As we continue to ponder various advent hymns, let’s turn our attention to one that is much more familiar to Anglicans and Methodists than to Catholics: “Lo! He Comes with Clouds Descending.” In fact, it is considered one of the “Great Four Anglican Hymns.” Its text was written by John Cennick and Charles Wesley in 1758. Deriving much of its content from the Book of Revelation, it is a magnificent meditation on the glorious Second Coming of Christ.
Let’s consider the hymn verse by verse. Several of the verses draw on an opening vision in the Book of Revelation: Behold, he cometh with the clouds, and every eye shall see him: and they also that pierced him. And all the tribes of the earth shall bewail themselves because of him. Even so. Amen (Rev 1:7). Depending on their state some will be consoled, and others confronted, but they shall all behold him. The opening verse sets the scene:
Lo! He comes with clouds descending,
Once for favored sinners slain;
Thousand thousand saints attending,
Swell the triumph of His train:
God appears on earth to reign.
Scripture attests that Christ alone is the judge. Jesus says, The Father judges no man: but has given all judgment to the Son, that all men may honor the Son, as they honor the Father. He who honors not the Son honors not the Father who has sent him (John 5:22-23). However, although He alone is the Judge, He does not come alone. Myriad holy ones, saints, attend Him. Here we need not think of saints as merely human beings, for among the holy ones are angels, such as Gabriel, Michael, and Raphael. Scripture says, When the Son of Man comes in His glory, and all the angels with Him, He will sit on His glorious throne. All the nations will be gathered before Him (Matt 25:31-32). Similarly, of the heavenly company it is said that in addition to the 144,000 from the tribes of Israel, there is also a multitude too large to count, from every nation and tribe and people and tongue, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands (Rev 7:9).
It is as Joel prophesied:Multitudes, multitudes, in the valley of decision! For the day of the LORD is near in the valley of decision (Joel 3:14).
Every eye shall now behold Him
Robed in dreadful majesty;
Those who set at naught and sold Him,
Pierced and nailed Him to the tree,
Deeply wailing, deeply wailing,
Shall the true Messiah see.
The Book of Malachi describes the Great and Terrible Day of the Lord. In that vision there are two groups whose reactions and experiences are quite different. Of unrepentant sinners it is said, For behold, the day is coming, burning like a furnace, when all the arrogant and every evildoer will be stubble; the day is coming when I will set them ablaze,” says the LORD of Hosts. “Not a root or branch will be left to them (Malachi 4:1). But of those who repented and sought the Lord it is said, But for you who fear My name, the sun of righteousness will rise with healing in its wings, and you will go out and leap like calves from the stall (Mal 4:2). Yes, for those who have been brought up to the temperature of glory and are accustomed to the light, the Day of the Lord will be as a beautiful, sunlit day. For the unrepentant, that same fiery light will seem an inferno of blazing heat and blinding light. This distinction unfolds in this and the following verses.
Here and in the next verse, those who pierced and nailed him now see what they have done—they opposed and killed our very God and Lord, Jesus Christ. The Lord speaks of their angry lament as the “wailing and grinding of teeth” (e.g., Matt 22:13, 24:51).
Every island, sea, and mountain,
Heaven and earth, shall flee away;
All who hate Him must, confounded,
Hear the trump proclaim the day:
Come to judgment! Come to judgment!
Come to judgment! Come away!
Creation itself falls back before the glory of God. The entire cosmos seems swept aside. The Lord judges the living and the dead by fire. This fiery judgement will remake and renew the created world, which has longed for this day. St. Paul attests, Creation waits in eager expectation for the revelation of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not by its own will, but because of the One who subjected it, but in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God. Yes, we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now (Romans 8:19-22). But now the trumpet has sounded (1 Cor 15:52); the earth yields its dead, and all creation with humanity stands before God.
Now redemption, long expected,
See in solemn pomp appear;
All His saints, by man rejected,
Now shall meet Him in the air:
See the day of God appear!
In this verse, attention is turned to those who rejoice on this Great and Terrible Day of the Lord. Here, the Lord answers the martyrs cry, which John heard; I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain for the word of God and for the testimony they had upheld. And they cried out in a loud voice, “How long, O Lord, holy and true, until You judge those who live on the earth and avenge our blood?” Then each of them was given a white robe and told to rest a little while longer, until the full number of their fellow servants, their brothers, were killed, just as they had been killed (Rev 6:9-11). Yes, here is the reckoning and revelation of those who won through by the Blood of the Lamb, as opposed to those who rejected His offer of salvation.
Answer Thine own bride and Spirit,
Hasten, Lord, the general doom!
The new Heaven and earth inherit,
Take Thy pining exiles home:
All creation, all creation,
Travails! groans! and bids Thee come!
Here, the Church, the Lord’s Bride, also rejoices, for her stance has always been, as St. John says,[The Spirit and the bride say,] “Come!” Let the one who hears say, “Come!” And let the one who is thirsty come, and the one who desires the water of life drink freely…. He who testifies to these things says, “Yes, I am coming soon.” Amen. Come, Lord Jesus (Rev 22:17,20). All creation groans, too, seeking to hasten the Lord’s return: We know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until the present time (Rom 8:22).
The dear tokens of His passion
Still His dazzling body bears;
Cause of endless exultation
To His ransomed worshippers;
With what rapture, with what rapture
Gaze we on those glorious scars!
The Lord’s scars are the glorious sign of His love and His conquest. Another hymn of the Church, “Crown Him with Many Crowns,” has this among its lyrics:
Behold His hands and side;
Rich wounds yet visible above
In beauty glorified:
No angel in the sky
Can fully bear that sight,
But downward bends his burning eye
At mysteries so bright.
Finally, let’s look at last verse our great hymn, the doxology:
Yea, Amen! let all adore Thee,
High on Thine eternal throne;
Savior, take the power and glory,
Claim the kingdom for Thine own;
O come quickly! O come quickly!
Everlasting God, come down!
It is truly a literary masterpiece; it masterfully sums up the Book of Revelation and paints a picture of the Second Coming in sweeping, majestic poetry. Cherish it and meditate on it frequently.
In the performance below, it is sung to the tune “Helmsley,” which was first published in 1763:
The first reading from Mass for Tuesday of the 28th week of the year is rich in meaning for us today. Scripture is a prophetic interpretation of reality, showing us what is really going on from the perspective of the Lord of History. It describes not only the current of the times but the end to which it is tending. It is important for us to read Scripture carefully with the Church and to submit our understanding to the rule of faith and the context of Sacred Tradition.
With those parameters in mind, I would like to consider this passage from Romans, in which St. Paul describes the grave condition of Greco-Roman culture in the 1st century. Although he was, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, prophetically interpreting that age, it is clear that the situation today is frighteningly similar.
St. Paul saw a once-noble culture in crisis, in the process of being plowed under by God for its willful suppression of the truth.
Let’s take a look at the details of this prophetic interpretation and apply it to our own times.
I. The Root of the Ruin – The text says, The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of people, who suppress the truth by their wickedness.
As the curtain draws back, we not eased into the scene at all. We are confronted at once with the glaring light of judgment and the frightening word “wrath.” Note that the wrath of God is being “revealed”; His wrath is the revelation!
This is directly contrary to the modern tendency to view God as an “affirmer in chief” whose love for us is a sentimental one rather than a true love that insists on what is right, on what we need rather than what we want.
What exactly is the wrath of God? It is our experience of the total incompatibility of unrepented sin before His holiness. The unrepentant sinner cannot endure the presence and the holiness of God. For him, there is wailing, grinding of teeth, anger, and even rage when confronted by God and the demands of His justice and holiness. God is not simply “angry,” as if emotionally worked up into a fury. He is not moody or unstable. He does not have temper tantrums the way we do. Rather, it is that God is holy, and the unrepentant sinner cannot endure His holiness, experiencing it as “wrath.”
To the degree that God’s wrath is in Him, it is His passion to set things right. He is patient and will wait and work to draw us to repentance, but His justice and truth cannot forever tarry. When judgment sets in on an unrepentant person, culture, civilization, or age, His holiness and justice are revealed as wrath.
What was the central sin of St. Paul’s day (and is that of our own today)? It is the sin that leads to every other problem: they suppress the truth by their wickedness.
On account of wickedness and a desire to persist in sin, many suppress the truth. The Catechism of the Catholic Church warns,
by the impact of the senses and the imagination, but also by disordered appetites which are the consequences of original sin … it happens that men in such matters easily persuade themselves that what they would not like to be true is false or at least doubtful (Catechism of the Catholic Church # 37).
Similarly, St. Paul told St. Timothy,
… the time will come when people will not tolerate sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear (2 Tim 4:3).
And Isaiah described,
They say to the seers, “See no more visions” and to the prophets, “Give us no more visions of what is right. Tell us pleasant things, prophesy illusions…” (Isaiah 30:10).
The desire to cling to sin and to justify one’s behavior leads people to suppress the truth. While this human tendency has always existed, it has become widespread and collective today, just as it did in St. Paul’s age. There seems to be an increasing tendency for people of our own time in the decadent West to call “good” or “no big deal” what God calls sinful.
The text makes clear that on account of the repeated, collective, and obstinate suppression of the truth, God’s wrath is revealed. This is true both in St. Paul’s day and today in the decadent West.
II. The Revelation that is Refused– The text goes on to say, what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.
God the Holy Spirit and St. Paul attest that the suppression of the truth is willful. It is not merely ignorance. Even though the pagans of St. Paul’s day did not have the Scriptures, they are “without excuse.” Why? Because they had the revelation of creation, which reveals God. It speaks not only to His existence but to His attributes, His justice, His power, His will, and to the good order He instilled in what He made and thus expects of us.
All of this means that even those raised outside the context of faith, whether in the first century or today, are “without excuse.”
The Catechism states that the responsibility to discover and live the truth is rooted in the conscience.
Deep within his conscience man discovers a law which he has not laid upon himself but which he must obey. Its voice, ever calling him to love and to do what is good and to avoid evil, sounds in his heart at the right moment. …For man has in his heart a law inscribed by God. … His conscience is man’s most secret core and his sanctuary. There he is alone with God whose voice echoes in his depths. … It bears witness to the authority of truth in reference to the supreme Good to which the human person is drawn, and it welcomes the commandments. … [Conscience] is a messenger of him, who, both in nature and in grace, speaks to us behind a veil, and teaches and rules us by his representatives. Conscience is the aboriginal Vicar of Christ (Catechism of the Catholic Church # 1776-1778).
Because of the witness and revelation of the created order and on account of the conscience in all who have attained the use of reason, those who suppress the truth are without excuse.
It has been my experience as a pastor working with sinners and as a sinner myself, that people realize, deep down, they are doing. They may have tried to suppress the still, quiet voice of God. They may have tried to keep His voice at bay with layers of rationalization. inking. They have collected false teachers to confirm them in their sin. They may have permitted deceivers to tickle their ears. Deep inside, though, they know that what they are doing is wrong. They are without excuse. Not only is there the revelation of creation, but for many there is also the Word of God, which they have heard in various ways.
To justify their wickedness, many today, like those in St. Paul’s time, willfully refuse revelation. They are without excuse.
III. The Result in the Ranks – The text says, For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but became vain in their thinking and their senseless minds were darkened. Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like a mortal human being and birds and animals and reptiles (Romans 1:21-23).
This should sound very familiar. In St. Paul’s day, and even more so in ours, a prideful culture set aside God through atheism and secularism or through neglect and tepidity. God has been escorted to the margins of our proud, anthropocentric culture. His wisdom has been forcibly removed from our schools and from the public square. His image as well as references to Him are increasingly being removed by force of law. Many mock His Holy Name, His truth, and our faith.
Faith, and the magnificent deposit of knowledge and culture that has come with it, is denigrated as a relic from ancient, unenlightened, unscientific times.
Our disdainful culture has become a sort of iconoclastic anti-culture, which has systematically put into the shredder every vestige of Godly wisdom it can. The traditional family, chastity, self-control, moderation, and most virtues have been scorned and willfully smashed by the iconoclasts of our time. To them, everything of this sort must be destroyed.
As a prophetic interpretation of reality, the passage describes the result of suppressing the truth and refusing to acknowledge and glorify God: they became vain in their thinking and their senseless minds were darkened. Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools.
Yes, there is a powerful darkening effect that comes from suppressing the truth and refusing the wisdom and revelation of God. While claiming to be so wise, intelligent, and advanced, we have become foolish. Our intellects grow dimmer and darker by the day. Our interest in passing and frivolous things is intensifying, while we rarely attend to the things that really do matter: death, judgment, Heaven and Hell. We have difficulty exercising even a modest amount of self-control. We cannot make or keep commitments. Addiction is widespread and becoming ever more serious. The most basic indicators indicate grave problems: graduation, teenage pregnancy, sexually transmitted diseases, abortion, divorce, cohabitation. The rates that should be going up are going down, and the ones that should be going down are going up.
Even our ability to think clearly and have intelligent, meaningful conversations has decreased. We cannot agree on even the most basic points. We talk past one other and live in our own bubbles, which are increasingly self-defined.
Even the part of the passage about idolatry (… images made to look like a mortal human being and birds and animals and reptiles) applies today. People are into stones and all sorts of strange combinations of religions, including the occult. This is the age of the “designer God.” People no longer tolerate the revealed God of the Scriptures. Rather, they recast, reinvent, and remake Him into a “God of their own understanding,” who just so happens to agree with everything they think.
Many people today congratulate themselves for being tolerant, open-minded, and non-judgmental. It is hard not see that our senseless minds have become dark, our thoughts vain, and our behavior foolish.
Our culture today is in the grave condition that this Scripture, this prophetic interpretation of reality, describes. There is much about which to be concerned.
IV. The Revelation of the Wrath – The text says, Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another. They exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator—who is forever praised. Amen. Because of this, God gave them over to shameful lusts. Even their women exchanged natural sexual relations for unnatural ones. In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed shameful acts with other men and received in themselves the due penalty for their error (Rom 1: 24-27).
Here the “wrath” is revealed. The text says, God gave them over to their sinful desires. This is the wrath, the revelation of the total incompatibility of unrepented sin before the holiness of God and the holiness to which we are summoned.
In effect, God says, “If you want sin and rebellion, you can have it, but I will let you experience the consequences. You will feel the full fury of your own sinful choices.” Yes, God gave them over to their sinful desires.
It seems obvious that God has also given us over to our sinful desires.
Note that the first and most prominent effect of being given over to sinful desires is sexual confusion. The text describes sexual impurity, the degradation of their bodies through shameful lusts and shameful acts of homosexual perversion. It also speaks of bodily penalties for such action, probably disease and other deleterious effects that result from doing what is unnatural, from using the body in ways for which it was not designed.
Welcome to the decaying West in the 21st century.
Many misunderstand this passage, interpreting it as saying that God will punish us for engaging in, condoning, and celebrating homosexual acts. But the text does not say that God will punish us, it says that the widespread behavior is God’s punishment; it is the revelation of His wrath.
Let us be careful to make an important distinction. The text does not say that only those with same-sex attraction are punished (and in fact some may have this orientation but live chastely). Rather, the text says that we are all punished.
Why? For decades, the West has celebrated promiscuity, pornography, fornication, cohabitation, contraception, and even to some extent adultery. The resulting carnage of abortion, STDs, AIDS, broken families, single mothers/absent fathers, and the effects of these on our children, has not been enough to bring us to our senses. Our lusts have become wilder and more and more debased.
Through contraception, we severed the connection between sex and procreation. Sex has been reduced to adults doing what they want in order to have fun, feel pleasure, or “share love (lust).” This has opened the door to increasingly debased sexual expression and to irresponsibility.
Then came the rise of the homosexual community and its demands for acceptance and celebration. Our wider culture, now debased, darkened, and deeply confused, cannot comprehend what is obvious: homosexual acts are wholly contrary to nature. The very design of the body shouts against it. Deeply immersed in its own confusions about sex via contraception, increasingly depraved pornography, and the celebration of oral and anal sex among heterosexuals, our culture has no answer to the challenge.
Our senseless minds are darkened, confused, foolish, and debased. This is wrath.This is what it means to be given over to our sinful desires. This is what happens when God finally says, “If you want sin, you have it … until it comes out of your ears.”
How many tens of millions of aborted babies have been sacrificed to our lusts? How many children have experienced the pain of living without both parents? How many have died from AIDS? How many have lived with STDs? Yet we have not repented.
The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of people, who suppress the truth by their wickedness. Notice again that homosexuals are not being singled out; the wrath is against the godlessness and wickedness of all who suppress the truth. When even the carnage has not been enough to bring us to our senses, God finally gives us over to our own sinful desires to feel their full effect. We have become so collectively foolish, vain in our thinking, and darkened in our intellect, that we now as a culture “celebrate” homosexual acts, which Scripture rightly calls disordered. (Paraphysin, which means “contrary to nature” is the word St. Paul uses in this passage to describe homosexual acts.) Scripture also speaks of homosexual acts as crying out to heaven for vengeance.
V. The Revolution that Results – The text says, Furthermore, just as they did not think it worthwhile to retain the knowledge of God, so God gave them over to a depraved mind, so that they do what ought not to be done. They have become filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, greed and depravity. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit and malice. They are gossips, slanderers, God-haters, insolent, arrogant and boastful; they invent ways of doing evil; they disobey their parents; they have no understanding, no fidelity, no love, no mercy.
When proper understanding of sexuality, marriage, and family go into the cultural shredder, countless social ills are set loose.
This is because children are no longer properly formed. The term “bastard” is often used to refer to a despicable person, but its more strict meaning is someone born of parents not married to each other. Both senses are related. This text says, in effect, that people start to act like bastards.
Large numbers of children raised without their mother and father in a stable marriage is a recipe for the social disaster described in these verses. It is another way in which wrath is revealed, in which God seems to have given us over to our sin.
VI. The Refusal to Repent – Although they know God’s righteous decree that those who do such things deserve death, they not only continue to do these very things but also approve of those who practice them.
Here, too, is the mystery of our iniquity, of our stubborn refusal to repent no matter how high the cost or how clear the evidence. Let us pray that we will still come to our senses. God has a record of allowing civilizations to come and go, nations to rise and fall. If we do not love life, we do not have to have it. If we want lies rather than truth, we can have them, but we will feel their full effects.
Remember that God said,
When I shut up the heavens so that there is no rain, or command locusts to devour the land or send a plague among my people, if my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and I will forgive their sin and will heal their land. Now my eyes will be open and my ears attentive to the prayers offered in this place (2 Chron 7:14-15).
Many people say that they don’t hear too many sermons about Hell anymore. I believe this is true in general, but I will say that I preach about it a good bit. However, I would like to point out that the same could be said about sermons on Heaven. Try to remember the last time you heard a sermon that dealt with the topic let alone inspired a longing for Heaven. Too many sermons focus on this world: how to live in it, how to deal with moral and ethical problems, and how to be happier in it. It is not wrong to preach about such things as long as it does not divert focus from our ultimate destination: Heaven or Hell. To be vague, uninspiring, or silent about our goal and desired destination is spiritually disastrous.
To illustrate, consider a man who sets out in his car for New York City from Washington, D.C. His destination guides every turn he takes, every navigational decision he makes. If he sees a sign that says, “South to Richmond” he knows not to take that exit. He doesn’t have to deliberate; the answer is clear because his destination is clear. Consider, though, what might happen if he were uncertain about where he was going or forgot: The road signs might cause stress and confusion. He might think, “Perhaps this is the way I should go … or maybe not. How do I know? Maybe there will be fun things to see and do along that route.” Soon enough he might be driving all over the map, lost in diversions, distractions, and—ultimately—dead ends. He might in fact see some pleasant sights along the way, but deep down he would begin to sense that none of this driving around was adding up to anything.
Without a destination we are lost, confused, and worried. To live without a clear goal is stressful because we have little basis on which to make good decisions; every choice seems difficult. With little ability to determine what is truly good for us, we focus on temporary pleasure, becoming easy prey for the hucksters of this world. So, our credit cards are maxed out, our hearts are divided, and we feel unmoored.
Where are we going? When was the last time we really thought about it? Too many of us are living unreflective, directionless lives. We don’t really know where we are going, but we’re sure in a big hurry to get there!
Have a goal: Heaven! Focus on it. Dream about it. Long for it. Make it direct your modus vivendi. We should want to die loving God and our neighbor so that we can go home to Heaven and be with God forever. Let every decision you make be in service of this one, clear goal. Carefully review your life and ask yourself, “Am I moving closer to my goal? How? What things have hindered me or diverted me from it?”
Consider this beautiful meditation from Pope St. Gregory the Great, which is in the Office of Readings this week:
If anyone enters the sheepfold through me, he shall be saved; he shall go freely in and out and shall find good pasture. He will enter into a life of faith; from faith he will go out to vision, from belief to contemplation, and will graze in the good pastures of everlasting life.
So our Lord’s sheep will finally reach their grazing ground where all who follow him in simplicity of heart will feed on the green pastures of eternity. These pastures are the spiritual joys of heaven. There the elect look upon the face of God with unclouded vision and feast at the banquet of life for ever more.
Beloved brothers, let us set out for these pastures where we shall keep joyful festival with so many of our fellow citizens. May the thought of their happiness urge us on! Let us stir up our hearts, rekindle our faith, and long eagerly for what heaven has in store for us.
To love thus is to be already on our way. No matter what obstacles we encounter, we must not allow them to turn us aside from the joy of that heavenly feast.
Anyone who is determined to reach his destination is not deterred by the roughness of the road that leads to it. Nor must we allow the charm of success to seduce us, or we shall be like a foolish traveler who is so distracted by the pleasant meadows through which he is passing that he forgets where he is going (From a homily on the Gospels by Pope St. Gregory the Great, Hom. 14, 3-6: PL 76, 1129-1130).
In his Letter to the Philippians, St. Paul wrote,
This one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize of God’s heavenly calling in Christ Jesus. Whatever was an asset to me I count as loss for the sake of Christ. More than that, I count all things as loss compared to the surpassing excellence of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in Him …. Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already been perfected, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me … (Phil 3: 7-9; 12-14).
In daily Mass we are currently reading selections from the Book of Revelation—not a bad choice as the end of the liturgical year swiftly approaches.
While many suppose that the Book of Revelation is merely about the end of the world, it is about far more; it is also about what is happening right now. It was not written only for the end of the ages but for all ages. It is a book of glory that discloses the victory Jesus has already won. Don’t get lost in lots of exotic theories; Revelation is a prophetic book of glory.
Its title in Greek isἈποκάλυψις Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ (Apokalupsis Jesou Christou), which literally means “The Unveiling of Jesus Christ.” It is as if Jesus is pulling back the veil to show us what is really going on. He shows us the great drama of history and tells us that He has already won the victory. He declares that we should not to lose heart while the dust settles, while the wheat is separated from the chaff and the harvest is brought in.
We are too easily mesmerized or terrified by our limited view of history.We think that life depends on which political party wins, or whether a cure is found for some disease, or whether nations of the world can reach rapprochement—but the battle is far higher and deeper than our tiny slice of time. It is far deadlier and concerns more dramatic issues than what will happen to the GNP of the U.S. or which of the latest political theories will prevail.
This is a great drama between good and evil. It concerns the fundamental issue of where you will spend eternity. Yes, there is a great and cosmic battle in which we are all caught up; it is happening all around us. St. Paul says,
For we do not contend against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the high places. Therefore, take up the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand firm (Eph 6:11-13).
The Book of Revelation is speaking to the same reality. It unveils the true and cosmic battle. In so doing, it declares without ambiguity who the victor is: Jesus Christ our King, who has already won. There are only two kingdoms, two armies, two sides. You must decide whom you will serve: the prince of this world or the King and Lord of all creation.
Revelation opens with a vision of the glory of Jesus the Great Lord and Son of Man:
I, John, your brother and partner in the tribulation and the kingdom and the patient endurance that are in Jesus, was on the island called Patmos on account of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus. I was in the Spirit on the Lord’s day, and I heard behind me a loud voice like a trumpet saying, “Write what you see in a book and send it to the seven churches, to Ephesus and to Smyrna and to Pergamum and to Thyatira and to Sardis and to Philadelphia and to Laodicea.” Then I turned to see the voice that was speaking to me, and on turning I saw seven golden lampstands, and in the midst of the lampstands one like a son of man, clothed with a long robe and with a golden sash around his chest. The hairs of his head were white, like white wool, like snow. His eyes were like a flame of fire, his feet were like burnished bronze, refined in a furnace, and his voice was like the roar of many waters. In his right hand he held seven stars, from his mouth came a sharp two-edged sword, and his face was like the sun shining in full strength. When I saw him, I fell at his feet as though dead (Rev 1:10-17).
Yes, this is our Lord Jesus in His resurrected and conquering glory!At the name of Jesus every knee shall bend in the heavens, on the earth, and under the earth, and every tongue proclaim to the glory of God the Father that Jesus Christ is Lord (Phil 2:10-11).
Yes, Jesus Christ isthe faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of kings on earth. To him who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood and made us a kingdom, priests to his God and Father, to him be glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen. Behold, he is coming amid the clouds, and every eye will see him, even those who pierced him, and all tribes of the earth will wail on account of him. Even so. Amen (Rev 1:5-7).
The second part of the Book of Revelation calls the Church and us as individuals to repentance and perseverance. The cosmic battle reaches the Church and individual disciples. The battle is in the Church and in the heart of every person. Thus, the letters to the seven churches referred to in Revelations 1. We are not to lose the love we had at first. We must be willing to endure hardship and persecution. We are to reject the fornicators and all those who propose any sort of sexual immorality. We are to resist syncretism and every form of false religion. We must resist Satan’s deep secrets; we must not be in any agreement with his ways. We must resist sloth and not fall back. We must resist lukewarmness as well as every sort of pride and self-satisfaction. The Church, clergy and laity, must fight the good fight, must persevere. We must endure hardship, keeping in mind the reward that awaits the courageous and the eternal disgrace that is coming to cowards and to all those who embrace the world, the flesh, and the devil.
John is then caught up into Heaven to see the glory of God and the heavenly liturgy. He has revealed to him what must take place soon. Historically, the Book of Revelation pointed to the destruction of Jerusalem and to the end of an era. Down through the ages, empires and nations have crumbled; eras and epochs have come and gone. Only God’s Kingdom, as proclaimed and made sacramentally present by the Church, has survived or will survive.
Today we are arguably at the end of another era and epoch. The West is crumbling, and decadence abounds. Confusion about basic reality is so widespread that our current world can credibly be compared to a lunatic asylum. Even within the Church, voices that should speak out prophetically remain silenced by fear. There is among Church leaders, clergy, and laity a widespread softness and a feeling that the risk of speaking out is too great.
The message of the Book of Revelation is a strong antidote to times like these—to all times past, present, and future: be strong, be prepared, and be willing to suffer, realizing that no matter how powerful evil may seem, Jesus is the victor. We are swept up into a cosmic battle that is much larger than our current situation but that reaches us nonetheless. Don’t think that you can sit on the fence; you must choose a side. Satan owns the fence and he is coming for you; he will say, “You belong to me.”
The seals, the bowls, and the trumpets of Revelation are but a further description of the cosmic battle and the wretched defeats that ultimately come to the defiant and disobedient. God will not leave unpunished those who despise His Kingdom and His holy ones. These seven ordeals times three are a call to repentance to those who survive. They are also a manifestation of God’s justice and ultimate authority over history.
A crucial battle comes in Revelation 12, when the red dragon with seven heads and ten horns besets Mother Mary, who is also an image of the Church. But the devil cannot prevail in the war that breaks out in Heaven. He is hurled to the earth, where he unsuccessfully pursues the woman (who is Mary and the Church). In a rage, he continues to pursue us. For the time being, the cosmic battle continues; Satan rages because he knows his time his short.
Satan is a big loser, but even losers have an uncanny ability to impress and dupe foolish, gullible people. Satan still makes empty promises and dangles passing pleasures before us. Sadly, many of the worldly and unspiritual fall prey to his lies. Mysteriously, God permits this until the full number of the elect is gathered in.
Then comes the end:
And fire came down from heaven and devoured Satan and his armies and followers. And the devil, who deceived them, was thrown into the lake of burning sulfur, where the beast and the false prophet had been thrown. They will be tormented day and night for ever and ever. Then I saw a great white throne and him who was seated on it. The earth and the heavens fled from his presence, and there was no place for them. And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Another book was opened, which is the book of life. The dead were judged according to what they had done as recorded in the books. The sea gave up the dead that were in it, and death and Hades gave up the dead that were in them, and each person was judged according to what they had done. Then death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. The lake of fire is the second death. Anyone whose name was not found written in the book of life was thrown into the lake of fire.
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. I saw the HolyCity, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new.” Then he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true” (Rev 20:9-21:5).
Yes, it is good that we read the Book of Revelation. In it, the Lord is telling us what is really going on and what the outcome will be. He is telling us not to lose heart. “In this world you shall have tribulation, but have courage, I have overcome the world” (John 16:33).
Be not dismayed, fellow Christians. Do not be fearful of what is coming upon this world. Even if it is the end of the era or epoch, the Church has endured such sea changes before. Christ has already won the victory and has promised that the Church will remain indefectible. When the current foolishness has run its course, we will still be here preaching the Gospel, even if we have become a small remnant and are preaching from our prison cells!
Do not be fearful. Do not be a coward. Preach boldly and with love. Continue to shine the light of the gospel in the darkness. The gospel will win; it always wins.
Don’t get lost in the details of the Book of Revelation and miss its message: victory in the midst of persecution and trial. It is a call to persevere. It is a pulling back of the veil to show us what the end shall be! Be strong, courageous, and certain. Jesus has already won the great victory in the cosmic battle. The dust is still settling, but know for certain that Jesus has won, and if you choose Him, so will you!
He who overcomes will inherit these things, and I will be his God and he will be My son. But for the cowardly and unbelieving and abominable and murderers and immoral persons and sorcerers and idolaters and all liars, their part will be in the lake that burns with fire and brimstone, which is the second death (Rev 21:7-8).
Regardless of what youthinkis going on, this is what isreallygoing on. Choose sides. I urge you to choose Christ with courage. Don’t look back. Come what may, Viva Cristo Rey!
I’ve often been impressed by the ability of old African-American spirituals to treat serious subjects in a clear, memorable, and almost joyful way. This is true even of weighty matters like sin and judgment. During early November we are focused on the four last things (death, judgment, Heaven, and hell) and November is also Black Catholic History Month. So, this seems like a good time to look at some of the creative lines from different spirituals that articulate these topics.
It can be very helpful to the preacher, teacher, and parent in recovering an ethos of coming judgment, but in a way that is almost playfully bright while at the same time deeply soulful.
In a certain sense, the spirituals are unimpeachable, even by hypersensitive post-moderns who seek to shame preachers for announcing sterner biblical themes. Most of the spirituals were written by slaves, who creatively worked biblical themes into these songs that helped accompany both their work and their worship.
The spirituals were written in the cauldron of great suffering. If any people might be excused from thinking that the Lord would exempt them from judgment day, it was surely the enslaved in the deep South. If any people might be excused from crying out for vengeance, it was they. Yet the spirituals are almost entirely devoid of condemning language; enslaved blacks sang in ways that looked also to their own sins and the need to be prepared. If they were prepared, God, who knew their trouble, would help them steal away to Jesus. They did not see themselves as exempt from the need to be ready.
If they, who worked hard in the cotton fields and endured the horrors of slavery, thought these texts applied to them, how much more do they apply to us, who recline on our couches and speak of our freedom to do as we please?
Here are some lines from a few of the many spirituals that speak to judgment and the last things:
I would not be a sinner, I’ll tell you the reason why. I’m afraid my Lord might call my name and I wouldn’t be ready to die.
Some go to Church for to sing and shout, before six months they’s all turned out!
Everybody talkin’ ’bout heaven ain’t a goin’ there, Oh my Lord!
Where shall I be when the first trumpet sounds? Oh where shall I be when it sounds so loud, when it sounds so loud as to wake up the dead? Oh where shall I be when it sounds? How will it be with my poor soul, Oh where shall I be?
Better watch my brother how you walk on the cross! Your foot might slip and your soul get lost!
God gave Noah the rainbow sign, no more water but the fire next time!
Old Satan wears a hypocrite’s shoe, If you don’t watch he’ll slip it on you!
Noah, Noah let me come in! The doors are fastened and the windows pinned! fastened an’ de winders pinned Noah said, “Ya lost your track Can’t plow straight! you keep a-lookin’ back!
Knock at the window knock at the door Callin’ brother Noah Can’t you take more? No said Noah cause you’re full of sin! God has the key you can’t get in!
Well I went to the rock to hide my face The rock cried out, no hiding place There’s no hiding place down here Oh the rock cried I’m burnin’ too! I wanna go to heaven just as much as you!
Oh sinner man better repent! Oh you’d better repent for God’s gonna call you to judgment There’s no hiding place down there!
No signal for another train To follow in this line Oh sinner you’re forever lost When once you’re left behind. She’s nearing now the station Oh, sinner don’t be vain But come and get your ticket Be ready for that train!
Sinner please don’t let this harvest pass And die and lose your soul at last.
My Lord, what a morning
When the stars begin to fall You’ll hear the trumpet sound, to wake the nations underground Looking to my God’s right hand, When the stars begin to fall
You’ll hear the sinner moan,
When the stars begin to fall You’ll hear the Christian shout, Oh, when the stars begin to fall!
Most of these songs are deeply scriptural and make serious appeals to the human soul, but they do so in a way that is creative. They get you tapping your foot and invite you to a joyful consideration of the need to repent before it’s too late. Others are more soulful, even mournful, in their pentatonic scale.
Given all the reluctance to discuss the four last things (death, judgment, Heaven, and Hell), songs like these may help to reopen the door to necessary conversations between preacher and congregation, parents and children. They are a valuable resource.
I’d like to conclude with a creative spiritual about the last judgment. Note that it is rich in biblical references. It is joyful—a real toe-tapper—and makes a serious point along with a wish.
In That Great Getting’ Up Mornin’ Fare You Well
I’m gonna tell ya ’bout da comin’ of da judgment Dere’s a better day a comin’, Fare thee well, fare thee well!
Chorus: In dat great gettin’ up mornin’, Fare thee well, fare thee well In dat great gettin’ up mornin’, Fare thee well, fare thee well
Oh preacher fold yo’ bible, For dat last souls converted, Fare thee well, fare thee well
Blow yo’ trumpet Gabriel, Lord, how loud shall I blow it? Blow it right and calm and easy,
Do not alarm all my people, Tell dem all come to da judgment, Fare thee well, fare thee well!
Do you see dem coffins burstin’, do you see dem folks is risin’ Do you see dat fork of lightnin’, Do you hear dat rumblin’ thunder? Fare thee well, fare thee well!
Do you see dem stars a fallin’, Do you see da world on fire? Fare thee well, fare thee well
Do you see dem Saints is risin’, Fare thee well, fare thee well See ’em marchin’ home for heaven, Fare thee well, fare thee well
Oh! Fare thee well poor sinners, fare thee well, fare thee well Fare thee well poor sinners, fare thee well, fare thee well!
In the Gospel for Wednesday of the 9th week, the Church presents us with a strong reminder and teaching on the resurrection. Let’s look at what we are taught:
The Ridicule of the Resurrection – The Gospel opens as follows: Some Sadducees, who deny there is a resurrection, came forward and put [a] question to Jesus. They proposed a hypothetical situation in which a woman is married seven times, to brothers who successively die without siring any children by her. The Sadducees suggested that at the resurrection there would be confusion as to whose wife she really is; we’re supposed to laugh and conclude that the idea of resurrection is absurd.
Jesus will dismiss their absurd question handily, as we shall see in a moment, but let’s consider why the Sadducees disbelieved the resurrection.
Fundamentally, the Sadducees rejected the resurrection because they only accepted the first five books of the Bible (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy). This point is debated among scholars, but we can surely say that if something was not explicitly in the Law of Moses (which the resurrection was not), the Sadducees were unlikely to accept it. All the other Old Testament books such as the prophets, the historical books, the psalms, and the wisdom tradition, were not considered authoritative sources.
While most other Jews of Jesus’ time did accept the complete Old Testament (and teachings within it such as the resurrection of the dead), the Sadducees simply did not. They were a small party within Judaism (Josephus said that they were able to persuade none but the rich). Nevertheless, they were influential due to their wealth and to the fact that they predominated among the Temple leadership. You can read more about them here: Sadducees.
The Sadducees approached Jesus to poke fun at Him and all others who believed that the dead would rise.
They are no match for Jesus, who easily dispatches their arguments using the Book of Exodus (a book they accept) to do it. In effect, Jesus’ argument proceeds as follows:
You accept Moses, do you not? (They would surely reply yes.)
But Moses teaches that the dead will rise. (They must look puzzled now, but He presses on.)
Do you accept that God is a God of the living, not the dead? (They would surely reply yes.)
Then why does God (in Exodus) identify Himself as the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, all of whom have been dead some 400 years?
How can He call Himself their God if they are dead?
They must be alive, or He could not call Himself their God, for He is not a God of the dead but of the living.
Therefore, they are alive to God; they are not dead.
In this way, Jesus dispatches their argument. For us, the point is to see how forcefully and clearly Jesus upholds the fact that the dead are alive in the Lord. He powerfully asserts an essential doctrine of the Church. We should rejoice at how firmly Jesus rebukes their disbelief in the resurrection of the dead.
Rejoice, for your loved ones are alive before God! To this world they may seem dead, but Jesus tells us clearly and firmly that they live. And we, who will also face physical death, will live on. Let the world ridicule this, but hear what Jesus says and how He easily dispatches them. Though the idea is ridiculed, the resurrection is real.
The Resplendence of the Resurrection – Jesus also sets aside the absurd hypothetical scenario that the Sadducees pose by teaching that earthly realities cannot simply be projected into Heaven. Scenarios perceived in earthly ways cannot be used to understand heavenly realities. The saints in Heaven live beyond earthly categories.
Heaven is more than the absence of bad things and the accumulation of good things. It is far beyond anything this world can offer. Scripture says,
No eye has seen, no ear has heard, and no human mind has conceived—the things God has prepared for those who love him (1 Cor 2:9).
The sufferings of this world cannot compare to the glory that will be revealed in us (Rom 8:18).
Do you see the majesty of this teaching? We have a glory waiting for us beyond imagining. Consider your greatest pleasure, your happiest experience, your most fulfilled moment. Then multiply it by a thousand, or a million, or a trillion; you are still not even close understanding the glory that awaits.
And this glory will transform us. The Lord once told Catherine of Siena that if she ever saw the glory of a saint in Heaven she would fall down and worship because she would think she was looking at God. This is our dignity: to be transformed into the very likeness of God and reflect His glory. The following is a summary of St. Catherine’s vision of the soul of a saint in Heaven:
It was so beautiful that she could not look on it; the brightness of that soul dazzled her. Blessed Raymond, her confessor, asked her to describe to him, as far as she was able, the beauty of the soul she had seen. St. Catherine thought of the sweet light of that morning, and of the beautiful colors of the rainbow, but that soul was far more beautiful. She remembered the dazzling beams of the noonday sun, but the light which beamed from that soul was far brighter. She thought of the pure whiteness of the lily and of the fresh snow, but that is only an earthly whiteness. The soul she had seen was bright with the whiteness of Heaven, such as there is not to be found on earth. “My father,” she answered. “I cannot find anything in this world that can give you the smallest idea of what I have seen. Oh, if you could but see the beauty of a soul in the state of grace, you would sacrifice your life a thousand times for its salvation. I asked the angel who was with me what had made that soul so beautiful, and he answered me, “It is the image and likeness of God in that soul, and the Divine Grace which made it so beautiful” .
Yes, Heaven is glorious, and we shall be changed. Scripture says, we shall be like the Lord for we shall see him as he is (1 John 3:2). He will change our lowly body to conform with his glorified Body by the power that enables him also to bring all things into subjection to himself (Phil 3:19). I have written more on our resurrected bodies here: What will our resurrected bodies be like?
Too many people have egocentric notions of Heaven. It’s a place where I will have a mansion, I will see my relatives, and I will be able to play all the golf I want. But the heart of Heaven is to be with God, for whom our heart longs. In God we will experience fulfillment and a peace that is beyond earthly imagination. Heaven is far greater than golf, mansions, and family reunions. There is certainly more to it than clouds and harps. Heaven can never be described because it is beyond words. St. Paul speaks of a man (himself) who was caught up into Heaven; he affirms that it cannot be described; it is ineffable; it is unspeakable.
I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven …. And I know that this man—whether in the body or apart from the body I do not know, but God knows—was caught up to paradise and heard inexpressible things, things that no one is permitted to tell (2 Cor 12:2-3).
Do you long for heaven? Do you meditate on it? Is there a part of you that can’t wait to get there? There’s an old spiritual that says,
I’m gonna ride the chariot in the morning, Lord.
I’m getting’ ready for the judgment day, my Lord, my Lord!
Are you ready my brother? (Oh yes!)
Are you ready for the journey? (Oh Yes!)
Do you want to see Jesus (Yes, Yes!)
I’m waiting for the chariot ’cause I ready to go.
I never can forget that day,
(Ride in the chariot to see my Lord!).
My feet were snatched from the miry clay!
(Ride in the chariot to see my Lord!)
The first reading for Mass this Tuesday, taken from the Second Letter of Peter, is a warning to us. There’s an old spiritual that says, “God gave Noah the rainbow sign, no more water but the fire next time.” This reading today speaks to us of the “fire next time” and reminds of the need to be ready for the coming of the Lord. There are four aspects of teaching contained in the Second Letter of Peter:
1. The PATIENCE that is PURPOSEFUL – The text says, Do not ignore this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is like a thousand years and a thousand years like one day. The Lord does not delay his promise, as some regard “delay,” but he is patient with you, not wishing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance.
Though the Lord seems long delayed in coming (about 2000 years!), the text tells us that this is so that as many of us can be saved as possible.
Notice that the text says that God wants us to come to repentance. His patience should not be viewed as an excuse for presumption but rather as an opportunity for repentance. This is no time to be saying, “I’ll do it later.” This is a time to be serious about repentance and to prepare to meet the Lord.
Note, too, that the Greek word here translated as repentance is μετάνοιαν (metanoian), referring not just to better behavior but also to new mind. Our transformation is not merely external but internal as well. When what we think changes so does our behavior. When our thinking is conformed to God’s revealed truth, our priorities, feelings, desires, and decisions all begin to change. Conversion and repentance are the results of being a transformed human being with a new mind.
2.The PASSING that is PERILOUS – The text says, But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a mighty roar and the elements will be dissolved by fire, and the earth and everything done on it will be found out.
In effect, this says that God’s gonna to set this world on fire one of these days, and when He comes it’ll be
Sudden, for the text says that the Day of the Lord will come like a thief. This is a consistent image that Jesus used for the Day of Judgment as well, but it should not be true for us who wait and watch. St. Paul says, But you, brothers, are not in darkness so that this day should surprise you like a thief …. So then, let us not be like others, who are asleep, but let us be alert and self-controlled (1 Thess 5:4,6).
Further, the image of the thief is also not appropriate for us if we realize that all we have and all we are belongs to God. For those who are worldly and claim authority over themselves and ownership over their possessions, God is a thief who comes suddenly and in a hidden way. He overtakes their apparent ownership and puts an end to it. To them He seems like a thief because He “steals” what they consider to be theirs. They are badly misled.
For us who watch and are prepared (pray God), the Lord comes not to take but to give, to bestow upon us and reward us as we inherit His Kingdom.
Shocking, for the text speaks of roaring heavens and fire that overwhelms, dissolving everything.
Here, too, although the image is shocking it should not alarm us if we are already on fire. At Pentecost (and personally at our baptism and confirmation), the Lord lit a fire within us to set us on fire spiritually, to bring us up to the temperature of glory. Thus, for those in the Lord, the “weather” on that day will seem just fine.
The prophet Malachi speaks of the twofold experience of the Day of the Lord in this way: “Surely the day is coming; it will burn like a furnace. All the arrogant and every evildoer will be stubble, and that day that is coming will set them on fire,” says the Lord Almighty. “Not a root or a branch will be left to them. But for you who revere my name, the sun of righteousness will rise with healing in its wings. Notice therefore, that for some the Day is burning with wrathful heat, but for the Just, it is a sunny day wherein the Sun (Son) of righteousness will bring warmth and healing (Mal 4:1-3).
An old spiritual gloss on this verse says, “God gave Noah the rainbow sign, no water but the fire next time.” Thus, God wants to get us ready by setting us on fire with His love and grace. If God is a holy fire, then we must become fire ourselves to be able to endure the day of His coming.
Showing, for the text says that all things will be revealed.
This fire burns away the masks that many people wear, exposing them for what they are. The Lord says,
But I tell you that men will have to give account on the day of judgment for every careless word they have spoken (Matt 12:36).
There is nothing concealed that will not be disclosed or hidden that will not be made known. What you have said in the dark will be heard in the daylight, and what you have whispered in the ear in the inner rooms will be proclaimed from the roofs (Lk 12:2-3).
Now even the just may wince at this, for all have a past and would prefer that the past stay in the past. However, when I’ve visited 12-Step meetings I’ve noticed that many of the recovered attendees will recount vividly what they did when they were drinking. They seem to do so with little shame and much laughter, for they share it with those who understand, and as ones who have been set free from the source of the problem. Perhaps the disclosing day will be like that for the just. For the unrepentant, however, imagine the fear and embarrassment as their secrets, sins, and injustices are disclosed to those who are also unforgiving and unmerciful. It’ll be a bad scene, really.
3. The PRESCRIPTION that is PROCLAIMED – The text says, Since everything is to be dissolved in this way, what sort of persons ought you to be? You ought to conduct yourselves in holiness and devotion, waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be dissolved in flames and the elements melted by fire …. Therefore, beloved, since you await these things, be eager to be found without spot or blemish before him, at peace.
The text asks, rhetorically, “What sort of persons ought you to be?” The answer, in a word, is “fiery.” God has lit a fire in us to purify and refine us. Hence on that day, when the Lord will judge by fire, we will pass through. Though some final purification (purgation) may take place, the fact that the fire has been kindled in us and fanned into flame, will mean just that: purification, not destruction. St. Paul describes the just as going through the purgatorial fire that leads to purification rather than to destruction in Hell: If any man builds on this foundation using gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay or straw, his work will be shown for what it is, because the Day will bring it to light. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test the quality of each man’s work. If what he has built survives, he will receive his reward. If it is burned up, he will suffer loss; he himself will be saved, but only as one escaping through the flames (1 Cor 3:12-15).
So, the prescription for us is to let God set us afire now to purify us, making us more holy and devout. The fire of His Holy Spirit is the only thing that can truly prepare us and permit us to endure the day of His coming and to be spared the “wrath to come” (cf 1 Thess 1:10, Matt 3:7, Romans 5:9; 1 Thess 5:9), when God will judge the world and everything in it by fire.
4. The PERFECTION that is PROMISED – The text says, But according to his promise we await new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells.
This text presents the possibility that the created world will not so much be destroyed as purified by God’s fiery judgment. While it may also signify the total destruction of all that now is and a replacement of it with new heavens and a new earth, some posit that it means that the created world will instead be renewed. This view would correspond with other texts such as Romans 8 (For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God (Rom 8:20-21)) and Isaiah 1.
Whatever the answer to the debate, the bottom line is that the new (or renewed) world will be a heaven wedded to earth in which the full righteousness of God will be manifest. Further, we will be without blemish and at peace.
Yes, God’s gonna set this world on fire one of these days, Hallelujah! God’s fire purifies that which is holy and burns away all that is lacking or unholy. God will restore all things in Christ!
There is much lore about the antichrist (especially among certain Evangelicals) that is out of proportion to the attention Scripture pays to the concept, and more importantly is at possible variance from what is certainly taught. It easily becomes fodder for movies and novels: the antichrist figure steps on the scene, deceiving many, and mesmerizing the whole world with apparent miracles and a message of false peace.
But is this really what or whom the Scriptures call the antichrist? I would argue not, for in order to create such a picture one would have to splice in images from the Book of Revelation and the Letter to the Thessalonians that do not likely apply to antichrists.
In fact, the use of the term antichrist occurs only in the Johannine epistles. It does not occur in the Book of Revelation at all, though many have the mistaken idea that it does. There are plenty of beasts, dragons, harlots, demons, and satanic legions in Revelation, but no mention of antichrists.
Many also stitch the teaching about antichrists together with St. Paul’s teaching on the “man of lawlessness” (also called “the lawless one”) who is to appear just before the end. The lawless one may well be the stuff of movies, but calling him the antichrist may be to borrow too much from a concept that is more specific. While it is not inauthentic to make a connection between them (some of the Church Fathers seem to), it is not necessarily correct to do so.
In this reflection I take the position that it is improbable that the antichrist and the man of lawlessness are one and the same. In order to explain why, let’s first look at the occurrences of the term antichrist in St. John’s Epistles.
Little children, it is the last hour: and as you have heard that antichrist shall come, even now are there many antichrists; whereby we know that it is the last time (1 John 2:18).
Who is the liar but the one who denies that Jesus is the Christ? This is the antichrist, the one who denies the Father and the Son (1 John 2:22).
By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God. And this is the spirit of the antichrist, of which you have heard that it is coming; and now it is already in the world (1 John 4:2–3).
Many deceivers have gone out into the world, those who do not confess that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh; any such person is the deceiver and the antichrist! (2 John 1:7)
Note two things about antichrists. First, St. John (writing in the first century) teaches that he has already appeared. In calling this the “last hour,” St. John and the Holy Spirit do not mean that the Second Coming will take place in the next sixty minutes or even in the next few years. Rather, the teaching is that we are in the Last Age, the Age of the Messiah (also called the Age of the Church), when God is sending out His angels to the four winds to gather all the elect from the ends of the earth (cf Mark 4:21). Sadly, St. John also teaches that the antichrist has already come as well.
Second, after saying that the antichrist has come, St. John immediately clarifies by saying that actually many antichrists have appeared.
Thus St. John does not seem to present the antichrist as a single figure who has come. Rather, he says that there are many antichrists.
And what do these antichrists do? They perpetrate heresy, error, and false teaching. St. John notes in particular that heretics who deny that Jesus is the Christ (the Messiah) are antichrists. He also calls antichrists those who deny Christ having come in the flesh.
What does it mean to deny Christ having come in the flesh? It means reducing the saving work of God to mere appearances by claiming that Jesus did not actually take up a human nature but only appeared to do so. By extension, these same antichrists reduce the Christian moral and spiritual life to mere gnostic ideas rather than a true flesh-and-blood, body-and-soul change in our lives.
Many today extend these denials of the incarnation by undermining the historic authenticity of the Gospels, doubting or outright denying what Jesus actually said and did. Some of them say that Jesus’ resurrection was not a bodily one, but rather that His “ideas live on.” There can be no more fundamental heresy that to deny the bodily resurrection of Christ. As St. Paul says, And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain … if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins … [and] we are of all people most to be pitied (1 Cor 15:14-17).
Thus St. John, along with all the early Church, emphatically upholds an incarnational faith. We could actually touch our God and He touched us by taking up our human nature. He suffered on the cross and died. And though His suffering was tied to His human nature (for His divine nature is impassible), Jesus, the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity, hypostatically united to His human nature, suffered and died for us. It was this same human nature that God raised from the dead, gloriously transformed.
John takes up this theme elsewhere when he says that Christ came in water and in blood, not in water alone (cf 1 John 5:6). A certain heretic of that time, Cerinthus, held that the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity departed just before Jesus’ passion. John refutes this, insisting that just as at His baptism Jesus’ divine nature was affirmed (This is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased), so also was it affirmed during the shedding of His blood on Calvary (the inspired word of God records the centurion, on seeing the manner of Jesus’ death, saying, Surely this was the Son of God (Mat 27:54)). Jesus Christ, the Son of God, though of two natures, is one person, and He did in fact die suffer and die for us.
Thus to St. John, the essence of the antichrist is denial that Jesus came in the flesh. An antichrist is one who would relegate Jesus’ presence among us to mere appearances or His teachings to mere abstractions or ideals rather than transformative realities.
By extension, it can be argued that the term antichrist refers to all deceivers, though only logically, not specifically in the text. St. John does not indicate that he means the term antichrist this broadly, but in a wider sense all heresy pertains to the antichrist because Jesus Christ is the truth. Jesus teaches through His apostles that to deny the truth is to deny Christ Himself; it is to deny truth itself and thus to be an antichrist.
So perhaps this is not fodder for movies and novels after all; sorry! And that’s a shame because the term antichrist is so catchy! This brings us to a discussion of the man of lawlessness (or the lawless one).
What or who is the man of lawlessness whom St. Paul mentions and how is he related to the antichrist? As I stated above, I do not think there is a connection. To see why, let’s consider what St. Paul teaches:
As to the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our being gathered together to him, we beg you, brothers and sisters, not to be quickly shaken in mind or alarmed, either by spirit or by word or by letter, as though from us, to the effect that the day of the Lord is already here. Let no one deceive you in any way; for that day will not come unless the rebellion comes first and the Man of lawlessness is revealed, the one destined for destruction. He opposes and exalts himself above every so-called god or object of worship, so that he takes his seat in the temple of God, declaring himself to be God (2 Thessalonians 2:1–4).
For the mystery of lawlessness is already at work, but only until the one who now restrains it is removed. And then the lawless one will be revealed, whom the Lord Jesus will destroy with the breath of his mouth, annihilating him by the manifestation of his coming. The coming of the lawless one is apparent in the working of Satan, who uses all power, signs, lying wonders, and every kind of wicked deception for those who are perishing, because they refused to love the truth and so be saved (2 Thessalonians 2:7–10).
Note the following crucial differences between antichrists and the lawless one:
John speaks of antichrists in the plural whereas St. Paul speaks in the singular: the man of lawlessness or the lawless one.
The lawless one’s deceptions are rather general (every kind of wicked deception), whereas deceptions of antichrists are more specifically related to denying the incarnation of the Son of God.
Jesus also speaks of those who will lead many astray, though He speaks of them in the plural and is likely referring to occurrences in the first century during the time leading up to the war with the Romans in 70 A.D: For false messiahs and false prophets will appear and produce great signs and wonders, to lead astray, if possible, even the elect (Matthew 24:24).
As you can see, there are a lot of moving parts here as well as a lot of singulars and plurals to sort out and time frames to consider. Permit me the following conclusions:
Antichrist is a more restrictive term than most people today think. While the antichrist is not a single person but rather any number of persons, the concept of antichrists seems limited to those who deny that Jesus is the Christ, come in the flesh. However, the term can possibly be applied to heretics in general.
Jesus warns of false prophets and messiahs, but the context of His warning seems to be the first century and the looming destruction of Jerusalem not the end times per se. Further, He speak of many false prophets, not a single one.
It is the man of lawlessness spoken of by St. Paul that most fits the charismatic figure of our “movie script,” a person able to unite the world in a false peace by mesmerizing and deceiving the nations. This lawless one will signal the end times. While I am not saying that these are the end times, I will note that the advent of instant, worldwide communication has made things easier than ever before for the lawless one. One individual actually could mesmerize and deceive all the nations—right on the worldwide web!
All that said, I believe that equating this lawless one with one of the beasts of Revelation or with the antichrist may be too speculative, and possibly inaccurate.
I hope I haven’t toyed with your “movie script” too much, but Scripture is nuanced in these matters and we do well to avoid reducing its teachings to popular concepts and catchy notions.
Scripture does speak to us of the end times and of difficult times preceding them, but the information is often given in general, even cryptic, terms. It is as if Scripture wants to tell us to be ready and to let us know that we don’t need to (and shouldn’t want to) know all the details. Just be ready, and when those times set in remember that Christ has already won the battle. Viva Christo Rey!