I almost always write my columns a couple of months in advance of their being printed. As I sit at my computer writing this column for the May edition of The Northern Cross, it happens to be late March, and although it is spring, it feels like we are in the depths of the cold winter, not because of the weather but because of COVID-19.
|Father Richard Kunst
Everybody is in their houses, the streets are quiet, businesses are shut down, and there is a lot of anxiety and fear in the United States and the world. I am hoping by the time you are reading this that things are much improved and that we have this virus contained, but right now, even in secular media I am hearing about stories of the end times. I have had more than a few people ask me about this subject in light of the pandemic, and how the world is reacting to it, so although by May we hope this is all contained, it seems there’s no better time to look at what the church teaches about the end of the world.
First we have to set one important thing straight when it comes to the “end times”: It is not a bad thing. In fact it is a great thing!
Right now we live in a world of pain, suffering, fear, loss, and sadness, so if we are afraid of the “end times” or what we might call the second coming of Christ, then we must like to suffer.
Every part of the Christian message is a message of hope and joy. Towards the end of the book of Revelation, we get a glimpse of just how great things will be at the end of the world as we know it: “Then I saw a new heavens and a new earth. The former heavens and the former earth had passed away …. This is God’s dwelling among men. He shall dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and he shall be their God who is always with them. He shall wipe every tear from their eyes, and there shall be no more death or mourning, crying out or pain, for the former world has passed away. The one who sat on the throne said to me, ‘See, I make all things new!’” (Rev. 21:1,3-5a). Does that sound like something we should be afraid of? No, we should greatly anticipate it!
Now to be fair, fear comes as a result of the unknown, and although Scripture gives us every reason to be filled with hope and joy, it does not give us great details about how the end will come about, and that is where fear can creep in. Another thing that might cause some to fear is what Jesus says in the 24th chapter of Matthew’s Gospel, where he warns about signs that will accompany the start of the end times, such as wars, famines, earthquakes, persecutions, and great tribulations.
Although all of those things sound very scary, they happen all the time! Turn on the evening news and you will see that all those things Jesus warns about are happening on a regular basis in various parts of the world. The point, then, is not to look for signs, but just to be prepared.
So is COVID-19 or the coronavirus one of the signs of the end? Who knows? Jesus says something rather surprising in the Gospel of Mark as to when it will happen, “As to the exact day or hour, no one knows it, neither the angels in heaven nor even the Son, but only the Father. Be constantly on the watch! Stay awake! You do not know when the appointed time will come” (Mark 13: 32-33). God the Son said in his human nature, not even he knows (he is of course omniscient in his divine nature), so why would anyone think they know or even guess that the current pandemic is a sign of the end times?
If we read the earliest writings in the New Testament, such as some of Paul’s letters, in particular First Thessalonians, we see that there was an unhealthy preoccupation on the second coming of Christ and the end of the world. The earliest Christians expected it to happen at any moment, and certainly in their lifetime. As a result, many of them stopped their livelihood and changed everything to be prepared for the end.
We might say that was a bit unbalanced and unhealthy, but we live in a world that is equally unhealthy. Before this pandemic (and even now) people live as if the second coming or the end of the world will never come. That is maybe even more problematic than thinking the end is right upon us.
The current pandemic is nothing like anyone alive has ever seen, and we hope the next one will be many centuries from now, but that does not mean it is a sign of the end of the world. Jesus gives the best advice when he said, “Be constantly on the watch.” We should always be ready to meet our maker, whether it is our own personal end or the end of the world.
And if we are always prepared, then we should greatly anticipate it, because God himself said there would be no pain or suffering in the world he makes new. So bring it on!
Father Richard Kunst is pastor of St. James and St. Elizabeth in Duluth. Reach him at [email protected]