VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- To judge by bumper stickers, best-selling books and magazine covers, interest in humanity's "last days" has surged in recent times, especially since the Sept. 11 attacks of 2001.
So when Pope John Paul II spoke in early September about the biblical vision of
the end of the world, ears pricked up in the Vatican's audience hall.
But to the growing number of sign-hunting, rapture-ready Christians, the pope's
words probably lacked the thunder and the thrill that has marked recent popularizations
of the apocalypse.
The pope's take on the end times was straight out of the Second Vatican Council.
Reflecting on the prophet Isaiah's vision of the last days, when "all nations
will stream toward the mountain of the Lord," he said it evoked trust in
God's ultimate design.
The end of time will bring the "miracle all humanity has always been waiting
for," the moment when the curtain will finally fall on conflict and hatred,
he said. This expectation is healthy and allows people to lift their gaze beyond
their daily routine, he said.
But it doesn't mean giving up on this world. In fact, he said, it calls on
Christians to work harder for justice and peace in this life.
Not surprisingly, the pope's talk to some 6,000 people did not even register
on the main Web sites tracking "end-time activity" -- the signs across
the globe that, in the eyes of apocalypse enthusiasts, are evidence that the
final days are very near indeed.
In June, Time magazine published a cover story on the phenomenon, citing its
own poll that showed more than one-third of Americans were paying more attention
to how the news might relate to the end of the world. It said 59 percent believed
the apocalyptic events in the Book of Revelation will come true, and that almost
one-fourth thought the Bible predicted the Sept. 11 attacks.
One of this summer's fastest-selling books has been "Left Behind: A Novel
of the Earth's Last Days." It's the 10th in a series of "End Times"
books that have collectively sold more than 32 million copies.
Such popularizations start with the Bible, but owe much to the creativity of
a 19th-century Anglican preacher, the Rev. John Nelson Darby. He elaborated
the apocalypse playbook to include the "Rapture" or instant resurrection
into heaven of true Christians, a seven-year "Tribulation" on earth
survived by a small remnant of humanity, and a final battle between Christ and
Although this complicated scenario has roots in an early letter of St. Paul
and other biblical passages, Catholic theologians don't think much of it. In
fact, some see it as harmful.
"I wouldn't give much credence to this kind of talk, and I find it evasive.
There's a passivity here -- it lets us off the moral hook," said Jesuit
Father Gerald O'Collins, a theologian at Rome's Gregorian University.
Father O'Collins suggested that instead of tracking supposed portents of the
apocalypse, people should look at any number of real problems in the world --
for example, environmental damage -- and actually do something about it.
He said that's the basic Catholic approach: People should have an "active
hope" about the coming end times, a hope that "gives us not less responsibility
but more responsibility" for life in this world.
Father O'Collins said the line from St. Paul that gave rise to the "rapture"
notion has been plucked out of context and exaggerated. St. Paul wrote that
the Christians living at the end of the world would rise with the Christian
dead to "meet the Lord in the air."
But it's wrong to read into this some kind of exclusive right to early salvation
by a Christian elite, Father O'Collins said. St. Paul's other letters spoke
of all creation "groaning" for salvation, he said.
Dominican Father Georges Cottier, the pope's in-house theologian, said most
Catholic thinkers have wisely avoided trying to pin down the time of the end
of the world. Personally, he said, he thinks it doesn't make much sense to talk
about Christ's second coming as long as his command to preach the Gospel to
all nations remains unfulfilled.
"This time of mission is very important. When you think of the great areas
of Asia that have not been evangelized, one can easily imagine that the end
of the world will not happen tomorrow," he said.
The "Catechism of the Catholic Church" tries to offer some perspective
on the end of time, based in part on interpretation of Scripture. The catechism
says the church believes that Christ's death and resurrection marked the entry
of humanity into "the final age of the world," and that the world's
renewal is already under way.
But Christ's second coming and final victory over evil will not be accomplished
before the church undergoes a last phase of persecution and the world experiences
widespread "pseudo-religious deception," it says.
Therefore, the present age is seen as a time of "waiting and watching,"
but it is also a time for acting -- for doing good works and accepting God's
The catechism offers no timeline for the last days, mindful of Christ's own
words in the Gospel of St. Matthew. When asked by his Apostles when the end
would come, he said, "Of that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels
of heaven nor the Son, but the Father alone."
Copyright (c) 2007 Catholic News Service/U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops