Humanly speaking, never was there a time when civilization seemed so close to dissolution and the fate of the human race itself so uncertain. In his Easter Message of 1954, Pope Pius XII gave expression to the fears of all when he said that the terrified world is at the mercy of new destructive weapons “capable of causing the total destruction of all animal and vegetable life, and of all the works of man, over vast regions.”
It is not unnatural, under such circumstances, that the minds of many Christians should turn again to thoughts of the Second Coming of Christ in all his majesty and glory to judge the living and the dead and to wondering whether the end of the world is indeed going to take place in the very near future.
People have even said that Peter himself must have had the atom and hydrogen bombs in mind when he wrote: “But the day of the Lord shall come as a thief, in which the heavens shall pass away with great violence, and the elements shall be melted with heat, and the earth and the works which are in it shall be burned up” (2 Pet. 3:10). But where Sacred Scripture is concerned we must beware of taking every expression we find there at its face value. The very fact that Peter at once goes on to say that “we look for new heavens and a new earth according to the promises, in which justice dwelleth,” suggests that he is giving an apocalyptic or visionary and symbolical description having an essentially spiritual significance.
These thoughts, however, do raise the whole question of eschatology; and it is opportune, and even necessary for us to take stock of our position and to see clearly to what we are committed in this matter by our Christian faith. Just as biology means the science of life (Greek bios), and theology the science of God (Greek theos), so eschatology means the science of what is to happen at the last (Greek eschatos). The New Testament abounds in references to “the last days,” “the end of the world,” “the consummation of the ages,” and eschatology, therefore, deals with God’s plans for the ultimate destiny of the world and of the human race itself.
Concerning those plans, God has revealed enough for all practical purposes as far as we are concerned, although he has not revealed enough to satisfy our curiosity on all conceivable matters. Ever there will remain an element of mystery until actual events themselves make all things clear. From the practical point of view it is enough to know that man’s soul is immortal and that there awaits every man either an eternity of happiness or an eternity of misery, his lot depending on whether he goes from this world at death as God’s friend or as God’s enemy. Above all, we should try to have sufficient knowledge to be able to refute the fantastic assertions of those who mis¬interpret and even go far beyond anything really revealed by God and recorded in the pages of Sacred Scripture.
There are scientists who, ignoring divine revelation altogether, have insisted that through the influence of natural forces alone in the universe this world must come to an end.
They speak very learnedly of entropy, a physical law involving the gradual dissipation of all energy until it is equally distributed throughout space. In popular newspaper and magazine articles they tell us that the universe is like a clock running down and that it will never be possible for it to be wound up again. Scientists have arisen, however, to dispute the assumption that the universe is running down and declare it likely that, side by side with the dissipation of heat and energy, there is a constant process of renewal within the universe, which will therefore be able to continue interminably more or less as we see it at present.
It is difficult to see how the speculations of these philosophers and scientists about a future which they admit to be millions of years distant from us, and in which according to them we at least will have no part, can be of any practical interest to present generations of men. What is of immediate interest, however, is the suggestion already mentioned, namely, that men themselves may bring the final disaster upon this planet, and upon all mankind, by their misuse of their scientific knowledge.
Our Christian religion forbids us to believe it. Holy Scripture declares clearly and unequivocally that the end of the world will come about by the special intervention of God, accompanied by circumstances altogether beyond the control of human beings. The conclusion of human history is put before us as a divine and not as a merely natural event, a conclusion which is mysterious of its very nature. Thus we are told that “then shall appear the sign of the Son of man in heaven; and then shall all the tribes of the earth mourn; and they shall see the Son of man coming in the clouds of heaven with much power and majesty. And he shall send his angels with a trumpet and a great voice, and they shall gather together his elect from the four winds, from the farthest parts of the heavens to the utmost bounds of them” (Matt. 24:30–31).
Again, John describes a vision granted to him: “I saw a new heaven and a new earth. For the first heaven and the first earth were gone, and the sea is now no more. And I, John, saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God” (Rev. 21:1–2).
In whatever way these passages are to be interpreted, they envisage a tremendous and overwhelming event, originating not from within any merely natural world-processes, but from outside the world altogether. The picture is not of something coming out of this world’s chaotic distress, but of the God-man, Christ, coming into it again. The end of human history will not be brought about by any work of man, but by an act of God, by the direct intervention of God’s own infinite power.
Against this it has been suggested that man has got the world into such a dreadful state that God will permit him to bring it to an end by his own maladministration of scientific discoveries, Christ then coming in his majesty and glory to judge both the living and the dead. But the implication here is that temporal disasters brought upon themselves by men, resulting from their misuse of science, will bring about the end of the world earlier than God has already determined that it shall be. It is impossible to reconcile such a supposition with our Lord’s words, among the very last he uttered immediately prior to his Ascension into heaven: “It is not for you to know the times and the moments, which the Father hath put in his own power” (Acts 1:7). The decision as to when this world will end rests with God, and men will not be able to force his hand, compelling him as it were to intervene with the Final Judgment before he himself had anticipated doing so!
It will be good, before proceeding further with this subject, to see just where we Catholics stand. The Catholic Church believes and teaches exactly what the Bible declares. From time immemorial all Catholics have recited the words of the Apostles’ Creed: “He ascended into heaven, and sitteth at the right hand of God the Father Almighty; from thence he shall come to judge the living and the dead.”
The Catholic Church, therefore, teaches the Second Coming of Christ, not in the sense that some mistaken people think, namely, in order to live in this world and set up a kingdom on the earth, but to put an end to the drama of human life on earth, executing judgment upon the good and the wicked, and allotting them eternal destinies of either happiness or misery in a state transcending worldly conditions altogether. Human life on this earth as we know it now will then cease to be.
Thus Christ said: “As the lightning cometh out of the east and appeareth even unto the west, so also shall the coming of the Son of man be . . . and all nations shall be gathered together before him, and he shall separate them one from another, as the shepherd separateth the sheep from the goats. . . . Then shall the king say to them that shall be on his right hand: ‘Come ye blessed of my Father, possess the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world’ . . . and to those on his left: ‘Depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire, which was prepared for the devil and his angels . . . and these shall go into everlasting punishment but the just into life everlasting’” (Matt. 24:27, 25:32–46).
From all this it is clear that as Christ came the first time in the humility and poverty of Bethlehem to accomplish our redemption, so equally surely he will come again, but next time in all his majesty and glory as judge of all mankind. All through the New Testament there runs the note of ex¬pectation of this Second Coming. It is the central fact which will sum up and conclude this “last age,” a last age in which we ourselves are now living.
The declarations of Christ as recorded in the Gospels are confirmed throughout the rest of the New Testament. At the Ascension, the angels assured the apostles: “This Jesus who is taken up from you into heaven shall so come as you have seen him going into heaven” (Acts 1:11). In every Mass, or celebration of the Lord’s Supper, according to Paul, we “show forth the death of the Lord until he comes” (1 Cor. 11:26). To the Thessalonians Paul wrote: “For the Lord himself shall come down from heaven with commandment, and with the voice of an archangel, and with the trumpet of God; and the dead who are in Christ shall rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, shall be taken up together with them into the clouds to meet Christ, into the air, and so shall we be always with the Lord” (1 Thess. 4:15–16). Again, therefore, whatever be the interpretation of the details of these predictions, the fact is clear that there is to be a Second Advent of Christ in all his majesty and glory to judge the living and the dead, as surely as his First Advent in his birth at Bethlehem was a reality. Our human understanding of this mystery is, of course, another matter; and with that the rest of this booklet will be concerned.