Apocalyptic Spirituality: Approaching the Third Millennium

By McGinn, Bernard | The Catholic World, January-February 1996 | Go to article overview

Apocalyptic Spirituality: Approaching the Third Millennium


McGinn, Bernard, The Catholic World


Not all Christians have put much faith in the attitude of living in the shadow of the Second Coming enjoined in these words. Pope Boniface VIII, beleaguered by the attacks on his papacy by the Spiritual Franciscans in the name of an imminent end of the age of the carnal church, once testily exclaimed: "Why are these fools awaiting the end of the world?" Some great thinkers, like Augustine and Thomas Aquinas, while never denying that Christ would one day return to judge heaven and earth, were strongly opposed to attempts to predict the timing of the event and suspicious of making the expectation of his return the center of Christian living.

In recent centuries, the split between apocalyptic and non-apocalyptic views of Christianity has grown greater. All we need do is look around us. The major Christian denominations often seem to have little room for the apocalyptic message of the Scriptures. Historians of Christianity and theologians attempt reinterpretations of apocalyptic hopes, but these rarely cross over into the life of their communities. When was the last time you heard a good sermon on the Second Coming? On the other hand, million of fervent Christians, those usually called Fundamentalists, still make literal apocalypticism the center of their belief. The ways in which they express this literalism and the ends to which they direct it, however, are often abhorrent to fundamental Christian values, at least as conceived of by other Christians. Apocalypticism is a sword of division.

Talk about the End is definitely on the rise. One does not have to be a prophet to predict that it is likely to continue to increase for the next four-and-a-half years, that is, until January 1, 2000, which is the date when the historically-challenged think the third millennium A.D. begins. Millennial madness already promises to be one of the media events of the next few years--it may even eclipse the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Shroud of Turin as hot-button items when reporters need something to say about religion. Still, this growing concern with the dawning new millennium may bring more than the satisfaction of idle curiosity, especially if renewed attention to the apocalyptic element in Christian belief allows us to take up once again the issue of how important waiting for the return of the Risen Lord should be for Christians.

We can give this issue a name--apocalyptic spirituality--but in order to understand what it means we have to begin by investigating the two ambiguous words that make it up. Apocalypse, a Greek word meaning "revelation, or unveiling," was originally used to describe a genre of text invented by Jews in the last centuries before Christ. These Jewish apocalypses contained a wide variety of heavenly secrets given to seers through the mediation of angels. The revelations often concerned the celestial realms and their inhabitants; indeed, some of the seers speak of ascending to heaven to receive their message. Other apocalypses involved revelations of the course of history (at times including enumerations of the ages of the world), and especially messages about approaching divine judgment on evildoers and the definitive triumph of the just in a new and final age to come. The intermingling of a vertical aspect connecting heaven and earth and a horizontal one disclosing God's control over the course of history has been characteristic of apocalypticism from its beginnings, though most modern uses of the term emphasize the horizontal, or historical, pole.

The first Jewish apocalypses, like the second part of the Book of Daniel, were written by pious Jews at a time when they were undergoing persecution for their faith. The message given is one of encouragement and consolation through conviction that God is the Lord of history and that he will soon vindicate his lordship in a final way. In some apocalyptic texts the actual date of this vindication is revealed, often in a highly symbolic way (all apocalypses feature rich symbolic language); other apocalypses oppose literal prediction, though still encouraging the believer to persevere because God will soon reveal his dominion over the powers of evil. …

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