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Is It Over Yet? Mark 13 and the End of the World

Mark 13 is a well-constructed intercalation in which Jesus teaches four of his disciples privately about the destruction of the Temple and his Second Coming at the end of the world. The disciples are enamored of the Temple complex’s magnificent edifices, and Jesus, ever the apocalyptic killjoy, states, “Do you see these great buildings? There will not be left here one stone upon another that will not be thrown down” (13:2). The A sections of the intercalation of Mark 13 (13:1–23 and 13:28–31) deal with the temple’s destruction, and the B sections (13:24–27 and 13:32–37) deal with the end of the world in the unknowable future. The lectionary provides the first B section, the second A section, and a verse from the second B section. Interpreting the Gospel for the day rightly will involve taking note of the intercalation from which the lectionary reading is extracted.

Mark 13:1–23, the A section, deals with the destruction of the Temple. An anonymous disciple marvels at the Temple, and Jesus pronounces its destruction explicitly (13:1–2). Four disciples, Peter, James, John, and Andrew, then ask him, “Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign when these things are all to be accomplished?” (13:4). Jesus refuses to answer the “when” question whatsoever; indeed, Mark 13 is more or less all about the impossibility of knowing the time of the End, and Mark in general disdains the seeking of signs. On the other hand, Jesus does discuss the destruction of the Temple in the chapter; “these things” (tauta) in 13:4 refers to Jesus’s prediction of its destruction, and tauta is found again in 13:8, 29 and 30, which indicates that Jesus is there speaking of the destruction of the Temple: “these things” marks also the second A section.

As most Jews of Jesus’s day would regard the destruction of the Temple as a sign of the end of the world, Jesus endeavors to do two things in Mark 13. First, Jesus tells the disciples not to seek signs of the End, that what they’d regard as indications of the imminent end are anything but. Second, Jesus thus separates the destruction of the Temple from the end of the world.

Jesus’s first reaction to the four disciples’ question is to refuse to answer the question. They ask “when” and Jesus tells them to watch out (blepō) that they not be led astray, just as they were to watch out for the leaven of the Pharisees and Herod (Mk 8:15, blepō) and to watch out for the scribes (12:38, blepō). False Jesuses, wars, earthquakes and famines will all come, but “the end is not yet” (13:6–8).

In Mark 13:14–23 Jesus warns the disciples that when they see the “desolating sacrilege” set up, it’s time for those in Judea to flee to the mountains, and not to double back to grab anything. Flight will hard for pregnant and nursing women, and it will be hard in winter.

Wait a moment. If it’s the end of the world, which would presumably involve the entire world, why the mention of Judea alone? And if it’s the end of the world, why run away? Where are you going to run to? Where are you going to hide? Jesus is talking about something else: the Roman siege of Jerusalem and the destruction of city and Temple in A.D. 70.

The “tribulation” (Mk 13:19) Jesus speaks of isn’t the end of the world; it’s the siege with which the Romans will invest Jerusalem forty years later. And the historical record of the siege and destruction of Jerusalem and its Temple surely merits Jesus’s description of a great tribulation. The Romans at one point crucified five hundred captives a day to terrify the besieged inhabitants of the holy city. For their part, Josephus records even an instance of cannibalism, which for a people that doesn’t even eat pork is a sign of the severest desperation.

Jesus, then, is preparing the disciples for flight, not fight. The defense of Jerusalem isn’t their fight; Christians should flee instead of taking up arms against Rome, for the temple’s destruction is decreed, prophesied by Jesus in word and deed.

Jesus then begins to speak of the end of the world in Mark 13:24–27, the B section, with which the lectionary begins the week’s Gospel. “Those days” (13:24) is set in contrast to “these things” pertaining to the destruction of the Temple. The End is distanced from the temple’s destruction by the far demonstrative pronoun, “those.” And there will be no need to seek signs; the End will be obvious, as the sky will be filled with apocalyptic phenomena (13:24–25). Unlike false Christs who have arisen before, Jesus the Son of man will return from heaven “in clouds with great power and glory” (13:26), something which fake Christs would have a hard time faking. Then the angels will gather the elect from all over (13:27), not just Judea.

The point: the End will be obvious to all, so there’s no need to seek signs and engage in apocalyptic speculation.

But the point of the next section, Mark 13:28–31, the second A section, is not so obvious to interpreters. Read a certain way it sounds like the end of the world is in view. And yet there are plenty of signals it’s not, that Jesus here has returned to the theme of the Temple.

First, Jesus mentions the “fig tree” as an object lesson (Mk 13:28). In 11:11–25 the cursed fig tree was wrapped around Jesus’s Temple action in an intercalation in which the desiccated fig tree was a symbol of the temple’s destruction.

Second, “these things” (tauta) appears again in Mark 13:29, which, as above refers to the events surrounding the destruction of the Temple. Thus it’s better to render the verse “you know that it is near.” The Greek is ginōskete hoti eggus estin. There’s no explicit pronoun for “he” or “it”; it’s implied in the verb estin. As translation is interpretation, those who see the passage concerning the end of the world translate “he,” as if Christ’s imminent Second Coming were in view. If the passage concerns the temple’s destruction, then “it” is a better translation.

Third, if this section concerns the destruction of the Temple, then Mark 13:30 (“Truly, I say to you, this generation will not pass away before all these things take place”) is no cause for unease. Precisely one biblical generation passes from the time of Jesus to the destruction of the Temple. Indeed, the very fact that the verse was preserved and not altered or deleted by later scribes living well after the destruction of Jerusalem and the delayed return of the Lord reveals those scribes probably found it unproblematic; they too read it as if it concerned the destruction of the Temple. Otherwise they would have been tempted to change it.

Fourth, “heaven and earth” (Mk 13:31) is a Jewish circumlocution for the Temple, since the Temple was regarded as ground zero of the cosmos. As the dwelling place of God, it was where heaven met earth. And so when Jesus speaks of heaven and earth passing away, he’s speaking of the temple’s destruction, and comforts the disciples by reminding them that they’ll have his words long after; they will never pass away.

Mark 13:32 begins the final section of the chapter, the second B section of the intercalation, which concerns the end of the world: “But of that day or that hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” Nor the Son. Jesus, the Son, expressly says not even he knows the time of the End (“that day or that hour”). And thus Mark 13 (and Mark in general) can’t be encouraging anyone to seek signs of the End.

That’s a message many American Christians need to hear, for we’re all too fascinated with apocalyptic speculation. When I was growing up (high school class of 1992), we went to war in Iraq for the first time. Many believed Saddam Hussein to be the Antichrist bringing the apocalypse. Then the war was suddenly over, and Hussein was eventually discovered and later hanged. But many American Christians remain undaunted, finding ever new Antichrists-du-jour.

While apocalypticism runs through Christian history, from the Chiliasts of the early Church to Joachim of Fiore in the twelfth century to Millerites in the nineteenth, it seems particularly American nowadays, given the Christian-industrial-entertainment-complex that feeds on and fuels wide sectors of American Christianity, with offerings such as the best-selling Left Behind series. The search is always on for the next Antichrist.

Apocalyptic speculation flows from weak faith; some have deep difficulties believing in the Jesus of the past, so look for certain signs of God working in the present. Or it’s a psychological immanentizing of the eschaton rooted in the typical American allergy to suffering, where we want heaven now, without tribulation, where we’re cheerfully caught up to heaven, the rest of humanity left to endure all sorts of satanic miseries on earth.

American Catholics are American, and so some are caught up in such speculation, though what the Church teaches in the Catechism is clear without any concern for speculative details. Towards the End the Church must pass through a final trial in which the Antichrist offers seeming solutions to human problems at the price of apostasy (CCC §675). In fact, the Catechism teaches that this deception is found every time men attempt to found heaven on earth in their own power, particularly in instances of “secular messianism” (CCC §676); it is God, not any man or State, who will triumph in Christ over evil in the world at the end of time (CCC §677). That’s it. No clever poring over Ezekiel, Daniel, Mark 13, and Revelation to decipher the identity of the Antichrist. Just a final purifying trial, the outcome of which is certain: God wins.

Apocalyptic speculation is not Catholic. It’s not just the mistake of majoring in minors. Speculating about things that may or may not be signs of something is at the very least the bad stewardship of distraction. It’s also akin to the sins of sloth, acedia, and curiositas. It might even be an incipient part of the Gnostic heresy, as we seek to join some sort of spiritual elite by discovering secret knowledge.

Catholics have knowledge already, revealed publicly. We can encounter God and Jesus working in the present. We have Jesus Christ, who gave us Scripture and Tradition. We know God, and are called to love him ever more. Apocalyptic speculation doesn’t serve that end. Think also about this: If we knew the time of the End, or if we knew that this or that world figure was a secret demon, or the Antichrist, or God’s hidden agent, would we live differently? We shouldn’t. Catholics ought to live as Catholics ought to live every day of our lives.

Apocalyptic curiosity is a bit like the lazy student who sluffs off his studies for the semester, and then hopes to cram for the final a day ahead of time; indolence and lassitude reign in hopes that last-minute discipline will cover a multitude of ignorance. That usually goes poorly. It shouldn’t take knowledge of the time of the End or finding in some figure the fulfillment of some obscure prophecy to motivate us to love God and neighbor, to cultivate the virtues of faith, hope, and love.

Catholics have been given signs, however. God has given the Church the signs of life that are the sacraments. Instead of trying to find God doing something in an obscure way in contemporary events, we find God revealed, publicly available in the sacraments. Those are the signs we seek.

If we could ever hope to interpret them rightly, the signs of apocalyptic speculation would at best reveal facts: the particulars of something happening in the divine plan. But the sacraments bring us Christ, and thus in the sacraments we encounter God himself. We can find God, today, in any sacraments available, especially in the Eucharist and so in adoration and the Mass.

Mark 13:32 is the introduction to the Parable of the Doorkeeper, and Mark’s story makes some crazy beautiful literary moves with it.

Adapted from my book Loosing the Lion: Proclaiming the Gospel of Mark:

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