This is the script of this morning’s Thought for the Day on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.

When I heard yesterday that North Korea had tested another nuclear weapon, it was the language that caught my attention. What was detected in Japan and South Korea was described as “an artificial earthquake”.

I know what is meant by this – that it wasn’t a case of the earth moving of its own accord, but caused by a deliberate explosion. Yet, it is still an earthquake and there is little artificial about its effects. These go well beyond the realms of the physical world – they shock our imagination.

Interestingly, the language of apocalypse is beginning to find its way back into common currency, coloured no doubt by biblical images conjured up over centuries to depict the fiery end of the world. And there is nothing artificial about the fear that such associations engender – even if we don’t lie directly in the line of potential fire – or our sense of helplessness as we watch events unfold.

We have been here before – President Kennedy brought the world to the brink when in 1961 he challenged the Soviet Union and its plans to put missiles on Cuba. The world held its collective breath.

In similar circumstances now, it might be worth recalling what Apocalypse is really all about. The biblical Book of the Apocalypse – usually known as Revelation – contains vivid imagery of conflicts and choices set in a context of lurid cosmic battles.

Yet, contrary to much popular belief, it wasn’t intended to be a prediction of the end of the world. Rather, it was written from exile to a Christian community that was suffering terrible persecution at the hands of a Roman Emperor who, if nuclear weapons had been available to him, might well have behaved like Kim Jong-Un. This form of apocalyptic writing used image and metaphor to encourage the persecuted not to compromise and not to give up hope. Why? Because the present needs to be seen in the context of the cosmic and the eternal. Death, violence and destruction do not have the final word – even in this world. Judgement means ultimate justice. And Christians are called to be drawn by hope, not driven by fear. However weird that looks to anyone else, that is the deal.

Now, you can’t easily accuse the tortured recipients of this letter of escapism or other-worldly fantasy. Rather, they were compelled – as are many Christians in some parts of the world even today – to choose whom they will serve. This is about digging to the foundations of what we believe we are about and for whom we exist… now in this world.

We don’t know how the latest threat and challenge will turn out. But, we can ask fundamental questions about why we think the world and human life are worth preserving in the first place. And that might guide our thinking away from potential ultimate destruction towards committed life-building here and now.


Two days, two deaths. But, what a contrast.

Vaclav Havel, a brave and reluctant leader who found himself propelled into the presidency of his newly-liberated country, oversaw its split into two separate nations (the Czech Republic and Slovakia), managed the uneasy transition from Communism to European democracy, and gave up power as soon as it was decent to do so. He leaves behind a legacy not only of political courage, but of great writing and rhetoric. Here was a man who gave his life for his people.

Then, today, Kim Jong Il left North Korea choking on its tears – but not on much else. The Great Leader has starved his people while feeding his own ego. The danger for North Koreans lies in spotting the lack of greatness in their all-too-human ex-leader and catching a glimpse of what the rest of the world sees. (Try reading Barbara Demick’s powerful book Nothing to Envy for some reality.)

I am reminded of that great line by Jeremy Thorpe about Harold MacMillan following the Night of the Long Knives way back in 1963:

Greater love hath no man than this, than to lay down his friends for his life.

Havel might be remembered for this:

Hope is a state of mind, not of the world. Hope, in this deep and powerful sense, is not the same as joy that things are going well, or willingness to invest in enterprises that are obviously heading for success, but rather an ability to work for something because it is good.
Kim Jong Il will be remembered by many by this:
Three deaths in one week (Hitchens included) – don’t they know it’s Christmas?