Many don’t like surprises, even good ones. But no one likes bad surprises. Many put off doctor visits, afraid of what they might find. They prefer the risk of ignorance to the possibility of receiving bad news. Watching a scary movie, we cringe and grow tense, expecting some monster or doom around every corner. This may be exciting, but it is hard to call it enjoyable. When possible, we avoid sudden surprises, especially sudden evils.
Our desire to dodge these shocks may explain the success of doomsday predictions. We saw it at the turn of the millennium. We saw it again in 2012 with the Mayan calendar. We have seen it with cult leaders. Various predictions of the end of the world can gain considerable followings. The success of these false prophecies may lie in the fact that we hate bad surprises. At the end of the world, it would be awful to be unprepared.
Jesus’ teaching on this question is clear. It is not given for us to know (Mt 24:36). He emphasizes this in our Sunday gospel (Lk 21:5-19), warning us to avoid false prophets: “See that you not be deceived, for many will come in my name, saying, ‘I am he,’ and ‘The time has come.’ Do not follow them!” None can pinpoint that day. Rather, it “will come like a thief at night” (1Thes 5:2). Yet, Jesus doesn’t leave us completely in the dark.
This Sunday we hear things will get worse before they get better. There will be wars: “Nation will rise against nation.” There will be terrible events such as “earthquakes, famines and plagues from place to place.” There will be “awesome sights and mighty signs” and plenty of persecution. None of which sounds any good. But notice that Jesus is so quiet about the time, and yet so detailed about the events. We have no clue when it will happen, but we have a thorough description of what will happen.
To endure what Jesus describes requires a lot of spiritual preparation. Perhaps if he told us the time, we would delay our preparation. Instead, we know we have to be ready, we just don’t know when. In other words, we must always be ready.
We do have one other certainty about the end of the world. It is closer today than it was yesterday. The same is true about the end of our life. We don’t know the day of our death, but we can be sure it is closer today than it was yesterday. Therefore, instead of asking if the end will come tomorrow, we should focus on this question: am I more prepared to meet God today than I was yesterday?
Father George K. Nixon serves as assistant pastor at St. Philip Parish, Greenville. Ordained in 2011, he holds a licentiate in sacred theology from the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome. “Verbum Domini” is a series of Father Nixon’s reflections on the Scriptures.