by Ralph Martin
(Ignatius Press, 1997, 178 pp., $11.95)
The Late Great Planet Earth was a bestseller in the 1970s. Its thesis: biblical prophecies could be correlated to daily, world events. Careful analysis of these prophecies, argued author Hal Lindsey, revealed that the Second Coming of Christ was just around the corner.
The crux of Lindsey's argument was the re-establishment of the nation of Israel in 1948. He saw this as the fulfillment of Jesus' statement that Jerusalem would be “trodden down by the Gentiles until the time of the Gentiles is fulfilled” (Lk 21, 24). When Christ said, “This generation will not pass away until all these things come to pass” (Lk 21, 32), he meant, according to Lindsey, the generation that saw the re-establishment of Israel. “All these things” were the events preceding the Second Coming. Thus, he concluded, within a generation of 1948—which he calculated as 40 years in biblical terms—Christ would return.
Fifty years after Israel's re-establishment and almost 30 after Late Great Planet Earth hit the bookstores, the Lord still hasn't returned. Not that that has slowed up speculation. As we approach the magic year 2000, “end times” commotion is likely to reach fever pitch. Lindsey himself still expects the imminent return of Christ, readjusting his prophetic scenario here and there to account for—to date at least—what amounts to a divine no-show. And he's been joined by scads of other “last days” forecasters prognosticating the “end.”
Catholic renewal leader Ralph Martin isn't one of them. His book, Is Jesus Coming Soon?, is a balanced, truly Catholic perspective on a subject as overemphasized in Evangelical circles as it is probably neglected among most Catholics.
Martin is not shy about the fact that the Second Coming is about judgment. That's why Jesus warned people to be prepared for it, he writes. What death is to us as individuals, the Second Coming is to humanity as a whole: time to meet our Maker. Whether Jesus will return in our era “to judge the living and the dead,” as the Apostles' Creed says, is, in that sense, irrelevant. All of us will encounter him within a lifetime anyhow—our own.
Even so, the Bible and the Church both teach the doctrine of the Second Coming (called the Parousia or “coming” in Greek), so it is legitimate to ask, “What will it be like?” Martin refrains from going into too many details. His principle: as the prophecies of Christ's first coming were an unanticipated blend of literal and figurative fulfillment that made it hard to map out a precise scenario ahead of time, so too with the Second Coming. Those who try are as likely to go astray as people did the first time around.
Still, the big question everyone wants answered is, “When will it occur?” Martin sticks to the plain words of Jesus: “No one knows the day or hour.” Believers should be alert and not grow indifferent to the Lord's return. But neither should they buy into fanciful end times schemes and claims to have figured it all out. (A radio preacher, confronted with Jesus' comment that “No man knows the hour or the day,” once replied, “Yes, but he didn't say anything about the month and the year.”)
Martin is not, however, completely disinterested in signs of the end; he takes the Bible and the Church's interpretative tradition seriously. He identifies two events which the Bible seems to say must occur before the Second Coming: the conversion of the Jews (based on Rom 11, 15. 23, 25-26) and the universal proclamation of the Gospel (Mt 24, 14). Other proximate signs of the Final Days include a general social disorder among nations, confusion and upheaval in the Church (apostasy and infidelity), and the rise of an antichrist (a single focus of Satan's activity in the world).
Does Israel's re-establishment in 1948 herald the end? Martin doesn't rule it out. It may be a proximate sign of the Second Coming, he writes, but we can't be sure.
The same can be said of other possible indicators: various Marian apparitions warning of tribulation to come and calling for repentance; the Holy Spirit's charismatic activity among believers today; a new evangelization taking the Gospel to the world; dissent, confusion, and apostasy among Christians; and turmoil in the world at large. Prudence is needed to interpret these “signs.” There may yet come a time when even more “signs” of the Second Coming are present—perhaps in the distant future. People then will look back on today's end times zeal as we do the eschatological fervor around the year 1000.
Martin accomplishes two seemingly contradictory things. He awakens readers to the prospect of the Second Coming, while admonishing us against falling off the eschatological deep end. Sound advice as we approach the third Christian millennium.
Mark Brumley, managing editor of Catholic Dossier and The Catholic Faith magazines, writes from Napa, California.