The Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet of God, and the dead in Christ will rise again. (1 Thes 4:16)
We’ve all heard the common wisdom about the second coming of Christ: Early Christians expected the imminent triumphant return of Jesus, who would conquer the forces of evil once and for all, setting all things right. But as time passed, Christians were gradually weaned away from such straightforward eschatological expectations. Even Jesus Himself, according to some Gospel accounts, seemed to be constrained by inherent limitations of His human nature and did not have specific knowledge about future times and events.
Nevertheless, there have been surges of orthodox and unorthodox visionaries throughout history, predicting over and over again the imminence of a Second Coming. This phenomenon seems to have accelerated in recent decades. We hear that there will be a worldwide and inescapable illumination of consciences (the “Warning”), signs in the sky, fire from heaven, three days of impenetrable darkness, etc. — events for which we should prepare ourselves by prayer and penance. Irish visionary Joe Coleman recently even put his credibility on the line, predicting that on May 11, 2010, at 2 p.m. local time, crosses and new moons will appear in the sky, along with other signs that will offer confirmation of the messages he has received.
Of course, sin abounds as never before, and the possibility of worldwide destruction is no longer highly speculative. One thinks of the cartoon published in the New Yorker during intense moments of the Cold War: Two bearded and robed persons are carrying “The end is near!” signs, with one of them commenting, “Have you noticed, they’re not laughing at us any more?”
But really — a sudden apocalyptic ending? After such a relatively short period of Homo sapiens on earth? In the aftermath of the Big Bang 13.5 billion years ago, there are more than 200 billion stars just in our galaxy, and more that 100 billion galaxies. Are we to imagine that the denizens of planet Earth, who constitute an almost infinitesimal “blip” in the evolution of the universe, will reach their destined fulfillment in something like a cosmic finger snap? Might not God, who is not known for small-minded accomplishments, have some unimaginably grand intentions for the expansion of the people of God? St. Thomas Aquinas, speaking about the number of angels, estimated that the angels must be almost infinite in number, since they don’t belong to a single species. The patristic tradition suggests that God may plan to fill up the places left vacant by the fallen angels with humans. If so, will God stop with a mere 50 or 100 billion human souls?
When Jesus gave His apostles the mandate to preach to “all nations,” was this merely an inspirational but practically unrealizable goal? Might Jesus have meant the mandate literally? Did He really intend for countries like China, North Korea, and many nations in the Middle East — where even the slightest remnants of the Gospel are forcibly prevented from appearing — to be inundated with the Gospel message before the “end times”?
In case there is no human-generated “doomsday” event, or nature-generated cosmic cataclysm, at least 100 million generations of the human species should follow our own. In other words, we may be at the very beginning of evolutionary development, analogous to the earliest stage of fetal development of human existence (one thinks of the theories of Jesuit paleontologist and mystic Rev. Pierre Teilhard de Chardin).
It’s true that, from a psychological standpoint, the belief in an imminent Second Coming “at any time, soon” may be conducive to Christian preparedness and the prevention of backsliding. But can we say that the contrasting belief — that we have billions of years to go, and that the coming of the Kingdom depends in part on us — is less spiritually rich? Let’s hope not, since that perspective may also have the advantage of being true.