Fact: We inhabit a world filled with danger. Many of those dangers are remote or small enough that we can easily take precautions against them ourselves. Locking a car door or exercising care when crossing a busy intersection are obvious examples. But other dangers lie beyond our ability to personally control: criminal acts, cancer, or invasion by an enemy force. That is why societies maintain police, hospitals, and a standing military. We rely on doctors and pharmacists to protect us from diseases that we ourselves cannot even understand much less control.
If there were no threats to our life, security, and happiness such professions would have no reason to exist. But life, as we well understand the older we get, is beset by many dangers, both hidden and visible. Some dangers we can reasonably control, either personally or as a community, but what about those dangers over which we have no plausible control? To whom shall we turn for protection when a particular danger is so grave or overwhelming that no human power is adequate to deal with it?
I am personally fascinated by geology because of the stimulating variety of land and rock formations everywhere. But geology is more than the study of earth’s structure; it is also a study of time ─ very, very deep time. Geologists paint their stories with a palette encompassing billions of years; incomprehensible spans of time in fact. But how is one to put the estimated 4.5 billion years of our planet’s existence into some human context?
Try to imagine that entire span of time compressed into a single calendar year. On such a time scale human beings have been plodding around for the last ten minutes or so. That would mean arriving at a party which started a year back on New Year’s day at 11:50 p.m., December 31. I hope you brought some chips or pretzels; the supply was getting a little low. But all of recorded human history, beginning with ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt, easily fits into that very last minute of the year! Imagine that Jesus Christ lived and died in Palestine just 17 seconds before midnight sounds. Anybody present old enough to qualify for Social Security retirement was born with ½ second to go. The average American’s life expectancy is a mere 2/3 of a second, so the old adage about not wasting time really applies here!
With so much elapsed time major events are bound to happen. Stars are born and burn out. Various species come and go. Asteroids and comets collide with other cosmic bodies. There are myriad dangers in nature itself over which we have no realistic control, and only a great lack of humility would suggest otherwise. Not even the U.N. or NATO can prevent a Gibraltar sized asteroid from slamming directly into London. But that is not to say that the human race is defenseless against such calamities. Of course, God could easily redirect any errant asteroid’s course if he so wishes. We do in fact have a Divine Protector watching out for our interests, and so we owe him a debt of gratitude. “Can any of you by worrying add a single moment to his life-span?.. Do not be afraid any longer, for your Father is pleased to give you the kingdom. (Lk. 12: 25;32)
But to impress upon all the fact that the Damocles sword under which we constantly live is nonetheless quite real, consider a situation that has the potential to unleash unimagined global devastation with virtually no warning or time to prepare, even if preparation were possible. The world’s very first National Park, called Yellowstone, was established in 1872 here in the United States. But Yellowstone Park, for all its beauty and natural wonders, is a ticking time bomb.
Geologists have been studying the history and thermal anomalies of Yellowstone for well over a century. During that time they have learned some very disquieting geological truths about it. The park is essentially a vast volcanic caldera approximately the size of Rhode Island. Moreover, this is no ordinary caldera but a highly dangerous type called a “resurgent caldera.” This means that sitting a mere few thousand feet beneath the bucolic meadows of Yellowstone National Park there resides an enormous reservoir of hot, gummy magma wending its way deep beneath the crust and down into the molten mantle of the earth itself. Now, as water percolates its way naturally down through crevasses in the overlaying rock it becomes trapped in pockets of magma where it becomes a volatile, superheated steam. When a critical mass of that steam builds up enough pressure to break through the rock “lid” containing it, an explosion the likes of which has never been witnessed in human history, will occur.
If and when this cataclysmic explosion rocks the Wyoming/Montana landscape is still a point of debate among geologists. What they do know from prior evidence is that eruptions seem to occur around every 600,000 years or so. Since the last explosion was just about 600,000 years ago, it means that the egg timer has pretty much run out. Consequently Yellowstone is considered to be one of the most potentially dangerous “hot spots” on the planet. Mt. St. Helens was a child’s pop gun going off by comparison.
Any eruption of Yellowstone will break across the landscape with unbelievable force. The seismic wave alone could level trees and buildings for 50 to 100 miles in any direction. Whole towns will disappear in seconds in the wake of a shock wave equivalent to our nation’s entire nuclear arsenal being detonated all at once.
But the explosion is only the beginning, however. Geologists estimate that anywhere from 100 to 500 cubic miles of rock, mud, and superheated rhyolitic ash could be ejected far into the atmosphere, releasing more Co2 than all the coal burned since the beginning of the industrial revolution, all in a matter of seconds. This apocalyptic cloud of hot ash will enter into the stratosphere to be dispersed around the entire planet. Much of it will fall back to earth quickly, burying the entire state of Wyoming and much of Montana to a depth of five feet or more, depending on proximity to Yellowstone. Any military or commercial jetliners unfortunate enough to be within a hundred miles of the explosion would fall to the earth as hot ash and dust clog the turbines, and possibly incinerate all on board.
In May of 1980 Mt. St. Helens ejected approximately ½ cubic mile of ash into the atmosphere. Living in Denver, Colorado, over 1,000 air miles away, I still recall that fine layer of ash falling on the city, dusting cars and window sills. Yet Yellowstone has the potential to release 1,000 times the volume of hot ash as the Mt. St. Helens eruption did in 1980. Imagine that lingering for days or weeks in the atmosphere grounding flights, clogging engines, furnace and A.C. filters. The choking dust alone might conceivably result in tens of thousands of asthmatic deaths.
As the jet stream carries this enormous noxious cloud eastward across the nation no town would be spared. Flights might be grounded for days or weeks. Clean up would become a nightmare in cities like Chicago as they dealt with millions of tons of finely grained powder. Rains would quickly turn the stuff into a slick, heavy paste making streets impassable. The talc-like ash even works its way into keyboard components. Hurricane Katrina affected a handful of localized cities. Are Federal agencies prepared to deal with the thousands of communities that would be severely impacted simultaneously? Ancient Rome had no choice but to abandon Pompeii as a graveyard after a much smaller eruption of Vesuvius. Such a hypothetical disaster does not end at the Atlantic either. The plume of dust makes its way into the jet stream encircling the globe, and filtering out heat and sunlight for a year or more. Trade, aviation, and communications would be severely compromised. Crop failures from the colder conditions would affect food supplies globally.
But is it really necessary to live in fear of some unavoidable cataclysm, or should we rather ponder for a moment just how much God protects us every day from countless threats that we may not even be aware of, be it a deadly virus or a volatile volcano? God who created mankind also provides for and protects it daily. Danger is little more than a constant reminder of his constant vigilance on our behalf. We occasionally need to remind ourselves that this technologically self-sufficient age doesn’t have viable solutions to every potential calamity. Divine disposition and good will still plays a huge role in human affairs. Before the advent of modern technologies virtually everyone accepted that their welfare and safety were secured as much through divine providence as by swords or ploughshares. Perhaps modern man’s “progressive” impiety should be viewed for what it is, an affront to the God who made us and bestows his protection on us in so many unseen ways.
No, God is not just waiting around for some arbitrary excuse to cast a bolt of lightning our way. He is a God of mercy, not the God of “got-cha!” Still, Christ clearly warned that we must be vigilant nonetheless because at some point a terrifying reckoning is going to occur. “Immediately after the tribulations of those days, the sun will be darkened, and the stars will fall from the sky, and the powers of heaven will be shaken. And then the sign of the Son of Man will appear in heaven, and all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see the Son of Man coming upon the clouds of heaven with power and great glory.” (Mt. 24:29-30)
Am I prepared for that moment of my life when I am called from this earth? For that is the greatest danger any person can face, the moment of reckoning with our Creator. This is a serious question that we should not put off until some great disaster befalls us, for then it will be too late. “But that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father alone. So too, you must also be prepared, for at an hour you do not expect, the Son of Man will come.” (Mt. 24:36, 44)
Fran Pierson +a.m.d.g.