In Forty Days Nineveh Will be Destroyed

As the prophet Jonah realized, being a prophet of doom is difficult. Frequently the prediction is not fulfilled, and this casts a bad light on the prophet. As Jonah said to the Lord, “Isn’t this what I said, Lord, when I was still at home? That is what I tried to forestall by fleeing to Tarshish. I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity.”

In the encyclical Laudato Si’, Pope Francis seems to engage in this kind of prophecy. He contrasts his own words with “doomsday predictions,” (par. 61) but seems to give credence to them himself: “Doomsday predictions can no longer be met with irony or disdain” (par. 161). He repeats several times that the present system is “unsustainable,” and implies that it will have various catastrophic consequences. As with Nineveh, the only thing that will save us is repentance: “At one extreme, we find those who doggedly uphold the myth of progress and tell us that ecological problems will solve themselves simply with the application of new technology and without any need for ethical considerations or deep change” (par. 60). “Merely technical solutions run the risk of addressing symptoms and not the more serious underlying problems” (par. 144).

But predicting the future is difficult, and prophesying doomsday is no exception. Most such prophecies fail to come true. Events such as the BP oil spill or the Kuwaiti oil fires had less significance for the environment than various people suggested in advance. The Cold War did not result in a nuclear war between the United States and the Soviet Union, despite the expectations of many (although this does not necessarily mean that there will not be a nuclear war sometime in the future.) It is likely enough that in the present case too, there will be no “deep change”, and yet things will prove to be relatively sustainable. Ross Douthat comments on this possibility:

In that case, the deep critique our civilization deserves will have to be advanced without the threat of imminent destruction. The arguments in “Laudato Si’ ” will still resonate, but they will have to be structured around a different peril: Not a fear that the particular evils of our age can’t last, but the fear that actually, they can.

The problem for the encyclical is the same as that for the prophet Jonah: in such a case the prophet loses some of his credibility, and especially if God relents without the repentance of the sinner.

One thought on “In Forty Days Nineveh Will be Destroyed

  1. […] While I am generally against doomsaying, there is a reasonable argument in favor of the position that a nuclear war will likely happen in the foreseeable future. Whatever can happen sometimes does, in the sense that something that is not decreasing in probability over time will be sure to happen sooner or later. I do not see good reason to suppose that the probability of nuclear war over a fixed period of a year is going down in any significant way; and it may be increasing, due to the availability of the technology to an increasing number of nations, the increase in wealth leading to a greater ability to produce them, and so on. […]


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