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The End of the World…Do You Feel Fine?

As Christians, we shouldn't dread the end of the world. We should look forward to it.

I admit that many popular expressions peeve me, whether it’s “I could care less” for “I couldn’t care less,” or “you can’t have your cake and eat it, too” instead of the clearer “eat your cake and have it, too.” But there’s one idiom in particular that gets my goat: “It’s not the end of the world!” After all, consider what we mean by it: as Collins Dictionary explains, “if you say that something bad is not the end of the world, you are trying to stop yourself or someone else being so upset by it, by suggesting that it is not the worst thing that could happen.” 

Theologically, this is a catastrophe. The early Christians looked forward to the end of the world and the return of Jesus, and even longed for it. The second-to-last verse in the Bible, after all, says, “Come, Lord Jesus!” (Rev. 22:20). St. Paul could speak of the early Christians as “awaiting our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ” (Titus 2:13). And we claim to share this desire. Each Sunday at Mass, we say in the Nicene Creed that we “look forward to the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come.” 

But do we really? Or do we think of it more as the idiom suggests, as “the worst thing that could happen”? 

Partly, it may be because of how we get there. The Catechism points out that “before Christ’s second coming the Church must pass through a final trial that will shake the faith of many believers” (675). Jesus says that in this trial, “many will fall away, and betray one another, and hate one another. And many false prophets will arise and lead many astray. And because wickedness is multiplied, most men’s love will grow cold” (Matt. 24:12-14). He describes it as a period of “great tribulation, such as has not been from the beginning of the world until now”—so difficult that “if those days had not been shortened, no human being would be saved; but for the sake of the elect those days will be shortened” (vv. 21-22).  It’s perfectly rational to pray “that you may have strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Son of man” (Luke 21:36). 

But for many of us, it’s what follows that most alarms us: the prospect of the world ending, and of standing before Jesus to be judged. It’s this fear that I want to address, because I suspect it reveals something about our choices. If everything we’re living for is here below, the prospect of the world’s end (or even our own death) must be troubling, since it’s the loss of everything we have. But as Jesus has explained, it doesn’t have to be this way (Matt. 6:19-21): 

Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.

Likewise, the moment in which we’re judged—whether at our individual judgment at the moment of our death (Heb. 9:27) or the Final Judgment at Christ’s return (Matt. 25:31-46)—is going to be the best or the worst moment of our entire lives. 

So perhaps we dread the return of Jesus because we’re not ready, either individually or in terms of the whole human race. That latter fact seems to be one reason that the Lord hasn’t returned already. When the early Christians grew impatient that the Lord hadn’t already come back in their lifetimes, St. Peter responded by suggesting that there may be millennia more to wait, in order to give humanity more time for repentance (2 Pet. 3:8-9): 

But do not ignore this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day. The Lord is not slow about his promise as some count slowness, but is forbearing toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance. 

So how can we go from being a “not the end of the world” people to a “come, Lord Jesus!” people? Comparing his return to a thief coming in the night, Jesus tells us both “watch therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming” and that “therefore you also must be ready; for the Son of man is coming at an hour you do not expect” (Matt. 24:42, 44). Being watchful for the Lord is an important element of getting ready for the Lord, so that his return is good news. 

The Church’s liturgical year aims to help us here. After all, the liturgical cycle exists to unfold “the whole mystery of Christ, from the incarnation and birth until the ascension, the day of Pentecost, and the expectation of blessed hope and of the coming of the Lord.” In this time of Advent particularly, we’re reminded that “it is not possible coherently to celebrate the birth of him ‘who saves his people from their sins’ without some effort to overcome sin in one’s own life, while waiting vigilantly for him who will return at the end of time.” In other words, we can’t separate our watchfulness in Advent, as we yearn for Christmas and the Lord’s return, from our readiness in Advent, our spiritual preparation for his arrival. 

Even the name “advent” (which means “coming”) encourages us in a twofold attitude of “waiting-memory of the first, humble coming of the Lord in our mortal flesh” as well as “waiting-supplication for his final, glorious coming as Lord of History and universal Judge.” We know that Jesus came into the world quite unexpectedly in his first coming, with a faithful few watching and waiting. We know that he intends to do so again. And so we should strive to be among those wise virgins who awaited the Bridegroom with lighted lamps (see Matt. 25:1-12). 

But it’s not enough simply to get ourselves ready. As Catholic Christians, we want to help others to know the gospel, and to prepare for the coming of Christ, and to be incorporated into the kingdom of God. Eschatology—the study of the end of the world—is closely connected to evangelization. Remember, that’s why St. Peter said Jesus hadn’t returned yet. And so, in the words of the Second Vatican Council, “missionary activity tends toward eschatological fullness.” Or in Jesus’ own words, “this gospel of the kingdom will be preached throughout the whole world, as a testimony to all nations; and then the end will come” (Matt. 24:14). 

So perhaps this Advent is a good time to ask yourself (or better yet, God): am I watchful and hopeful to meet Jesus, or does the idea fill me with dread? And how can I better prepare my own heart, and my neighbor, for the coming of Christ at Christmas, at the hour of our deaths, and at the end of time? 

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