End-of-year musing on the end times

If anyone should chance to attend services in a Christian church in early December, he will notice that many of the readings are devoted to scriptural topics concerning the end of history or the end of time. If our race died out, we would have an end of history but not the end of time. History depends on human choices, but time marches on whether humans are present within it or not. At another level, however, we can wonder whether a cosmos would even exist if we knowing beings were not eventually to appear within its reaches.

With the recent landing of a sophisticated robot on Mars, we also note that mankind is interested in finding out the details of those sidereal, extra-terrestrial objects floating out there beyond the atmosphere of our Earth.

We wonder whether our end on this planet and possible life beyond it are not two sides of the same curiosity. We know that our very existence is intimately tied up with the cosmos and its laws. We also know that we are the only natural beings within it that seek to know it. The cosmos does not know itself. It is only known within it by beings such as ourselves.

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Joseph Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI), in his 1968 book, An Introduction to Christianity, wrote: “In the New Testament, we find in Mark 13 the following signs that the end is near: The appearance of false Messiahs, a world totally at war, earthquakes, famine, persecution of Christians, and ‘the abomination of desolation’ in holy places. As a positive inner requisite of the end of time, Mark mentions the preaching of the Gospel to all peoples and the conversion of Israel to Christ as the first intra-historical step toward the end.”

Needless to say, we do see fires, earthquakes, floods, and minor wars. The famine we have is usually man-made. Most people on Earth are adequately fed by its abundance with man’s knowledge and labor. But the Gospel is nowhere near being preached to all peoples, while Israel seems more set in its own ways than ever.

Kevin Williamson, in a recent National Review article with the amusing title “The World Keeps Not Ending,” went through the frequent predictions of end times being upon us only to see these predictions fizzle in the light of better times that keep recurring. “Apocalypse now” seems to be not exactly the present now.

For those who might find such issues worth more study, the best book is probably that of Josef Pieper, The End of Time: Meditations on the Philosophy of History. The turn of the centuries to 1000 and 2000 did cause many people to wonder if our presence on this Earth has any transcendent meaning.

It is obvious that we must distinguish between the recurring deaths of individual members of the human race and the collective death of the race itself. The former remains mostly at four score years and ten, usually less, while the population of the race itself still seems to be growing in spite of the desperate efforts of many to curb it.

It seems certain that it is given to each man “once to die.” Plato would add, “and thence the judgment.” Plato did not think our individual existence was coherent if justice was not requited for our personal crimes and sins in this world. This is why he held that the soul was immortal. What was not judged in this life would be judged in the next.

When it comes to the end of the race itself, however, we cannot say much. We keep “not ending,” as Williamson insists that we notice. Scripture itself reminds us both that an end is coming and that we “know not its day or hour.”

When the atom bomb was first discovered, there was much wringing of hands and gnashing of teeth about the prospect of man blowing himself and his civilization to smithereens. Some of the flavor of this concern is still connected with whether North Korea, Iran, or Pakistan might have nuclear weapons. Not a few worry about a Muslim “terrorist” with his hands on the bomb and a delivery system.

But we are more relaxed about the bomb today. We have lived with it for over seventy years. Nuclear power has many good uses. Deterrence has worked. The biggest killers in recent decades are still knives, guns, automobile accidents, trucks, and even passenger planes rammed into high towers.

Creation itself is good and remains so. We human beings belong in the world as much as anything else within it. But this belonging does not mean that we do not have a higher individual purpose that transcends the cycles of the world.

The stories of end times seem to circle around this fact that each individual person has a purpose for his existence that includes but transcends the world. It seems even possible for man, or at least some men, permanently to reject what he is invited to become.

Pieper writes: “According to the unanimous information of tradition, the outward ‘success’ of this (diabolical) regime will be immense; its success will be a great apostasy. The fact of this mighty outward success distinguishes the Antichrist from him to whom his name points per negativum.”

At the ending of each year, the further thought of our tradition incites us to wonder about the end of our kind and if it has an end in time. What, we might ask, constitutes the “success” of the great apostasy? At a minimum, it is the belief that nothing that we do matters. The landings on Mars, the cycles of our years, the prophecies show us that our world has not yet ended. “The world keeps on not ending.” We keep wondering why it has not.

The Rev. James V. Schall, S.J., author of “A Line Through the Human Heart: On Sinning & Being Forgiven,” is professor emeritus at Georgetown University. His latest book is “The Universe We Think In,” published by The Catholic University of America Press.