When Jesus outlines the apocalyptic scenario found in the Gospel of Mark, he warns “but about that day or hour, no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” Patristic discussion of this verse focused on what this admission indicated about Jesus’ divinity and the relationship between Jesus’ divine and human knowledge, but in context the intent of this saying points to the need for vigilance and perseverance regarding the coming end, since no one knows when it will occur.
But Jesus also tells us in Mark that “this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place.” The sense of imminence here is profound, though later Christians would argue whether Jesus meant the generation of his disciples or the generation of all human beings, while others discussed whether “all these things” referred to Jesus’ death and resurrection, the destruction of Jerusalem or “the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory,” which is the clearest meaning.
The themes of imminent preparation for the end, the eschaton, and the fact that no one knows when the end will occur, therefore, have been joined in Christianity from the earliest days, maintaining a tension between what has been accomplished (realized eschatology) and what is still to come (future eschatology).
Whether we understand, or believe we understand, much about the last things—not only when these things will occur but what sort of process we go through in death; what the interim period between our death and the resurrection is like, the process of purgatory; what the heavenly life is like, whether it takes place on a renewed earth or in a heavenly, otherworldly domain—these mysteries will in many ways remain mysteries on this side of death and appear to us as vague and incomplete.
We have the assurances of revelation, however, that there is a world to come and that it may come in fullness at any time. Daniel, in the most explicit verses of the Old Testament, tells us that there will be a general resurrection at the end of time and that the dead will rise, “some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt.” In a compact passage we are told of the reality of what is still to come.
In an odd way, though, the dramatic and mythic apocalyptic scenarios of the coming end can be distractions from the realities to which they point: death, judgment, heaven and hell—the four last things. How? Calculating the end times and whether the apocalypse will play out now or then, in this way or that, can draw us away from preparation for our own end.
For death is coming for each of us, whether we will confront it in our own personal eschaton or in the cosmic apocalyptic drama as described in the Gospel of Mark. Even if “the end” does not occur in our lifetime, and even if another group of end-time prophets falsely calculate Jesus’ return and offer precise dates, which do not come to pass, we will still come to our end. How are we preparing for it?
For this is not just a future reality. This is our life to live now and then. It is incumbent upon us to live for God, to begin the process of righteous living now that will be brought to perfection then, at the time of the end. Our time is short, even from the perspective of human history, but especially in the scope of eternity, and it can end at any time.
But as Jesus tells us, the time of the end is the coming of the Son of Man, the time of the fullness of revelation—the time, that is, when God makes all things new. And though it is true that apocalyptic scenarios speak of persecution and torment, this is not the final story, though modern apocalyptic movies, books and video games give an inordinate and theologically unsound emphasis to darkness and desperation. Death can create fear for us, as do judgment and hell, but we were created for one last thing, heaven, to be like and to be with God. Jesus encourages us to prepare now, for this is the time to get ready for whatever happens and whenever it takes place.