Having put off yard work all week, I was disappointed when I heard a Christian numerologist backed off his claims that the world would end today. Hedging his bets however he still claims that some cataclysmic event will occur that will usher in the end of the world. Whatever date he actually decides upon, Mr. Meade will have the rather dubious distinction of joining the illustrious ranks of Pat Robertson, Edgar Cayce, Jeane Dixon, Grigori Rasputin, Tim LaHaye, Nostradamus, and Isaac Newton as failed Doomsday prophets. Despite the hundreds, if not thousands, of famous apocalyptic forecasts, each new prediction ignites the interest of the Christian and non-Christian alike. The question as to when the world will end is an important one, but one that Christian would be better served setting aside. While the reasoning employed by these would be soothsayers is often entertaining, we should resist paying giving them any attention.
To be fair, this is a question that drew great interest even among the disciples of Our Lord. When preaching about the End Times, Our Lord told them “But of that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father alone” (Mt24:36). When He says “no one” He really means it and wants this question to be one that is off the table, so to speak. Any investigation into the question will prove fruitless and so any answers that we give will surely be wrong. Instead Our Lord wants His disciples to be vigilant, treating each day as if it were the Day of Visitation. Given that every Christian will have a last day and for only a tiny proportion of them it will be the Last Day, this is sage advice indeed, especially considering for most of us the end is no longer than 80 years or so away.
What Our Lord Knew
It is worth discussing the meaning of Our Lord’s words in detail because there have been and still are many heterodox theologians and priests who have twisted them. Christ, because He has two natures has two ways of knowing—divine and human. As God, He of course knows when the end of the world is. It is not as if the Father somehow has kept it as a secret from Him. As man He was limited to true ways of human knowing. But still as a Divine Person He knew all things. What He meant in this situation is that this is knowledge that only God could know, that is, it is knowledge that must remain within the divine realm. This is not a recent opinion but belongs to the Ordinary Magisterium of the Church, going back to the 6th Century: “If anyone says that the one Jesus Christ who is both true Son of God and true Son of man did not know the future or the day of the Last Judgment and that he could know only as much as the divinity, dwelling in him as in another, revealed to him, anathema sit.” (Pope Vigilius, Constitutum I of 14 May 553). Augustine said that although Christ had full knowledge of all things, there were two types: communicable knowledge which is related to His mission as Redeemer and noncommunicable. The question as to the end, because it is not tied to His mission as Redeemer is noncommunicable.
Despite not be able to predict the hour, Our Lord still provides a list of signs to watch out for. These signs are useful for putting down the false prophets but they also are meant to encourage our vigilance and, for those who are facing the trials of the last days, perseverance. The signs can be broadly grouped into five categories:
- Preaching of the Gospel to the Whole World
- The Conversion of the Jews
- The Great Apostasy
- The Appearance of the Antichrist
- Meteorological Phenomenon
Before the end of the world, the Gospel will have been preached to the entire world (c.f. Mk 13:10). The Gospel will first have to spread, that is, all the peoples of the world will have had heard the true Gospel and had an opportunity to respond.
In his letter to the Romans, St. Paul writes of the conversion of the Jews saying that only after the Gospel has spread will tall Israel come to Christ, saying “I do not want you to be unaware of this mystery, brothers, so that you will not become wise [in] your own estimation: a hardening has come upon Israel in part, until the full number of the Gentiles comes in, and thus all Israel will be saved…”(Rom 11:25-28). Most of the Church Fathers teach that the Jews will first think the Antichrist the true Messiah, but through the preaching of the two witnesses (c.f. Rev 11:3-12—which points possibly to Elijah and Enoch) they will come to the fullness of the truth. This obviously does not mean that every single Jewish person will come to Christ, but means all in the moral sense.
The third event to watch for is what is called the Great Apostasy (c.f Mt 24:9-12). Apostasy is “the total rejection by a baptized person of the Christian faith he once professed” and is present in the Church in every age. The Great Apostasy will be a time in which entire Christian nations will apostasize and it will spread throughout the universal Church, perhaps even reaching the hierarchy.
The fourth event is the appearance of the Antichrist. While we do not know a lot of specifics, Scripture and Tradition does give us enough to form a vague outline of the man. First, he is just a man and not the Devil incarnate. Still he will be under the control of the devil to such a degree that he will perform many signs and wonders. His reign will last for 42 months (Rev 11:2), coming to power with a show of mildness, soberness and benevolence. This will beguile many (especially the Jews who will think he is the expected Christ) by his lying signs and wonders of his “magical deceit,” but afterwards he will be characterized by all kinds of crimes of inhumanity and cruelty, especially towards the elect, that will make the worst tyrants of history look mild. He will eventually be killed by Christ, the earth swallowing him whole.
Where the false prophets go wrong is usually because they misunderstand the last one. Christ says the meteorological signs will occur “immediately after the tribulation of those days, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will fall from the sky, and the powers of the heavens will be shaken” (Mt 24:29). Most place these phenomena at the beginning of the process or skip the other signs. Wars, earthquakes, famines and the like “must take place, but the end is not yet” (Mk 13:7-8).
Is the End Near?
No matter what astronomical events occur today or in the coming days, we can say that it is not the end of the world because all the other four things have not yet occurred. There are two that we might wonder about. We are living in a time of mass apostasy, but it is not clear that this is the Great Apostasy that Our Lord prophesized. Likewise with the preaching of the Gospel to the whole world; St. John Paul II thought not—“…there remain vast regions still to be evangelized. In many nations entire peoples and cultural areas of great importance have not yet been reached by the proclamation of the Gospel and the presence of the local church. Even in traditionally Christian countries there are regions that are under the special structures of the mission ad gentes, with groups and areas not yet evangelized” (Pope St. John Paul II, Redemptoris Missio,37). Either way we can say with certainty that neither the conversion of the Jews nor the rise of the Antichrist has occurred. Best we can say at this point is that we are at least 42 months from the end of the world.
The fact that the predictions are obviously false is good enough reason to ignore them, but there are two additional reasons as well. First, it only encourages others to join in the prognostication party. Thanks to viral quality of Social Media, everyone’s 15 minutes of fame has been extended to 30 minutes. If it is sure to garner attention and “likes” then people will throw it out there, even if it is just a picture of it spelled out in their Chef Boyardee Numbers and Letters Pasta.
The second reason is related to this and that is that it only further serves to make Christians look ridiculous. The world may not recognize that we are trying to predict something we were explicitly told not to waste our time on, but they will know and remember when we are wrong. Christians are supposed to be a prophetic voice to the world, but when they make more noise being false prophets then it muffles the true prophetic voice we are given at Baptism. We need to quickly call out these false prophets for what they are; ignoring them when the world is not does us no good.