This week I am a guest on the Brooklyn Diocese’s New Evangelization Television, speaking about the end times. The main question: are all these natural disasters signs of the end of history? Answer: no. Rather than speaking about the end of history, we should be speaking about the history of the end.
“The end” has a long history, from the expectation among Paul’s early followers that Jesus would come back quickly (see 1 Thess 2:19; 3:13; 4:15; 5:23; 1 Cor 15:23), to the Book of Revelation, to the millenarianism of those waiting for Y1K (you read that right: AD 1000), to goofy preachers indicating that some date in 1982 was supposed to be the end of the world. Why this fascination?
I think a clue comes in the First Week of St. Ignatius Loyola’s Spiritual Exercises. In that section, he invites people undertaking the Exercises to imagine hell, to apply their senses to create a realistic encounter with what they deserve in the state of sin. Without getting too much into the dynamics of the Exercises, what I want to suggest is that this exercise is, like all of the Exercises, invitations to feel something and not just think about it.
I see apocalyptic literature in a similar light: it’s supposed to make us feel something. And what it is supposed to make us feel is hope that in the midst of horrible events, God is at work, laboring with grace to bring about his plan.
I don’t pretend to understand horrible tragedy any more than profound moral evil. But I believe in a God who is present in all things, and who therefore is present even in tragedy–especially to those who are victims of it. I imagine a world that is still in his care even when it seems horrible. And I imagine that the writers of apocalyptic literature, like Daniel in the Old Testament and Revelation in the New, wanted people similarly to feel that the horrible circumstances they faced for their faith, like persecution and torture and death, were not signs of God’s absence but opportunities for God’s grace.
Today we who live in comfortable times do well to remember that it has not always been so, and it still is not so in different parts of the world. Apocalyptic literature reminds us that the faith is worth dying for, because ultimately only God can save us. We who are comfortable may not even be particularly interested in being saved, and that (the texts remind us) would be the greatest tragedy of all.
Tim Muldoon is a Catholic theologian, author of five books, and professor in the Honors Program at Boston College.