The end of the world is once again nigh.
Or so claim interpreters of the so-called Mayan calendar.
But Catholics are advised to ignore this year’s end-times fantasy, just as they did regarding last year’s Bible-inspired prediction promoted by Protestant radio-show host Harold Camping.
Regis Martin, professor of theology at Franciscan University at Steubenville, Ohio, and author of The Last Things: Death, Judgment, Hell, Heaven, told the Register that “The surest thing we know about the end of the world is what Jesus said about it: ‘No one knows about that day or hour, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.’”
Given that Jesus, “in his divine humanity,” did not know when the end would be, Martin warns Catholics to be wary of anyone who claims such knowledge.
Catholics and other Christians agree that the end of the world will come and that it will include the physical return of Jesus and the Last Judgment. Beyond that, however, disagreement reigns supreme — and not least on the subject of the event’s timing.
Nor does the Mayan calendar actually predict the end of the world, according to Jimmy Akin, a radio commentator, apologist with California-based Catholic Answers and NCRegister.com blogger. “The Mayan calendar is not coming to an end in 2012. It’s coming to the end of a cycle, like our own calendar did in 2000. Its cycles are called ‘long counts,’ and one of these is ending in 2012.”
No Mayan Doomsday
Experts in archeology, such as Kathryn Reese-Taylor of the University of Calgary, add that the Maya built impressive stone tablets to record their calendar but made no predictions about the end of the world. The Aztecs and Hopis did, however, and, in 1966, an American academic named James Coe linked them with the Mayan calendar to spark the current apocalyptic focus on Dec. 21, 2012, the precise end of the calendar’s latest cycle.
Said Reese-Taylor in an article printed by a dozen newspapers across Canada: “We invented this doomsday scenario, not the ancient Maya.”
Interest in the end times has always been with us. Jesus was born at a time when many Jews hoped for a worldly Messiah who would free them from Roman rule and bring in a golden age.
Though Jesus did not believe the end times were imminent, Martin said, “I think some of his followers did and may have died dismayed that they hadn’t lived to see the end.”
Martin related how St. Augustine disputed with a bishop from Dalmatia who contended the Second Coming was imminent. The end of the first millennium sparked fears of the end. The rise of Protestantism and its subsequent revivals in Europe and America also inspired millenarian beliefs.
Mark Noll, a professor of history at the University of Notre Dame, said the immigration of Protestant dissenters to America from colonial times onward guaranteed plenty of speculation about the end times. Many were literate, avid readers of the Bible, and in America were free to expound their interpretations of its meaning, which were often literalistic. Many saw their new freedom from the doctrinaire pressure of established religions in Europe as a precursor of the return of Jesus and his 1,000-year reign. The American Revolution was another such sign. “The future was not always foreseen to be negative. Sometimes it’s about a much better world,” said Noll.
The 19th century was a period of great religious fervor in the U.S. that generated many millenarian religions, according to Noll, notably Seventh-Day Adventists, Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses, which all managed to survive the failure of their initial predictions of Christ’s return.
“Most conservative Protestant theologians believe in the Second Coming and the end of the world,” said Noll, “but they would never try to predict it.”
However, a very persuasive minority of biblical interpreters, beginning with the 19th-century Irish preacher John Nelson Darby, did and do make precise predictions.
Hal Lindsey’s bestselling book, The Late, Great Planet Earth was the top-selling American book throughout the 1970s, and it spawned a host of imitators including Timothy LaHaye’s currently popular Left Behind series of novels and movies.
Some promote Darby’s view that Christ would return after a period of persecution called “Tribulation” that would begin with the “Rapture” — the assumption into heaven of all believers. They find support from Jesus’ calls to vigilance in Matthew 24, such as: “Two men will be out in a field; one will be taken, and one will be left.”
Any View Gets a Hearing
In the same vein was the prediction by Christian radio personality Harold Camping that the world was to end on May 21, 2011. Commented Noll, “What is characteristically American about this is that here any viewpoint can get a hearing, if the presentation is convincing.”
Much of the biblical-proof texts for those claiming to know the details of the end times are taken from St. John’s Revelation. Protestant millenarians often match fantastic figures in John’s vision with contemporary events and personalities to prove the imminence of the Second Coming. “Stalin was seen as the anti-Christ, and then Saddam Hussein was seen as the anti-Christ,” Martin said, adding that the Catholic Church teaches that Revelation should be taken as a metaphor for the ongoing daily spiritual battle that Christians and the Church fight with evil — and often with the evil within themselves.
As for those passages in Matthew’s and Mark’s Gospels in which millenarianists say that Jesus predicted the Tribulation and Rapture, Martin said that these should be taken as cautions to us all to ensure we are always in a state of grace, because death can come at any moment. “We need to be ready,” Martin said.
Catholic Answers’ Akin attributed the ongoing popularity of end-times speculation to people’s natural concern for the future, spiced up with “a certain excitement of acquiring lost knowledge” from, for example, the Bible or Mayan calendars.
Martin agrees. On the one hand, there is a purely natural, “psychological compulsion” at work in these movements, which are especially pronounced in times of great anxiety about the future. “What drives it is a need for security, for certitude,” he said.
On the other hand, Martin also sees in the desire to pin down the timing of the Second Coming an element of Gnosticism, a heresy that held the material world to be either illusory or evil, while only a select few possessed secret wisdom: “We see a small group claiming to have secret knowledge or privileged insight that makes them superior. It gives them an edge.”
Register correspondent Steve Weatherbe writes from Victoria, British Columbia.
A Primer to the End Times
Pre-Millenialist: Christ returns physically to begin literal rule of the world, in some versions for an actual millennium, but in most, just for a long time. This will be followed by the Final Judgment.
Post-Millenialist: Christ returns after a 1000-year period of peace and conversion of the world to Christianity for the Final Judgment.
Amillienalist: Catholic teaching is consistent with this view: We are already in the period of Christ’s rule, through the Holy Spirit in the Church. It will end with a period of persecution called the Tribulation, followed by Jesus’ second physical coming, at which time the faithful will be lifted up to heaven in the Rapture, as will all who have ever lived, for the Final Judgment.
The Rapture: Theories as to its timing also fall into three camps, depending on whether it is held to happen before, after or in the midst of the Tribulation period. The website ScriptureCatholic.com points out that only the post-tribulation view is consistent with Catholic interpretation of Scripture, which describes the Rapture as coinciding with the second coming of Christ and the Final Judgment. The other two views require Christ to come three times: at Bethlehem, at the Rapture and at the Final Judgment.