The End Of The World As We Know It

T.S. Eliot, at the conclusion of his 1925 poem “The Hollow Men” wrote, “This is the way the world ends / Not with a bang but a whimper.” That’s a far cry from the cosmic crisis depicted in recent apocalyptic books and films, including the heavily touted and recently released “2012” (see sidebar below), which is crammed full of bangs, computer-generated explosions, earthquakes and floods.

Curiosity about the end of the world abounds. For many, it is both frightening and exciting to think they will witness The End. Wars and natural disasters are commonly interpreted as signs of approaching apocalypse; future famines and ecological crises are often promoted as hastening the same.

But are we really living in the end times? And what, exactly, does the Catholic Church teach about the end of the world?

These are the last days!

For Catholics, the terms “end times” and “last days” refer both to the conclusion of history at some future point, and also — even primarily — to the last 2,000 years. “In times past, God spoke in partial and various ways to our ancestors through the prophets,” wrote the author of the Letter to the Hebrews, “in these last days, he spoke to us through a son, whom he made heir of all things and through whom he created the universe” (Heb 1:1-2). It was the Incarnation, the entrance of God into time and space, that ushered in the end times and the last days.

In “The Lord of History” (London: Longmans, 1958), Cardinal Jean Daniélou wrote about how the first and second coming of the Lord are intimately connected: “First of all, it means that the Last Things have already begun. The resurrection of Christ is presented as the first and decisive act of the last day. The Word of God took humanity to himself in the Incarnation, and cleansed it through his precious blood, and brought it into his Father’s house forever at his ascension. The work of salvation has been substantially done, everything essential has been secured already.”

Yet God’s work of salvation and judgment still continues. “We are still waiting for that Judgment that will destroy the world of corruption and establish the kingdom of saints. This twofold relationship to something achieved and to something awaited specifies the current phase of time, which is the epoch of the Church.” The message of the Gospel is that man can only be saved from the trials of history — especially sin and death — through God’s work within temporal history. 

The kingdom is the key

Compared with the often fevered beliefs of certain fundamentalist groups, New Age groups, extremist cults and radical environmentalists, the Church’s teaching might appear decidedly mundane. But false teachings and skewed sensationalism cannot compare with the authentically radical and sensational teachings of the Church about history, salvation and the eschaton — the culmination of time and history. The heart of this teaching is Jesus’ proclamation that he was establishing the kingdom of God (see Mt 12:28; Mk 4:11; Lk 8:1-10). This everlasting kingdom was realized through his death, resurrection and ascension into heaven.

In fact, Christ himself is the kingdom. He calls out for all men to enter into his divine life, which on earth is found in his Mystical Body. This is the work of divine restoration spoken of often by the prophets in the Old Testament.

Lumen Gentium , the Second Vatican Council’s Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, reflected on these truths at length: “The Church­ — that is, the kingdom of Christ — already present in mystery, grows visibly through the power of God in the world. ... All men are called to this union with Christ, who is the light of the world, from whom we go forth, through whom we live, and toward whom our whole life is directed” (No. 3).

Thus the last days are all about a new creation and a new people, chosen by Jesus Christ and growing within history. This is the time of the New Covenant, the gathering together of God’s people in the Church, which “becomes on earth the initial budding forth of that kingdom” (No. 5). Therefore Christ’s first coming established the kingdom of God on earth and Christians are now living in that kingdom — that is, in the Church — which is still growing, by the power of the Holy Spirit, throughout the world. At The End, the return of Christ in glory will fully reveal and manifest the kingdom. 

Proclaiming the creed

Do Catholics believe in the Second Coming? Yes, absolutely! Yet this surprises many non-Catholic Christians and even a few Catholics. But each week at Mass, Catholics proclaim together, in reciting the Creed, that Jesus Christ will “come again in glory to judge the living and the dead.” The Church affirms that on that “last day” the “Lord himself, with a word of command, with the voice of an archangel and with the trumpet of God, will come down from heaven, and the dead in Christ will rise first” (1 Thes 4:16).

This is not symbolic language, but real belief in the bodily return of the risen Savior. This coming is the parousia , a Greek word meaning “presence,” or “arrival” (see Mt 24:27,37,39; 1 Cor 15:23; 1 Thes 2:19;3:13; 1 Jn 2:28). It is used in the New Testament to describe Christ’s return in victorious glory. Jesus himself stated that “the sign of the Son of Man will appear in the sky, and then all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of the sky with power and great glory” (Mt 24:30; see Catechism of the Catholic Church, No. 1001).

The Parousia has already been initiated by the Incarnation, which revealed the glory of God among men: “And the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us, and we saw his glory, the glory as of the Father’s only Son, full of grace and truth” (Jn 1:14). So the Parousia, God’s presence among men, began when the Son became a man and continues with the presence of the Holy Spirit. “By gazing on the risen Christ,” wrote then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger in “Eschatology: Death and Eternal Life” (CUA Press, 1988), “Christianity knew that a most significant coming had already taken place. It no longer proclaimed a pure theology of hope, living from mere expectation of the future, but pointed to a ‘now’ in which the promise had already become present. Such a present was, of course, itself hope, for it bears the future within itself.” For Catholics, this presence is most fully experienced in the Eucharist. (see sidebar below) 

When, when, when?

We’ve all wondered, from time to time: When will Christ return? Can I know when it might transpire? Some people, of course, are obsessed with figuring out the exact date. Groups such as the Millerites, Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Church Universal and Triumphant have set dates for The End. And then re-set them. But those days have come and gone, usually resulting in embarrassment, confusion and even fatal despair.

Date-setting is not an option for followers of Christ. Jesus said, “But of that day or hour, no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father” (Mk 13:32). But he also warned the disciples to be prepared for his return: “Be watchful! Be alert! You do not know when the time will come” (Mk 13:33). Reiterating this tension between not knowing and readiness, the Catechism teaches that Christ’s return “has been imminent [see Rv 22:20]” and that “this eschatological coming could be accomplished at any moment, even if both it and the final trial that will precede it are ‘delayed’” (No. 673).

This reference to the Parousia being “delayed” emphasizes God’s merciful desire for all men to receive His freely offered salvation: “The Lord does not delay his promise, as some regard ‘delay,’ but he is patient with you, not wishing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance” (2 Pt 3:9). It could be many more centuries or millennia before Christ comes again — or it could be very soon. But the Church teaches (see Catechism, Nos. 674-677) there are also at least three significant events that must take place before the Second Coming: an unparalleled period of tribulation and apostasy, the spread of the Gospel to all the world, and the recognition of Jesus as the Christ by “all Israel.” 

Three signs

Of the time of tribulation­, the Catechism states, “Before Christ’s second coming the Church must pass through a final trial that will shake the faith of many believers [see Lk 21:12; Jn 15:19-20]” (No. 675). This time of trial will be marked by religious deception, apostasy from the true faith, and the rise of the Antichrist. This time of trial at the end of history will reveal the fullness of the Antichrist, “a pseudo-messianism by which man glorifies himself in place of God and of his Messiah come in the flesh” (No. 675).

History has witnessed much speculation about the Antichrist. What is more clear is that when history draws to a close, Satan and his followers — both demonic and human — will seek to destroy as many souls as possible, unleashing diabolic destruction and causing widespread apostasy.

We also know the spirit of the Antichrist is already within the world, just as it has been for 2,000 years: “Children, it is the last hour; and just as you heard that the Antichrist was coming, so now many Antichrists have appeared. Thus we know this is the last hour” (1 Jn 2:18). There is deception and apostasy; there are many who mock Christ and even many self-described Christians who deny him (see 1 Jn 2:22; 4:3; 2 Jn 7).

In the Olivet Discourse, also known as “the little apocalypse,” Jesus told the disciples: “And this gospel of the kingdom shall be preached in the whole world as a witness to all nations, and then the end will come” (Mt 24:14). Has this occurred? Arguments can be made either way. As Ralph Martin, author of “Is Jesus Coming Soon?” (Ignatius Press, $11.95), has noted: “It is difficult to know whether this universal proclamation has taken place. Certain nations have had the Gospel preached to them in the past but not in the present.” The one certainty is the Gospel must be preached to as many people as possible; evangelization and missions are never optional, but always imperative.

Of the third event, the Church states Israel’s recognition of Jesus as the Messiah will take place prior to the Parousia. This is based on Romans 9-11 and St. Paul’s teaching that “hardening has come upon Israel in part, until the full number of Gentiles comes in” (Rom 11:25). Yet is far from evident how this “full inclusion” of ethnic Israel into the Church will come about. It would seem it has not yet taken place; perhaps it has already begun in ways not fully understood or recognized. What is certain is that Catholics, while always respecting the free will of every man, have an obligation to be spiritually prepared, to evangelize, and to advance the kingdom. 

Coming judgment

When will we be judged by God? The usual answer is, “After I die.” The Letter to the Hebrews states, “it is appointed that human beings die once, and after this comes judgment” (9:27). But judgment also takes place each time man commits sin and rejects God: “And this is the judgment, that the light is come into the world, and men loved the darkness rather than the light; for their deeds were evil” (Jn 3:19). Judgment, in other words, occurs every moment of every day. Our eternal destination originates from our response to God in this life.

Catholics, however, do not have a fatalistic or despairing view of the future, but one rooted in hope. As Pope Benedict XVI noted in his encyclical Spe Salvi (“Saved by Hope): “Even when we are fully aware that heaven far exceeds what we can merit, it will always be true that our behavior is not indifferent before God and therefore is not indifferent for the unfolding of history. We can open ourselves and the world and allow God to enter: we can open ourselves to truth, to love, to what is good” (No. 35).

Far from the action of an angry and vengeful God, judgment is an act of love, an act of transcendent and objective justice spurring man to conversion and holiness. Judgment is an integral part of The End, for at the final judgment things will appear as they really are, stripped of secrecy and obscurity. When God fully reveals himself to man at the end of time, the heart of every man will be completely exposed to him. “Men and things will appear in their true light, as they are, and every deception will vanish,” wrote Msgr. Romano Guardini in “Eternal Life” (Sophia Institute Press, 1998). “The inner and most hidden nature, both good and evil, will appear plainly, with all trappings stripped away. Every being will attain to what it is in truth.”

The final judgment is not about vengeance, but holiness and truth, for they are at the heart of each man’s relationship with the Righteous One. It will bring to completion God’s redemptive, saving work. Catholic doctrine emphasizes individual eschatology — that is, hell, purgatory and heaven — because we possess free will and are accountable for our actions and choices.

Jesus is both Savior and Judge, as Pope St. Clement pointed out nearly 2,000 years ago: “Brethren, we ought to think of Jesus Christ just as we do of God, as the Judge of the living and the dead; nor ought we to belittle our salvation. For when we think little of him, we also hope to receive but little” (2 Clement 1:1-2). 

Be on the alert

When Jesus stated that “of that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father alone” (Mt 24:36), he didn’t want his disciples to cease anticipating his return. He also remarked: “Therefore, stay awake! For you do not know on which day your Lord will come” (Mt 24:42). Anticipation and readiness need not turn into despair, fear or the error of date-setting. Yes, calculating the exact day of The End might seem far more emotionally stimulating than growing in grace and holiness. But it means nothing in the end if we are not focused on being true children of God.

“The doctrine of the Second Coming has failed, so far as we are concerned,” wrote C. S. Lewis in “The World’s Last Night and Other Essays” (Harcourt Brace, 1987), “if it does not make us realize that at every moment of every year in our lives Donne’s question ‘What if this present were the world’s last night?’ is equally relevant.” This life will end one way or another, to be followed by judgment and the revelation of who we have become and who we really are.

For all who are alive today, “the time is near” (Rv 1:3; 22:10), just a heartbeat away. The end of time and history might be centuries away, but the end of our lives is always near; each will be required to give an account to our Maker. Which is why John exhorts his flock to “remain in him, so that when he appears we may have confidence and not be put to shame by him at his coming” (1 Jn 2:28).

Carl E. Olson is the editor of IgnatiusInsight.com.

Will the world end in 2012? (sidebar)

The Eucharist: The eschatological sacrament (sidebar)

Glossary (sidebar)