Books about the end of the world are big business
After reading all that was said in John Zmirak’s essay, I think there’s a point he failed to mention: the idea of "The End" is big business. Not just in the apocalyptic video games about alien invasions or movies about zombies bringing about the destruction of all life on earth; no, this is the big business found in the evangelical publishing communities. Yes, the author briefly mentions this idea, but I'd like to expand upon it. Books about "The End" are huge sellers to people who desperately want to see the end of the world brought about by the Lord. You have the Left Behind series by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins and the Millennium series by Paul Meier. Heck, even what some might call atheist and agnostic writers have “end of the world” kind of novels. “The End” sells even to people whom you wouldn’t expect to have a view of “The End,” and even as such you see these kinds of books in science fiction such as Eon by Greg Bear or the almost-end-of-the-universe Night’s Dawn trilogy by Peter Hamilton.
Back “The End” fiction of a religious sort, though. These kinds of ‘fiction’ books are not what you typically see in Catholic bookstores (at least, not the ones I visit in and around where I live). But walk into a Baptist bookstore and you’ll find these books populating almost as much as the books about Amish. In fact, I would have to say that Christian apocalyptic literature is growing exponentially. As someone who worked in the bookstore business for fifteen years, when the Left Behind series first came out, you’d mostly found them in Christian bookstores. Soon, by the third book, the sales were so high that secular bookstore chains like Barnes and Noble and Books-A-Million had stacks upon stacks of these books, waiting for people to get their hot little hands on them. Yes, people seem to want “The End,” and so people will read fiction book after fiction book that talks about how the human race will be destroyed by God or some sort of intergalactic force (aliens, cosmic catastrophes, et cetera).
I think that we, as Christians, find that the worst thing that can happen when we read so many books about “The End” is that we fail to look at how God centers us in the here and now. How many times have we spent so much money on these books and failed to put that same amount of money into supporting works for the homeless, the abused, and the lost? Now is the time in which we are saved through Christ; now is the time that we must act and witness to the world that God wants us here and now to not only have a relationship with him through Christ, but also have a relationship with the world by expressing Jesus Christ to the world. Perhaps atheists have a point when they say that we are so focused upon what we believe happens after death, that we fail to look at the present.
Now mind you, not all Christians subscribe to the eschatology of Left Behind. I myself, as well as every Catholic I know, believe what is called amillennialism. This belief holds that the prophecies found in the Gospels and in the Book of Revelation don’t point to a specific “end time” event or series of events. Instead, there is the belief that these prophecies paint a picture of how the history of man and man’s world will continue from the first Advent of Christ Jesus to his second Advent. When we see demonic attacks upon the Christian believers as found in Revelation, we recognize that this is about all the attacks of a hostile world upon God’s Church and God’s Truth. Thus, Revelation is about the history of God’s Church across time and space. There isn’t the idea that there will be the seven years of tribulation and then a millennial kingdom (such ideas were especially and profusely proposed by John Nelson Darby all the way through the evangelical communities).
That is why you won’t find many Catholics worrying about whether 666 is found in our 401K or Social Security number. That is why you won’t find Catholics huddled inside the houses thinking that President Obama or the Trilateral Commission is going to bring about the rise of the Antichrist. We recognize that these are figurative languages and figurative people and organizations that will sometimes arise and sometimes appear ready to attack the Christian truth, but as human history through the lens of Revelation shows, God is the ultimate victor. And if we know the ending, why worry about the details? I’m certainly not, nor do I know any priest or layman worrying about whether or not I will find the numbers 666 in my tax return! And yet, people do fear because they not only take Revelation wrongly as a literal enactment of the end of days, but they also fail to realize the work that needs to be done in the here and now. (Something akin to “failing to see the forest for the trees,” you might say.)
Thus, the reason for which you are not likely to find these books in Catholic bookstores is that we simply do not feel that the LeftBehind series fully respects the theological and historical truths believed by most Christians and taught by the Church, from her inception to the present day. Also, at least as many of the priests and the faithful that I know of from my parish (as well others in the area) recognize that while there will come a time when Christ will return to the world to bring about the culmination of human history, our duty is to focus on caring for the poor who are in our community and abroad; helping the hopeless who think abortion is the best way because Planned Parenthood says abortion is always the best way; and teaching those who do not know the truth of Christ to learn it – and in so doing, to set others free.
Ergo, in our case as Catholic Christians (at least as far as I and those I know as friends are concerned), there’s far too much work to be done. When we study our Scriptures, it can’t be the prophetic Scriptures and the Prophetic Scriptures alone; rather, we must read and learn from the entire Bible. While some might force their ideas of prophecy onto Scripture, we must take into account that Scripture is meant to be read carefully. Of course, there are points in Scripture that I firmly believe are literal and true: the virgin birth, the miraculous life, the crucifixion, and the resurrection of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. As far as such events as Creation occur, we see truth in that God created the cosmos and humanity, but not in a literal “seven days” of creation simply because these chapters of Genesis are written in mytho-poetic language in order to teach us particular truths by way of figurative language. Still, the point is that the whole Bible cannot be seen as literal truths, but as a series of genres.
And indeed, prophecy is a genre – one of many genres that can be found throughout the entire Bible that God has given us. I’ve seen way too many times how problematic things can get if we treat Revelation – “The End” – as a compilation of literal truths. For instance, I once read that the flying scorpions were really helicopters with stinger missiles – a stretching of the genre of Revelation via the view of literal truths to the extreme, if ever there was one. Thus, the ideas of “The End” are far more complicated than your sixteen part LeftBehind series. I am not saying we shouldn’t read these books; after all, many of them have points for us to ponder in terms of having faith in a hostile world. And this world around us is indeed hostile toward Christians, whether it be the verbal aggression of atheists like Sam Harris or the violent persecution of preachers in the Middle East, all because they dared to speak the Name of Jesus. But when we read, we must realize we are to read with a careful consideration of all vantage points.
My point is – after muddling through all these thoughts of mine after reading the essay about eschatology and the sacred cows we create when considering eschatology – that while we are free to read apocalyptic literature, we must always have in mind the simple truth: there will be an end to the world as we know it, but only God knows how and when this will happen. The problem occurs when we think that God wants us to huddle in the dark, afraid of 666 and the Antichrist knocking at our doors. As Christ and his Church points out, we do not know the time nor the day that God will return, bringing the full revelation of himself back into human history. We do not need to worry about 666 and the Antichrist, because God has already won. And, as far as apocalyptic literature is concerned, keep in mind that it is just fiction, after all, with ideas that are meant to challenge us, but not to make us afraid. We still must live in the here and now and be mindful of the future while adamantly doing our part in the present to bring Christ to the world around us – a world that hungers for God’s eternal truth for all humanity.