Growing up on the fringes of an apocalyptic Christian sect best known for its failed predictions about the end of the world can leave you jaded.
Near the close of 1999, for example, when everyone was prepping for Y2K, I was more interested in finding the perfect Y2K joke present for the office Christmas party. On New Year’s Eve, my father and I were at a local Blockbuster renting movies when I noticed a lot of people shopping at a nearby supermarket.
I eyed one woman pushing a heavily laden cart filled with supplies and water to her car, then turned to Dad. “Think we should buy some water?”
Dad gave me a befuddled look. “Why?”
Cynicism runs in my family.
But even a hardened cynic like me has to wonder what has been going on with the world the last few years. My New Year’s Eve tradition for many years was to speculate on what would happen in the coming year that would make the previous year seem not so bad. I stopped doing that in 2016, a year which started with the unexpected deaths of beloved celebrities, hit its stride with a mass shooting in a Florida nightclub that claimed nearly fifty lives and wounded over fifty more people, ushered the U.K. out of the European Union and a politically-inexperienced demagogue into the White House, saw a dress rehearsal for a pandemic with the outbreak of the Zika epidemic, and ended with the Chicago Cubs finally winning a World Series after 108 years (an event long suspected by superstitious baseball fans would signal the End Times).
Every year since then has seemed worse than the one before, until now we’re in the middle of a worldwide pandemic that shows no sign of going away anytime soon. I’m already dreading 2022 (and avoiding any speculation).
This time of year though, the Church winds up its liturgical year in preparation for Advent and the readings turn apocalyptic in tone. This Sunday will be the last week of Ordinary Time, next week will be the Solemnity of Christ the King, then the new (liturgical) year is rung in with …
Still more warnings of impending doom.
End times speculation has been a feature of Christianity since its founding. Jesus wasn’t shy about warning that the end of the world was at hand and his followers better be ready for it or suffer the consequences. In the Gospel reading this week, he tells his followers to watch the sky above and the waters below, declaring that nature itself will warn that the end is near (Mark 13:24–25).
Then there’s St. Paul. Scholars have long thought that Paul’s dim view on marriage was influenced by his expectation that Christ would be returning Any Day Now. Why marry if Jesus is coming soon? Oh, well, if you must, you can almost hear Paul sigh in his letter to the Corinthians. Better to marry than to burn (1 Cor. 7:9).
My favorite Apocalypse Now saint was St. Vincent Ferrer (1350–1419), a Spanish Dominican who roamed the countryside preaching the end of the world. In one instance, while giving the homily at a funeral, Vincent suddenly ordered the dead woman to testify that he’d been sent by God to prophesy that they were in the End Times.
The woman purportedly sat up, replied, “Yes, Father, that’s so!” and fell back into her casket, still dead as Elvis.
Let’s just say that I’m not choosing Vincent for my zombie apocalypse team.
End Times predictions do have the potential to jade us when they never seem to arrive. The truth is though, that they will arrive for each and every one of us.
As individuals, we will all face our own personal end. We may hope it comes later rather than sooner, but it will come. For some, the end will be unexpected, the proverbial thief in the night. For others, it may be a slow, painful process. Either way, the end is probably nearer than we’d like to think.
And that’s why Jesus and the saints were so insistent in preaching that their followers had to be ready. The world may have gone on for many more centuries after their predictions were made, but each of their listeners ultimately faced the end of his or her own world. How they lived in this life would determine their fate in the next. The prophet Daniel, in this week’s Old Testament reading, said that “the wise shall shine brightly like the splendor of the firmament, and those who lead the many to justice shall be like the stars forever” (Dan. 12:3).
Working for justice in this life has its rewards.
Of course, eventually the end of the world will come. Jesus refused to give us any information on when that will be, saying only that it was God’s business and none of ours (Mark 13:32). Every generation will have its own reckoning (Mark 13:30) and will need to be prepared for it. More than that, we do not need to know.
But it is interesting that Jesus does hint that nature itself will testify to when the end of the world is near. The sun darkening, the moon fading, the stars falling (Mark 13:24–25). Take a lesson from the fig tree, Jesus said. Just as you can see the approach of summer by the greening of the fig leaves, nature will let you know when the death of the world is near (Mark 13:28–29).
Looking around at the earthquakes, wildfires, monster hurricanes and tornadoes, reading about the melting of the polar ice caps, the rising sea levels, and the disappearance of rain forests—all consequences of climate change—I sometimes wonder if the end of the world is not so much in God’s hands but in ours. He alone may know when it will happen, but we may be the ones responsible for causing it.