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.