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End-of-the-world-via-ShutterstockToward 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

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9 replies to this post
  1. The Father Elijah series is clearly Amillennial — which, I assume, that The Imaginative Conservative is also Amillennial in outlook?

    • Russ, I just looked up amillenial at Wikipedia (assuming this is a correct interpretation). No, I’m not amillenial. I’m not anything–though I do believe the apocalypse will happen. I just don’t know when, and I know next to no details about the shape it will take.

  2. Strong praise for Michael O’Brien’s works. I read Father Elijah when I was a teenager. Now I may need to re-read it and delve into his other works.

    As a teenager, I preferred Monsignor Robert Hugh Benson’s apocalyptic novel, Lord of the World, which I have re-read as an adult, and still find compelling.

  3. Brad, just a footnote to your thoroughly enjoyable essay: I knew Thomas Molnar, very slightly. Back in the late 1980s or early nineties I spent part of a fine afternoon in his Manhattan apartment. I’d written a piece for First Things, and he wanted to do a bit of cross-examination. Brilliant, yes, but not at all unfriendly. Rather, an Old-World gentleman-scholar–curmudgeonly with good humor. The stories I’ve heard about the late Alexander Shtromas suggest something of the same (to me delightful) type.

    If I recall rightly, Molnar was weary of “this American conservativism,” and not surprisingly so, as he struck me as a true throne-and-altar man, not at all interested in recovering the principles of the American founders. He said of my article, “I hope these ideas of yours never achieve any currency.” I rightly judged that there was little danger of that. Once he saw that I took his sly criticisms in good humor, he opened up and we chatted pleasantly for an hour or two. The Berlin Wall had recently met its just fate, and he was thinking of returning to Hungary. Old Mitteleuropa was having a word with me, through one of her chosen voices.

    • Thanks for this, Will. I never met him, but your descriptions makes me feel a bit as though I have. You’re the second person to point out his good side to me. For better or worse, the bad stories about him greatly outweigh the good. As you know, I very much trust your judgment (except when it comes to retiring). Thanks, Will. A great story.

  4. I’ve been meaning to delve into Michael O’Brien’s oeuvre for some time now. I think for me the best ‘apocalyptic’ novel (even if it is a book ostensibly for children) is The Last Battle by C.S. Lewis. He captures perfectly the collapse in standards and values as well as the manipulation of language that presages the end.

    It has to be said that there’s a very apocalyptic air abroad at the moment. I could be wrong but I’m not convinced that the actual ‘end’ is at hand. There’s a French eschatological strain which predicts an imminent global collapse followed by a restoration of everything good, beautiful and true. Two figures – a ‘Grand Monarch’ and a ‘Holy Pope’ – will play a central role in this.

    I’m sure things won’t turn out exactly like that, but my hunch is that something of that order might be approaching. A partial apocalypse, if you like. We’ll see. Till then I think we just need to keep on building the Kingdom, keep on holding the torch and keep our focus on the Divine. It’s easy to get lost in the miasma of apocalypticism. Let’s stay sharp and fix our focus on what’s in front of us.

    Thanks for the piece and all the very best,

    John.

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