Open the last book of the Bible, and you enter a strange and dazzling world. In quick succession you encounter there a baffling array of angels and beasts, saints and sinners, worshippers and warriors, celebrations and catastrophes.
There you find a great beast whose number is 666. A scroll with seven seals. Four men riding horses, each horse a different color. Hail and fire, mixed with blood. A battle named Armageddon. A star named Wormwood falling to earth. Crowned locusts with human faces, women's hair, lions' teeth, scales, and stinging scorpion tails. Invading nations named Gog and Magog. A red dragon with seven heads, ten horns, seven crowns.
So what does the Catholic Church officially teach about the true meaning of all these puzzling symbols, figures, and events?
The short answer: Not much.
The Church has never claimed to know with certainty, for example, the true meaning of the locust with human faces. But the Church does witness to a number of important truths about Christ's second coming and the close of the age.
A Humbling Perplexity
The Church teaches, of course, that the book of Revelation and the book of Daniel, with its similar imagery, belong among the Scriptures inspired by God. Both books extend to us God's invitations, promises, and warnings. Both contain useful exhortations to maintain a steadfast hope and faith.
Nevertheless, much of what is contained in these books is exceedingly difficult to understand. The rule of interpreting a biblical text as far as possible in its ``plain sense'' does not help much in many passages we find here. The ``plain sense'' of a red dragon with seven heads and ten horns is just not very plain at all.
On the other hand, what the Catholic Church, by Christ's authority, has definitively declared about the end of the world---and what is clearly implied by what it has so declared---Catholics are obliged to believe. In fact, what the Church has definitively declared, Catholics should be overjoyed to believe. After all, it's good news! Christ's second coming and the events surrounding it are just as much a part of the gospel as His first coming.
The Church has not yet attempted to define the precise significance of the four horsemen, the human-faced locusts, and the like. Why not? For this reason: Though the Church's understanding of divine revelation continues to unfold as the Holy Spirit guides the Magisterium, at this point the Spirit has not yet chosen to clarify these and other matters.
Nevertheless, this does not mean the Church has not spoken quite clearly about the basic revealed truths of eschatology---that is, the doctrine of the ``last things.'' A few of the phrases from the Nicene Creed sum up the Church's teaching in this regard. Now we will expand a little on that understanding, drawing a few specific points from what Pope John Paul II has called a ``sure guide'' to faith: the Catechism of the Catholic Church [numbers in parentheses refer to the Catechism].
Jesus will return to the earth in glorious triumph. ``Though already present in His Church,'' says the Catechism, ``Christ's reign is nevertheless yet to be fulfilled `with power and great glory' by the King's return to earth'' (671). Our Lord's return ``could be accomplished at any moment'' (673) and will be universally visible and undeniable. No secret rapture here. This foundational truth has been affirmed many times over by the scriptural texts we have examined in earlier chapters.
First, however, the Antichrist will appear to deceive the world and persecute the Church. ``The persecution that accompanies her pilgrimage on earth will unveil the `mystery of iniquity' in the form of a religious deception offering men an apparent solution to their problems at the price of apostasy from the truth. The supreme religious deception is that of the Antichrist, a pseudo-messianism by which man glorifies himself in place of God and of His Messiah come in the flesh" (675). The spirit of Antichrist has manifested itself many times already in history, most notably in recent times under the guise of atheistic Communism (676). Christians will be terribly persecuted at the hands of the final Antichrist, just as they have been at the hands of his forerunners.
The Church will suffer the great tribulation prophesied by her Lord. ``Before Christ's second coming the Church must pass through a trial that will shake the faith of many believers''(675). ``The Church will enter the glory of the kingdom only through this final Passover, when she will follow her Lord in His death and resurrection'' (677). Again, we have examined a number of scriptural passages that confirm this teaching. Contrary to the rapture doctrine, Christians will not be spared the great tribulation.