The Catholic Thing
Flourish. Exeunt Omnes. Print E-mail
By Ralph McInerny   
Tuesday, 03 November 2009

I have had occasion to mention before my boyhood friend who, when asked what he thought of the end of the world, answered, “Which end?”

People of my vintage have been inhabiting an eschatological age since childhood. Remember the Doomsday Clock that, like all the clocks in High Noon, was ticking toward disaster, in its case nuclear disaster? There is probably more danger from nuclear weapons now than there ever was, but I haven’t heard recently about the Doomsday Clock. Perhaps because it is more difficult to blame the danger on us.

“On the Beach” was once a favorite movie of mine and I watched it again and again. It is set in Australia where the deadly clouds produced by a nuclear exchange had yet to reach. We have a cast that is under a certain death threat. What to do? The answers are several – suicide, one last fling, Fred Astaire realizes his lifelong fantasy of driving a racing car. Gregory Peck heads back to San Francisco in his nuclear submarine, just to see what happened. Are there survivors? A strange radio signal suggests there are. There aren’t.

When all hope is gone, there is simply the end. The pyrotechnics of recent end-times movies are able to create vast scenarios of destruction, cities swept away by rising oceans or their buildings going up like a firework display. Colliding planets, the solar system out of control – whence this appetite for the end of it all?

Of course there is much propaganda afoot in all this. Stop using hair spray and all will be well. Decrease your carbon footprint and we may survive. That has been the note of most gloom-and-doom scenarios, namely, that cosmic disaster will come as a result of man’s activities. Perhaps. But not if there is the suggestion that without those activities the cosmos would simply go on and on, enjoying an Aristotelian eternity.

In a few weeks we shall be hearing again the Gospel account of the end times which rounds off the liturgical year. It is a given of Christianity that this earth and these heavens are of finite duration, that some time, though we know neither the day nor the hour, they shall cease to be and with them whatever portion of the human race is then alive. Are we to blame for this?

Perhaps in a way we are. Without Original Sin, man’s deathless destiny would have been earthbound. The promise of a new heaven and a new earth, the heavenly Jerusalem, would seem tied up with God’s merciful remedy for sin: we will receive so much more than we lost. We may see here the basis for the ultimate passing away of the world as we know it.

It has been said that each death represents the end of the world for the deceased, but that does not have the dramatic impact of the whole shebang ending at once, breaking into our daily routines, the hopes of expectant mothers, writing finis to them all. But the comparison with individual deaths prior to this grand finale is useful.

For the believer, death is not the end. The prophets and the psalmist chide their addressees for failing to hold to the immortality of the soul. And there is St. Paul’s somber reminder that if Christ is not risen our faith is in vain and we are the most miserable of men. The end times are not described in pleasant terms, and we read that the time will be shortened for the sake of the elect. But the culminating event will be the arrival of Christ, come back as he went at the Ascension, and our lives will be appraised both justly and mercifully.

Universalists, as they are called, hold that in the end all men are reconciled with God and enter the New Jerusalem. One can appreciate the sentiment, but there is no Scriptural warrant for it. And we remember the harrowing view of hell granted to the seers of Fatima. I recently read Gerard Manley Hopkins sermon on hell, a sobering experience. Fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.

Meanwhile secular versions of the end of it all assail us. The vast hubris contained in the thought that it all depends on us is breathtaking. But what is more depressing is the assumption that beyond this world there is nothing.


Ralph McInerny is a writer of philosophy, fiction, and cultural criticism, who has taught at Notre Dame since 1955.

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Comments (7)Add Comment
Just Thinking
written by Willie, November 04, 2009
I never could understand Universalism. Is everyone going to be rewarded with heaven? If that is the case there is no justice. Can you imagine seeing some of history's despotic tyrants sitting next to you for eternity. Nothingness on the other hand provides no justice either. Belief in either should allow us to do anything we please. It sounds like universal freedom doesn't it? Even the freedom to kill and decide the meaning of life is now in our grasp.
The End Times
written by Joseph, November 04, 2009
It seems we can rule out another Flood, but fire and other calamities wrought by the 4 horsemen appear to be in play. According to the evening news, the signs of the Apocalypse are everywhere: swine flu, nukes/terrorists on the loose, a crumbling economy, BPAs in baby bottles, rising crime rates, widespread depravity, yada-yada. Juxtaposed are feel-good tales of Man's indomitable spirit and the quest by every generation to be better than all that went before.
Only the Father knows the hour.
Heaven and Hell
written by Joseph, November 04, 2009
Willie, I think it was Bishop Sheen who speculated that there would be people in Heaven he didn't expect to see, and people that he did expected not there. Such judgments are God's alone so I think it's presumptuous to define what "justice" is in His eyes.

This may sound trivial, but as a dog lover, I've always wondered about the fate of my best friend and beloved yellow lab Max, who almost made it to 13. If there are no dogs in heaven I'll be disappointed. Scripture is silent on the matter.
written by debby, November 04, 2009
"we will receive so much more than we lost..."
how the enemy would like to keep our heart's ears from hearing that!
every single day we must look to Christ our Hope!
is there a way you can link the the text to the sermon on hell you referred to? so often these posts leave me wanting to know more. thank you for such good things to contemplate.
on the side-i just decided to read AGAIN the Lord of the Rings as my Advent reading. so close to home, yet glimpses what will be.....
written by Raymond Barry, November 04, 2009
As part of a green campaign at work we were recently advised not to print our emails. Apparently it worked. The sea levels haven't risen in the slightest since then. As for a vision of the end times, nothing beats St John's Revelations. Once in a while I ask myself the question, "Will anything we can do matter a billion years from now?" As far as I know only Christianity answers, "Yes."
Salve for the Soul
written by Michael Hebert, November 04, 2009
I love hearing about this. The "we are dust, and to dust we shall return" talk is morbid to the uneducated ear, but to the faithful it is a kind reminder that everything depends on God, and it is hubris to think otherwise.

However, let us point out that this principle does not mean, as enemies of the faith try to argue, that we can sit back and ignore climate change, or the nuclear threat, or other threats to human life. We still have a duty to preserve our world.
appreciating lucidity
written by Denis Nolan, November 11, 2009
Dr. McInerny's clear thinking is cherished now more than ever... I pray for many years to come we have the benefit of his lucidity... For more than half a century it was left to this layman to champion the truth at Notre Dame.

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