Viral Days

Shrugging Off the End Times

I live in two worlds, and people in one of them feel safe from the coronavirus

By Abi Newhouse | April 30, 2020
Thomas Hawk (Flickr/thomashawk)
Thomas Hawk (Flickr/thomashawk)

In the gray morning light when I’ve just woken up, I feel as if our world is an enormous Zoom call showing identical images of all of us rolling toward our bedside tables, picking up our phones, and reading updates about the spread of COVID-19. Each day is the same; some good news, some bad, and even more uncertainty about our next steps. Even at 10 A.M., I find myself exhausted, ready to shut my eyes to all of it. Because for me, a person raised in a Mormon household, my newsfeed is split in two: news for where I live, Washington, D. C., and news from my home state, Utah, where earlier in the span of this pandemic, people regarded the virus as just one sign of the impending end of the world.

All at once, disease began to spread around the world, earthquakes were felt across Utah, and missionaries were being sent home from their service abroad. After these events, friends in Utah started posting GIFs of nervous-looking characters, eyes wide and searching. Because according to prophecies, at the end of days, “fear shall come upon all people,” “there will be wars and rumors of wars,” and “we can expect earthquakes, disease, and famine.” Missionaries coming back home, though: that was supposed to be the most telling sign. Their return made room for the Lord to “preach [His] own sermons to the nations of the earth.” Mormons are nothing if not confirmation-biased creatures, and so they also pointed out that the prophet of the Church, Russell M. Nelson, had told Mormons to “eat your vitamin pills” back in October 2019, so he must have known the pandemic was coming. Mormons were always one step ahead. I’ve been outside the Utah Mormon bubble for a while now, and as I watched all of this, I half rolled my eyes and half remembered the familiar dread of my childhood.

We talked about the Second Coming of Jesus Christ often—because the end of world is the precursor for His arrival—but not as often as you’d think considering how many leaders told me it would occur in my lifetime. It was inevitable. It was a shrug and a nod. According to Church leaders, we had nothing to fear because we were true believers. Still, I never understood why being a member of the Church would protect me from events affecting the entire world. The idea of a “chosen” people never resonated with me like it was supposed to. I figured that when the end came, I’d be part of the madness, sick and in pain, in the thick of it. I couldn’t figure out the logistics of belief, what levels were necessary, where I landed in the grand scheme of good people. It was a great paradox: God loved all people no matter what, but only the righteous would survive.

In some ways, all humans have this tendency to feel immune: if an issue doesn’t affect them or someone they know directly, it must not be that big a deal. As I looked at pictures of Mormon families gathering at the airport in March to welcome home their 18-to-21-year-old missionary family members, I saw their grouping together as simple arrogance. I say that because I’ve been there; I know the reasoning. There’s this hope that they’re immune to the disease because God is on their side. Some still wore masks, but no one was social distancing.

It was easy to judge them from my apartment in D.C., but I had to remind myself that my initial reaction to a disastrous event can still be to doubt it will affect me at all. I’ve been the missionary walking down dangerous streets, unafraid because I was on God’s errand. All the epidemics, wars, and disasters that have happened during my lifetime—Ebola and the war on terror and Hurricane Katrina, among others—these events all felt like far-off horrors.

I can remember hearing Mormon neighbors, friends, and family saying that since the end of the world was both imminent and unavoidable, so why bother trying to stop it? Even with climate change, I thought of the prophecy that the world would burn before the Second Coming, and all conviction left me. A warming planet—that, too, was inevitable. Now, I compost and recycle, try to be energy conscious and avoid fast fashion, and I still know that it’s not enough. But I don’t have a fallback like I used to, even if it was all in my head.

The Mormon Church doesn’t preach that members have any sort of immunity. It’s not doctrine. In reaction to the coronavirus crisis, the Church suspended Sunday meetings and has asked members to follow the government’s guidelines. Church historical sites are closed, and all large gatherings have been canceled or postponed. This sense of immunity and inevitability are, instead, underlying symptoms of the larger Church culture—this idea of chosen people—that encourages members to believe they will be okay because of the story they subscribe to.

This chosen-people narrative has informed gatherings well beyond the Mormon community, with protestors showing up at state capitol buildings and demanding their constitutional rights, demanding to be set free from a their government-mandated prisons. Their signs say, My Body, My Choices and Open Businesses Now and Are Face Masks the New Condoms? These people say God intended us to have agency, to decide how we would govern ourselves. The pandemic isn’t their problem, because they are well. They are spared.

Living where I do has exposed me to the opposite mindset. People here have done what they were supposed to do from the beginning. We all wear masks. We social distance, even when it feels like all of the city is out for a daily walk. Most of these other people here have no idea about Mormon prophecies. They don’t consider the pandemic an inevitability, but rather something they can fight by altering their behavior for a blip of time.

It’s difficult to unlearn all that I’ve been taught. I still find myself wondering if the prophecies might be true, especially when so many of them are seemingly being fulfilled. Earthquakes are still shaking in Utah. The virus is here. The world is burning. But the wording in the prophecies is vague enough to cover all ages of the earth—there will always be war and rumors of war and diseases. And Utah has always been hit by earthquakes—nearly all of them unnoticed by its residents. When the terror directly affected them, it became real.

Recently, my brother texted a group message to our family asking if these were signs of the Second Coming. My mother replied: Yes. But we don’t need to worry. As I reflected on her response, I waited for the familiar anxiety when I pictured the end of days. But nothing happened. I used to feel the need to repent, to make sure I was ready and worthy. Now I look out my window into the quiet street behind my apartment and watch people on their walks and runs, picking up after their dogs, talking on their phones to family or friends, and I feel that I need to repent to them. I don’t see the end of the world as an inevitability, because of the control we wield by simply sitting on our couches. None of us are special. None of us will be saved—from the real or the imagined—if we don’t consider our actions carefully here and now.

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