The Bible is highly complex and includes a plurality of theologies, not all of which align. Some of these differences even reflect dramatic shifts. Many Old Testament authors assumed, for example, that there were gods other than Yahweh (Ps 82:1; 95:3). This had to be corrected (Isa 45:20–21; Jer 16:20; Ps 135:15–18). Another dramatic shift concerned the very possibility of salvation. Ancient Israel believed that everyone, good or bad, goes to Sheol after death, a sort of dark, watery place of rest (Gn 37:35; Nm 16:30). Not so, we find in late Old Testament texts that proclaim resurrection and union with God (Wis 3:1–9).
Other texts offer a variety of images that do not reject previous notions but still cannot cohere to each other. Some texts, for example, imagine a spiritualization of the whole creation (Rom 8:19–23), while others anticipate the destruction of the universe, to be replaced by another (2 Pt 10–13).
Today’s readings offer a competing vision, a decidedly apocalyptic one. Our first reading from Daniel describes tribulation, escape for the elect and resurrection from the dead. Daniel’s message is, hold on and stay faithful. We will be the victors, but it will get ugly before it gets beautiful. In Mark’s Gospel, Jesus foretells persecution, sacrilege, wars and great suffering “such as has not been from the beginning of God’s creation” (13:19). In today’s Gospel reading this same vision becomes more cosmic: “The sun will be darkened...the stars will be falling from the sky, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.” While Jesus announces that only the Father knows the time, he also assures his listeners that “this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place.”
Did these predictions come from Jesus’ own mouth, or are they a product of Mark’s church under persecution? What do we make of Jesus’ unfulfilled prediction that all these apocalyptic events would happen during his current generation? Why would Mark include this almost two generations later? And what does all this mean for us?
We might begin by recognizing that the various incompatible visions within the Bible need not be problematic. The variety of images invites us into an array of access points to the divine mystery. They can inspire different spiritualities that collectively enrich the church, and they can help us individually engage our spiritual lives most fully.
The biblical reflections on the sacredness of creation heighten my experiences of awe and wonder, and they inspire me to look for God’s presence there. When I take life too seriously, I am challenged and freed by thinking of a universe that is passing away. I think my heart is big enough to realize that I am both a resident alien in this world (1 Pt 2:11) and commissioned to “promote the welfare of the city to which I have exiled you” (Jer 29:7). In another vein, I can recognize, as Paul did, that I am nothing (2 Cor 12:11)—what freedom!—and that I am loved deeply as a child of God and heir with Christ himself (Rom 8:16–17)—what dignity!
The images help us engage the mystery but should not be identified with it. It would be a mistake to imagine apocalyptic texts as if they were newspaper headlines from the future. Instead of thinking that Jesus erred in his apocalyptic prediction, we might realize that not only Mark’s generation needed to hear it, but ours as well. An apocalyptic vision helps us recognize that God’s forces are fighting for us. It inspires us not to give up when we are overwhelmed and tempted to quit. It helps us yearn for Christ with that ancient plea, Maranatha, “Come Lord Jesus.”
As Pope John Paul II once said: “Let us pray that the heartfelt prayer of the church, ‘Come Lord Jesus,’ will become the spontaneous plea of every human heart. We can never be satisfied by the things of the world. Our hearts yearn for the promised blessings still to come.”