The End of the World As We Know It?

Some are expecting the end of the world on December 21st. Others think "The End" a silly notion. What does the Catholic Church teach?

Note: The following was originally written for Our Sunday Visitor in late 2009, in part because of the movie, “2012”, released at that time. I am posting it here in light of the interest about the Mayan calendar and the date of December 21, 2012.

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 movie “2012” (see sidebar below), which is crammed full of bangs, computer-generated crashes, 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 two thousand years. “God, after He spoke long ago to the fathers in the prophets in many portions and in many ways,” wrote the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews, “in these last days has spoken to us in His Son, whom He appointed heir of all things, through whom also He made the world” (Heb 1:1-2). It was the Incarnation, the entrance of God into time and space, which ushered in the end times and the last days.

In The Lord of History (London: Longmans, 1958), his study of Jesus Christ and history, Jean Cardinal Daniélou wrote of 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 the often fevered beliefs of certain fundamentalist groups, New Age groups, extremist cults, and radical environmentalists, the Church’s teaching might appear decidedly mundane, even boring. But false teachings and skewed sensationalism cannot compare to 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, made during his public ministry, that he was establishing the Kingdom of God (Matt 12:28; Mk 4:11; Lk 8:1-10). This everlasting kingdom was realized through his death, his resurrection, and his 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 towards whom our whole life is directed” (par. 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” (Lumen Gentium, par 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.
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, with St. Paul, that on that “last day” the “Lord himself will descend from heaven, with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first” (1 Thess 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” (Mt 24:27, 37, 39; 1 Cor 15:23; I Thess 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 CCC 1001).

The parousia has already been initiated by the Incarnation, which revealed the glory of God among men: “And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory, glory as of the only begotten from the Father, 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 Joseph Cardinal 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, the “eschatological sacrament.” (see sidebar)

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, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but the Father alone” (Mk 13:32). But he also warned the disciples to be prepared for his return: “Take heed, keep on the alert; for you do not know when the appointed time is” (Mk 13:33). Reiterating this tension between not knowing and readiness, the Catechism teaches that Christ’s return “has been imminent [cf. Rev 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’” (par. 673).

This references to the parousia being “delayed” emphasizes God’s merciful desire for all men to receive His freely offered salvation: “The Lord is not slow about His promise, as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing for any to perish but for all to come to repentance” (2 Pet 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 CCC 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 [Cf. Lk 21:12; Jn 15:19-20]” (par 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 antichrist, “a pseudo-messianism by which man glorifies himself in place of God and of his Messiah come in the flesh. . . .” (CCC, 675). History has witnessed much speculation about the antichrist, including writings by the Church Fathers about his background and methods of destruction. 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 antichrist is already within the world, just as it has been for two thousand years: “Children, it is the last hour; and just as you heard that antichrist is coming, even now many antichrists have arisen; from this we know that it 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 for a witness to all the nations, and then the end shall come” (Mt 24:14). Has this occurred? Arguments can be made either way. As Ralph Martin, author of Is Jesus Coming Soon? (Ignatius Press, 1997), 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 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.

“…and after this comes judgment”

When will be judged by God? The usual answer is: “After I die.” The Epistle to the Hebrews states “it is appointed for men to die once and after this comes judgment” (Heb 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 directly 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 Spe Salvi, his encyclical on hope, “… even when we are fully aware that Heaven far exceeds what we can merit, it will always be true that our behaviour 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” (par 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 Monsignor 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 Clement pointed out nearly two thousand 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 25:36), he didn’t want his disciples to cease anticipating his return. He also remarked: “Therefore be on the alert, for you do not know which day your Lord is coming” (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 (and even financially rewarding) 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” (Rev 1:3; 22:10), just a heartbeat and a single breath 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 “abide in Him, so that when He appears, we may have confidence and not shrink away from Him in shame at His coming” (1 Jn 2:28).

Sidebar: December 21st, “2012”:

For some, December 21, 2012, will not be filled with Christmas shopping and holiday activities. Instead, it will be filled with anticipation of the end of an age—and an unknown, perhaps disastrous, future. The 12/21/2012 doomsday scenario, which is now both a quasi-religious movement and a full-fledged pop culture fad, comes from the belief that the Mayan Long Count calendar— based on cycles 5,126 years in length —will expire on December 12, 2012. Some proponents believe that a massive solar flare could be the cosmic event ushering in an age of advanced consciousness and enlightenment, but only if mankind responds in time. Several other scenarios abound. As an author on the site states: “Science has made reference to a number of possible devastating earthly events such as a Yellowstone super volcanic eruption or a polar shift that could take place in a matter of moments. Other dangers from the sky such as enormous asteroids, increased and violent solar activity, the emergence of Planet X or Nibiru, and the possible devastating effects of a planetary alignment have been well documented and studied by scientists around the world.”

Most scientists, not surprisingly, aren’t convinced. Many are dismissive, even mocking, of the 2012 obsession. What cannot be denied is the popularity of the 2012 phenomenon, which has inspired some two hundred books and countless websites. It is also the basis for the most anticipated movie of the holiday season, “2012,” directed by Roland Emmerich and starring John Cusack and Danny Glover. Emmerich—described by one critic as a “promulgator of cinematic calamity”—is known for loud, special-effect driven movies including “The Day After Tomorrow”, an apocalyptic science-fiction film featuring global warming, and “Independence Day,” which depicts an alien invasion of earth.

Enthusiasm for films and television shows with apocalyptic themes has long been part of pop culture. But the serious interest in December 21, 2012, highlights the continued and growing influence of apocalyptic scenarios based in New Age concepts and beliefs. Daniel Wojcik noted this trend several years ago in his study, The End of the World As We Know It: Faith, Fatalism, and Apocalypse in America (NYU Press, 1997): “The eclecticism of New Age prophetic beliefs is epitomized by the Harmonic Convergence, which was organized around a cross-cultural mélange of prophecy traditions, the cycles of the Aztec and Mayan calendars, and the configuration of the planets in the solar system.” Like the 12/21/2012 movement, the Harmonic Convergence—a term used for an August 1987 planetary alignment—was also drawn from the Mayan calendar.

In these and other New Age apocalyptic scenarios, mankind is believed to be on the cusp of an evolutionary leap and a spiritual breakthrough—if only people will free themselves from old belief systems, traditional religions, and Western ways of comprehending reality. These beliefs are essentially neo-gnostic in character, flowing from a rejection of the material realm and the promise of enlightenment, or raised consciousness, for those few who are able to find and appropriate the keys to self-deification, esoteric wisdom, and amoral creativity. In recent decades, these currents have increasingly melded with predictions of violent upheaval and global disaster. These often involve natural disasters, ranging from earthquakes to global warming to overpopulation. Many groups incorporate beliefs about UFOs and aliens; others draw upon the occult and the paranormal. Like fundamentalist Christian groups inspired by wild interpretations of the Book of Revelation, New Age adherents usually see themselves as lone agents of the truth hovering on the edges of society, misunderstood and unfairly maligned. Conspiracy theories abound, often involving the alleged cover-ups of governments and other institutions of authority, including the Catholic Church, which is, for many, the epitome of “organized religion” and outmoded ways of thinking and living.

Sidebar: The Eucharist: The Eschatological Sacrament:

All of the sacraments have an eschatological character and purpose—that is, they are oriented to our eternal communion with God. This is especially true of the Eucharist, for it is the “pledge of glory” and “an anticipation of the heavenly glory” (CCC, 1419, 1402). It is the true body and blood of the Risen Lord who transforms humanity through the most holy sacrament, preparing man for the beatific life and the Marriage Supper of the Lamb (Rev. 19:7-9).

The Catechism states, “The Kingdom of God has been coming since the Last Supper and, in the Eucharist, it is in our midst. The kingdom will come in glory when Christ hands it over to his Father” (par 2816). The Son handed over his life and body to the Father on the Cross; at the end of time he will hand over the Kingdom to the Father: “And when all things are subjected to Him, then the Son Himself also will be subjected to the One who subjected all things to Him, that God may be all in all” (1 Cor 15:28).

This final unity and communion is already being brought about—although not completely realized until the parousia—through the Blessed Sacrament and in the liturgy, for “by the Eucharistic celebration we already unite ourselves with the heavenly liturgy and anticipate eternal life, when God will be all in all” (CCC, 1326).

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About Carl E. Olson 1207 Articles
Carl E. Olson is editor of Catholic World Report and Ignatius Insight. He is the author of Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead?, Will Catholics Be "Left Behind"?, co-editor/contributor to Called To Be the Children of God, co-author of The Da Vinci Hoax (Ignatius), and author of the "Catholicism" and "Priest Prophet King" Study Guides for Bishop Robert Barron/Word on Fire. His recent books on Lent and Advent—Praying the Our Father in Lent (2021) and Prepare the Way of the Lord (2021)—are published by Catholic Truth Society. He is also a contributor to "Our Sunday Visitor" newspaper, "The Catholic Answer" magazine, "The Imaginative Conservative", "The Catholic Herald", "National Catholic Register", "Chronicles", and other publications. Follow him on Twitter @carleolson.