June 12, 2008— -- In the beginning, God created heaven and Earth, and he saw that it was good. So begins the Book of Genesis, the dramatic opener of the Old Testament.
But things went downhill from there.
God's wrath seems at work these days, as the heavens and Earth have unleashed earthquakes in China, a cyclone in Burma, killer tornadoes and record floods across the U.S. and even a plague of locusts (cicadas) in New England.
In Cedar Rapids, Iowa today, floodwaters forced the evacuation of a downtown hospital after residents of more than 3,000 homes fled for higher ground. A railroad bridge collapsed, and 100 city blocks were underwater.
"We're just kind of at God's mercy right now, so hopefully people that never prayed before this, it might be a good time to start," Linn County Sheriff Don Zeller said this week as record floods hit the Midwest. "We're going to need a lot of prayers and people are going to need a lot of patience and understanding."
By the final Book of Revelation in the New Testament, the Earth suffers "Seven Plagues" -- from disease to "intense heat" and drought, then finally a shower of deadly hailstones.
And then comes the Apocalypse, the final judgment of man and destruction of the world by fire.
Biblical imagery is all over the news these days — even including a story last week of a New York baby being enwrapped by a snake in its crib, harking back to evil lurking in the Garden of Eden.
[There was a practical explanation: the non-poisonous snake had embedded itself in a mattress shipped by Toys 'R' Us from California.]
Most theologians and scientists don't take seriously warnings that the end of the world is nigh. But many reputable scholars do lend some credence to the notion that the world is in for some kind of disaster, be it meteorological, ecological or geopolitical.
ABC News will air a dramatic two-hour broadcast in September, Earth 2100, bringing the greatest minds across the globe together to tell us what we must do to survive the next century. And what may happen if we don't.
Though tsunamis, hurricanes and heat waves may not be punishment from God, history teaches that events in the physical world trigger upheaval in society. Civilizations have risen and fallen over drought, famine and water wars.
"Only wild-eyed fundamentalists would think that recent weather phenomena have any theological significance," said John P. Meier, a New Testament scholar and professor at Notre Dame in Indiana. "The Earth has seen and will see much worse in recorded history."
The Apocalypse is rooted in the Judeo-Christian tradition, but end-of-the-world stories are also woven through some Hindu and Islamic beliefs. One Catholic University spokesman described it as "the magical mystery tour of the Bible," filled with vivid imagery: a beast-like antichrist, an angry God and the destruction of the world by fire.
Modern millennialists and eschatologists -- including Yisrayl "Buffalo Bill" Hawkins, the founder of the House of Yahweh religious sect located on a 44-acre compound outside Abilene, Texas, who predicted (incorrectly) the end of the world yesterday, June 12 — have been forecasting Doomsday for decades.
"It's been going on for millennia and they get it wrong all the time," said Thomas Reese, senior fellow at the Woodstock Theological Seminary at Georgetown University.
"After the first millennium, they thought the world would come to an end," he said. "The pope and the cardinals were in the old St. Peters and they were expecting Jesus to come back. It didn't happen."
The Book of Revelation was written at a time when the Romans were persecuting Christians by setting them afire and feeding them to the lions.
"You have to understand the historical context of the Apocalypse and the time it was written," said Reese. "They were trying to encourage Christians to have hope and to argue that their cause is just and God will not let the bad guys win."
"The central message is that sin is not good for people and it has consequences, but we wouldn't think hurricanes, tidal waves and locusts," he said. "We know enough about science today to look on natural events as natural and not coming from God to punish people."
Meteorologists say there is a natural explanation for all this catastrophic weather — Pacific Decadal Oscillation. Since the 1970s, the Pacific Ocean has been warming, but now it is going through a cooling phase, according to Jay Searles, forecaster instructor at Penn State University.
"But now, we are flipping, and these flips happen over decades," said Searles. "When we go through transition phases like right now, they tend to favor stormy more violent weather – everything we have been observing."
"We are not being punished, though it may seem like it," said Searles. "But there is a scientific reason behind what is happening and that makes sense."
Stephen B. Chapman, associate professor of the Old Testament at Duke University Divinity School, says the Bible has a lot to say about man's relationship to the eco-system.
"In the Bible there is an essential relationship between social justice and right worship and ecology," said Chapman. "The Bible has an intense interest in ecology."
Religious scholars are beginning to pay more attention to what the Bible has to say about man's destruction of the environment and its relationship to natural catastrophes
"The land bearing the cost of global warming is new, but the connection between what humankind does and what societies they form and the health of the land and agriculture is as old as the Bible itself," he said.
One of the great Bible stories – the flood of Genesis that destroyed the Earth – was caused by "violence," said Chapman. But when the floods subside and Noah step out of the ark, the Bible uses "one of the great symbols of hope" – the rainbow.
"The rainbow is explicitly a sign that God will not destroy the earth again and the hope that humankind can live in harmony with natural world."
But evangelists like Ken Han, founder and CEO of Answers in Genesis and the Creation Museum in Petersburg, Ky., believe God – not man – is at work in recent weather phenomena.
"There is earthly death payment for sin," said Han. "Because of sin, God doesn't hold the world perfectly together at times, and he uses certain events to judge a nation."
The Bible is filled with symbolism, poetry and parables, and Han says Revelation should not be taken "literally." Still, "just because it's apocalyptic literature doesn't mean there is no truth there."
When the world sins, "the whole of creation groans," according to Han's interpretation of a Biblical passage in Romans. Those groans are reflected in recent tornadoes and storms.
"If you carefully look at events there are certain catastrophes," said Han. "But God is in control and it's not God's fault, it's our fault because we sinned against God."
What will the fire of the Apocalypse look like? "Whatever happens, God will be in charge of it," he said. "I don't see man blowing it up [either through nuclear destruction or global warming]."
"If you believe in the Bible or the Big Bang, everyone agrees about the end of the universe," said Han. "Eventually those who believe in the Big Bang say it dies of heat death and it's all purposeless. But the Christian perspective in there is meaning to life."
New Age circles agree that some sort of cataclysmic event will occur — perhaps as early as 2012, according to ancient Mayan astronomers, who developed the world's most accurate calendar.
Science writer Lawrence Joseph explores those predictions and other theories of cybernetics – the behavior of complex systems – in his 2007 book, "Apocalypse 2012."
He says science can explain why the Earth has experienced recent violent weather patterns. "When you go from one state to the next period, there is chaos in between," according to Joseph. "There are periods of transition and chaos and it's never a straight line."
Scientists can predict major changes on the Earth by looking at its relationship to the sun, which has behaved "in more startling ways" in the last century, and more dramatically in the last three or four years.
Hurricanes Katrina, Rita and Wilma were "one of the stormiest periods on earth, and one of the stormiest on the sun," said Joseph. "People are starting to understand the Earth's relation to the sun."
Solar climaxes occur in cycles and the next is expected in 2012, when some scientists predict its activity will be 30 to 50 times more intense than previous ones.
In the 1400s the sun spots disappeared, and a century of drought and global cooling ensued, according to Joseph. It triggered chaos, and the eventual collapse of empire in China. It's the "domino effect" of weather on civilization "that has me worried," he said.
"If things in the Middle East were previously unstable, all we need is something that causes starvation in a system that is already teetering over the edge," Joseph said.
Joseph acknowledges that all the answers don't lie with science, and people project emotional meaning to natural catastrophes when they are anxious. Indeed, Americans have much to worry about: political threats, a foundering economy and even high gas prices.
"There is a certain end of the empire anxiety," he said.
And when weather patterns change, even rational people get nervous.
"There are unchallenged, unspoken assumptions that the seasons come and go your whole life, until the seasons start to mix themselves up and records are broken," he said. "It's profoundly unsettling. But we've seen nothing yet."