It’s hard to turn around this year without encountering someone talking or writing about the Apocalypse. This isn’t new, of course. Folks have been talking about and worrying about the Apocalypse since the Incarnation of Love walked on this very earth. And, of course, St. John the Revelator wrote down his own dream-trance-vision of such, as he received it on the island of Patmos between, roughly, 95 and 105.
Who couldn’t find something enticing and frightening in the story? Dragons devouring women. Angels opening scrolls. Stars plunging to earth. Plagues run amok. Prophets protected by the Hand of God. An entirely new city descending from the skies.
“Such as I love, I rebuke and chastise. Be zealous therefore, and do penance” (Apocalypse 3:19).
Most of the early generations of the church believed the end was near, as in twenty seconds from now. And, why not? If John understood the angel sent by Christ correctly, the end seemed to be right then. “Blessed is he, that readeth and heareth the words of this prophecy; and keepeth those things which are written in it; for the time is at hand” (Apocalypse 1:3).
Over the last 1,900 years—at least since John wrote out his dream and it became widely read and almost completely orthodox by the end of the fourth century (except, interestingly enough, by the Greek Church, which refused to accept it as canon until the eighth century)—Christians have worried.
Over the last thirty years, however, the End has become an obsession for many in America, in both Catholic and Protestant circles.
There’s an interesting history behind the Apocalypse of John and its acceptance in Christian circles. As mentioned above, the Eastern Orthodox churches refused to recognize the book as canon until the 700s. This was no trivial matter. One of the most important reasons the Councils of the Church never declared canon was simply because the East refused even to discuss the issue. As far as they were concerned, John was the Beloved but not the Revelator. By the 700s, however, the entire Christian church accepted it as canon, though by tradition, not decree. Not surprisingly, the Apocalypse of John and the Letter of James were the two most controversial books of the New Testament during the Reformation of the sixteenth century. Some Reformers toyed with the idea of excluding both. James, obviously, seemed far too works-oriented for most Protestants, and John’s prophecy seemed too downright Catholic! After all, the structure of the Mass itself comes from John. Some Protestants feared the entire book might be a Jesuit plot.
Of course, how odd for us in 2014 to consider that the book was once regarded as the most Catholic book in all of sacred scripture. For the past two hundred years, most observers have come to think of the Apocalypse of John as the handbook of extreme Protestantism. Catholics only infrequently cite John’s revelation, and when they do, they admit (generally) that the whole thing is a mystery, a puzzle. Even more mainstream Protestants, though, break their understanding of John’s dream into pre-millennial, millennial, and post-millennial. There must be some kind of deficiency in me, as I simply cannot keep these terms straight in my head, though countless numbers of my students have tried to explain the differences to me.
And, of course, over the last thirty to forty years, how many “prophecies” have developed regarding The End? Not only have the number of end-times cults—such as Heaven’s Gate—arisen, but even mainstream Catholics have been rather taken with the supposed prophecies of Mother Mary in former Yugoslavia. Some Americans worried the Mayans had understood the final things with the ending of their calendar in 2012, and prominent radio evangelist Harold Camping encouraged his numerous followers to prepare for the End, twice. Neither came true.
Most importantly for the purposes of this essay, we must prepare for what might be described as the end of culture if not the end of the earth. The best-selling, horrendously-written, and hate-mongering first “book” of the LEFT BEHIND series will soon get our attention this autumn, in the form of a well-funded motion picture featuring Nicholas Cage. The 2000 B-movie (and this is an insult to B-movies) version simply couldn’t be forgotten (or left behind?), much to the shame of all involved. The Left Behind movement might be the greatest argument for atheism “Christians” have yet developed in “literature.” Its Christianity, if it can even be called such, presents the most arid, puritanical, exclusionary kind of religion possible. It is driven not by love but by fear and hate.
None of this is to suggest that responses to this trash have not been forthcoming. The Imaginative Conservative’s own Father Dwight Longenecker has published a number of excellent essays on the “end times” as understood by orthodox as well as by heterodox Christians.
A very close friend and ally, Carl Olson, uber-editor extraordinaire of Catholic World Report and Ignatius Insight, has also written perceptively on the topic of the “tribulation” and other matters related to the last things. His Will Catholics Be Left Behind (Ignatius Books, 2009) is a must own for any reader of this journal.
If someone is interested in reading what the End Times might look like from the perspective of love, truth, beauty, and good, he or she could probably do no better than reading the fiction of Canadian author and artist Michael O’Brien.
An apocalypse is a work of literature dealing with the end of human history. For millennia apocalypses of various sorts have arisen throughout the world in the cultural life of many peoples and religions. They are generated by philosophical speculation, by visions of the future, or by inarticulate longings and apprehensions, and not infrequently by the abiding human passion for what J. R. R. Tolkien called “sub-creation.” These poems, epics, fantasies, myths, and prophetic works bear a common witness to man’s transient state upon the earth. Man is a stranger and sojourner. His existence is inexpressibly beautiful—and dangerous. It is fraught with mysteries that beg to be deciphered. The Greek word apokalypsis means an uncovering, or revealing. Through such revelations man gazes into the panorama of human history in search of the key to his identity, in search of permanence and completion.
I also do not want to suggest that Christians should have no interest in the final things. Of course, we should. Still, it’s worth making several points.
First, I can state with absolute certainty that every single prediction of the End has come to nothing. At the risk of being obnoxious, let me repeat this. EVERY SINGLE PREDICTION OF THE END OF THE WORLD HAS FAILED.
Second, as is well-known, even Jesus explained that He did not know the day or the hour of the End. If the Second Person of the Most Blessed Trinity does know when the End will come, it is certain that the Mayans, Harold Camping, and Tim La Haye don’t have a clue about the timing of the End. From a Christian perspective, we only know it is coming. It might happen before I finish writing this piece, and it might happen 10,000 years from now. Each guess is as good as the other…or, for that matter, any other.
Third, our arrogant, navel-gazing fascination and obsession as a people with the End distracts us from the very important duties we need to perform on this earthly journey. About a decade ago, I had the privilege to meet one of the best cooks I’ve encountered in my life. He was frustrated because he possessed an entrepreneurial drive and an artistic sense. The company he worked for would not encourage either aspect of this man. When I suggested he start his own catering business, he laughed. “Oh, I don’t see any sense in that. Jesus is coming any day.” Granted, this is the extreme. But, how many of us spend our time worrying about the End when we could be helping the poor, the homeless, the depressed, and the imprisoned.
Fourth—my final point. As human beings, we know one absolute truth from empirical experience and observation. We’re born (“dark and inscrutable are the ways in which we come into the world,” the mighty Burke said), we live, and we die. Rather than worrying about THE END, we should worry about our own end and the end of our neighbor and the end of those we love. This end is certain. As long as we care about this end, we really don’t need to worry—in the least—about THE END.
Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.