There is an inherent tension in Christianity between the indicative and the imperative, what we are and what we are intended to be, between the present and the future, the life we are now living and the world to come. If we focus only on this world or only on the world to come, the Christian life is out of balance. For most of us, our attention is on the life we live now, but the eschaton, the end, the apocalypse is a part of the Christian hope and essential to keep in proper perspective and not ignore.
It can be easy to ignore out of lack of interest, lack of belief, weariness or embarrassment. Some easily reject the mythic language of apocalyptic imagery. For others, the simple contrast between the righteous and the unrighteous, the one receiving an eternal reward, the other a fiery punishment, does not express their complex experience of life. And others have long tired of the cartoon representations of Christian apocalyptic thought found in popular American culture, in which pundits, politicians and preachers vie with each other as to who can best interpret the last tornado, political change or gun tragedy as the sign of the coming end.
But, to put it frankly, you cannot walk away from the end, however difficult it may be to translate it into a coherent vision of life in the 21st century. Why? Jesus will not let you. Jesus speaks of the end in all three of the Synoptic Gospels and in much less detail in the Gospel of John, describing the apocalypse in language that is both chilling and confusing.
In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus says, “When you hear of wars and insurrections, do not be terrified; for these things must take place first, but the end will not follow immediately.” Then he said to them, “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and plagues; and there will be dreadful portents and great signs from heaven.” Events of this kind have been seen throughout history, though, and we are not to spend our time calculating the time of the end and interpreting portents.
The best balance is to concentrate on the reality that we will all face our end, whether the world ends in our lifetime or not, and to keep in mind that how we live in this life matters. No injustice, no cup of cold water given to one in need, is hidden from God who will bring all things to completion.
Malachi 3:17 uses straightforward language that sets apart the eschaton from every other day. There the voice of God speaks of “the day when I act.” When we imagine the apocalyptic end apart from images of mythological forces of chaos and order, we must see the eschaton as the time when God will act decisively to bring about the perfect justice for which we all yearn.
In the midst of more revelations of alleged abuse of children in my archdiocese by people who have been my ministers and with whom I have worked, the crushing weight of sin seems to render perfect justice an illusion. The pain and loss of children who have been abused cries out to God to be vindicated. These allegations will find their way through court systems and tribunals, and human justice will be rendered, imperfectly and partially. But what will bind the brokenness, what will heal the wounds, what will render them whole?
Malachi directs us to this wholeness, saying, “The day is coming, burning like an oven, when all the arrogant and all evildoers will be stubble,” but promising that “for you who revere my name the sun of righteousness shall rise, with healing in its wings.”
Jesus promises that neither persecution nor betrayal by family or friends can turn one from God’s righteousness; and this is true, too, for those who have been betrayed by ministers of the church. It is not vengeance that leads me to ache for “the day” when God acts, it is the desire to see justice rendered perfectly and to see those who have been disbelieved, dishonored and dismissed rise with healing.
When will this be? The balanced answer is that the end begins now and we respond by living justly and righteously, knowing that the end could arrive at any time.