The end of history, the history of the end

The end of history, the history of the end March 28, 2011

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.

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  • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

    So why is it that those who are relatively comfortable—white, middle class evangelical Protestants—are so obsessed with the end times? I have been a casual reader of end times literature for many years; I even made myself read the whole Tim LaHaye “Left Behind” series. And it seemed to me that those who were most anxious to discern clues to set the whole time line in motion were not in the middle of horrible events, enduring persecution, or even suffering terribly during from the vicissitudes of the American economy. I could speculate that they were suffering from some deeper existential crisis, that their middle class, consumerist, American existence was proving hollow despite the patina of evangelical fervor they had laid over it. In this case, perhaps, your original answer applies: they focused on the end times because it made them feel something. But what a sad way to gain feeling.

  • muldoont

    That’s a good point. I read Revelation as a kind of reminder to persecuted Christians that God is Ultimately In Charge, even when immediate circumstances (torture and death under the Emperor Domitian) suggested otherwise. In a culture of victimhood the reminders of end times may let people feel like they’re on the winning team.

  • brettsalkeld

    There is also, even in the case of many middle and upper-middle class types, the sense that holding certain views that are contrary to the MSM (or whoever else) makes one ‘persecuted.’ In the absence of real persecution, it is common enough pretend persecution. It gives a comfy sense of identity.
    See Michael Voris’ latest rant on ‘Taliban Catholics.’

  • Dan

    How do you reconcile the figurative nature of Revelation with the belief in the Second Coming?

    • muldoont

      I think that the general rule is to read Revelation with the same care that one applies to all Biblical text: through the wisdom of tradition and through careful dialogue with people (scholars, but also other people of faith) who understand the tradition. Just as we don’t take all the text of Leviticus at the most obvious face-value meaning, so too we dig deeper to understand the way the seer of Patmos was trying to convey meaning by drawing on older sources like Ezekiel, Isaiah, and Daniel.

      • Dan

        While I agree with everything you’ve said, both in this post and the original post, I’ve always had a certain level of discomfort with a purely figurative interpretation of Revelation. While it clearly is a figurative text, the underlying message is that Christ will, in fact, return – and not in a figurative sense. This is consistent with the gospel messages about Christ’s return, and is a necessary prerequisite to a physical resurrection.

        It’s easier to think of it as purely figurative than it is to wrestle with the complex ideas that surround the Second Coming. I’m simply not sure how a purely figurative interpretation can encompass this reality without indirectly promoting the idea that the Second Coming is purely a figurative event.

    • muldoont

      I’m with you, Dan. And now I understand your question better. Yes, the second coming of Christ is also attested in the gospels, and even from a historical-critical perspective, multiple attestation is a good sign of a shared early belief. But I think it’s also good theology: Christ, the logos, the principle of creation, consummates creation before the final judgment.

  • So do preterists suffer from persecution envy?