Rhyming the Beginning and the End

Connecting the Dots: Jesus Christ creates a story in which our cooperation with or rejection of his grace spells the difference between heaven and hell.

Russian icon of the Second Coming
Russian icon of the Second Coming (photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Since God is the Author of the great story of creation and salvation history, he knows the end from the beginning and can tell us about that end as he chooses.

What we immediately notice when we scan biblical prophecy is that God only tells us enough to give us a general shape of history, not to give us details. In that, he is like every good storyteller we know. He offers us hints and foreshadows, which tell us something of the end, even in the beginning.

For instance, in the beginning of The Lord of the Rings, Gandalf rebukes the thought that it is a pity Bilbo did not slay Gollum when he had the chance with the famous words: “Pity? It was pity that stayed Bilbo’s hand. Many that live deserve death. Some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them, Frodo? Do not be too eager to deal out death in judgment. Even the very wise cannot see all ends. My heart tells me that Gollum has some part to play yet, for good or ill, before this is over. The pity of Bilbo may rule the fate of many.”

J.R.R. Tolkien, who knows the end from the beginning, knows that Gandalf’s words are truer than Gandalf realizes. For indeed, the pity of Bilbo is, in the end, the only thing that makes the destruction of the One Ring possible.

This foreshadowing also occurs in the Divine Tale that is Christian Revelation.

For instance, the Old Testament is filled with divine foreshadows of the New Testament, leading up to the First Coming of the Son of God in the Incarnation. But Scripture is likewise full of foreshadowing about where that Incarnation must ultimately lead: to the Second Coming of Christ in glory on the Last Day.

So we see Scripture and Tradition warn, “Before Christ’s second coming, the Church must pass through a final trial that will shake the faith of many believers” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 675).

Does that sound familiar? It should. It’s exactly the same pattern played out in the life of Christ himself: He, too, faces a trial in the Garden of Gethsemane, where he begs for the cup to pass from him and then resolves that his Father’s will, not his own, be done. He has to face the hatred of the devil himself.

He warns, “Destroy this temple, and in three days, I will raise it up” (John 2:19), and Satan does just that: destroying the temple of his body on the cross.

But Jesus repeats the same lesson on a grander scale when he warns (see Matthew 24) about the destruction that is to come upon the Temple at Jerusalem when the Romans destroy it in the year 70. Sometimes the prophecy sounds like it refers to the destruction of the Temple, and sometimes it sounds like he is talking about the end of the world. Why?

Because the end of the Temple foreshadows the end of the world, just as it recalls the Crucifixion. Out of the death visited on Jesus’ body came the new life of the Resurrection in his glorified body. Out of the death visited on the Temple of the Old Covenant emerged the new global temple that is the Church, the body of Christ.

And out of the final crisis of the Final Judgment, which will come to the world at the end of days, will emerge the New Heaven and the New Earth with Christ’s second coming in glory — something to chew on for Advent.

The point is that history does not so much repeat itself as rhyme.

Jesus Christ — the same yesterday, today and forever — creates a story in which our cooperation with or rejection of his grace spells the difference between heaven and hell and accepting forgiveness like Peter or refusing it like unbelieving Judas.

Mark Shea is a Register columnist and blogger.