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What Do Catholics Believe About the End Times? And a Plea for Sanity

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A solidly written, theologically sound devotional book which encourages Christian growth may sell fairly well at your average Christian bookstore, but we all know the big bucks can be found in writing about the "end times." The more outlandish the theory and the more willing an author is to predict actual dates and times, the better for the bottom line of the author and publisher. Even though the Scriptures admonish us not to go around setting dates and times (even Jesus in his earthly ministry didn't know the exact date and hour) some people think that the Father will reveal to them what he wouldn't even reveal to his Incarnate Son! Even books like the Left Behind series, written as fiction, present a certain end times theology as fact, which can be dangerous. The end times have become a multi-million (billion?) dollar industry while driving theology further and further from the traditional Christian understanding. I think we need to restore some sanity to the issue. This may not sell books, but it is necessary. Read on.

Many catholic minded people, myself included, have regarded these books as more amusing than dangerous, more of an annoyance than diabolical. It's not hard to argue against this type of ridiculousness. After all, although Edgar Whisenaut gave 88 reasons why the world would end in 1988, any child can give one well-reasoned answer why it didn't: it's 2003. I am sure that books like the Left Behind series have done some good for the cause of Christ and as long as people read them as fiction, they are fine. Yet, these books, combined with numerous end times best sellers, create a warped eschatology (view of the end times) that is foreign to historic, orthodox Christianity. In many ways, these new views of the end times do a great disservice to Christ and the Church.

First, they make Christians look silly. Who do you think will get more media coverage, a calm reassuring Roman Catholic scholar saying we don't know when the world will end, or a fringe preacher promoting his newest book explaining why the world will end in 20 days? In the age of reality TV the answer is obvious. The scholar's comments will make the Discovery Channel, the preacher will make the evening news. A good example of this is the whole Y2K "crisis." Although the vast, vast majority of worldwide Christians had faith that 1999 would calmly turn to 2000, the media coverage was largely filled with fringe groups preaching gloom and doom. It sells magazines, but it harms the cause of Christianity, since it reinforces the incorrect stereotype that Christians are weird, conspiracy theorists.

Secondly, even innocuous end times theology can mutate into dangerous sectarianism that threatens its adherents and the world around it (think David Koresh). When was the last time a person advocating a symbolic interpretation of Revelation ever used that as justification to stockpile weapons and go down in a blaze of glory? From a historical point, many of the unusual religious sects today had their origins in the 19th century millenarian craze (e.g. Jehovah's Witnesses).

Thirdly, these "prophets" are always wrong. Until Christ actually does return in glory, everyone making predictions will be wrong. There have been hundreds of failed predictions by famous religious leaders. The Jehovah's Witnesses alone have been wrong at least 8 times since 1914 (1). That isn't a track record that inspires confidence. But even more "mainstream" leaders such as Pat Robertson and Hal Lindsey have incorrectly predicted the world's end. With each successive well publicized, but incorrect prediction, more and more Christians become demoralized and more and more non-Christians regard Christianity with contempt.

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I can understand the appeal of books on the end times: we live in a very difficult world. In times of trouble it's natural to look for the end of world, and, among the more fantastically inclined, to try to make prophecy in Scripture line up with current events. Yet, we don't live in more difficult times than our ancestors. I imagine even with the current war on terror, life was much more terrible and hellish in previous periods. In earlier times, a mother and child both surviving childbirth was cause for great rejoicing. And if a person lived through the wars, famines, and plagues, he was an old man at 40. I don't want to downplay the pains and tragedies of the third millennium AD, but I want us to keep it all in perspective with regard to end times speculation. Many people predicting the imminent end of the world often (not always purposefully) exploit and increase people's fears during difficult times.

Although it comes as a shock to some, the Bible does not interpret itself, and Revelation is one of the most difficult to interpret because it is (intentionally so) the most cryptic. Due to the prevalence of end-times speculation, most people assume that Revelation must be interpreted as if everything will happen in the future. Disagreement of interpretation, in this view, differs only in regard to how it will happen in the future, but it is always assumed the events will occur in the future. However, when rigidly applied, this view makes the book of Revelation relevant only for the last generation about whom it supposedly refers. How could a book have meaning for the early Christians if its contents referred to nuclear weapons and Saddam Hussein? This interpretation of Revelation, known as the "futurist" position, has had a few proponents throughout church history, but believe it or not, it has been the minority interpretation. Not until the 19th century, did "futurism" as a doctrine explode in popularity.

Most of the earliest Christians, including St. Paul, seemed to expect the return of Jesus in their lifetimes. Yet, this did not happen, and as the first generation of Christians started to die, the theology of the imminent return of Christ was modified slightly. Although still expecting the eventual return of Christ, early Christians became less willing to say exactly when it would come. Consequently, some early Christians interpreted Revelation as referring completely to an event in the future. The majority, however, regarded Revelation as either mostly referring to events during the apostolic period (sometimes called "partial preterism") or primarily as an ideal way of expressing God's victory over evil (sometimes called "idealism"). Above all, Revelation was meant as a book of hope, not a resource for endless speculation. Also, most early Fathers tied Christ's apocalyptic sayings (esp. Matthew 24) to the destruction of the Temple in AD 70. And, I might add, the early church Fathers knew nothing of the "rapture." In fact, we can date the belief in the rapture to the early-mid 1800s (well past even the Reformation), a period of millenarian fanaticism that gave birth to many fringe groups.

One unintended consequence of end-times speculation is the tendency to focus on future events to the detriment of the present. Christians have always recognized a future, otherworldly aspect to our lives. For example, our citizenship in heaven and our future resurrection helped to form the resolute courage of the martyrs to die like their Lord. Yet, focusing too much on the end-times often obscures the work of the present. The Scriptures refer to the kingdom of God as drawing near or being at hand (Gr. engidzo or fthano). So, even though the final consummation remains in the future, the Kingdom of God is at hand, among us. To defer the kingdom of God to a future time (even the near future) misses the point of our earthly calling.

So, what is the Catholic view of the end times? At the most basic level, the Church believes what she confesses in the Nicene Creed on every Sunday and major feast day: "he will come in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end." This view is also summed up in the liturgical affirmation: "Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again." The Catechism notes (#680, #681, #682):

Christ the Lord already reigns through the Church, but all the things of this world are not yet subjected to him. The triumph of Christ's kingdom will not come about without one last assault by the powers of evil.

and

On Judgment Day at the end of the world, Christ will come in glory to achieve the definitive triumph of good over evil which, like the wheat and the tares, have grown up together in the course of history.

and

When he comes at the end of time to judge the living and the dead, the glorious Christ will reveal the secret disposition of hearts and will render to each man according to his works, and according to his acceptance or refusal of grace.

So, those are the basic summaries of what Catholics believe. There is nothing about the rapture, who the Antichrist will be, a particular date, or anything else. We know that Christ is Lord and King now, not at a future date. We know that he has vanquished the evil one and destroyed death now, not in a future time. We do, of course, still await the final triumph of Christ's kingdom when he will come again in glory and all the things of the world will be fully subject to him. But to focus on the details of that event, beyond the creeds, the catechism, and the liturgy, often leads to ridiculous speculation and division among Christians. As a Catholic, I make an appeal for us to resist the modern urge to have it "all figured out" and instead to find comfort in our belief in Christ's eventual return, while allowing the details of the event itself to be a mystery. This may not generate millions of dollars, but for those who seek it, sound, Catholic theology is priceless.

Footnotes
1. http://www.religioustolerance.org/end_wrl2.htm

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