Apocalypse Now! (and Always and Forever)

The End of the Age has Come because in Christ the Ends of the Ages have Met

Ian Olson / 12.7.20

Waiting is never particularly easy, but in 2020 it seems especially excruciating. Advent is always hard, too, at least conceptually: the countdown to Christmas crackles with excitement, but liturgically we are all confronted with the darkness of the world and of ourselves. Advent in 2020, though, almost feels like overkill. A concentrated dose of death, judgment, and gloom at the top end of this year? Haven’t the past eleven months sufficed for that? 

Waiting in circumstances like these is often less a matter of expectancy and more like resignation. When the present is marked by painful need, waiting can feel suffocating. “The celebration of Advent is possible only to those who are troubled in soul, who know themselves to be poor and imperfect, and who look forward to something greater to come,” Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote in a letter from prison. Having to wait demonstrates forcefully the illusion of self-sufficiency. If we did not lack, we would not have to wait, no?

The frontier between now and the future we await always seems to recede as we approach. What sets my heart thumping like a battalion of jackhammers chiseling their way through the Hoover Dam, therefore, is the reformation of the space-time continuum the Word-become-flesh sets in motion in his coming. The “impossible union of spheres” (T. S. Eliot) that reorganizes the field of time around this new gravitational center makes any and all time contiguous in spite of the distance we perceive in the “normal” flow of time. It recategorizes what we experience and intuit as normal and overturns our sense of what is possible altogether. 

This is how Jesus can say in John 5:24-25 that whoever presently believes his words prevails in God’s judgment upon the world and passes from death to life. Reception of his words somehow bring to pass that which awaits the end of the age; thus, “the hour is coming and is now here when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live.” 

The phrase “the fullness of time” in Galatians 4:4 is suggestive of an infinitely dense coagulation of temporal dough awaiting the leaven of Jesus. His mission — his life — is the event which actualizes redemption in history, an event so epoch-defining and status-quo-shattering, so imbued with the life of God and the stuff of reality, more real than what passes as real here and now, that it explodes the bounds of time and space from within time itself. It is a moment so saturated with significance it spills over into other times far removed from it chronologically. This time has become the hub around which all other time turns. The arrival of Jesus within the stream of created time is more than an item out of the historical past. It approaches from out of its historical confines to irrupt into the present as if the two times were one. For in him they are.

The mechanically linear view of time and causality which we inherit as Westerners fails miserably at apprehending what Paul is getting at in describing the meeting of the ages of death and life. Referring to the world before and after Jesus’ first advent scarcely begins to do justice to the upheaval of aeons accomplished by his mission into the far country because it doesn’t reckon with this transfusion and interpenetration of times embodied in him.

It’s difficult to conceive of time any way other than a line of straightforward succession: this comes after that, something else will come about as a result of it, and all of it is stitched together in the inexorable forward march of cause and effect. Our experience of the world seems to corroborate that view of time and consequence, of ab, b → c, and so on, therefore a → z, with the result that we feel trapped within a tank of the determinism of our choices and the choices of others.

But the apocalyptic intrusion of Advent debunks the merciless logic of before, after, and absolutely therefore. The succession of moments is real, and consequences are real, but there is another factor in play complicating the model that disrupts inevitability by bringing about another consequence that isn’t dependent on our decisions and yet can be bound to our individual histories.

The image of a wheel whose hub reaches outward equidistantly to all of its spokes is helpful but can suggest a cyclical view of time we want to steer clear of. So instead, imagine time as two cones whose apices are the mission of the Son into first-century Palestine. Now imagine a plane whose center is also those apices intersecting it. That plane is the kingdom of God slicing into the fabric of fallen space-time, creating effects both before and after that central event. The center defines that plane which in turn leaves its impression upon any section of the cone it touches. There is still before and after, but the determining thing that is unbound by before and after is the coming of Christ.

The resurrection illustrates this well. As an abstract concept, the resurrection was not a particularly controversial subject to most Jews in the inter-testamental period: most understood that it would commence at the end of the age when God assumed direct kingship over the world and vindicated his people. What would have been shocking, however, was the announcement that the resurrection had begun within the sequence of normal history! 

The Apostle Paul bears witness to this in Romans 1:4 when he states that Jesus was declared to be the Son of God in power by the resurrection from the dead. Paul attests here that the undoing of Jesus’ execution is nothing other than the resurrection he and the martyrs of the past had set their hopes of vindication upon. The great end-time event God’s people have anticipated for so long has already begun within the seemingly mundane world out of which we eke a living every day. For the resurrection of Jesus Christ and the resurrection of the dead are not two separate things: the raising of Jesus from the dead is the tip of the spear of the resurrection striking at the domain of death. 

The end of the age has come (Heb 9:26, 1 Jn 2:18) because in Christ the ends of the ages have met (1 Cor 10:11); the present age arrived at its terminus in the death of Christ and was laid to rest in his interment. The coming of Christ is the hinge upon which all time turns, either towards the futility ingredient in all natural things or towards the riotously unimaginable fantasticity of the future in God. That future made its home in the past and comes, again and again, in the present, the perpetually shifting present which leaves more and more past in its wake.

This is no nebulous future for which we can only cross our fingers and hope it’s better than the present. The future is Jesus Christ, the friend of sinners, the master of the feast, full of grace and truth, dispersing the gloomy clouds of night and putting death’s dark shadows to flight. The kingdom Jesus embodies is the age to come bursting into the present, and where and when it comes, future things sprout into present realities and old certainties and dreads are entombed.

And if this is all true, then the quality of my waiting is not ultimately the decisive thing and the future is not set in stone on account of my prior stupidities and moral catastrophes. Our waiting does not earn God’s drawing near to us or draw a reluctant God out of hiding; nor does it accumulate enough suffering to match and cancel out our sins. Waiting is simply the mode of faith’s arising as God folds our present along the axis of Bethlehem and Golgotha.

None of us can reverse the inevitable course of death and dying; none of us can reverse chronological time and undo that one thing of which we are most ashamed, that we fear defines the rest of our lives. But the hour is coming when our dead works and the persons we have been will hear the voice of the Son of God and their evil will be unraveled and their futility annulled. And we needn’t wait long because it is now here.