People are forever predicting the end of the world. In Christian circles this is generally connected with speculation around the promise Jesus made at his ascension, namely, that he would be coming back, and soon, to bring history to its culmination and establish God’s eternal kingdom. There have been speculations about the end of the world ever since.
This was rampant among the first generation of Christians. They lived inside a matrix of intense expectation, fully expecting that Jesus would return before many of them died. Indeed, in John’s Gospel, Jesus assures his followers that some of them would not taste death until they had seen the kingdom of God. Initially this was interpreted to mean that some of them would not die before Jesus returned and the world ended.
And so they lived with this expectation, believing that the world, at least as they knew it, would end before their deaths. Not surprisingly this led to all kinds of apocalyptic musings: What signs would signal the end? Would there be massive alterations in the sun and the moon? Would there be great earthquakes and wars across the world that would help precipitate the end?
Generally, though, the early Christians took Jesus’ advice and believed it was useless and counterproductive to speculate about the end of the world and about what signs would accompany the end. The lesson rather, they believed, was to live in vigilance, in high alert, ready, so that the end, whenever it would come, would not catch them asleep, unprepared, carousing, and drunk.
However, as the years moved on and Jesus did not return, their understanding began to evolve so that by the time John’s Gospel is written, probably about 70 years after Jesus’ death, they had begun to understand things differently: they now understood Jesus’ promise that some of his contemporaries would not taste death until they had seen the kingdom of God as being fulfilled in the coming of the Holy Spirit. Jesus was, in fact, already back and the world had not ended. And so they began to believe the end of the world was not necessarily imminent.
That didn’t change their emphasis on vigilance, on staying awake, and on being ready for the end. But now that invitation to stay awake and live in vigilance was related more to not knowing the hour of one’s own death. As well, more deeply, the invitation to live in vigilance began to be understood as code for God’s invitation to enter into the fullness of life right now and not be lulled asleep by the pressures of ordinary life, wherein we are consumed with eating and drinking, buying and selling, marrying and giving in marriage. All of these ordinary things, while good in themselves, can lull us to sleep by keeping us from being truly attentive and grateful within our own lives.
And that’s the challenge that comes down to us: our real worry should not be that the world might suddenly end or that we might unexpectedly die, but that we might live and then die, asleep, that is, without really loving, without properly expressing our love, and without tasting deeply the real joy of living because we are so consumed by the business and busy pressures of living that we never quite get around to fully living.
Hence being alert, awake, and vigilant in the biblical sense is not a matter of living in fear of the world ending or of our lives ending. Rather, it is a question of having love and reconciliation as our chief concerns, of thanking, appreciating, affirming, forgiving, apologizing, and being more mindful of the joys of living in human community and within the sure embrace of God.
Buddha warned against something he called, “slouching.” We slouch physically when we let our posture break down and become slothful. Any combination of tiredness, laziness, depression, anxiety, tension, over-extension, or excessive pressure can bring down our guard and make our bodies slouch. But that can also happen to us psychologically and morally. We can let a combination of busyness, pressure, anxiety, laziness, depression, tension, and weariness break down our spiritual posture so that, in biblical terms, we “fall asleep,” we cease being vigilant, we are no longer alert.
We need to be awake spiritually, not slouching. But the end of the world shouldn’t concern us, nor should we worry excessively about when we will die. What we should worry about is in what state our dying will find us. As Kathleen Dowling Singh puts in her book The Grace in Aging: “What a waste it would be to enter the time of dying with the same old petty and weary thoughts and reactions running through our mind.”
But, still, what about the question of when the world will end?
Perhaps, given the infinity of God, it will never end. Because when do infinite creativity and love reach their limit? When do they say: “Enough! That’s all! These are the limits of our creativity and love!”
Rolheiser, theologian, teacher and award-winning author, is president of the Oblate School of Theology in San Antonio, Texas.