of Knoxville of the Catholic Church. He says the storms that have hit the South, along with the earthquake and tsunami in Japan, the flooding along the Mississippi River, the wildfires currently raging through parts of the Southwest, the e coli breakout, and "the personal apocalypses of the very public figures of politicians in California and New York" cannot help but create an aura of uncertainty and dread as to what terrible thing is next. But, Simoneau says, he's okay with apocalypse.

"Apocalypse is the Greek word for ‘revelation,'" Simoneau says. " It literally means ‘unveiling,' as in that sacred moment that leads to the moment of consummation. … That apocalypse that so many fear is celebrated each Mass. … It's a triumphal wedding banquet, for we are all the brides of Christ."

So we aren't in end times?

"We all must be ready [for them], constantly watching and praying," Simoneau says. "But it seems that so many people focus on the ‘when' that they miss His coming right in their midst."

It's not the Second Coming, Simoneau says, but the nature of community and the church in these times of disaster.

"What's so neat is you see perfect strangers helping each other. By doing so we are in a sense experiencing the coming of Christ in others," Simoneau says.

So the bad weather may not be directly caused by God, but it is inspiring people to lean on Him?

"Suffering is so much a part of our lives, and in some ways the crucifix—not the cross, but the crucifix—is the symbol of that," Simoneau says. "Christ suffered for us, but we can share in that. By joining our sufferings with his, they're enriched."

A Protestant View

Rev. Dr. William Pender, the pastor of First Presbyterian Church downtown, says he hasn't seen any change in his parishioners' levels of faith.

"I'm certainly not getting people feeling they're cursed," he says. "The people that have had damage—they all seem thankful that it was just stuff, just stuff, and that their lives were okay."

So they don't think the tree fell on their house because God is angry with them?

"No, I think that's a knee-jerk reaction. That's a 5-year-old faith—there's not just a direct cause and effect like that. God's will is more sophisticated and complex than that," Pender says. "I get really irritated at that—at that sense that God had it out for me. … I don't think God has His hand on the trigger."

He recounts a (possibly apocryphal) anecdote in which someone asked tennis star Arthur Ashe if he ever felt angry at God after he contracted HIV from a blood transfusion. Pender says, "Ashe responded, ‘I didn't ask God why I won Wimbledon, and I didn't ask God why I had such a great life, so I'm not going to start now.'"

An Evangelic View

Kyle Gilbert, a pastor at Faith Promise Church, a megachurch with locations in Knox and Blount Counties, says any time people go through a difficult situation, it's natural for them to question in their mind why it's happening.

"And as a pastor here, my role is to help each person see things through a lens of faith and helping them to trust God," Gilbert says. "When they're going through challenging situations, it's a time to draw nearer to Him."

But is God causing this weather? Is He angry?

"I don't think He caused those things, exactly, but I do think He allowed them to happen," Gilbert says.

Gilbert stresses that he believes in a literal interpretation of the Bible—that Original Sin was indeed caused by Eve, and then Adam, eating a piece of fruit—and those few nibbles took away the perfection of the world. Once the world was no longer perfect, then anything could happen, and lots of bad things have. Gilbert says the storms aren't God showing His wrath, nor the Devil trying to destroy us, just a reminder of the perfection that our ancestors lost and that the saved among us can one day regain in heaven.

So has there been an increase in the number of people seeking salvation lately?

"It's possible that could have been part of the reasons behind some people's decisions, but no, I haven't actually heard that from anyone," Gilbert says.

A Jewish Perspective

Rabbi Alon C. Ferency of the Heska Amuna Synagogue says he hasn't seen his congregants questioning their faith exactly, but he says it's been hard watching people struggle with their emotions. "It has been a tragedy," he says. "Especially for those already hit hard by the bad economy."

Ferency says that many of the synagogue's members travel to Atlanta to buy kosher food, and so have freezers that can hold hundreds and hundreds of dollars of expensive kosher meat—all of which has to be thrown away after an extensive power outage. When combined with damage to homes and cars, some people are now having a hard time making ends meet. Still, Ferency says, the community is trying.

"I do think it's brought most of us together," Ferency says, but he adds: "These weather patterns are pretty terrifying to me."

So is God trying to tell us something?

"God gave us this planet to—the Hebrew word translates as ‘steward'—we are supposed to be stewards of the planet," Ferency says. "And it seems like this is not supposed to be happening, that Tornado Alley should not be extending this far into Tennessee, so we should take action reverting what we can of climate change.

"If there's any message, that's what I see it as."