Make no mistake, interest in the End Times is hardly knew.
As I stood in line waiting to go to confession recently (yes, I still do that), a man who'd lately exited the confessional approached me and in a confidential tone of voice said, "I'm beginning to believe we are in the End Times. Do you think that might be true?"
This is not a question I get asked every day. "I guess there's some evidence for it," I said. "Anyway, we'll all find out soon enough." I might have added, but it didn't occur to me just then, "In a sense, we're always in the End Times, and I suppose we always will be."
There's a lot of interest today in the End Times--the appearance of the Antichrist, the Second Coming of Christ, the Last Judgment, the end of the world, the inauguration of a "new heaven and new earth," and associated events. As you might expect, a casual check of the internet shows many sites dealing with the subject. I chose one at random, and the first thing I saw was the flat-out statement, "There can be no doubt that we are living in the last days."
Reading that, I wondered how the writer could be so certain. After all, Jesus in the gospel tells his disciples when they're fretting about these things, "Of that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven" (Mt 24. 36). It must be pretty gratifying to have the inside scoop on something not even the angels know.
Make no mistake, interest in the End Times is hardly knew. It is sometimes associated with millenarianism (or millenarism, if you prefer), which concentrates on thousand-year intervals. Think of the hubbub that accompanied the runup to the year 2000, as well as the disappointment in some circles that the world didn't end as they'd apparently been expecting when the ball dropped in Times Square on New Year's Eve.
Historically, the End Times have had their share of prophets. One notable figure was a Baptist preacher named William Miller who, based on his study of the Bible, predicted that the Second Coming was going to arrive in 1844. The time came and went, and the Second Coming failed to occur. Some of Miller's followers morphed into the Seventh Day Adventists, who retain the original interest in the Second Coming but set no specific date for it.
The End Times also appear now and then in literary sources. A notable instance of that is Robert Hugh Benson's 1907 apocalyptic novel Lord of the World, which is a favorite with Pope Francis. The story, set in a dystopian world of the not so distant future and featuring an Antichrist figure, makes disturbing reading. This is the only novel I know of in which, at the conclusion, everything really does come to an end.
Most of the speculation about the End Times is accompanied by a certain amount of fear and trembling, and up to a point there's nothing wrong with that. But the Catechism of the Catholic Church also offers the consoling thought that the Last Judgment will show "that God's love triumphs over all the injustices committed by his creatures and that God's love is stronger than death" (CCC 1040).
As for getting ready for the great event, the best advice has always been Jesus': "Watch therefore, for you do not know at what hour your Lord is to come" (Mt 24.42). Which, truth to tell, is one reason I was standing in that confession line.
Russell Shaw is the author of more than twenty books. He is a consultor of the Pontifical Council for Social Communications and served as communications director for the U.S. Bishops.