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Apocalypse Not

What is more important than being concerned with the end of the world is that each of us be concerned with the end of his own life

Welcome to the year 2000. It’s here. We finally made it. The year has arrived that many of us have been waiting our whole lives to see, and now we have to start learning to write “20” instead of “19” in front of everything. (Note to the year 2099: Make sure your software is set up well in advance to recognize the change in digits. It’ll solve a lot of problems. Trust us. We know of what we speak.)

Now for the disappointing news. It’s not only still the second millennium, it’s also still the twentieth century. Those two things don’t change until next year. But, in the meantime, we get to have the fun of pretending that we’re living in the future since we now get to write “20” in front of everything.

How much of the future is there left? Not as much as there used to be. The future is a non-renewable resource, and “our salvation is nearer to us now than when we first believed” (Rom. 13:11). One day we will simply run out of time, and the end of history will be upon us. “For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first” (1 Thess. 4:16).

Investigating God’s Prophetic Plan

Despite recent, kooky predictions about the end of time, there are genuinely apocalyptic events coming. But discerning them is a complex task requiring great caution if one is to avoid the traps sensationalists fall into.

The first thing you must do when investigating God’s prophetic plan is to select the right resources. If you want to know the upcoming phases of the moon, you could go to an almanac. But if you want to know how the final drama of human history is going to play out, you’ve got only one source: divine revelation.

So don’t obsess about any Native American calendars. Don’t worry about whether the moon is in the seventh house or whether Jupiter is aligning with Mars. Ignore the deliberately vague astrological verses of Nostradamus. Reject what trance channelers and UFO “contactees” have said. Dispense with it all. Stick to God’s word.

Even having resolved to do this, you must be careful to make sure that what you are looking to is really God’s word. The seventy-two books of the canonical Scriptures, of course, are God’s word. They constitute the written body of public revelation that has been passed down to us from the apostles. But God also at times gives individuals private revelations that must be considered as well.

The difficulty is that there are a great many false apparitions and false locutions occurring in the world today (and in recent history). How do you know what private revelations are authentic? The surest guide is whether the Church has approved them. As a general rule, I advise individuals not to place credence in a private revelation that has not yet been approved by the Church. The number of fakes is simply too high these days.

Does the Church move slowly in evaluating private revelations? Yes, and with good reason. It is too easy to damage the faith of individuals if something is approved that should not be, and we should not allow a desire for novelty to overwhelm the caution that must be exercised when evaluating a private revelation.

Even when an apparition or locution is authentic, there are dangers that must be avoided. One such danger is thinking that the texts of a private revelation are inspired in the same way that the Scriptures are, such that everything in them can be taken as the word of God. Theologians recognize that private revelations are colored by the recipient’s perceptions of the supernatural event he or she has experienced, and writings produced by such individuals cannot be placed on the same plane as Scripture.

A good illustration of why this is so, even in the case of an approved apparition, is found in the published “secret” of La Salette (see this month’s “Chapter & Verse,” 34–35).

Public revelation, such as found in Scripture, must take precedence over private revelation. Figure out what the public revelation means first, before integrating it with particular applications suggested in private revelations.

Many Prophecies Have Already Been Fulfilled

When interpreting prophecies in the Bible, one of the most common pitfalls is failure to recognize when a prophecy already has been fulfilled. There are a great many such prophecies in the Bible, but we often don’t recognize this and think they are speaking of events yet to come.

When Jesus says in Matthew 24:7 that “there will be famines and earthquakes in various places,” many people have interpreted him to mean that there would be a rise in the global number of earthquakes. But that isn’t what Jesus said. He said that there would be earthquakes in various places—not all over the world, not in an increasing trend, just some earthquakes in some places. A few short, sharp shocks were all that was necessary to fulfill that prediction, which is part of Jesus’ point: We shouldn’t be concerned when we hear of such things, for “all this is but the beginning of the birth-pangs,” “but the end is not yet” (vv. 8, 6).

In fact, the two most famous prophetic parts of the New Testament—the Olivet Discourse and the book of Revelation—are plagued by readers’ tendencies to interpret them as referring to future events, when both have largely been fulfilled. I’ve had occasion before to write about their interpretation. If you want to read about the Olivet Discourse (so named because Jesus gave it on the Mount of Olives), see my piece “The Earthquake Generation” (This Rock, 1998, Feb., 12–17). If you want to read about Revelation, see “Hunt-ing the Whore of Babylon, I-II” (This Rock, Sept. 1994, 21–24; Oct. 1994, 21–24). Here I will only summarize the results:

The Olivet Discourse and the book of Revelation are both principally concerned with events in the first century leading up to the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70. However, both also contain material that applies to the end of time. In the Olivet Discourse, for example, Matthew 25:31–46 unambiguously applies to the end of history. Likewise for Revelation 20:11–21:8. In both cases, though, most of the preceding material applies directly to events in the first century.

This is not to say that it does not also have an indirect application to events near the Second Coming. One of the things you find in studying biblical prophecy is that certain patterns recur. I call them “prophetic archetypes.” Take the archetype of the Wicked King, a foreign persecutor of God’s people Israel, who is allowed to triumph over them for a time because of their sins. This archetype occurs repeatedly in Scripture, whether in the person of Pharaoh, Nebuchadnezzar, Caesar, or the Antichrist.

I strongly suspect that, in the final run up to the end of time, much of the already fulfilled parts of the Olivet Discourse and book of Revelation will repeat, and so these passages which directly apply to events in the first century will also indirectly apply to events near the end of time.

What to Expect at the End of Time

T. S. Eliot was wrong: It’s going to end with a bang, not a whimper. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church explains: “God’s triumph over the revolt of evil will take the form of the Last Judgment after the final cosmic upheaval of this passing world” (CCC 677).

Indeed, things will have been tumultuous for some time before the end comes. Among other things, there will be a tremendous persecution of the Church, which “will enter the glory of the kingdom only through [a] final Passover, when she will follow her Lord in his death and Resurrection” (ibid.). This will be a trial so fierce that the Church will be persecuted almost to the point of extinction, only to be rescued at the last minute by the Second Coming of Christ.

One of the most overlooked signs that the Second Coming is approaching is the corporate conversion of the Jewish people. This is something that Paul is very clear about. In Romans 11, he sketches a paradigm according to which, after the First Coming of Christ, the Jewish people as a body (though not every individual) rejected the Messiah, that the gospel might turn and bring salvation to the Gentiles. However, when “the full number of the Gentiles [has] come in,” the gospel will turn back to the Jewish people and as a body they will accept the Messiah.

Paul links this corporate conversion to the end of the world, for he mentions the resurrection of the dead, saying: “If their rejection means the reconciliation of the world, what will their acceptance mean but life from the dead?” (v. 15). So when we see massive numbers of Jewish conversions to Christ, that is a sign we are nearing the end.

In 2 Thessalonians 2, Paul gives a number of other signs that the Second Coming is approaching. He writes because some in the Thessalonian Church had apparently received a fake Pauline epistle that said the day of the Lord had arrived. Thus he told them “not to be quickly shaken in mind or excited, either by spirit or by word, or by letter purporting to be from us, to the effect that the day of the Lord has come” (v. 2).

He then laid out a number of signs that would precede the end. The first was this: “Let no one deceive you in any way; for that day will not come, unless the rebellion comes first” (v. 3a).

The Greek for “the rebellion” here is he apostasia—better translated “the apostasy”—a distinct event consisting of a massive turning away from the Christian faith.

Paul speaks of it elsewhere as well. He tells us, “Now the Spirit expressly says that in later times some will depart from the faith by giving heed to deceitful spirits and doctrines of demons” (1 Tim. 4:1). “For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own likings, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander into myths” (2 Tim. 4:3–4; cf. 3:1–5).

Other New Testament writers also appear to refer to this great apostasy (2 Pet. 3:3, Jude 18), and the Lord himself speaks of it when he asks, “When the Son of man comes, will he find faith on earth?” (Luke 18:8).

What will those who fall away from Christianity be falling away to? In the New Testament, the idea of falling away from Christianity would mean a return to either paganism or Judaism. The fact that at the time in question the Jewish people will be converting to Christ indicates that it will not be Judaism for which many Christians leave. This suggests a new paganism will be their destination.

There may be some intermediate steps involved. In the apostasy, people may fall away to other religious options—atheism, agnosticism, the New Age movement, or even religions that don’t yet exist—but they will no longer consider themselves Christians, and eventually a new form of paganism will develop and become dominant in Europe.

Why do I say that? Because of the next sign Paul mentions: the appearance of “the man of lawlessness”: “That day will not come, unless . . . the man of lawlessness is revealed, the son of perdition.”

This individual is often identified with the Antichrist whom John talks about, as one who denies the incarnation of Christ (2 John 7). The identification is not completely certain, but it is the standard interpretation.

The man of lawlessness is often identified with the “beast from the sea” in Revelation 13. Now, the beast from the sea was one of the early Roman emperors—most likely Nero (see my article “The Beast in Revelation,” This Rock, Dec. 1998, 29). That does not mean that there will not be a Nero-like individual at the end of time. I expect there will be. It will be one of those double fulfillments I mentioned earlier.

There is good reason to link the future, emperor-like individual with Paul’s man of lawlessness. Paul says this man will do something that some of the Roman emperors were known for: demand that others worship him as a god. He tells us the man of sin is one “who opposes and exalts himself against every so-called god or object of worship” (v. 4a). That is why I identify the apostate religion to come as a revived paganism: Worship of the head of state as a deity is a hallmark of paganism.

What the man of lawlessness will probably do is a lot like what the mad emperor Caligula did in the first century: He proclaimed himself to have been re-born as a god in this life, comparing himself with Jupiter, the king of the gods. Yet he did not deny the existence of other, lesser gods. (He used to hold “conversations” with various Roman gods and had his sister Drusilla officially deified after hear death, for example.)

Later, when Caligula went mad and proclaimed himself a god, he completely miscalculated the passion of the Jews for monotheism and proposed putting an idol of himself in the Temple at Jerusalem—an act that would have certainly ignited a war. Fortunately, a delegation of Jews including Philo of Alexandria was able to dissuade him.

The fact that the man of lawlessness will exalt himself “against every so-called god” does not mean he will preach a new form of “me-monotheism.” It’s hard to get people to worship you as a god unless they have a degraded notion of many, finite gods, making the idea of a deified human more thinkable (look at how Mormons have exploited that concept).

Among the things Paul says the man of lawlessness will do is to so exalt himself “that he takes his seat in the temple of God, proclaiming himself to be God” (v. 4b). To a first-century Jew such as Paul, this could mean only one thing: The man of lawlessness will at some point present himself to be worshiped in the Jewish temple at Jerusalem.

Many have tried to interpret “the temple of God” as the Church, but this is an anachronistic reading. We are obviously talking about a physical temple—not a mystical or spiritual one—because it is the kind of temple in which one can take a seat and exhibit oneself. Since Christians have no central physical temple (not even St. Peter’s Basilica counts as that), and certainly didn’t have one in the first century, we must understand the phrase “the temple of God” as it would have been understood in the first-century: a reference to the Jerusalem Temple.

Why would Jews allow a pagan ruler to proclaim himself as God (or as “a god”—the Greek allows both readings) in their temple? Who says they will have any choice in the matter? You see, this kind of thing has precedents.

First, Antiochus Epiphanes—a pagan conqueror trying to stamp out the Jewish religion—placed an idol of Jupiter on the altar in the Jewish temple and sacrificed pigs to it. (This was one of the fulfillments of Daniel’s “abomination of desolation,” 1 Macc 1:54, though not the only one, cf. Matt. 24:15.)

Later in the first century, when the Roman emperor Caligula went mad and proclaimed himself a god, he proposed putting an idol of himself in the Temple at Jerusalem—an act that certainly would have ignited a war with the Jews. A delegation of Jews, including Philo of Alexandria, was able to dissuade him.

All of these are foreshadowings of what the man of sin will do when he arrives. But there is a complication: The temple has been destroyed, just as Jesus prophesied it would be (Matt. 24:1–2). So it will have to be rebuilt before the man of lawlessness carries out his part in the final drama.

There is a further complication: Today the Muslim Dome of the Rock occupies the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. A war likely would start if Israel tried to tear down the Dome and build a temple, or even if it tried built a new temple alongside the Dome?

How will the temple be rebuilt? I don’t know, but there is a fascinating clue: According to many of the Church Fathers, the Antichrist will be a political ruler who will enable the Jewish people to rebuild the temple.

There’s even a foreshadowing of that in history: The last pagan emperor, Julian the Apostate, wished to discourage Christianity and promote a return paganism. However, as part of his program to try to lure people away from Christianity, he agreed to allow the Jews to rebuild the temple, hoping that Jewish Christians would apostatize and go back to worshiping at their ancestral temple.

All the preparations were made, the building supplies were assembled, and work began. Christians may have thought, “This is the end. Julian is the Antichrist, and the temple is going up.” But then there was an earthquake and a fire, the plan came to nothing, and Julian died shortly afterwards.

Something like that may happen in the future. It may take a leader as strong as a Roman emperor to allow the Jewish people to rebuild a temple without it being destroyed by political opponents. And, after its completion, this leader may turn around and say, “Okay, I let you rebuild your temple. Now worship me in it as a token of thanks.”

Things will not be going swimmingly for the remaining Christians in the end-time era, either. Those who do not give in to persecution and worship the man of lawlessness will be imprisoned and martyred. The last pope (or popes) will head the underground Church, just as Peter did in the first century. It will be this great persecution that will drive the Church almost to the point of extinction before Christ returns.

When Christ returns, he will make short work of the man of lawlessness. Paul tells us “the Lord Jesus will slay him with the breath of his mouth and destroy him by his appearing and his coming” (2 Thess. 2:8). Where this will occur is also indicated in Scripture: Israel.

Right now—in the year 2000—we are in the millennium mentioned in Revelation 20:1–10, when the devil is bound in such a way that he cannot deceive the nations by preventing the spread of the gospel. However, at the end of the millennium he will be unloosed and again be able to deceive the nations, leading to the great apostasy (Rev. 20:7-8a).

When that happens, John tells us, he will “deceive the nations which are at the four corners of the earth, that is, Gog and Magog, to gather them for battle; their number is like the sand of the sea. And they marched up over the broad earth and surrounded the camp of the saints and the beloved city; but fire came down from heaven and consumed them” (vv. 8b-9).

“Gog and Magog” are an allusion to Ezekiel 38, where Gog is the symbolic name of a conquering prince of a symbolic land called Magog. In Ezekiel, Gog attacks Israel but is defeated. In Revelation, the allusion indicates that Israel will again be attacked by a foreign prince (likely the man of lawlessness) and his army. They will surround “the camp of the saints” (i.e., the army of Jewish Christians defending the area) and “the beloved city” (i.e., Jerusalem), and that is when Christ will return and destroy the invaders by the force of his coming.

“And the dead in Christ will rise first; then we who are alive, who are left, shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air” (1 Thess. 4:16b-17). Then the devil will be thrown into hell (Rev. 20:10), the present heaven and earth will pass away (v. 11), the dead will be raised, (vv. 12-13a), and the final judgment will take place (vv. 13b-15).

How Close Are We?

The perennial question of how close we are to the end is impossible to answer with precision. Christ himself said, “Of that day and hour no one knows” (Matt. 24:36). The matter is complicated by the fact that, when the final endgame is in motion, events may proceed rapidly indeed.

However, it is possible to make some educated surmises. Certain pieces of the puzzle aren’t in place yet—in particular, the corporate conversion of the Jewish people, the great apostasy of the Gentiles, and the dominance of neo-paganism.

There is anecdotal evidence of a rise in the number of Jewish conversions, but Israel as a state is still very hostile to Christianity. And there has been a demonstrable weakening of the faith in Europe, with more people considering themselves non-Christian. But most Europeans still maintain a Christian identity in some form. (Actually, there have never been more Christians alive than there are now. With two billion Christians, we are very far from a global apostasy.) There has also been a rise in the number of neo-pagans in the last few decades, but at this point neo-paganism is a fringe phenomenon that attracts more laughs than converts.

In the natural course of events, I don’t see how the end game could unfold for at least a century. Of course, God could put things together miraculously for it to happen sooner, but judging from the way God tends to work through long-term societal trends, we are probably at least a few centuries away.

And it might be longer still. There have been “near misses” in the past, where God allowed a prophetic foreshadowing to occur. Remember Julian the Apostate. Since the time he almost allowed the temple to be rebuilt we have had another 1,600 years of Church history. That kind of thing can happen again, and it can happen many times over. God has already given the Church 2,000 years of life. He could give it another 10,000.

What is more important than being concerned with the end of the world is that each of us be concerned with the end of his own life, an event considerably closer. For, as Paul warns us in Romans 14:10 and 12,”We shall all stand before the judgment seat of God. So each of us shall give account of himself to God.”

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