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.
The final victory of Christ on earth will not come through a gradual improvement in the world's spiritual condition. ``The kingdom will be fulfilled, then, not by a historic triumph of the Church through a progressive ascendancy, but only by God's victory over the final unleashing of evil, which will cause His Bride to come down from heaven''(677). This declaration rules out the end time expectations of certain Reformation traditions (see ``postmillennialism'' below). Calvinists in particular often teach that the Church will achieve in history, through the Holy Spirit, a gradual betterment of the world's spiritual condition that will climax in Christ's return to earth. But this mistaken notion offers only a false hope.
The final victory of Christ will not come within history, but beyond it. ``The Antichrist's deception already begins to take shape in the world every time the claim is made to realize within history that messianic hope which can only be realized beyond history through the eschatological judgment. The Church has rejected even modified forms of the falsification of the kingdom to come under the name of millenarianism''(676).
The Jewish people will come to recognize Jesus Christ as their Messiah before He returns. We have only hints of this remarkable development in Scripture, in the Gospels and St. Paul's epistle to the Romans. ``The glorious Messiah's coming is suspended at every moment of history until His recognition by `all Israel,' for `a hardening has come upon part of Israel' in their unbelief toward Jesus'' (674). ``The `full inclusion' of the Jews in the Messiah's salvation, in the wake of `the full number of the Gentiles,' will enable the People of God to achieve `the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ,' in which `God may be all in all'" (674).
The dead will be raised. ``The Christian creed---the profession of our faith in God, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, and in God's creative, saving, and sanctifying action---culminates in the proclamation of the resurrection of the dead on the last day and in life everlasting'' (988). What does it mean to be resurrected? In death, body and soul are separated, and the body decays. In the resurrection, the body will be granted ``incorruptible life'' by being reunited with the soul (997).
When Jesus was raised from the dead with His own body---He still had the scars of His crucifixion, which the disciples could physically touch---His body no longer experienced a merely ``earthly life'' (999). It was a ``glorified body'' (997), transformed in such a way that it could exercise new abilities such as passing through physical barriers. But it retained its former capabilities, such as the ability to eat.
When we are raised, ``Christ `will change our lowly body to be like His glorious body,' into a `spiritual body'" (999). Exactly how this happens ``exceeds our imagination and understanding; it is accessible only to faith'' (1000). But it will surely take place ``definitively `at the last day,' `at the end of the world,' " in close association with Christ's appearing (1001).
Christ will judge the living and the dead, and the Evil One and his allies will at last be utterly overthrown. ``God's triumph over evil will take the form of the Last Judgment after the final cosmic upheaval of this passing world'' (677; see also 1038--1041). Again, we have reviewed in earlier chapters a number of scriptural passages that attest to this truth. As the God-Man who conquered death and the Devil, Jesus alone is worthy to judge the earth and bring a definitive end to its wickedness. ``Jesus solemnly proclaims that He `will send His angels, and they will gather . . . all evil doers, and throw them into the furnace of fire,' and that He will pronounce the condemnation: `Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire!' '' (1034).
At the end of time, God's kingdom will come in its fullness, and all things will be renewed. ``Sacred Scripture calls this mysterious renewal, which will transform humanity and the world, `new heavens and a new earth.' It will be the definitive realization of God's plan to bring under a single head `all things in [Christ], things in heaven and things on earth' ''(1043). Not only humanity, but the entire universe as well will be perfected. In this consummation of all things, there will be no more sadness or sin, pain or sickness, death or decay. The saints will reign with Christ, glorified in body and soul, and will enjoy perfect fellowship face to face with God for eternity (1044--45). But we do not know exactly when or how this transformation will take place (1048).
The hope of God's coming kingdom should not tempt us to withdraw from earthly affairs. ``Far from diminishing our concern to develop this earth, the expectancy of a new earth should spur us on, for it is here that the body of a new human family grows, foreshadowing in some way the age which is to come.'' We must never confuse earthly progress with the increase of God's kingdom (as some forms of liberation theology, for example, have done). But ``such progress is of vital concern to the kingdom of God, insofar as it can contribute to the better ordering of human society'' (1049). Darby's notion of a Church that forms ``no part of the course of events of the earth'' is thus a spiritual fantasy.
In the meantime, Christ's presence with us through His Word, His Sacraments, and His Spirit draw us closer to the fulfillment of His promise. ``The Holy Spirit's transforming power in the liturgy hastens the coming of the kingdom and the consummation of the mystery of salvation. While we wait in hope He causes us really to anticipate the fullness of communion with the Holy Trinity'' (1107; see also 1100--1106). ``There is no surer pledge or clearer sign of this great hope in the new heavens and new earth `in which righteousness dwells,' than the Eucharist'' (1405).
This, in summary, is the faith of the Church with regard to the close of the age. Admittedly, it is a short outline compared to the endless volumes of speculation that have been published by end times enthusiasts. But that is because God has not yet clearly revealed to the Church details such as the precise nature of ``Wormwood,'' the identity of the two prophets, or the specific geographic locations, if any, of the nations Gog and Magog.Fruitless Speculations vs. Fruitful Debates
Unlike the Left Behind authors and many other fundamentalist ``prophecy scholars,'' the Catholic Magisterium does not spend much time speculating about who will be the Antichrist or whether he is now living on earth. It does not try to match up the vivid scenarios in Revelation and Daniel with the evening news and the mutually contradictory, ever-changing predictions of politicians, scientists, and economists. It does not seek to provide a definitive explanation of the millennium, or ``thousand years,'' referred to in Revelation 20.
Perhaps as events unfold, God will make known His plan to the Church more clearly, in more detail. But unless and until He does, where the Holy Spirit has left a particular matter as a mystery, the Magisterium faithfully remains silent. In the meantime, imitating the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Church keeps within herself as a treasure all that God has said and ponders it in her heart (see Luke 2:19, 51).
If the rapture promoters (and some overly imaginative Catholics as well) would imitate such wise and modest reticence, they could spare themselves considerable embarrassment. After all, the plug-the-headline-into-the-Bible-verse game has always been a losing proposition.