Prepping for the Impending Apocalypse

Stanley Kubrick made the movie Dr. Strangelove as a joke in 1964. His dark comedy took aim at the fragile egos of politicians in the U.S. and U.S.S.R. that threatened to push our world over the precipice of a nuclear winter during the Cold War. Though Soviet hostilities have dissipated, the joke still isn’t as funny as one would wish because an apocalypse still feels closer than one would hope.

Climate disasters, AI ascendency, a global pandemic, and roving bands of violent ideologues have moved beyond the bounds of science fiction. The breakdown of civility and human decency serves as supporting evidence for the four out of ten Americans who now believe we’re living in the end times.

The church must disciple Christians to prepare in the right way for the right thing. Jesus tells his followers to prepare for his return at the end like we would for a wedding party. (Mt 25:1-13) A soul filled with God’s presence is better preparation than a pantry filled with canned veggies.

Prepper Movement

The prepper movement didn’t emerge overnight. For a long time, I dismissed apocalypse preppers as fringe fanatics who’d lost their way while wading through the sewers of the dark web. But a movement that used to merit an eye-roll now swims in the mainstream. Its adherents have no shortage of valid reasons for concern. What we do with our worries is the question.

The market for doomsday bunkers has expanded beyond eccentric billionaires. You, too, can provide peace of mind for your family by securing a luxury survival condo. This accommodation comes with a lower price point than a private bunker and the added benefit of the company of other foresighted individuals (weapons and dry food arsenal not included). How well and how long such accommodations would serve if the power grid were knocked out is a hazy question, but you’ll at least have purchased a mental fortress to assuage your current anxiety.

A pastor friend of mine told me about a church that took him on a tour of their facilities. It concluded in their steel-reinforced war room, stocked with guns, food, and video cameras.

What is a healthy level of preparation? No one wants to land in a crisis they could have prevented, but equally important is the message Christians send about the hope and confidence that Jesus promises.

Planning vs. Paranoia

The Bible doesn’t disparage forethought and planning. The book of Proverbs is full of warnings against lazy short-sightedness. The sluggard sleeps during harvest and has nothing to eat in winter (Prov. 20:4). He’s told to take lessons from the ant, an industrious creature who always prepares for the next season (Prov. 6:6-8). Likewise, when Jesus sends his disciples out, he tells them to take money, a pack of provisions, and a sword (Lk 22:35-36). Jesus also urged his disciples to sit down and reckon—to count the cost before following him (Luke 14:25–33). Being prepared isn’t just for Boy Scouts; it’s for biblical Christians.  

But in Luke 14, Jesus’s point was that true disciples must be prepared to renounce all they hold dear on earth to follow him without encumbrance. Jesus also commands us not to worry about what we’ll eat and what we’ll wear (Matt. 6:25–33) and to not boast about tomorrow because we don’t know what a day will bring (James 4:13–14). There’s a fine line between wise planning and fear-driven obsession.

But where is the line? Where does reasonable preparation cross into crippling paranoia? If you’re flying to another state or country, you should prepare for your journey. But how much should you pack? It’s common sense to bring some extra underwear and socks. But what if your plane crashes and you must survive in the wilderness? What if while you’re away, your neighbor leads an insurrection, declaring himself czar of the new nation of Maplewood Estates? Or what if COVID-20 breaks out, and you’re forced to quarantine for two years in Chicago-O’Hare? Two checked bags are hardly enough… Maybe you’d better just stay home and close the blinds.

What Future Are We Preparing For?

Extreme preppers are prone to two sociological sicknesses. Either they isolate from society and scorn the ignorant herd who simply aren’t paying attention, or they cast themselves as the future saviors of a hapless humanity.

Once while waiting tables during seminary, I served a group of proto-prepper men in their early fifties. They asked me, “What skills do you have?” Uncertain of their question, I answered that I had a bachelor’s degree in education and was now studying at seminary. “OK,” one responded, waving his hand as if shooing away a fly, “but what skills do you have?” They meant skills like bow hunting, woodworking, farming, or mechanical repair that I’d I be able to barter with when our world inevitably descends into some quasi-medieval Wild West.

While I admired this group’s versatile talents (I have to get help with Ikea projects), I had strong doubts about their vision of the future world. What sort of community was their city in the clouds where training in education and theology would hold roughly equivalent value to a high score in Bejeweled?

We should proportion our preparation efforts in accordance with the certainty of the thing prepared for. And Christian’s greatest certainty is that he’ll appear before and give account to God. To this end, Jesus tells the story of a rich man who made elaborate preparations for how to preserve his wealth but neglected his relationship with God. “You fool!” God says to him, “This night your soul is required of you, and the things you have prepared, whose will they be?” (Luke 12:20). Paul exhorts believers similarly when he writes, “For while bodily training is of some value, godliness is of value in every way, as it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come” (1 Tim. 4:8).

How to Prepare

Our future (like every previous civilization) is uncertain. If you want to bet on a set of skills that will be most adaptable, most serviceable, most practical—in all weather and circumstances—it should be knowing God and His Word (Jer 9:23-24). As in every arena of the Christian life, attitude matters a lot more than logistics. It’s not wrong to create emergency plans. Bunkers aren’t always bad (especially if you live in tornado country). The question is, how do you think and speak about the future?

Psalm 112:7-8 says, “the righteous will never be moved…He is not afraid of bad news; his heart is firm, trusting in the Lord. His heart is steady; he will not be afraid.” Notice that in the midst of extolling his traits of confidence, courage, and stability, we are given the reason why—he trusts in the Lord.  It’s not his forethought or savvy preparation that helps him sleep soundly. Nor is he insulated from bad news because he belongs to God. His heart remains firm because he knows the greatness and faithfulness of his Savior. Christians should lead the way in living fearlessly.

The Bible teaches us to number our days (Ps 90:12). Whether Jesus wraps things up in the next five years or this generation is lost in the sands of time, we know we are living in the last age, and everything we see is transient. “Therefore,” Peter writes, “what sort of people ought you to be in lives of holiness and godliness, waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God? (2 Pet 3:11-12)”

Christians should look forward to and pray for the day when Jesus will come to right all wrongs. In the meantime, we should focus on preparing not for hypotheticals but for the certainty of today and eternity. We should cultivate lives of godliness here and now, which includes working faithfully, loving those around us, and pointing others to Jesus.

Justin Poythress (DMin Westminster Theological Seminary) is the pastor of All Saints Church in Boise, ID. You can find more of Justin's writing on his blog, Time & Chance.