By Fr. Joseph Francis —
At the end would there be a destruction and re-creation of new heavens and new earth or only a transformation without a prior destruction?
There are the two main views regarding the material universe as we see it today. Scientifically, the end of the planet earth is very much possible. It is vulnerable. Everyday meteorites bombard it but are fortunately burned up in the atmosphere. But there is every chance, even if remote, that one day or other we could encounter a collision with a sizeable body. We could very well imagine the consequences!
Scientists also tell us that the law of entropy is at work. The world could eventually slow down and even as our artificial satellites eventually fall down to earth on slowing down and losing altitude, the earth itself could collapse back into the burning sun. Many more cataclysms could be imagined on the basis of science. Alternatively, the human being himself could commit cosmic suicide through a nuclear holocaust. The probabilities and possibilities are many. However, many have asked: “Does the end of the earth mean the end of the material universe”? This also need not be, since the earth is but a tiny speck of dust compared to the vast universe with so many galaxies and heavy, heavenly bodies, bright stars, dark stars, novas and super-novas, black holes of matter from which no light comes out but light and matter are sucked in. So, the possible destruction of the earth would hardly affect the vast universe. It would be as much as a tiny fly were to land on my head and fly off and I would be none the wiser for it.
Has the Scripture got anything to say on this question?
There are two main texts, which seem to hold opposite views. We examine them briefly here. 1. Rm 8.19-25 speaks of the whole material universe eagerly waiting, groaning and in travail for the full liberation of the children of God. For then, it also would be TRANSFORMED. 2. II Pet 3.5-13 seems to think that the material universe would be burnt up in a UNIVERSAL CONFLAGRATION. Verse 5 seems to say that it would not be by water since God had promised in Noe’s time that he would not destroy the world by water again. Therefore the projected destruction would be by fire. After such destruction, God would fashion a new earth and new heavens (v.13).
These two texts, especially the second is replete with apocalyptic symbols. They are not to be interpreted literally. The fire of the second text could point to only purification. We could say that the world as we see with all its uncertainties and weaknesses would pass away, in the sense that those imperfections would disappear and we would have a purified and transformed earth. HOW, IS NOT REVEALED TO US.
Most of the Greek Fathers of the Church speak of the transformation of the world rather than its destruction. St. Augustine is also fond of the text Rm 8.19-25 and speaks in favour of transformation. The CCC also seems to favour this (Cf. CCC 1042-1050). We could also cite Pope Pius II in 1459 A.D condemning the opinion that the world would be naturally destroyed and ended by the heat of the sun (Cf. DS 1361). Vatican II LG 48 speaks of restoration of all things in Christ. GS 38-39 describes its expectation that in the end Jesus Christ would be handing over to the Father a completed kingdom. [A note on “Armageddon” Rev16.16: this is supposed to be the place where the kings of the earth are mustered for the great showdown, the battle on the great day of God at Meggido]
This is a theory that after Resurrection, the Just will reign with Jesus Christ for a thousand years on the transformed earth with all the pleasures and joys and only then would take place the resurrection of the Lost and the Parousia and the consequent judgment. It is based on Rev 20.1-6 “Then I saw an angel coming down from heaven, holding in his hand the key to the bottomless pit and a great chain. He seized the dragon, that ancient serpent, who is the Devil and Satan, and bound him for a thousand years, and threw him into the pit, and locked and sealed it over him, so that he would deceive the nations no more, until the thousand years were ended. After that he must be let out for a little while. Then I saw thrones, and those seated on them were given authority to judge. I also saw the souls of those who had been beheaded for their testimony to Jesus and for the word of God. They had not worshiped the beast or its image and had not received its mark on their foreheads or their hands. They came to life and reigned with Christ a thousand years. (The rest of the dead did not come to life until the thousand years were ended.) This is the first resurrection. Blessed and holy are those who share in the first resurrection. Over these the second death has no power, but they will be priests of God and of Christ, and they will reign with him a thousand years”. (O.T has a foreshadowing in Is 9.1 ff. & 11.1 ff.)
This theory was defended by St. Justin, St. Iraneus , Tertullian and Lactantius. St. Augustine, too, held it for a time then rejected it. St. Gregory Nazianzenus, St. Jerome also rejected it. Modern Protestant sects such as the Seventh Day Adventists and Jehovah Witnesses revived it. There are of course many variations. Millenarism is an appealing theory to many because it looks logical that those who suffered on this earth should also be rewarded with enjoyment on the same earth. We should not forget that Revelation 20.1-6 is part of the apocalyptic language and is not to be literally interpreted. It is a symbolic, colourful image to say that the situation of the Just who had been suffering on earth will be dramatically changed into one of happiness in, through and with Jesus Christ the Lord of Glory.
The Church’s decision
A decree of the Holy Office on 21st July 1944, officially rejected Millenarism (D. 2296 “In recent times on several occasions this Supreme Sacred Congregation of the Holy Office has been asked what must be thought of the system of mitigated Millenarianism, which teaches for example, that Christ the Lord before the final judgment, whether or not preceded by the resurrection of the many just, will come visibly to rule over this world. The answer is: The system of mitigated Millenarianism cannot be taught safely” [D.S 3839] ). We end this chapter with two quotations I Cor 16.21 “Maranatha” (This could be both Maran+atha i.e., the Lord has come or Marana+tha i.e., O Lord Come!) & Rev 22.20 “Amen, Come Lord Jesus!” We eagerly wait for the coming of the Lord and routinely our proclamation at the end of Eucharistic consecration to the invitation to declare our faith: “The mystery of faith” we mention this waiting for the coming of the Lord.