Ivar Haugen had done all his calculations. He searched the Bible from stem to stern and figured it out. The world was ending soon, on a day in August coming up in the near future. His family, friends, neighbors and even his pastor were skeptical and argued with him about it. But his certainty was unshakeable. He felt sorry for them that they would be unprepared. But it did not deter him.
North Dakota is bone-numbing cold much of the year. But its short summer can produce some searing heat. When the day arrived, the temperature was already very warm before dawn, when Ivar Haugen climbed on the roof of his barn, suitcase packed and wearing his Sunday black wool suit, his only suit in fact. Word has spread pretty widely, so quite a few people drove by the Haugen place to check that he was actually there, sitting patiently on the barn while he awaited the moment.
The sun climbed all through the morning in the cloudless sky, the heat beating down. By afternoon, Ivar was sweating and thirsty, but dared not take even the jacket off, in case the moment arrived mid-day. All through the long afternoon, he sweltered and waited. Finally, the dusk of the prairie evening gave him some relief as the sun settled slowly to the horizon. By midnight, it was a black, moonless night. He was grateful for the cover as he climbed down from the roof, puzzled, crushed and humiliated. He never did want to talk about it afterwards. People were kind enough not to raise the memory in front of him, though they had a few good laughs among themselves as they remembered the mental picture of him in his black suit on top of the barn.
Ivar is not alone. Many is the self-designated scholar who has determined the final date, almost always within his or her own lifetime. Many others debate the details of the end and make it a defining point of their orthodoxy. In recent times, the “rapture” has become popular, the thought that the elect will be suddenly swept up and the rest left behind like the chaff. Whole theological schools peer into the future to describe how it will unfold, suddenly or over the millennium. It can even get quite silly, as when large numbers of people decided that “Y2K” was when God would act. Perhaps the numbers were getting too high for him to count, or a new millennium dealing with the likes of us would be too much. God is presumed to follow the Gregorian calendar, although perhaps Russians and other “old calendar” folks would last for two weeks longer. The poor Australians, being a day ahead, would be the first to go.
There are so many things humans come up with to distract themselves from the basics. I can tell you all the eschatology you will ever need to know in one word.
There are only meager references to afterlife in the Old Testament, and no real certainty there even is one. The Gospels, in contrast, are absolutely certain. The whole point is the saving action of Christ culminating in the Resurrection, in which we share. But Jesus is clear that we need not worry about the details of when the last days will be, nor what resurrected life will be like. Jesus tells the disciples they should live instead so that every day could serve as the last one (see Luke 12:35-46 and Matthew 24:36-25:13). Not even the angels nor he himself knows when the end will be, he tells them. He shares a few tantalizing facts about how it will happen, but not very much, and he says little about the details of heaven, only that it will be good and quite different from this life. People back then were drawn towards the future details just like today. But whenever Jesus is asked, he almost always puts the focus instead on living a life of faith and good ethics. Live every day in the same faith and the last day will be no different, nor should it be.
But humans have trouble stifling their curiosity and, like the moth to the flame, want to spin scenarios of the end times and heaven. The Book of Revelation often serves as their text. Most of that book is an account of a vision into heaven that the Apostle John had. It recounts some amazing happenings and he sees remarkable things on his virtual tour. Many are even frightened by his account.
But there are some important things to remember about the Book;
1. John’s vision happens in church on Sunday (see Rev. 1:9-11, 4::1-2). It is in the context of the Liturgy and contains quite a few liturgical texts and hymns. The lesson for us is to understand that there is only one liturgy, one continuous worship of God through all eternity. When we celebrate our Eucharist, the door to heaven opens and we are joined with that eternal liturgy before the throne, “with Angels and Archangels, and with all the company of heaven,” as the Eucharistic Preface (one of the earliest parts of the Liturgy) notes. Our present celebration merges with those “of all times and in all places,” past and future as well as contemporary. It is not limited to earth but is inclusive of heaven, of cherubim and seraphim, of all the creatures around the throne, of the great host arrayed in white, just as it includes those gathered around our specific altar in our present space.
2. Therefore, his message is for life in the present. In fact, the first thing he does is to write to each of the churches in his diocese, to counsel how they ought to live, not to predict the future. The latter is limited to his final word to each church, that they who endure the present will win the victory, as a runner wins a race (the word used is νικος ).
3. John describes cataclysmic events on earth, which must have seemed fantastical at the time but are increasingly realistic in the nuclear age. Yet heaven exists outside of time and space, so “end times” are irrelevant. In the fallen world, each of us lives in a particular time span, ending in our physical death. Within the bubble of time, we have no control over the past or the future, only the present. It is therefore in the present that we are called to faith through our baptismal waters, live as Christians, and celebrate as a Eucharistic community, until our earthy labor matures and we are born into the heavenly future, which of course will be the present when we arrive there.
4. We do not know the future. We can predict some things based on past and present patterns, and those predictions may come true, at least in part. Since the world has never ended before, we have no data base to make those predictions at all. We can only speculate, with all the shaky certainty of a casino gamble.
5. We can only know what we can fathom from the references in our experience. In describing the details of his vision, John repeatedly says something is “like” something we know about, such as writing he heard voices “like great thunder.” But what he sees and hears is beyond any earthly experience. He can only approximate by weak references. An analogy would be describing to a small infant what life as an adult will be like. The infant has no reference point to understand what it is like to be an engineer or lawyer or fullback.
6. So, back to Statement One. Our certainty is in direct ratio to our trust in God. God has not promised to reveal future details. He does promise to love us, a lot. Our only valid plan is to trust him, that he will care for us. Since we cannot imagine the details of heaven, there is no point in trying. Trust him, it will be good, because it will be the perfect love of the Father poured out on us.
7. In the meantime, follow Jesus as he points us back to today, to do our daily stewardship (Matthew 24:45-50) on the earth of which the Lord is master, while we await the Day of the Lord.
8. And continue to trust the Lord, and give him thanks.