Although the Bible nowhere tells us just when the end of the world is likely to take place, we do find in its pages an account of various “signs” which will at least precede that great event. Concerning these, however, we must be particularly careful. While Catholics are obliged to believe everything that has been revealed in Sacred Scripture according to the meaning God himself intended it to have, it does not follow that the exact meaning of every particular passage will be immediately clear to us. Nor has the Catholic Church given any express definitions as to the significance of any sections of the Bible connected with the subject.
We are, therefore, left to make what we can of the divinely-inspired writings, or at least left to the opinions of scholars and theologians who have made a special study of the subject. The average reader of Scripture is certainly not competent to find his own way through the maze of intricate and obscure prophecies referring to the consummation of all things, and it would be folly on his part to ignore interpreta¬tions proposed by experts in biblical studies. Very often words and sentences which at first sight merely look as if they fit in with a person’s preconceived ideas may have no significance whatever of the kind imagined.
One good soul calculated that the end of the world must be at hand during our own days because the prophet Daniel had said, “Many shall run to and fro, and knowledge shall be increased” (Dan. 12:4). Is not the world today one mad rushing of people to and fro, people traveling here and there in trains and ships, motorcars, and airplanes? And has not knowledge been increased, particularly in the field of nuclear physics even to the invention of atom and hydrogen bombs, the very means of universal destruction? Surely we must be now in the time of the end!
But alas for this ingenious application of Daniel’s supposed prediction! For he was referring only to the perusal of his own writings by later readers. He was in no way referring to traveling about in this world or to progress in “scientific knowledge.” He meant merely that many men would later run through all that he had written, checking it backwards and forwards, studying and exploring his book, thus gaining an increased knowledge from divine revelation of the way in which human history is ever under the control of God’s providence and contributing toward the fulfillment of his designs. In no way, therefore, can this particular text be adapted to the problem of when the end of the world will come. And so it is with many other texts torn from their context, quoted without any attention to their real sense, and without regard to teachings given elsewhere in Holy Scripture.
We may legitimately inquire, however (dismissing all such spurious citations of Scripture), as to what signs can be re¬garded as truly biblical predictions of the approaching end of the world. Yet even here the answer to the question put precisely in that way is that there are none. Nowhere are we told that the end is actually near at hand. At most, Holy Scripture assures us that it will not come until certain events have first happened.
Of primary significance is our Lord’s statement, “This gospel of the kingdom shall be preached in the whole world for a testimony to all nations; and then shall the consummation come” (Matt. 24:14). We are not told that all nations will be converted. But at least the Christian religion will have been made known everywhere and to all peoples before the Second Advent of Christ can be expected.
Secondly, and unhappily, a great apostasy or falling away of multitudes who have professed the Christian faith will precede the end. “Antichrist” will appear, and many will desert the Christian religion to join with him in his efforts to destroy it. Paul warned the Thessalonians not to be¬lieve the day of the Lord to be at hand, insisting that there must “come a revolt first, and the man of sin be revealed, the son of perdition” (2 Thess. 2:3). It was surely with that fact in mind that our Lord said wistfully, “The Son of man, when he cometh, shall he find, think you, faith upon the earth?” (Luke 18:8). His rhetorical question did not mean, of course, that the faith will be completely non-existent. Many Christians will indeed have remained faithful and will have been joined by probably the majority of the surviving Jewish people. Scripture predicts the return of both Elijah and Enoch as precursors of the Second Coming of Christ and that they will succeed in converting to him most of the one-time chosen people of God.
Thus the prophet Malachi wrote, “Behold I will send you the prophet Elijah before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the Lord” (Mal. 4:5). And Sirach tells us, “Enoch pleased God and was translated into paradise, that he may give repentance to the nations” (Sir. 44:16). That the Jews as a people will respond to the grace of God is declared by Paul, who writes of them: “I must not fail, brethren, to make this revelation known to you . . . Blindness has fallen upon a part of Israel, but only until the tale of the Gentile nations is complete; then the whole of Israel will find salvation, as we read in Scripture: A deliverer shall come from Zion, to rid Jacob of his unfaithfulness; and this shall be the fulfillment of my covenant with them” (Rom. 11:25–26 [Knox trans.]).
There are those who believe that before the end the Jews will be gathered again out of all the nations among which they are scattered and have the promised land once possessed by their ancestors restored to them. In favor of this opinion they quote such predictions from the Old Testament as that of Isaiah: “He (God) shall assemble the fugitives of Israel and shall gather together the dispersed of Judah, from the four quarters of the earth” (Isa. 11:12). But where Jewish Zionists give these passages a political interpretation, the much more likely one is a spiritual interpretation. This would not exclude the actual return of a representative section of the Jews to the Holy Land, but it rather looks forward to a return of the Jewish people everywhere to the true “Israel,” the fold of which Christ is the Shepherd, and whom they should have recognized as their predicted Messiah. The modern Zionist movement, which is political rather than reli¬gious, should not, therefore, be regarded as being the fulfillment of the prophecy of Isaiah nor as having significance as one of the signs directing our attention toward the end of human history.
While the signs mentioned will precede the Last Day, we are not told that they will immediately precede it. We are not told when, or how, or at what intervals any or all of them will occur. The only immediate sign mentioned in Holy Scripture is that of the actual sight of the Son of man coming in the clouds of heaven with great majesty and power; and this Second Coming of Christ will be sudden and unexpected, accompanied by immense, supernaturally-caused, and very mysterious cosmic disturbances, altering the whole.aspect of the heavens and of the earth, an alteration which will be simultaneously both a destruction and a renewal, a renovation and restoration of God’s creation in its entirety beyond anything it is given to man to conceive.
The prediction that “Antichrist” will appear before the end has been a source of great interest and curiosity through the centuries. In general, the name itself suggests anyone who denies or who is opposed to Christ, but in particular, the term has often been understood as referring to some great individual antagonist who will cause immense wicked¬ness throughout the world, but who will be defeated by Christ when he returns to judge mankind.
John, in his epistles, is the only biblical writer to use the actual word “Antichrist.” In the Gospels our Lord is re¬corded as having twice alluded to the subject of “Antichrist,” firstly when he said: “There shall arise false Christs and false prophets, and shall show great signs and wonders, so as to lead astray, if possible, even the elect” (Matt, 24:15); and secondly in the words, “I am come in the name of my Father, and you receive me not: if another come in his own name, him you will receive” (John 5:43). Paul, as we have seen, spoke of “Antichrist” without expressly naming him, in his references to the “man of sin” and “son of perdition.”
Whether “Antichrist” is intended to be some definite individual or to be taken as a symbolical reference to any forces operative at any time against the cause of Christ is not certain. Both opinions have been held side by side in the Church from the earliest times. John himself, although he leaves room for one chief opponent as suggested by Paul’s reference to the “man of sin,” seems to make much more of the idea of “Antichrist” as the spirit of evil, the personification of all forces hostile to Christ through all the ages. He tells us that “Antichrist” is always present and at work in the persons of those who deny Christ. “Even now,” he writes, “there are become many Antichrists” (1 John 2:18). Especially is Antichrist manifest in those who have at one time believed in Christ and later apostatized from the Christian religion.
Through all the ages the forces of irreligion have fought against Christ and his Church. Kings and emperors, poli¬ticians and philosophers, tyrants and fanatics, have successively arisen throughout history. In every age the struggle is renewed. Certain elements in Fascism, Nazism, and Communism could reasonably be interpreted as manifestations of the spirit of “Antichrist” operating in our own era. Such evil activities continuing through twenty centuries can scarcely be described as the work of “one man.” Nor can the “man of sin” be identified with Satan himself, for the “man of sin” is described as receiving his power from Satan. Moreover, our Lord himself spoke, not of one “Antichrist,” but of many “false Christs.”
Whether, therefore, when the world’s history has gathered to its climax, “Antichrist” is to appear as a single individual and diabolic personality or whether no more is intended than a reference to various systems of paganism in philosophy and thought, and to different anti-Christian forms of govern¬ment operating through the centuries, cannot be determined with any certainty. The Catholic Church leaves Scripture scholars and theologians free to hold what they think the more likely, provided they observe the normal laws neces¬sary for sound exegesis. If anyone were to offer a fantastic interpretation conflicting with other sections of Scripture or with the defined teaching of the Church on other matters, his interpretation would be condemned. Apart from that, one may hold whatever he thinks warranted by sound arguments.
In the Apocalypse, or Book of Revelation, 16:13–16, we have what appears to be a description of the final conflict between Christ and “Antichrist” in the famous battle of Armageddon.
There John writes: “I saw from the mouth of the dragon, and from the mouth of the beast, and from the mouth of the false prophet, three unclean spirits like frogs. For they are the spirits of devils working signs; and they go forth unto the kings of the whole earth, to gather them to battle against the great day of Almighty God . . . And he shall gather them together into a place, which in Hebrew is called Armageddon.”
The passage is obviously symbolical, its imagery largely reflecting that contained in Ezekiel, chapters 38 and 39, and its contents being based on the actual defeat of the kings of Canaan at the Mount of Megiddo (Har-Magedon) described in Judges 5:19, as well, possibly, on the visionary assault on the Holy Mount of God referred to in Isaiah 14:12–15.
Old-fashioned Protestants were in the habit of interpreting Armageddon literally, thinking of it as an actual battle ending in the slaughter of all God’s enemies, chief among whom they ranked the papacy! But there is not a Scripture scholar of any standing today who would endorse so fantastic an opinion.
The word “Armageddon,” as already indicated, is from the Hebrew “Har-Magedon,” or Mount Megiddo. Mount Megiddo is a high tableland in Palestine which was situated on the north-south road between Mesopotamia and Egypt and on which many great battles were fought in ancient times. John’s reference to it is symbolical, predicting that, just as many a battle was fought out to a decision on Mount Megiddo, so will Christ triumph in the end over all his enemies.
Primarily John had in mind the proximate downfall of the pagan Roman Emperors, then engaged in the ferocious persecution of Christians, but there can be no doubt that his vision looked far beyond that, even to the end of time, when the whole spiritual struggle between good and evil in this world will attain to its climax, ending in a great final con¬flict between “Antichrist” (the forces of sin and wickedness) and Christ, the ultimate victory resting with the latter. The Second Coming of Christ to judge the living and the dead, therefore, will be an “Armageddon,” a decisive event resulting in the final overthrow of all evil forces at work among mankind.