Toward the end of the twentieth century, closing two thousand years of history since the time of the Incarnate Christ (or close enough), millennium fever struck the western world hard. A fist across the face and a punch to the stomach. Many fundamentalist Christians were calculating the time since Israel’s re-creation as a marker, while a number of Catholics were counting down the number of good, true, and legitimate popes remaining before a supposed anti-Pope arose. As such, the Virgin Mary had supposedly appeared in former Yugoslavia, dropping hints about popes and anti-popes and a variety of other fancies that many assumed were not fanciful. Radical doomsday cults (well, are there any other kind?) emerged out of the woodwork—or seeped into the aquifers in Yellowstone, depending on what kind of fuel and storage tanks they were using for the End—and evangelical authors had a field day (and a billion runs to the bank) predicting the End in fictional form.
Would you be Left Behind? What kind of Tribulation would there be? And at what altitude? At the top of the stairwell? Eight stories up? Eight miles high? Would JC rule before the New Jerusalem arrived, or after? Would humans build the City of God here and now? How many seals would be broken by angels? Just who is that fourth horseman? And why are Catholics the only ones worried about that dragon devouring Mary?
Of course, it is not all religious. Remember the fears regarding Y2K. Were you ready? Just how angular could all of this be?
The End is near!!!! The End is near!!!! Very near!
Sadly, such fever and fervor has yet to subside, really. We were just treated (subjected would be a more appropriate word) to a remake of the horrific, hate-filled Left Behind, this time with Hollywood superstar Nicholas Cage fronting. Why could the dear leader of North Korea not have gone after that one instead of the one from Sony? Sheesh, many might have even become convinced he is the anti-Christ. He would probably like that.
We worried about Harold Camping’s two dates for the end. Both were wrong. We worried about the Mayans ending their calendar. Nope. Even the Vikings seemed to have predicted the end right around now. Again, did not happen.
In fact, I can write with certainty that not a single prediction of the End has come true. Not one. Not even close.
Though it is quite possible that many ends have come and gone, each a rehearsal for the End.
Christian humanist scholars such as Eric Voegelin, Josef Pieper, and Thomas Molnar did much to prepare the world for the end of the twentieth century and what would amount to barely-contained lunacy regarding the End.
Thomas Molnar, reputed to be a rather unfriendly but equally brilliant man, tied the End to the beginning. If we are not focused on the End, we delude ourselves into believing we can build the Kingdom of God in the here and now. We look to the heavens, and we pull the most important things to this world:
“From time to time the belief spreads among men that it is possible to construct an ideal society. Then the call is sounded for all to gather and build it—the city of God on earth. Despite its attractiveness, this is a delirious ideal stamped with the madness of logic. The truth is that society is always unfinished, always in motion, and its key problems can never be solved by social engineering. Yet, man must conquer, again and again, the freedom to see this truth. In the intervals he succumbs to the dream of a mankind frozen and final in its planetary pride.” [Molnar, 1967]
Mystic rhythms. Without the mysticism. Just lots of rhythm. But no method.
Of those books at the end of the last century that took a look at what might happen during the End, the best fiction book is Michael O’Brien’s Father Elijah: An Apocalypse. It comes as a part of a series of six novels Mr. O’Brien authored, collectively called “Children of the Last Days.” Unlike the “Left Behind” series, which is essentially hate-filled tripe not worthy of even being pulp, “The Children of the Last Days” offers a beautiful examination of the most pressing of human questions: What is man? What is God? What is man’s relationship to man? What is man’s duty to God? Four of the books combine to form one story: Sophia House (2005); Father Elijah (1996); Eclipse of the Sun (1998); and Plague Journal (1999). The other two: Strangers and Sojourners (1997) and A Cry of Stone (2003), offer us glimpses into the struggle of grace and anti-grace in the time leading up to the End. In terms of literary style and contribution to North America letters, Sophia House is by far the best. Set primarily in a Polish bookstore during the Nazi Occupation of the early 1940s, the story revolves around a young Jewish genius and a confused Catholic intellectual and artist. The dialogue resembles a westernized version of Brothers Karamazov in spirit as well as literary excellence. The young boy grows up to be Father Elijah.
Why did Mr. O’Brien choose the genre of apocalyptic fiction, a field filled with the best science fiction as well as notoriously the worst, to write his story? “His [man’s] existence is inexpressibly beautiful—and dangerous,” Mr. O’Brien explains. “It is fraught with mysteries that beg to be deciphered. The Greek word apokalypsis means an uncovering, or revealing.” In other words, the End allows us to look at the most fundamental aspects of existence. “Through such revelations man gazes into the panorama of human history in search of the key to his identity.”
Of everything I have read in the world of fiction and fantasy regarding the End, Mr. O’Brien makes the most sense. Not only is he worth reading, his ideas are worth pondering.
And if you are looking for an excellent analysis of the whole movement from an intelligent perspective, turn to Carl Olson’s Will Catholics Be Left Behind?
So, is it the End? Possibly. Christians have been worried about the End since the days that Christ walked the earth. Could it happen three minutes after you have read this? Maybe. Could it happen three thousand years after you read this? Just as likely.
An article about the End cannot just end. It must End. So, I will conclude with the words of that mighty wielder of the pen, G.K. Chesterton. I will believe his words to be true long before I succumb to the Campings and their ilk.
For the White Horse knew England When there was none to know; He saw the first oar break or bend, He saw heaven fall and the world end, O God, how long ago.
For the end of the world was long ago, And all we dwell to-day As children of some second birth, Like a strange people left on earth After a judgment day.
Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.