The End of the World
I remember with some embarrassment how in the 1970s (and what about the 1970s is not embarrassing?), I was quite swept up, along with my fellow evangelicals, with an almost obsessive interest in the end times. We, of course, believed we were living in the end times. I suppose, to some degree, every Christian who has ever lived has had reason to believe that, or at least reason to hope the Christ will come soon. But we also believed in “The Rapture,” the idea that just before Christ returned, all the Christians would suddenly go “poof” and get a quick ticket out of here in order to avoid the coming persecution. Then the Anti-Christ, “the Beast”, would rule the world for awhile, and then, finally, Christ would come. The timing of the Rapture and duration of the Rule of the Anti-Christ and sequence of events before the Second Coming and the Final Judgment differed, depending on whether you were a pre-Millennialist, a mid-Tribber, a post-Tribber, and so on, based on how you interpreted the Bible and strung together the writings of Daniel of Babylon, Paul of Tarsus, and John of Patmos.
Rapture-theology inspired the phenomenally successful “Left Behind” book series — demonstrating that the Tribulation of future Christians can be a pretty profitable venture for at least a few present Christians.
There is no “Rapture” in Catholic theology, but Evangelicals and Catholics have generally shared the belief that there will be an anti-Christ rising to power in the end times. However, Catholics never really seemed to get as worked up about it. In fact, I noticed that I completely lost interest in it after my conversion. A few years ago I read Michael O’Brien’s Father Elijah, but it did not particularly capture my imagination. During Lent, however, I read another novel about the end times, and I thought it was excellent, not only well-crafted, but a profound and truly prophetic book.
The author’s vision of the future does not seem far-fetched: rapid transit, rapid communication, and densely populated cities bathed in artificial light. A particularly health conscious populace abhors discomfort. Suffering is solved quickly by official euthanasia. A godless humanism has rejected traditional religion and morality. A highly socialized system moves quickly to a one-world government. The new leader comes from an obscure background, but suddenly captures the world’s stage though no one seems to know anything about him. He is praised with an emotional wave as a universal peacemaker and hailed as the Savior of the world.
And yet with all the tolerance and understanding and peace and euphoria, there is still an excuse to openly persecute and even kill Catholics and do everything possible to destroy the Catholic Church. Though the new Humanitarians regret the recourse to violence, they are nonetheless thankful for the results.
G.K. Chesterton says, “Once abolish the god, and the government becomes the god.” We see this idea acted out in this apocalyptic novel. The Humanistic idea that man alone is sufficient breeds the idea that man is to worshipped and will allow no other deity to be worshipped. The world may reject Christ, may reject his Vicar on earth, the Pope, but, as Chesterton says, “sooner or later it will try to supply the need of something like a Papacy; even if it tries to do it on its own account. That will be indeed an ironical situation. The modern world will have set up a new Anti-Pope, even if, as in Monsignor Benson’s romance, the Anti-Pope has rather the character of an Antichrist.”
Who’s Monsignor Benson?
Robert Hugh Benson, the author of the book to which I’ve been referring, and to which also Chesterton refers. It’s called The Lord of the World, and it was written in 1907.
Robert Hugh Benson was the son of the Archbishop of Canterbury. He converted to Catholicism in 1903, was ordained a Catholic priest, wrote 15 novels, and died in 1914 at the young age of 43.
Whether or not Monsignor Benson’s picture of our future is accurate, the fact is his picture of our present is chillingly accurate.
The author apologizes for the sensational nature of the book, but he says he chose it as the best means by which to make his point: a picture of what the world would look like as “the necessary culmination of unimpeded subjectivity.” In other words, relativism. But the term was not even yet known when Monsignor Benson wrote his book.
He certainly illustrates the words of the prophet Jeremiah who predicts the false comfort offered by those who say, “Peace, peace,” when there is no peace. (Jer. 6:14) The Bible quite clearly promises that a time of testing will come. In The Lord of the World, the author says that only the humble and the pure will stand the test for long. Sobering words, indeed.
It is interesting that even in secular film and literature, most visions of the future are dark. We generally see a world that has blown itself to bits, where civilization stands in ruins, and even the survivors are mere shells of human beings.
The Lord of the World, however dark, is actually a novel of great hope. It is well worth reading, and I give nothing away even if I tell you how the story ends, because every Catholic should already know the ending. There is a final stand-off between the Pope and the Anti-Pope, between Christ and the anti-Christ. The dramatic ending is nothing less than the end of the world.
The quote referred to of Chesterton’s is in his book The Thing, which you can find in our Store here.