From disaster movies to fundamentalist techno-thrillers, Americans are fascinated with scary end-of-the-world scenarios. So what are Catholics, who in every Mass profess belief in the Second Coming, to make of that?
Along with oceans flooding over Himalayan peaks, the aircraft carrier U.S.S. John F. Kennedy crashing into the White House, and the statue of Christ the Redeemer crumbling high above Rio de Janeiro, St. Peter's Basilica in Rome is one of the show-stopping sights of the just-released blockbuster movie 2012.
The cardinals in the Sistine Chapel barely get to gasp before the toppled dome of St. Peter's starts rolling right over the faithful masses assembled in St. Peter's Square to pray for God's protection-and straight on toward the curious masses assembled in their movie seats to be scared out of their wits. The $200-million epic by "master of disaster" director Roland Emmerich promises nothing less than "a global cataclysm that brings an end of the world."
While the doomsday scenario behind 2012 is supposedly based on a Mayan prophecy, a majority of Americans, according to a 2004 Newsweek poll, believe in a no less fanciful and scary end-time scenario that claims to be based on the Bible. Fifty-five percent of Americans polled by the news magazine said they believe in the so-called Rapture, the trigger event in an elaborate end-of-the-world scheme that is propagated by fundamentalist and evangelical churches.
The Rapture features born-again believers suddenly going airborne and getting snatched up by Jesus, while the rest of the world is "left behind." Those poor souls-including the vast majority of Catholics-will then perish in a bloodbath during a subsequent seven-year period called the Tribulation.
Stitching together snippets of Bible verses from various books of the Old and New Testament, Rapture believers see this whole scheme as preordained by a God who appears as the ultimate Master of Disaster. Unfortunately, this so-called dispensationalist end-of-the-world theology is now accepted by an astonishing number of people to be "what the Bible says" about the end times (see sidebar on page).
In truth, however, what Pope John Paul II once dismissed as "millenarian fantasies" distort not only the biblical message but also the traditional Christian understanding of the Second Coming of Christ and the end times. It is, as Barbara Rossing, the author of The Rapture Exposed: The Message of Hope in the Book of Revelation (Basic Books), aptly puts it, a "racket."
Waiting in joyful hope
Advent is a good time to reflect on what Catholic belief in the Second Coming of Christ is all about. For the expectant waiting that the church celebrates during the Advent season is not just the waiting and preparation for the feast of Jesus' birth at Bethlehem but also the continued waiting and preparation for Christ's future coming in glory.
"Advent . . . distills into a few short weeks the church's perennial longing for Christ's coming in the flesh, in the end-time, and in every present moment of our lives," writes Felician Sister Judith M. Kubicki, a liturgical theologian at Fordham University, in The Living Light.
This year's gospel on the First Sunday of Advent (Luke 21:25-28, 34-36) is one of the scarier end-time scripture passages. It warns that "people will die of fright in anticipation of what is coming upon the world" before "they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory." Still, the reading's main message is that Christians should live faithful lives and "be vigilant at all times," promising that "your redemption is at hand."
The liturgies for the Sundays of Advent include further references to "the day of Christ Jesus" (Phil. 1:4-11) and the coming of "a mighty savior" (Zeph. 3:14-18a), and pick up the theme with prayers such as: "Now we watch for the day, hoping that the salvation promised us will be ours, when Christ our Lord will come again in his glory."
But the Advent season only reinforces what Catholics already repeatedly confess during every celebration of the Mass. "Christ has died, Christ has risen, Christ will come again," the congregation proclaims, while the Lord's Prayer pleads, "Thy kingdom come," and the Nicene Creed promises that Christ "will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead" and has the faithful look forward to the "life of the world to come."
Even if many Mass-goers don't think much about the meaning of these words, the expectant hope for Christ's Second Coming and for the ultimate redemption and transformation of the world-what theologians call eschatology, the "talk about the last things"-is at the core of the Good News Christians proclaim.
According to Irish Jesuit theologian Father Dermot Lane, president of the Mater Dei Institute in Dublin, such Christian talk about the last things "is ultimately about ‘hope seeking understanding.' "
And the object of Christian hope, explains Lane, the author of Keeping Hope Alive: Stirrings in Christian Theology (Wipf & Stock), is "Christ crucified and risen. In the light of the death and Resurrection of Jesus as the Christ, the Christian is one who dares to hope for the triumph of good over evil, of justice over injustice, and love over hatred in this life and eternity."
In striking contrast to the dispensationalist Rapture scenario-which is preoccupied with the question "What must we fear?"-the expectation of the Second Coming is really about the Christian response to the question, "What may we hope?"
Despite the inroads Rapture theology has made among American Catholics, most instinctively understand this hopeful orientation.
Asked how he imagines the Second Coming, Father Al Humbrecht, pastor of Sacred Heart Cathedral in Knoxville, Tennessee, turns to what "we say in that little prayer between the two parts of the Our Father at Mass: ‘We wait in joyful hope for the coming of our Savior, Jesus Christ.' I expect the Second Coming to be a joyful experience, not this horrendous thing that many of our fundamentalists are looking for."
That's why Teresa Ocampo, a parishioner at St. Frances of Rome Parish in Cicero, Illinois, says she fervently wishes that Jesus would come soon: "I know I'm not a very good person sometimes, and so [in some ways] I don't really feel ready for his coming. But I really want the Second Coming as soon as possible."
As for what she imagines that would be like, Ocampo says she believes that she has experienced a foretaste of that ultimate happiness in the peace that washes over her sometimes when she spends a long time in prayer and adoration.
"It's like you feel God's presence, and all of your body warms up, and you may even be crying because . . . it's something so wonderful," she says. "You feel only love for your brothers and sisters. . . . There are no words to express it, it's just happiness."
The reason why the expectation for the Second Coming is essentially about hope and not fear is that Christians view it as the full realization of the promise of the kingdom of God that has already taken root with Jesus' first coming. This connection is critical to a proper understanding of Christian expectations for the end-time.
"In Christ," Pope Benedict XVI says in Spe Salvi, his 2007 encyclical on Christian hope, "God has revealed himself. He has already communicated to us the ‘substance' of things to come, and thus the expectation of God acquires a new certainty."
Attempting to describe that substance of things to come, the pope writes: "It would be like plunging into the ocean of infinite love, … life in the full sense, a plunging ever anew into the vastness of being in which we are simply overwhelmed with joy."
The relationship between the first and Second Coming, explains Father Brian Daley, S.J., a theologian at the University of Notre Dame, "is one of promise and fulfillment. We believe that in Jesus the Word of God became flesh and lived in our human world and that that makes a permanent difference to history."
Or, as Lane puts it: "The end of the world has appeared in embryo in the life and destiny of Jesus as the Christ."
Already and not yet
What then does belief in the Second Coming mean for Christians living their faith in the 21st century?
One often-cited principle is that Christians continue to live in the tension between the "already" and the "not yet." Living in the "already" recognizes that because in Christ "the kingdom of God has come to you" already (Matt. 12:28, Luke 11:20), Christians are called to actively participate in building it, while living in the "not yet" recognizes that its completion or fulfillment is beyond human capability.
It's a kind of paradox, says Brian Robinette, a theologian at St. Louis University, that Christians anticipate the Second Coming as both a "gift from God" that has not yet come and a "summons" to already contribute to the building of the kingdom of God.
He adds that it is "something that comes from beyond ourselves, from God, and therefore is utterly gift, while on the other hand it is something that we actively participate in through liturgical practice, ethical practice, through the living of a Christian life, and helping to bring healing to this world. And if one of those two poles is missing, then you have a major distortion."
Honoring what theologians call the "eschatological reservation"-that ultimately the kingdom of God requires an act of God-prevents Christians from falling for radical political ideologies and utopian movements that want to establish a perfect society but often end up deteriorating into dehumanizing violence and oppression.
"Certainly," says Pope Benedict in Spe Salvi, "we cannot ‘build' the kingdom of God by our own efforts. . . . The kingdom of God is a gift, and precisely because of this, it is great and beautiful, and constitutes the response to our hope."
On the other end of the spectrum, Robinette says, being actively engaged in furthering the kingdom prevents Christians from falling for dispensationalist and other end-time schemes in which all that's left to do is wait for a mid-air rescue operation before the world goes to hell in a handbasket.
Living in the tension between the "already" and the "not yet" thus means to pursue what German theologian Medard Kehl has described as the essence of Christian hope: to combine the "serenity of one who has been given a gift" with the "passion for the possible."
In his Tennessee parish, Humbrecht sees this as a call to "keep working to better establish the kingdom of God, to get it where it's supposed to be. . . . We've got a lot of work to do to get it right, and we need to keep working with the Lord and the grace that's been given us to be putting the world back in order."
Especially in the Bible Belt, where they are a distinct minority, Catholics frequently get drawn into conversations about the Rapture.
Humbrecht, who gives presentations on fundamentalism, says such conversations generally follow the same pattern. "It starts out with that simple question, ‘Are you saved?' Meaning, ‘Do you believe literally in the Bible as we do?' That confuses a lot of Catholics. . . . It then goes on to the questioner's determination that you are not saved and to the statement that the end time is soon and that you don't want to be one of those people who will get punished at the end."
That kind of talk just makes Joy Hoelscher, an 80-year-old parishioner at Holy Angels Parish in San Angelo, Texas, shake her head. "When people predict, ‘Oh my, this and that is happening, that means that the end of the world is coming,' I say, ‘You don't know what you're talking about.'
"You know Jesus said that no one knows the day or the hour," Hoelscher says. "I don't worry about a cataclysmic thing happening. I just paddle along here, live each day in faith, do the best I can, instruct other people along the way, and that's just how I live."
Daley of Notre Dame confirms that "the Catholic Church has always been hesitant . . . to read in scriptures clues that would help us calculate when [the end of the world] would come."
But while firmly rejecting the dispensationalist tendency to read current events as signs of the end times and predict that the end is near, Catholics and mainline Protestants could still learn something from the urgency of the dispensationalist expectation of the Second Coming.
While "there is something wonderful" about the way Christians in liturgical churches celebrate sacramental worship in cycles, Rossing, who teaches New Testament at the Lutheran School of Theology in Chicago, thinks that this cyclical nature at times hasn't created enough of a sense of it leading somewhere.
"We need to reclaim an urgency about our mission," she says, "not in the sense of an urgency for Jesus to come back and kill all the bad guys, but an urgency to be sowing seeds of the kingdom of God, like in the New Testament communities. It's an urgency to love our neighbor, to feed the hungry, and to obey Jesus' commandments.
"Sometimes," she adds, "there is not enough fire in us." Taking the Second Coming seriously in our own lives means, "Time is short, and we have to be about something important."
That sense of the shortness of time has been reinforced in recent decades by the advent of the nuclear age and an awareness of the growing environmental crisis that threatens the very survival of planet Earth. Christians have been forced to reflect on the question whether human intervention could possibly thwart God's plans for the transformation and fulfillment of human history and all of creation.
"Eschatology in a nuclear age," says Robinette, "is different because now we can see very concretely the means by which we can bring about our own demise." So rather than speculating about the identity of the Antichrist alive today-as dispensationalists do-he believes Christians ought to come to grips with the reality that "the enemy is within our own beating hearts, that we can destroy ourselves through some catastrophic war with nuclear and biological weapons or through the slow strangling of our planet through ecological degradation."
According to Lane, the Irish theologian, that new situation requires a "new cosmic consciousness," which comes with a new responsibility. He explains, "One way of putting it-and it is quite accurate, theologically speaking-is this: Nothing happens between heaven and earth without human cooperation.
"If you look at the history of salvation, even down to the Incarnation, it would not have happened without the collaboration of Mary. And the ministry of Jesus would not have taken off in the way it did without the response of the disciples."
One way for humans to "cooperate" with the history of salvation today is to safeguard the Christian hope for the Second Coming and for the life of the world to come by doing everything possible to keep humanity from bringing about a premature and catastrophic end of the world.
If Christians manage to do that and participate in other ways in building the kingdom of God, they can, in God's own time, look forward to seeing the promise of the Book of Revelation fulfilled:
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth. . . . And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, . . . ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more. . . .' And the one seated on the throne said, ‘See I am making all things new' (Rev. 21:1-5).
This article appeared in the December 2009 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 74, No. 12, page 20).