In certain Protestant circles (not all), especially among the Evangelicals there is a strong and often vivid preoccupation with signs of the Second Coming of Christ. Many of the notions that get expressed are either erroneous, or extreme. Some of these erroneous notions are rooted in a misunderstanding of the various Scriptural genres. Some are rooted in reading certain Scriptures in isolation from the wider context of the whole of Scripture. And some are rooted in reading one text, and disregarding other texts that balance it.
The Catholic approach to the end times (aka Eschatology) is perhaps less thrilling and provocative. It does not generate “Left Behind” movie series or cause people to sell their houses and gather on hillsides waiting for the announced end. It is more methodical and seeks to balance a lot of notions that often hold certain truths in tension.
I thought it perhaps a worthy goal to set forth certain principles of Eschatology from a Catholic point of view, since this topic often comes up in discussions with Evangelicals and others. Most of these insights are drawn straight from the Catechism and the Scriptures. What I offer here I do not propose to call a complete eschatology, only a sketch of basic principles rooted right in the Catechism of the Catholic Church.
While we cannot know the exact time of his Coming, nevertheless there are things that both remind us and signal us as to his approach, if we have eyes to see them. These signs give indications only. The presence of such texts cannot be seen to over-rule that He will come “on a sudden” and that many will be caught unawares.
Here are some notes from Catechism (The Blue and Red texts are my own). I have made the Scripture quotes live by way of hyper text so you can click right over and read them.
1. “Soon + Sudden” – Since the Ascension Christ’s coming in glory has been imminent (Rev 22:20), even though “it is not for you to know times or seasons which the Father has fixed by his own authority.”(Acts 1:7) This eschatological coming could be accomplished at any moment, even if both it and the final trial that will precede it are “delayed” (Mat 24:44; 1 Thes 5:2; 2 Thes 2:3-12). (CCC # 673).
Of all the points the Catechism makes, this one sets the tone of balance that must, most surely, be maintained. So, on the one hand Christ says, “I am coming soon” and that his coming could be both sudden and without warning.
Yet this truth must be held in tension with other truths that set forth certain things and signs that must be accomplished first. And these things are not easily or quickly accomplished. And this point is developed in point # 2.
2. Suspended – The glorious Messiah’s coming is suspended at every moment of history until his recognition by “all Israel” (Romans 11:20-26; Mat 23:39), for “a hardening has come upon part of Israel” in their “unbelief” (Romans 11:20-26) toward Jesus. St. Peter says to the Jews of Jerusalem after Pentecost: “Repent therefore, and turn again, that your sins may be blotted out, that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord, and that he may send the Christ appointed for you, Jesus, whom heaven must receive until the time for establishing all that God spoke by the mouth of his holy prophets from of old. (Acts 3:19-21)” St. Paul echoes him: “For if their rejection means the reconciliation of the world, what will their acceptance mean but life from the dead?” (Rom 11:15) The “full inclusion” of the Jews in the Messiah’s salvation, in the wake of “the full number of the Gentiles” (Rom 11:12), will enable the People of God to achieve “the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ”, in which “God may be all in all” (Eph 4:13; 1 Cor 15:27-28) (CCC # 674)
This going forth of the Gospel to all the nations and the acceptance of the Jews to Christ would seem to be matters that would take some time.
Has the Gospel really reached all the nations? Have the full number of Gentiles come in and are they serving God and repenting in sufficient numbers? Perhaps so, one may argue. And yet, on a planet of six billion, less than one third are Christian. And yet, there are very few places in the world where there is no Christian presence.
And what is meant by the “full number” of Gentiles? That number is hidden from us and surely is debated.
And has the “hardening” that has come upon the Israel been lifted? This too is debated and, despite certain movements of “Messianic Jews” it does not seem currently that the hardening that has come on Israel has been lifted in any wide sort of way or that he has been recognized by “all Israel.”
3. Suffering and Sedition– Before Christ’s second coming the Church must pass through a final trial that will shake the faith of many believers (Luke 18:8; Mt 24:12). The persecution that accompanies her pilgrimage on earth will unveil the “mystery of iniquity” in the form of a religious deception offering men an apparent solution to their problems at the price of apostasy from the truth. The supreme religious deception is that of the Antichrist, a pseudo-messianism by which man glorifies himself in place of God and of his Messiah come in the flesh. (2 Thess 2:4-12; 1 Thess 5:2-3; 1 Jn 2:18-22) (CCC # 675)
Clearly, many of these troubles have afflicted the Church in every age. There has always been persecution. Many have fallen away, sometimes in large numbers, most into schism, some into unbelief. There have been times too where it can be argued that the love of many has grown cold.
And yet, clearly too, in the times in which we live, these are very severe problems and they have grown to envelope most of the planet. But God only knows when these signs will be present in a definitive rather than merely present prefiguratively.
(The problem of pseudo-messianism is developed more in the next point).
4. Secular Utopianism Rejected – The Antichrist’s deception already begins to take shape in the world every time the claim is made to realize within history that messianic hope which can only be realized beyond history through the eschatological judgment. The Church has rejected even modified forms of this falsification of the kingdom to come under the name of millenarianism, especially the “intrinsically perverse” political form of a secular messianism. (CCC # 676)
Yes, many in human history, but especially in modern times, have advanced the notion that a secular utopia could be ushered in by human effort, and by submitting oneself to a government or worldly power or charismatic figure to do so.
Many repressive regimes and movements (often typified by powerful or charismatic leaders) of the last Century claimed the power to usher in such a utopia. The sad legacy of the 20th Century shows how tragic, bloody and repressive such attempts have been.
The Church also rejects religious forms of this which hold that prior to the Second Coming of Christ a period of 1000 years is set aside in which Christ will reign on earth or in which the Church will somehow attain a total victory prior to Christ’s Second Coming. This will be developed more in the next point.
5. Second Coming follows a final unleashing of evil – The Church will enter the glory of the kingdom only through this final Passover, when she will follow her Lord in his death and Resurrection. (Rev 19:1-9) The kingdom will be fulfilled, then, not by a historic triumph of the Church through a progressive ascendancy, but only by God’s victory over the final unleashing of evil, which will cause his Bride to come down from heaven. (Rev 13:1ff; Rev 20:7-9; Rev 21:2-4) God’s triumph over the revolt of evil will take the form of the Last Judgment after the final cosmic upheaval of this passing world. (CCC # 677)
Hence, a final and intense unleashing is envisaged by Scripture and the Church. And this final and cosmic conflict will usher in the great triumph and the Last Judgment. This unleashing of the full power of the Devil in the very end is mysterious and difficult to understand but it is clearly set forth in Scripture, perhaps as a final test for the Church, perhaps as a definitive demonstration of the power of God.
Balance! Now please note that while we may wish to focus on one or two points above, each of the five points must be held in balance. In one sense all these signs have been present in the Church’s history, yet not in the definitive and final sense.
Thus, while these are signs that do in fact signal and accompany and usher in the last things, exactly when and how they come together in a definitive sense cannot be known by us. Were that the case, Christ’s clear word that he will come at an hour we do not expect (cf Mat 24:44) and that no one knows the day or hour (cf Matt 24:36) would be violated.
The key point is hold all five principles about in balance, and to accept the tension of knowing signs, but not the definitive time or fulfillment of them.
Most errors in eschatology proceed from a lack of balance and a failure to appreciate that the final age in which we live is steeped in mysteries and meanings known fully only by God. Time itself is mysterious, as are the deeper meanings of events and human history. The Lord, while giving us a framework that reminds of us his coming, and signals us in a merciful way to remember, has insisted that it is not for us to know the times or the seasons fixed by the Father, let alone the day and hour.
Humility, prayerful vigilance, readiness through obedience and the gift of holiness, along with an eager longing heart for the Kingdom in all its glory are our best posture.
Avoid doing lots of mathematical calculations here. The Catholic approach may not be the stuff of movies and bestsellers, but it is the balanced and trusting faith to which we are summoned.
He who testifies to these things says, “Yes, I am coming soon.” Amen. Come, Lord Jesus. The grace of our Lord Jesus be with you all. Amen. (Rev 22:20-21)
Just for some fun and also for a creative reminder, here is a little video I put together over a year ago.