Eschatology In The Pandemic
Hey readers, how about some good old-fashioned End Times speculation? A Catholic reader writes:
I am reading Benedict XVI’s second volume of Jesus of Nazareth during this Holy Week. This morning I read and was haunted by its second chapter which details Jesus’ eschatological discourse concerning the destruction of Jerusalem and the end of the world. I have put all the excerpts below that I think suggest the following points:
1. In my understanding, Jesus’ prophesy about the destruction of the Temple and Jerusalem have a double meaning: they first pertain to events in the immediate future and, in an analogous way, to the events of the end of the world.
2. The emptying-out of the Temple seems to me to be an eerie, distant echo to the current emptying out of the churches due to the pandemic, especially if one considers the cause of the first emptying-out is the faithlessness of Israel. Has not your point since 2001/2002 – and then more and for different reasons over the years – been the apostasy of the Catholic Church, not to mention other Christian groups? To me, that the churches are empty for hygienic reasons is neither here nor there when considering its spiritual meaning.
3. Before the destruction of Jerusalem, Josephus mentions the fleeing of Christians from the city. You made this analogy in the epilogue of The Benedict Option with the Monks of Norcia explicitly, and, in fact, the whole of the Benedict Option is laden with this theme.
Make of it what you will, but here are the [Benedict XVI] passages that stuck out to me.
In Saint Matthew’s Gospel, after the “woes” with which Jesus denounced the scribes and Pharisees-that is to say, in the context of the discourses given after his entrance into Jerusalem-there is a mysterious saying of Jesus that Luke also quotes (albeit at an earlier point, during the journey toward the Holy City): “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, killing the prophets and stoning those who are sent to you! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you would not! Behold, your house is forsaken and desolate …. ” (Mt 23:37-38; Lk 13:34-35). This passage clearly reveals Jesus’ profound love for Jerusalem and his impassioned efforts to elicit from the Holy City a positive response to the message he must proclaim, the message with which he takes his place in the long line of God’s messengers from earlier salvation history.
The misfortune to which this refusal leads is described by Jesus mysteriously yet unmistakably in a saying couched in the language of ancient prophecy. Jeremiah records the words spoken by God concerning the abuses in the Temple: “I have forsaken my house; I have abandoned my heritage” (12:7). Jesus says exactly the same thing: “Your house is forsaken” (Mt 23:38). God is withdrawing. The Temple is no longer the place where he sets down his name. It will be left empty; henceforth it is merely “your house”.
There is a remarkable parallel to this saying of Jesus in the writings of Flavius Josephus, the historian of the Jewish War. Tacitus likewise took up the same idea in his own historical writing (cf. Hist. s, 13). Flavius Josephus reports strange happenings in the final years before the outbreak of the Jewish War, all of which, in different and unsettling ways, heralded the end of the Temple. The historian tells of seven such signs altogether. Here I shall limit my comments to the one that bears a strange resemblance to the somber words of Jesus quoted above.
The event took place at Pentecost [Shavuot] in A.O. 66 “At the Feast of Pentecost, when the priests had gone into the inner court of the Temple at night to perform the usual ceremonies, they declared that they were aware, first of a violent movement and a loud crash, then of a concerted cry: ‘Let us go hence'” (The Jewish War, p. 361). Whatever exactly may have happened, one thing is clear: in the final years before the dramatic events of the year 70, the Temple was enveloped in a mysterious premonition that its end was approaching. “Your house will be deserted.” Using the first person plural that is characteristic of divine utterances in the Bible (cf. Gen 1:26, for example), God himself is announcing (“Let us go hence!”) that he is to depart from the Temple, to leave it “empty”. A historic change of incalculable significance was in the air.
After this saying about the deserted house — which prophesies, not yet directly the destruction of the Temple, but rather its inner demise, the loss of its meaning as a place of encounter between God and man — Matthew’s text continues with Jesus’ great eschatological discourse, which takes as its central themes the destruction of the Temple, the destruction of Jerusalem, the Last Judgment, and the end of the world. This discourse, found in all three Synoptic Gospels with certain variations, could perhaps be described as the most difficult text in the whole of the Gospels.
Before returning to the words of Jesus, we must cast a glance at the historical events of the year 70. The Jewish War had begun in the year 66, with the expulsion of the procurator Gessius Florus and the successful resistance to the Roman counterattack. This was not merely a war of Jews against Romans: in broader terms, it was a civil war between rival Jewish factions and their ringleaders. This was what accounted for the full horror of the fight for Jerusalem.
Eusebius of Caesarea (d. ca. 339) and — from a different perspective — Epiphanius of Salamis (d. 403) tell us that even before the beginning of the siege of Jerusalem, the Christians had fled to the city of Pella beyond the Jordan. According to Eusebius, they decided to flee after a command to do so had been communicated to “those who were worthy” by a revelation (Hist. Eccl. 111/5). Epiphanius, on the other hand, writes: “Christ had told them to abandon Jerusalem and go elsewhere, because it would be besieged” (Haer. 29, 8). In fact we find an instruction to flee in Jesus’ eschatological discourse: “But when you see the desolating sacrilege set up where it ought not to be …. then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains … ” (Mk 13: 14).
It cannot be determined which event or reality it was that the Christians identified as the sign of the “abomination that makes desolate”, precipitating their departure, but there was no shortage of possible candidates-incidents in the course of the Jewish War that could be interpreted as this sign foretold by Jesus. The expression itself is taken from the Book of Daniel (9:27, 11:31, 12:11), where it referred to the Hellenistic desecration of the Temple. This symbolic description, drawn from Israel’s history, is open to a variety of interpretations as a prophecy of things to come. So Eusebius’ text is thoroughly plausible, in the sense that certain highly regarded members of the early Christian community could have recognized in some particular event, “by a revelation”, the sign that had been foretold, and they could have interpreted it as an instruction to begin their flight.
Thus ends the reader’s letter.
This talk about the “abomination of desolation” sends me back to this October 17, 2019, essay by the prominent Catholic theologian Douglas Farrow. He published it in First Things during the controversial Amazon Synod in Rome. In it, Farrow spoke of the Synod as a “sign of the times,” and:
The real problem here is not, as some suggest, the expensive German plumbers [that is, liberal German bishops] who, after all, are doing the flushing for free. The real problem is the Great Apostasy, now several centuries in the making, which has at last produced a global union of such plumbers—a union now so powerful that it can elect popes and conduct its dirty business in the name of the Church itself.
Hmm. When I saw the Pope bless the Pachamama idol in the Vatican gardens last fall, I was suspicious. When I saw the Catholics carrying it into St. Peter’s Basilica (see above image), held high in honor, my first thought was, “Abomination of desolation.” Before all of this, some prominent conservative Catholic leaders, like the Dutch cardinal Willem Eijk, were talking about the sense they had that the world could be entering into the prophesied Last Days — in Eijk’s particular case, because of the prophesied apostasy inside the Church, that would precede the End.
And now, most of the churches in the world, Catholic and otherwise, are presumably empty because of the coronavirus. As my Catholic correspondent said, from a symbolic point of view, it doesn’t really matter why they are empty. The fact is, they are empty, and many, perhaps even most, of the world’s Christians will experience their first Easter in history without gathering together for commemoration.
If that isn’t an apocalyptic sign, what is?
One has to be very careful. We know well that there have for at least a thousand years been apocalyptic sects who believed that the world was on the verge of the Last Days. However, from a Christian point of view, one of these days, such people will be right.
The entire world is affected by this virus, or soon will be. Economies are collapsing. It is wishful thinking to believe that we will be back to normal by this autumn. The global economy might bounce back somewhat, but until there is a vaccine for this virus, we are going to be caught in the jaws of an economic cataclysm.
A professor friend at a large private university told me the other day that the administration there is terrified in thinking about all the students who will not be returning this fall, because they can’t afford it. The administration has instructed professors to plan for austerity. That conversation prompted me to think about what we face here in my small corner of the world. Louisiana State University is the state’s flagship. It is funded by a state government that faces the economic abyss. Louisiana has never been rich, but now, with the two biggest industries, tourism and oil, either dead (the former) or in deep trouble (the latter)? How can the state collect tax revenues when there is almost no commerce — and not because of economic policy, but because of nature?
A lot of students won’t return to LSU this fall, because they won’t be able to afford it. And for those who can return, what kind of school will they return to? Or maybe colleges and universities won’t be able to open this autumn, because the second wave of the virus will have hit?
Once you start pulling at those threads, a hell of a lot can unravel. It is all too easy to see how quickly this and every nation might welcome strongly authoritarian regimes just to manage social order and to keep people fed until the crisis is over, and we can start trying to rebuild out of the ruins of our economies.
One thing we will surely see in the near future: the universal monitoring of people via smartphones, chips, or other forms, as they do in China now. We are going to see this so if there is a future outbreak, the state can quickly identify who has the virus, and lock them down. I expect that the trauma from this outbreak, and the economic devastation it will have caused, will be so enormous that most people will welcome this monitoring. In China right now, the state, through advanced surveillance technology, can know when its people go to places they aren’t supposed to go — like to church. This is coming here, and most Americans will welcome it, because they will be too afraid to repeat what we are now living through, and its aftermath.
I could go on. The point I want to make is that I track what my Catholic correspondent is saying. We could be living through the birth pangs right now. I wrote The Benedict Option not for the Apocalypse, but for the current and coming time of great trial in the post-Christian world. I didn’t have front to mind an End-of-Days persecution.
As I wrote my forthcoming book, Live Not By Lies, I didn’t foresee an End-of-Days persecution either. Rather, I wrote it for a time when the grip of anti-Christian belief and prejudice slowly tightened — that is, when the world was like it is now, only moreso. Well, the pandemic apocalypse changes that. I still wouldn’t dare to say “we are in the End,” because history has made countless fools of people who claim that. But I do believe that we are entering a time that is at least analogous to the Russian Revolution, when all things were overturned, and anything could happen.
Only God knows when the End will arrive. But it doesn’t take a religious prophet to read the signs of the times around us right now, and to know that something terrible — the end of the world as we knew it — is at hand. Prepare, while there is time.