Could humans go extinct? Scientist Fred Guterl writes of a “climate Armageddon” and warns of an “apocalyptic event.” Respected scientists James Lovelock and Frank Fenner have also warned that extinction is a real possibility. And while others consider this unlikely, I still think it’s worth asking given all the doomsday talk recently: How should Christians think about human extinction in light of Biblical eschatology?
Human extinction can be a valuable theological resource, for starters, because it can put us in our place. We are not God. We are creatures. Truth be told, our existence is not necessary. From dust we came and to dust we return. This could be true on a global as well as personal scale.
The above scientists suggest that, if extinction were to occur, humans would be largely to blame. Guterl almost sounds theological when he notes, “We are always figuring out new ways of bringing apocalypse on our heads.” To sin, to turn away from God, to overreach our proper boundaries brings inevitable consequences. In light of that, we might say that human extinction, far from being unthinkable, would simply be the outworking of the fact that “the wages of sin is death.” The future judgment of God could very well be God simply letting human sin take its natural toll on creation and humanity.
Although the Bible speaks of judgment, it is also clear that God in His grace always preserves a remnant.
God’s judgment can be seen with fresh eyes, I think, as a result of thinking about (near) human extinction. We sometimes think of God’s judgment in a very “interventionist” way, as if God has to halt the natural, regular processes of the world and step into nature or history to exact judgment that otherwise wouldn’t have happened. But the Biblical picture of God’s providence, judgment and salvation is more complex than that. God uses the natural rise and fall of the Assyrian and Babylonian empires to judge Israel. And it’s possible to explain even the plagues of Exodus as happening by natural causes. So did God cause these or were they produced by natural causes? The proper theological answer is: both.
Now, this all sounds quite gloomy. If human sin were the only story in town, we would have good reason to despair. But it’s not.
Humanity will not go extinct, ultimately, because of Jesus, who is not only fully divine but fully human. In Jesus, we know the destiny of the human race. The present, glorified humanity of Jesus is the linchpin and guarantee of our own survival and ultimate transformation. In the death of Jesus, humanity really died. This was the inevitable end of the sons and daughters of the first Adam. But in the resurrection and ascension of Jesus, we have the guarantee of our own destiny. As the Heidelberg Catechism Q&A 49 puts it, we have “our own flesh in heaven as a sure pledge” that God’s plan for humanity goes beyond the extinction we would eventually bring on our own heads.
So although the Bible speaks of judgment, it is also clear that God in His grace always preserves a remnant. From the beginning of the Biblical narrative, the human race has been hurtling toward a self-inflicted extinction. And yet God is always ahead of us, turning curses into blessings, working out life where we deserve death, taking our rightful destiny upon Himself and re-connecting us to the only true source of life. The wages of sin is indeed death, but we know that death itself has already been swallowed up in victory. So we look forward to the day when death will die, when the threat of extinction itself will go extinct.