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What Catholics Believe About The End of the World

by Kenneth E. Untener

In January of 1843, a preacher named William Miller—the founder of the American Adventist movement—announced that the end of the world would take place between March 21,1843, and March 21,1844. He had combed the Bible for clues and figured it all out.

Thousands from all denominations believed him, and tension mounted as the— yearlong vigil began, heightened by the appearance of a comet. Alas, the fateful year came to an end, and the world didn—t.

Neither did the speculation. There had been a miscalculation, Miller pointed out. He and his followers found a passage in the prophet Habakkuk about a —delay,— and a verse in the Book of Leviticus about 7 days and 10 months. Neither passage, of course, had anything to do with the end of the world, but never mind that. A new date was announced: October 22, 1844. Tension mounted once again. You know the outcome.

Similar scenarios have taken place in every age and continue at this moment. Such prophets never fail to find believers. Elvis lives.

The hype increases as we approach the year 2000. Some take it seriously, even fanatically, as did the Branch Davidian sect in Waco, Texas, in 1993. One radio church lists 24 signs from the Bible that the end is near. Crop rotation in Israel, for example, fulfills a prophecy in Amos about the plowman overtaking the reaper. And on and on it goes.

Some key questions

The problem with all this is that it creates a doomsday mood, and causes people to treat this world like a throwaway ballpoint pen. These past weeks I made it a point to converse with various parishioners about this topic, and I—ll treat here the things that came up most frequently. I do so from a Roman Catholic perspective, based on the work of recognized Scripture scholars and theologians of various denominations. Let—s look first at some commonly asked questions.

What is Armageddon? There is a road running through the middle of Israel to the sea. About 15 miles before it reaches the sea lie the ruins of a city called Megiddo. Its strategic location made it the scene of colossal battles going back 6000 years. When speaking of any great conflict, people often spoke of it as Megiddo or Armageddon, Hebrew words referring to the area around this city. Some go to great lengths in speculating about a final battle of Armageddon between the forces of good and evil preceding the end of the world (see Rv 16:14-16).

There is no reason to believe that the city or plain of Armageddon has any connection with the end of the world. It is imply an image, not unlike saying, —Well, next Tuesday is D day.— If someone overheard this and started watching for something to happen next Tuesday on the beaches of Normandy (where the Allies began the invasion of France in World War II), we would think it strange.

What is the significance of the millennium and —The 1000-Year Reign of Christ—? A passage in Revelation reads: “Then I saw an angel come down from heaven, holding in his hand the key to the abyss and a heavy chain. He seized the dragon, —the ancient serpent, which is the Devil or Satan, and tied it up for a thousand years...— (Rv 20:1-2).

The thousand years simply means a long time, just as we might say, —You won't guess this in a thousand years.— We—are now in the long period between Christ—s victory (symbolically expressed by tying up Satan) and his coming in glory. It could last millions of years. There are people (“millenarians—) who take this passage literally and search for signs of some thousand-year period on earth. When you start thinking in terms of a millennium, the approach of the year 2000 can get exciting. The same thing happened as the year 1000 approached. It—s the old problem of taking symbolic language literally.

Should we be preoccupied about the year 2000? We number things for convenience. The pages in a book, for example, are numbered for easy reference. The page numbered 100 really isn—t the 100th page, since the first few pages either aren—t numbered or have Roman numerals. The numbers simply help us find the right page.

We have done the same with our years, and there have been different numbering systems—the Jewish calendar, the Chinese calendar and others. The Gregorian calendar, now in common use, was introduced some 400 years ago, and took the birth of Christ as its reference point.

The year 2000 is not really the 2000th year. For one thing, the Gregorian calendar has no year —zero——which means we are already one year off. For another thing, there was a miscalculation on the date of Christ—s birth, which took place between 7 and 4 B.C. In other words, the year 2000 is not the 2000th year after Christ—s birth. Calendar dates are just numbers for common reference, with no particular scriptural or theological significance.

What about the —rapture—? We normally use rapture to signify spiritual or emotional ecstasy. However, the more basic meaning of the word is —to seize, to transport.— End-of-the-world prophets use it in this latter sense. Matthew—s Gospel speaks of two women grinding meal; one is —taken— and the other is left (see 24:41). Literalists do not accept this as symbolic language, and they expect that at the end of time the just will be plucked from the earth by God (see 1 Thes 4:17). Bumper stickers read, ——Are you ready for the rapture?— It is another example of taking symbolic language literally.

How should we understand the Antichrist? The term Antichrist appears only in the first and second epistles of John. It is clearly a term symbolic of the forces working against Christ in all periods of history, not a clue about a specific individual. If someone observed, —Every family has skeletons in the closet,— you would miss the point if you started searching the hallway closet!

Doomsday Passages in Scripture

We now take a closer look at how the Bible treats the end of the world. We are familiar with various kinds of— literature: poetry, science fiction, history, satire. Most people are not familiar with a kind of literature called —apocalyptic.— It was very popular from about 200 B.C. to 200 A.D., a time of great crisis in Israel.

The Greek word apocalypse (in English, revelation) literally means —to draw back the veil.— When times were tough, writers tried to bring comfort by putting things into a wider perspective. Baseball managers try to do the same when their team is in a slump: —We were riding high at the beginning of the season, but now the sky has fallen in. Well, we—ve been through tough times before. It—s a long season and we—ve got the horses.—

Apocalyptic literature attempts to give assurance that, however bad things may be, one need only draw back the veil and see things in the perspective of the great battle against evil, and appreciate the length and breadth and depth of God—s victorious power at work among us.

To paint this larger picture, writers drew from a storehouse of stock apocalyptic images that dwarfed the immediate crisis. Among the standard images were: stars falling from the sky, the sun and moon darkened, lightning, thunder, dragons, creatures with many eyes, four horsemen, trumpet blasts, water turning to blood, plagues. It—s a way of saying that the present order of things is not the whole picture and will be giving way to something new and much larger.

Strange pictures are conjured up when people take these apocalyptic images literally. Imagine what would happen if people in future epochs took literally images we use today: raining cats and dogs, hit the roof, money coming out of his ears, two-faced, forked tongue, on cloud nine and so on.

Don—t look for coded messages

Biblical writers addressed the problems of their day. These past events have parallels in every age, and we can learn from them. But there is not the slightest indication that the authors were giving secret coded messages about distant future events. The Bible is not a coded message for a select few. It is the basic story of human life for all people in every age.

But people continue to look for coded messages. For example, the Book of Revelation, using apocalyptic language, speaks of a beast with —feet like a bear—s.— Some people in modern times have actually thought this was a secret message about Russia. Never mind that the Book of Revelation was written for an audience of the first century! This is the sort of thing that happens when Scripture is treated like a word game.

And then there are numbers. A thousand years simply means a long time, and a certain number of months means a short time. Those who take these numbers literally become the William Millers of every age. One of the favorites is the passage in the Book of Revelation which assigns the number 666 to one of the beasts. The author, using the numerical value of letters, was probably referring to the Roman emperor Nero. Since then, people have applied it to world leaders in every age, including Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin and many others. Popes have been fairly regular targets.

Sayings of Jesus about the end of the world

When the disciples marveled at the beauty of the Temple, Jesus told them that some day it would all be destroyed. He uses apocalyptic language: —There will be powerful earthquakes, famines, and plagues from place to place; and awesome sights and mighty signs will come from the sky—.Woe to pregnant women and nursing mothers in those days, for a terrible calamity will come upon the earth and a wrathful judgment upon this people— (Luke 21:11, 23).

Taken literally, this sounds like a dreadful end to the whole world, but it actually refers to the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. Because he uses apocalyptic language, many of the sayings of Jesus about the end of Jerusalem are wrongly applied to the end of the world.

Still there are times when Jesus does talk about the end of the world, and here too he uses apocalyptic language: —the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will fall from the sky, and the powers of the heavens will be shaken— (Mt 24:29). We find the same stock images in the 13th chapter of Isaiah, referring to the fall of Babylon six centuries before Christ: —The stars and constellations of the heavens send forth no light; the sun is dark when it rises and the light of the moon does not shine—the heavens tremble and the earth shall be shaken from its place.—

There will be an end to history as we know it, and the fads and fashions of this world are passing. When it will come is irrelevant—it will come for each of us at death. And how it will come is unknown, because apocalyptic language is symbolic and cannot be plumbed for secret clues that simply aren—t there. The basic message of these passages is a clear one: If we live as though the finite horizons of this life were the whole of reality, we are fools indeed.

The second coming of Christ

There was a time when it was customary on Ascension Thursday, after reading the Gospel, to extinguish the Paschal Candle—as though Jesus were gone and we were left to await his second coming at the end of time.

Scripture doesn—t use the phrase second coming, but speaks of various comings of the Lord, often using the Greek work parousia (—presence, coming—). Jesus promised his disciples that he would come back to them, and he did come back after the Resurrection, breathing the Spirit upon them and fulfilling the promise that the Father and he would make their dwelling with them (and with us). In Matthew—s Gospel, his last words are, —And behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age— (Mt 28:20).

We believe that his presence will be manifest in a much fuller way at the end of the age, which will be the parousia. We shouldn—t picture this as an arrival from outer space, as though he had to come —from a distance.— The image of Jesus —seated at the right hand of the Father— expresses honor, not geographic place. The image of Jesus coming on a cloud is an apocalyptic expression, taken straight from the Book of Daniel—“I saw one like a son of man coming on the clouds of heaven— (7:13)—and should not be taken literally.

The Eucharistic Prayer for Children III expresses all this quite well: —Jesus now lives with you (Father) in glory, but he is also here on earth among us....One day he will come in glory.”—

We don—t really know what it will be like when Jesus, already present among us, fully manifests himself in glory at the end of the age. It will be probably be as different from our expectations as was every other —parousia,— including the incarnation.

Is the end of the world near? No one has any idea. It could be 40 million years away (the sun has at least that much fuel) or it could happen a week from Tuesday.

A frightening end or a new birth?

Perhaps the best way to describe the end of the world is to see it as history coming to term. This is a birth image, which is one of the images Jesus used. We are within history, which is like being in the confines of the womb, and what a mistake it would be to think there is not a wider reality ahead of us. It would be equally a mistake to think that what we are about now is unimportant. Just as in a pregnancy, what is being formed is very important to what shall be, so in the process of history, what is taking shape will be very much related to what is born into the reign of God. We are not throwaways, and this is not a throwaway world.

While the end of this stage might be frightening, as birth can be, it need not be seen as catastrophic. It is a passing over into something not fully known. When a child is born, almost all its points of reference are changed, and that can be traumatic. But it is a beautiful event.

We have a wide picture of salvation. We really believe in the saving of this world, the one we—re living in. In his miracles Jesus gave us a taste of the Kingdom emerging into this world, and the world into the Kingdom. We don—t take this world or history lightly.

Catholics generally are not preoccupied with prophecies of impending doom. They have an optimistic view of the world, and see the end as the gradual (not sudden) passing of creation into God—s realm. They give value to the things of earth by incorporating them into their journey to God. Perhaps this is related to our rather —earthy— tradition of using material things— palms, ashes, water, bread, wine, oil, fire, incense, vestments, colors, icons, symbols—in our worship.

But on the other hand, we don—t have the illusion that this is the whole of reality. What a tragedy it would be if a person were to gain the whole of this world and destroy oneself in the process.

Apocalyptic imagery can be used badly to make it seem as though —the end— were simply a matter of the just being plucked from the deck of a sinking ship (the universe) and transported to a new ship unrelated to this one. It can trivialize the significance of Jesus becoming part of our world in the incarnation. In so doing, it can trivialize the length and breadth of salvation.

When will it all happen?

When will history come to term? When will the —birth— happen? We don—t know. There is no indication that it is near, and there is no assurance that it is far. What is important is not when it will happen, but that it will happen. History is short when put in perspective. The Second Epistle of Peter reminds us, —But do not ignore this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is like a thousand years and a thousand years like one day— (3:8).

What is also important is that our own end is relatively near. By the insurance mortality charts, I have 23 years left. Only God knows the actual count. In the Parable of the Rich Fool, Jesus presents this perspective in language we can all under—stand. After a bountiful harvest the rich man plans to store his grain in bigger barns, believing be can now rest, eat, drink, be merry. God says to him, —You fool, this night your life will be demanded of you; and the things you have prepared, to whom will they belong?— (Lk 12:20)

When we see ourselves and this world in the perspective of history coming to term, we see with different eyes. Things that seem so important within the limited horizon of the womb of history become not so important. Things that seem not so important in this world—s eyes become very important. It changes one—s whole attitude about what you want to do with your life.

Instead of fretting about the question of —when,— therefore, we are wiser to focus on the question of —who——namely, upon a loving God who promises to walk with us to the end, whenever that occurs. Our understanding of the “end— flows from a real-life conviction about the here-and-now meaning of our lives and our universe. In short, we believe with St. Paul that the same God —who began a good work in you will continue to complete it until the day of Christ Jesus— (Phil 1:6).

Bishop Kenneth E. Untener, a native of Detroit, has a doctorate in theology from the Gregorian University in Rome. In 1977 he was appointed rector of St. John—s Seminary, Plymouth, Michigan. In 1980 he became bishop of the Diocese of Saginaw. A writer and popular lecturer, Bishop Untener regularly conducts retreats for priests and gives talks around the country.


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