The Word Engaged
The End of the Ages
“The day will come.”
Devastation. Ruin. Emptiness. Is this the fate of the earth? Was Bertrand Russell right when he prophesied that our origin, growth, and maturation would come to nothing? An honest philosophy, he claimed, could not reasonably deny that “no fire, no heroism, no intensity of thought and feeling can preserve an individual life beyond the grave. All the labours of the ages, all the devotion, all the inspiration, all the noonday brightness of human genius are destined to extinction in the vast death of the solar system.” The great temple of human achievement would inevitably be reduced to debris in universal ruin.
Russell was a prophet without a savior, an apocalyptic mind that could not imagine a second coming. The prophet Malachi, centuries earlier, foresaw the same doom, the global blastfurnace where all pride and evil are reduced to rubble, where cancerous growth is uprooted and burned away. But Malachi saw hope; he believed the God who promised a new sun of justice with its healing rays.
As we lurched toward the year 2000, an opera of prophets took the big stage. Apocalyptic literature boomed, even if the earth didn’t. Movies, self-help books, bogus practitioners of religio-craft, best sellers, and talk shows buzzed with anticipation. But it wasn’t to be anything new.
Jesus himself, in Luke’s Gospel, saw terrible times ahead, a day coming when not one stone of our human temple will rest on another. He warned of the signs. There will be wars and insurrections. Nations will fight to the death against nations. Tribes, peoples, and clans will clash. The earth will protest with mighty quakes, the biosystem will spawn plague and famine. The sky will blossom with omens. Finally, there will be rejection and even persecution for those who believe in Christ.
I, however, have a question for the Lord. Has there ever been an age without such trial and turmoil? What century has not seen wars? What nation has not tried to bulldoze its way ahead of others—if not for victory in military struggle, at least for more respectable signs of gain? When have we not been plagued by cancerous life or tossed by mighty movements of earth and sea? And has there ever been a time when a true Christian has not been ridiculed and rejected, whether by friends, family, or state?
Yet Christ, seeming to anticipate our wonder, offered this advice: “Do not be perturbed. ... These things are bound to happen.” Bound to happen. Life is bound to be this way. He is not speaking about the end of all times, but the condition of every time.
I believe there is at least one interpretation of apocalyptic literature (one far more solid than the endless announcements of the end of the world, based on occult reading of scripture) that takes such passages as revelations not so much of what is to come, but of what is now the case.
Each day is the last. Each time is the end time. Each human being faces the end of the world in the span of a life, whether it reach eight minutes or eighty years. The world, its opportunities and losses, passes away for us each night. Every sunset announces a closing of a day that will never come again. Each human death, as Russell pondered, is the curtain on an unrepeatable drama, which, without God, amounts to a tragedy. Every generation, in some way, is the last, the termination. And each generation, like each death and every day, witnesses the signs of the end times.
Everything that Christ predicted has taken place and is taking place and will continue to take place. We need not wait until the millennium or turn to Nostradamus to unlock the mystery. Life itself is the mystery, this great groaning of creation that finds its meaning in hope alone.
Russell knew this. And since he had no hope, he saw all of human history, when all is said and done, as a cruel joke.
For those who hope, it is otherwise. As Paul writes in his Letter to the Romans, that groaning of all creation is an act of giving birth. “We, too, groan inwardly as we wait for our bodies to be set free. For we must be content to hope that we shall be saved.”
And so Christ counsels us not to be alarmed at our condition. Do not follow the false messiahs and easy predictors. Words and wisdom will be given. Through all the turmoil of our days, our generation, our species, it is not death, but a new saving birth which is assured. In some final sense, “not a hair of your head will be harmed.” In patient endurance, life will be saved. We await, then the arrival. “O Come, O Come,” will be our prayer.
John Kavanaugh, SJ
**From Saint Louis University