Painted by Ludwig Ferdinand Schnorr von Carolsfeld, circa 1831
The previous century saw the most monumental changes in human history. These changes were primarily in technology, education and quality of life. Overall, living conditions have vastly improved for people living all over the industrialised world. Simultaneously, it was also the bloodiest century in human history. It has been said that more people have died as the result of 20th century wars, and their aftermath, than in all the previous wars in human history combined. I don't know if that's true, but even if it's only half-true, it's still remarkable. In the 20th century, we also saw the greatest threats to Christianity take shape, outside of the traditional Islamic threat, which has always been with us for over a thousand years. I'm speaking of the great communist threat, and its two offspring ideologies, fascism and militant secularism. All of this has caused honest and sincere Christians (Catholic and Protestant alike) to raise a perfectly understandable question. Are we living in the last days?
Just to clarify terms, I should probably explain what the 'last days' really are from a Christian perspective. First of all, the term is different from the 'latter days' or 'end times.' These two terms could simply apply to the last two-thousand years of history, from the time of Christ until now. Typically, the phrase 'last days' is understood as a specific time period immediately preceding the Parousia, which is an ancient Greek word meaning 'arrival' or 'presence' or 'official visitation'. According to Christian eschatology, (derived from another Greek word meaning 'study of last things'), the end of our human experience on planet earth will be marked by an official visitation from the risen Lord Jesus Christ, a 'Second Coming' if you will, in which Jesus Christ will return to earth a second time, with all the power and glory of God Almighty, to bring about the consummation of human history. All wars, struggles and conflicts will be brought to an end. The dead will be raised and given new incorruptible bodies. Those who are alive and remain will be transformed instantly, given the same incorruptible bodies, not made with material from this universe. So all humanity, living and dead, will be raised and given new bodies that cannot die. At that time, everyone will be judged according to their deeds and their trust in God in this present life. The good will spend eternity with God in paradise. The wicked and selfish, who hate God, will spend eternity dealing with the consequences of their own evil. This is what is called 'hell'. What happens to the world and this universe is unknown, only that as far as humanity will be concerned, the old world will fade away, and the new world will begin. Humanity will no longer be what it is today, and everything we know today will be no more. All humanity will participate in this new world without end, in one way or another, either in paradise or perdition. The 'last days' are commonly understood as that final epic of world history that leads up to this Parousia (Second Coming of Christ). It is seen as a turbulent period of world history, in which humanity struggles against itself, goaded by the devil into self-destruction. During this time, Christians will suffer martyrdom for their faith in greater numbers than in all of history. The Christian faith will be nearly lost in this world, and a strong delusion in the form of a false messianic promise, based on human achievement and pride, led by a false messiah (or 'Antichrist') will take over the entire planet. Only after this Antichrist has been defeated, and exposed for the impostor that he and his religion are, will the Parousia of Jesus Christ occur.
So are we living in the last days?
In this multi-part series of essays, I'll explore some reasons why I don't think we're there yet. We may be close, but as of this date in history (2015), I don't think we are nearly as close as some people think we are. We may be living in a time of a full-dress rehearsal for that era, but I don't think these are the times, and I don't think the Parousia of Jesus Christ is immediately at hand. I admit that I could be wrong about this. Because as Jesus Christ himself said: 'no man knows the day nor the hour' of his Parousia (Matthew 24:36). In all honestly, I must acknowledge that Jesus Christ could arrive tonight, because as a Catholic Christian, I must accept the possibility that he could return at any time, without notice. Also as a Catholic Christian, I must acknowledge the real possibility that I could personally go to meet him at any time -- through my own death -- which really would be the 'end of the world', for me anyway. That being said however, these essays will be about the SIGNS OF THE TIMES, and whether or not they really point to the immediate return of Jesus Christ and if we are currently living in the prophesied 'last days' as many Christians (particularly those in the United States) believe. At this time, I have no idea how many parts there will be in this series, as I'm just writing off the cuff. All I know is it's going to take more than a single essay.
THE GREAT APOSTASY
In this first part, I'll explore one of the greatest signs that Christian eschatology tells us will precede the Parousia, and that is an event known as the 'great apostasy'. The Sacred Scriptures tell us...
As to the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our being gathered together to him, we beg you, brothers and sisters, not to be quickly shaken in mind or alarmed, either by spirit or by word or by letter, as though from us, to the effect that the day of the Lord is already here. Let no one deceive you in any way; for that day will not come unless the rebellion comes first and the lawless one is revealed, the one destined for destruction. He opposes and exalts himself above every so-called god or object of worship, so that he takes his seat in the temple of God, declaring himself to be God. Do you not remember that I told you these things when I was still with you? And you know what is now restraining him, so that he may be revealed when his time comes. For the mystery of lawlessness is already at work, but only until the one who now restrains it is removed. And then the lawless one will be revealed, whom the Lord Jesus will destroy with the breath of his mouth, annihilating him by the manifestation of his coming. The coming of the lawless one is apparent in the working of Satan, who uses all power, signs, lying wonders, and every kind of wicked deception for those who are perishing, because they refused to love the truth and so be saved. For this reason God sends them a powerful delusion, leading them to believe what is false, so that all who have not believed the truth but took pleasure in unrighteousness will be condemned.While the Catholic Church teaches us...
-- 2nd Thessalonians 2:1-12
675 Before Christ's second coming the Church must pass through a final trial that will shake the faith of many believers. The persecution that accompanies her pilgrimage on earth will unveil the "mystery of iniquity" in the form of a religious deception offering men an apparent solution to their problems at the price of apostasy from the truth. The supreme religious deception is that of the Antichrist, a pseudo-messianism by which man glorifies himself in place of God and of his Messiah come in the flesh.
676 The Antichrist's deception already begins to take shape in the world every time the claim is made to realize within history that messianic hope which can only be realized beyond history through the eschatological judgment. The Church has rejected even modified forms of this falsification of the kingdom to come under the name of millenarianism, especially the "intrinsically perverse" political form of a secular messianism.
677 The Church will enter the glory of the kingdom only through this final Passover, when she will follow her Lord in his death and Resurrection. The kingdom will be fulfilled, then, not by a historic triumph of the Church through a progressive ascendancy, but only by God's victory over the final unleashing of evil, which will cause his Bride to come down from heaven. God's triumph over the revolt of evil will take the form of the Last Judgment after the final cosmic upheaval of this passing world.
-- Catechism of the Catholic Church 675-677
Apostasy is a word that comes to us from both Greek and Latin. It means 'an abandonment' or 'renunciation' of religious belief. In this context, we are talking about a great abandonment or renunciation of Christianity. Throughout history, there have been various periods when Christian populations have abandoned the faith in one way or another. Usually such apostasies were localised and involved a practical or functional abandonment in practise, without necessarily abandoning their Christian identity. What has made our time unique is the perception of the greatest abandonment in all of history. Is this perception real though? Or is it just a perception based entirely on our particular Western perspective?
There was an incredibly vast abandonment of Christianity about a thousand years ago. It happened in the East, in the once-Christian areas we know today as the Middle East and Northern Africa. All the land, stretching from the Balkan countries, through Asia Minor (Turkey), around the Middle East as far as Iraq, down into all of Northern Africa, was originally Christian. This was known as the Byzantine Empire. It lasted about a thousand years, from about AD 300 to about AD 1400. It's gradual fall began, however, with the rise of Islam in about AD 700. Islam swept thought the Middle East, into Persia, and down into Northern Africa. Christian populations initially fell by the sword, and then gradually converted though social pressures. What we witnessed a millennium ago was a massive apostasy from the Christian faith, spanning a territory much larger than all of Europe. Islam even began to reach into Europe, with the conquest of Southern Spain, and areas in Eastern Europe. Only the Reconquista and Crusades pushed the advance of Islam back, when it looked like Christianity might be wiped out completely. So complete was this great apostasy from Christianity that it caused Saint John of Damascus (AD 676-749) to describe Islam as the 'forerunner to Antichrist'. Now this is important. He didn't actually call it the Antichrist, but rather the 'forerunner' to Antichrist. There is a difference. Because Saint John of Damascus understood that what he was witnessing in his time was not the end of history. It was a forerunner, or a dress rehearsal, to the end of history. He knew that while Christians had quickly bowed their head to Mohammed's disciples in the East, Christians in the West were still holding strong, and they would not bend so easily. Indeed they didn't, as history shows, and when it looked like the end was in sight, they fought back with such courage (in the Reconquista and Crusades) that Islam would keep to its Eastern and African dominion for centuries.
In between the rise of Islam, and the modern era, there were little apostasies in Europe. Some of them involved theological dissent on the divinity of Christ, but these did not last long, and the adherents still considered themselves 'Christian' in spite of their aberrant theology. Probably the largest apostasy came about in France, during the late 18th century, at the height of the Enlightenment Era, and was a logical result of the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century. This was known as the French Revolution, in which a Neopagan goddess of 'reason' was openly worshipped in place of Jesus Christ. In some places, even a statue (idol) to her honour was erected in churches and cathedrals. This theatrical apostasy, which was really just an overt form of militant atheism, quickly died out, but its long-term aftermath remains with us today.
The apostasy that began in our modern era started in the East and quickly spread to the West. We can say that it started in earnest in the Christian Empire of Russia, back in 1917 at the height of World War I, with the embrace of communism (full-blown Marxist socialism). This eventually led to institutionalised atheism. Religion was not necessarily 'banned' per se', but it was so severely discouraged, marginalised and mocked, that it became a social handicap to be a religious person in that society. In the Soviet Union, religion was only for 'crazy people'. Only the 'mentally disturbed' went to church, and children were taught from a very young age, 'you don't want to be like them'. The Soviets used a combination of social and legal pressures to keep Christianity small and weak. It worked well for the seventy-five year duration of their evil empire.
Meanwhile in the West, we saw a clever reinvention of communist atheism, incorporating facets of capitalism, to create what came to be known as European fascism. Historically speaking, there was a strong Neopagan element to this, in what was called 'folk religion', particularly seen in Nazi Germany. Many Christians in the West quickly bowed the head to this fascist apostasy, just as Christians in the East submitted to communist apostasy. All of this occurred just in the first half of the 20th century, in a span of time much quicker than the rise of Islam in the Middle East and North Africa, a thousand years prior.
The apostasy of Europe in the first half of the 20th century is what led to the Second World War. While the apostasy of Russia in the same half of the 20th century is what led to the Cold War. However, these apostasies did not disappear with the close of the 20th century. The European fascist apostasy simply morphed into secularist apostasy and quickly spread all throughout Western Europe and into North America. Meanwhile Soviet Russia collapsed, and Western secular apostasy is now trying to pick up where their communist apostasy left off. This is the age in which we live. As secular apostasy is in the process the deconstructing the remnant of Christian civilisation in the West, historical irony now finds Russia pushing back, with the attempted re-creation of their old Christian empire. Whether or not such a reconstruction will be successful is unknown at this time. Currently, Russia is run by criminals, or so we in the West have been told, but the reconstruction efforts are still young. It remains to be seen what will come of this vision for a revived Christian Russian Empire. Will it succeed, or will it fail? Only God knows the answer at this time. Socially it is not very strong, at least as of the date of this writing (2015). So far, it is driven primarily by legal policy alone. Such a regime cannot survive unless there is a cultural shift within the population. If Christianity eventually sees a social revival in Russia, it may be successful. For the time being however, the secular West is pushing back hard to prevent this from happening.
Those few Western Christians who remain in Europe, and the declining number in North America, are faced with the harsh reality that we are all living in a post-Christian West. The dominant 'religion' of the West, at this time, is secularism, which is really just a practical form of atheism or agnosticism. The civil law of such a religion is moral relativism, and this is gradually being enshrined into our political institutions. In all likelihood, this will continue to advance for the foreseeable future. The harsh reality is that we Western Christians no longer have control of our Western civilisation. It is now ruled by secularists (practical atheists and agnostics) who are constructing our laws in their image. The harsh reality is that we Western Christians have now been relegated to mere observers of our society, rather than active participants in it. The little political victories Christians may see in cities and states, here and there, are temporary and will be short lived. The advance of secular apostasy, the watered-down offspring of communism, marches on, and the one thing we can be truly certain of is this. No matter how bad things may seem today, they are sure to get worse tomorrow.
The only thing that is left for Western Christianity to do is evangelism, for what was once Christendom is now 'Seculardom', a godless society based on a warped understanding of liberty and reason. The Church must re-evangelise what once was hers. Is this apostasy? You bet is it! And it's a big one! It's probably going to get a lot worse before it gets better, but there is the catch you see. It probably will get better -- eventually. This is because the type of apostasy the West is engaged in, is one that is a little different from the usual apostasy. This one is unsustainable. Unlike Islam, for example, which encourages children and large families, for the expansion of its borders, secularism is a selfish apostasy that encourages infertility, lust, greed, vice and social self-destruction. We are now starting to see the early signs that it is spiralling out of control. Secularism encouraged childlessness in Europe, and look where that's gotten them. Every year European governments have to import new taxpayers from Africa and the Middle East (most of the Muslim) to shore up the fertility gap of their own native populations. If Europeans won't make babies to support the system, the government will simply import foreign baby-makers to do it for them. Some have feared this will lead to the 'Islamification' of Europe, and indeed, those are reasonable fears when you look at the number of Muslims now populating the streets of: Paris, Rome, Berlin, Stockholm, and London. Could Europe fall to Islam? Maybe. I don't think it will though. Right now those sounding the alarm are being labelled as racists, and maybe some of them are. Give it time however, and as the number of Muslims grow, what we will see is the alarm grow as well, far beyond the rantings of a few right-wingers. In the end, I think Europeans will realise that the only effective defense against the 'Islamification' of Europe will be the abandonment of secularism in total, because they will realise that secularism encourages selfishness, and selfishness results in no children. The re-embrace of Christianity not only as a social construct, but also as a way of life, will be the only answer. That may still be a long way off though. Usually such social realisations are made only in the midst of crisis. We may have to reach a tipping point of some kind, a real crisis, before Europeans awake from their secular slumber and return to their Christian roots. That may be a while yet. For the time being, I expect some European nations to try limiting Islamic influence through laws and regulations of some sort. These efforts will fail, and truth be told, such efforts are a shallow product of a bankrupt ideology. The secularist apostasy has no answers to these problems. It's an apostasy all right, but it's a dying apostasy that is unsustainable. It may be the first time we've ever seen an apostasy from Christianity with a built in self-destruct timer. It will collapse eventually. The only question that remains is: 'what will replace it'? The only solution that has a proved track record is a return to Christendom, and that must be accompanied by massive evangelism, not only of secular Europeans, but of Muslim immigrants as well. Throughout his pontificate, Saint John Paul II promised us a coming 'new evangelism'. He was speaking of the re-evangelism of Europe, the Americas, Russia and the currently unreached parts of the world. I don't think we've see it yet, not fully, and I don't think he expected it to come in his lifetime. It will happen though. It has to, and I suspect the youth of today will live to see it. In the meantime though, it has already begun in some places we probably wouldn't have suspected.
I am going to echo the words of Saint John of Damascus here, and call communism, along with its children of fascism and secularism, a 'forerunner of Antichrist'. It is not the religion of Antichrist itself, but rather a full dress rehearsal of what we can expect whenever that fateful day of Antichrist arrives. The reason why I'm saying this is because the delusion of secularism, fascism and communism are too weak. Each one has its own built-in, self-destruct timer. Each one is unsustainable. Sooner or later, each one is guaranteed collapse. Islam has much more staying power, but even that religion is just a 'forerunner' of the 'great apostasy' of Antichrist, as far as Saint John of Damascus was concerned. No, the real 'great apostasy' that is foretold to accompany the coming of Antichrist, according to Christian eschatology, will likely be far more powerful that communism, fascism, secularism, and Islam combined! As the Scriptures say, it will be so great, so deceptive, and so overpowering, that even all Christians might be deceived, if that were possible. (Matthew 24:24) It is not possible by the way. The great apostasy of the last days will sweep over the entire globe. No place on earth will be left untouched by it. We won't just see Christianity subdued in some regions here and there. No! We will rather see it subdued literally everywhere! It will be subdued on every continent, in every nation, in every city and region. Not even the most remote island will be safe. The entire planet will fall under the spell of a strong delusion. Christianity will be reduced to almost nothing, virtually overnight, and this will be the final 'great apostasy' foretold in Christian eschatology (2 Thessalonians 2:1-12) before the Parousia of Jesus Christ.
So one of the signs of the times we are to look for, before the Parousia, is the 'great apostasy' which will be universal and global in nature. There are two things we must understand about this. First, it must be global. Any regional apostasy does not count. Second, it must be an apostasy -- which means an 'abandonment' or 'renunciation' of the Christian faith. Now bear with me here, just for a moment, and think this through. In order for one to 'abandon' or 'renounce' the Christian faith, doesn't one have to be a Christian first? Now that doesn't necessarily mean such an apostasy has to happen to every individual. It could be a corporate apostasy of nations and cultures, but still, that implies that these people (or at least a large number of these people) were once Christian. You cannot have a global apostasy, renunciation or abandonment of Christianity, if large segments of the world's population were never Christians to begin with. You must first have a worldwide evangelism, and a sustained worldwide Christendom, at least for a brief period of time (a minimum of a generation or two, but possibly longer), before you can have a worldwide apostasy or 'renunciation' of the Christian faith. Guess what folks? We're not there yet. We're not even close! We are moving in the direction of worldwide evangelism, but we still have a long way to go. This is especially true in North Africa, the Middle East, Persia, India, China, remote countries, isolated regions, and now we have to re-evangelise areas we've lost in Europe and North America too! The prospect of worldwide (global) evangelism seemed impossible in the apostolic era and middle ages. It seemed extremely difficult and unlikely in previous centuries leading up to the modern era. However, now with the advent of mass communication, it is within reach. Still, that technology has not been utilised to its fullest, and we still have many obstacles to overcome in the way of governments and cultures that are hostile to the Christian faith. There will come a time when the gospel is preached to the whole world, at the same time, and the majority of the world will embrace it. Until then however, a worldwide 'great apostasy' does not seem possible.
There is another thing that causes me to believe this secular darkness, the West now finds itself in, is not the foretold 'great apostasy' of Christian eschatology. This has to do with our narrow perspective as Westerners. You see, as Westerners, we tend to focus exclusively on the Western world. We often think and act as if our region of the world is the only world that exists. That simply isn't the case. If we focus on the Western world alone, consisting primarily of Europe and North America, and to a lesser extent South America and Oceania, things look pretty grim. Secularism rules the day, and it looks like it's going to be a long time before anything changes for the better. However, as I mentioned above, Russia is in the midst of a possible Christian revival. We will have to wait and see how it turns out, because it appears that Russian leadership is infested with criminals, but time will tell. Will Russia once again become a great Christian empire? Only God knows the answer to that. Then we have Eastern Europe, particularly Poland, which has remained fairly strong in the Christian faith, while Western Europe has bent the knee to secularism. We have yet to see what becomes of them. However, the biggest region of the world that Western Christians often fail to consider is Africa. What used to be called the 'dark continent' -- Africa -- is now becoming a shining beacon of light, insofar as Christianity is concerned. In fact, one of the reasons why radical Islamists are slaughtering so many Christians in Africa is because a hundred times as many Muslims are converting to Christianity there every year. What particularly catches my attention is a recent study done by the Pew Center, showing how the demographic centre of the Catholic Church has radically changed over the last century. While Latin America remains a large and growing percentage of Catholic Christianity, the real shift has been between Europe and Africa. Over the last hundred years, Europe as lost more than half of its Catholic population, while the population of Catholics in Asia-Pacific have more than doubled, and the number of Catholics in Sub-Sahara Africa has more than tripled!
|Source: Pew Research Center|
However, when we factor Protestantism into the equation, it changes the picture dramatically. The greatest decline in faith is in Europe, and while the number of Catholics has not grown proportionally with the population there, the number of practising Protestants has rapidly declined in proportion to the population. All across Europe, Protestant denominations are experiencing a collapse. When you combine this with the stagnating number of Catholics in Europe, it makes for a very bleak picture. North America has a similar story, but it's just not as bad. What we are really witnessing here is the collapse of mainline Protestant denominations. In North America, this loss has been shored up by a rise in Pentecostal and unaffiliated Evangelical denominations, but Europe doesn't really have such denominations to speak of. With the decline of mainline Protestant denominations in Europe, comes the decline of Protestantism in general there.
When we consider the time in which we live, we have to step back and look at the big picture. Yes, we are experiencing a period of decline in Christianity, a very large apostasy, but this apostasy is centred mainly in Europe. North America is experiencing it too, but to a lesser degree. South America and Oceania even less so. Demographically, the problem seems to really be centred in Protestantism, which is suffering the real collapse, particularly in Europe. Catholicism on the other hand, has continued to grow with the worldwide population, though its centre of growth has moved away from Europe and toward Latin America, Africa and Asia. So is this really the 'great apostasy' foretold in Christian eschatology?
Well, no. When you step back and look at the big picture, it doesn't really seem like it.
It is a nasty apostasy to be sure, one of the worst we've seen in a very long time, but its not the 'great apostasy', namely because Christianity is still growing worldwide, and of all Christian affiliations, the Catholic Church appears to be the most stable, as well as the world's largest. It's just Catholicism in Europe that is haemorrhaging, but in comparison, Protestantism in Europe is nearly dead. As for the future of Europe, as I said above, it can't keep going on like this indefinitely, because its demographically unsustainable. Sooner or later, the people of Europe will have to decide; do they want to be Christian, or do they want to be Muslim? Because remaining secular will no longer be an option. A similar question will eventually be put to North America too, but probably much later. As for the type of Christianity that will eventually prevail, the answer should be obvious. It will be Catholic Christianity, because it has held its ground the most firmly against both apostasies of Islam a thousand years ago, and secularism today.
This concludes Part I of this series. Since I published this first part after the Easter celebrations of 2015, I'll probably publish Part II after the Pentecost celebrations of this year. Check back regularly for updates. I may publish it sooner if I can.
Shane Schaetzel is a published author and columnist for Christian print magazines and online publications. He is a freelance writer and the creator of 'FullyChristian.Com -- The random musings of a Catholic in the Ozarks.'
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