A good deal of movies and shows and pop culture about the end times focus on things becoming a dystopia — disarray across the world as cities burn, as law and order evaporate, and as people devolve into anarchy. So when we wonder, “What will happen to me in the end times?” it’s easy to fixate on destruction, on fire, on who will be left behind or punished.
Our tradition holds that the aspects of the end times that deal with judgment cannot be ignored — we need to be accountable to each other and to God for loving well. But it’s a little childish to be overly concerned with the fear of punishment or desire for a reward. This is a basic level of understanding — we can and should dig deeper.
Considering this in terms of a binary “judgment day” — will I go to heaven or hell? — doesn’t get us very far. Let’s switch lanes instead. Try thinking about the end times in light of the spiritual realities that most deeply shape our lives: faith, hope, and love. We’re called to hold fast to these things that are the most important aspects of life, even if they are invisible and we can’t prove them: we are called to desire and long for union with God, and to care fully for ourselves and others. At the end of the day, it all boils down to these three virtues.
The end times will mean the passing away of all things temporary, including our earthly lives, and, in their place, the fullness and completeness of all things heavenly and divine. What that means for us is that we will experience fulfillment to the degree that we hold on to faith, hope, and love. And if the divine is fully revealed in the end times, as we believe, then our faith will be fulfilled and our hope will be realized. This means all that remains is love.
And if love is the one thing that remains, whether or not the world perishes in fire is a secondary question. We don’t know what will happen or what the end will hold. We do know we’ll be held in God’s love — which can sustain us even now.
The love of God is something open to us every moment, but we have a tendency to fall short in these areas that help us see it clearly. As a result of our temptations and shortcomings and fickle wills, we only catch glimpses of God’s full love. That’s okay — even Pope Francis falls short. The whole mission of the Church is geared toward welcoming sinners into a community that is seeking to love better.
When we open our hearts more regularly and intentionally to giving and receiving the love that is God, we more fully experience a foundational reality: we are made from love and are made to return to love. And loving well means that we’ll glimpse heaven in the here-and-now — glimpses that one day will become our permanent vision.
While we will be held accountable and judged for the decisions we freely make, our focus ought to be on the goodness we know to be possible through the loving example of Christ, and less about fire and punishment. In other words, it’s better to be drawn forward by rightly ordered desire than pushed forward by fear.
So we live in faith, hope, and love, seeking to catch fuller, deeper, more frequent glimpses of that greatest love that powers the stars. We live in joyful hope for the day when our faith is fulfilled, our hope is realized, and love is all in all.