Well, yes and no ... and still we wait in joyful hope.
Four hurricanes formed in the Atlantic within the space of a few weeks, bringing unprecedented winds and flooding. Wildfires burned huge swathes across Oregon and California. Mudslides buried over 1,000 people on Africa’s west coast. Two massive earthquakes in Mexico killed hundreds. All preceded by an eclipse of the sun across the entire continental United States. Such things bring to the minds of some people the words of Jesus recorded in Luke 21:25-27:
There will be signs in the sun, moon and stars. On the earth, nations will be in anguish and perplexity at the roaring and tossing of the sea. People will faint from terror, apprehensive of what is coming on the world, for the heavenly bodies will be shaken. At that time they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory. When these things begin to take place, stand up and lift up your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.
In Matthew 24:3-31, Jesus gives an even more extended version, mentioning also wars and rumors of wars, nation fighting against nation, famines, earthquakes, and the persecution of Christians as signs of the end.
People see this, and read this, and ask: Is the end of the world near? Do these events mean that we are in the end times?
Well, yes and no.
First, let’s explain the negative, or why these recent catastrophes shouldn’t cause us to fear or panic that we’ll soon be doing a live performance of the Book of Revelation. We notice these events happening in a short succession and we think they must portend the final cataclysm, because “surely this has never happened anywhere before!” But we must keep in mind that, connected as we may be in our technologically advanced age, there’s an awful lot that doesn’t penetrate our iPhone-induced fog.
We naturally pay more attention to that which is in physical proximity to us, so when an eclipse is visible in the U.S., we sit up and take notice. Yet a total eclipse takes place over some part of the globe every two or three years.
We take note of hurricanes that hit the Gulf coast, yet every year monsoons in Southeast Asia cause equal or greater destruction.
In short: we might think it’s worse here now than ever, but that’s only because we weren’t looking elsewhere with as much interest.
At any given point in human history, terrible things are happening. The inhabitants of Europe during the outbreaks of plague in the Late Middle Ages and throughout the Age of Enlightenment surely thought the world was coming to an end. The 20th century was the bloodiest ever in Europe. And we all went through this exercise just a dozen years ago after the horrific loss of life in the Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami of 2004. We might look at the threat of war with North Korea today as a sign, but nearly 50 years of Cold War hostilities were far more menacing—and certainly people falling under the soldiers of Napoleon or Genghis Khan had similar feelings.
We would be hard pressed to point to our own era and say, “This is the worst!”
But notice that Jesus says in Matthew 24:8, “All this is only the beginning of the birthpangs”—that is, when these things occur, the end is only just starting. And in a real sense, the “end times,” the last age, was begun when Jesus died and rose and ascended into heaven. At the end of time God’s plan for creation will be consummated, but that consummation has already started. This is what Jesus means when he preaches that the Kingdom of God is at hand. (Matthew 3:2)
Note, too, that he says in verse 36, “But of that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father alone.” That is, even though Jesus gives hints of signs, we are not meant to attempt to calculate an exact date and time at which to expect Jesus’ return. Jesus tells us what instead our attitude should be toward the end: not a calculating control so that we know just how much time we have to get our act together before the Second Coming, but a watchfulness, a constant state of readiness for Him. Jesus reiterates this in several parables about the doorkeeper (Luke 12:35-36), the thief in the night (Matthew 24:42-44), the servant in charge of the household (Luke 12:41-46), the ten maidens at the wedding feast (Matthew 25:1-3), and the parable of the talents (Luke 19:11-27).
This diligence should not leave us panicked or paranoid, but rather it should make us eager in anticipation of receiving Jesus. We don’t have to wait until the Son of Man comes with His angels in glory to receive Jesus; we can do so any time we go to Mass, any time we open our hearts to the grace of God always offered to us. As St. Paul says, “Now is the acceptable time, now is the day of salvation!” (2 Corinthians 6:2)