Contemporary Signs of the End of the World
By: Father Seraphim Rose
The following is a complete transcript of a tape-recorded talk given by Fr. Seraphim at the "University Religious Center" of the University of California, Santa Cruz, on the evening of May 14, 1981. Fr. Seraphim had been invited to give lectures on the campus by the St. Seraphim of Sarov Orthodox Fellowship: a student group at the university, consisting mostly of young converts to Orthodoxy.
On the day after he gave this talk, Fr. Seraphim gave another lecture, this time to the "World Religions in the U.S." class at the university. That talk was published after Fr. Seraphim's repose as a small book, God's Revelation to the Human Heart (St. Herman Brotherhood, 1987).
The talk presented here, "Contemporary Signs of the End of the World," was based on an outline Fr. Seraphim had written three years previously, for a talk with the same title which he had given at the 1978 St. Herman Summer Pilgrimage [On the Feast of the Canonization of St. Herman of Alaska, July 27/August 9, 1978, at the St. Herman of Alaska Monastery, Platina, California. Fr. Seraphim later published a synopsis of this talk in his article "St. Herman Summer Pilgrimage, 1978," The Orthodox Word, no. 84 (1979), pp. 6-9]. As he gave his lecture at the Santa Cruz university in 1981, Fr. Seraphim generally followed this outline, paraphrasing or reading from it. In some places, however, he added material, speaking impromptu; and in other places he skipped material in the outline. Of the latter material, there is much that we found worthy of being preserved in published form. Therefore, in several places we have included this outline material in footnotes. Except where Fr. Seraphim's outline is indicated, the material in the footnotes has been written by the editors. The section titles have been taken from Fr. Seraphim's outline. An account of Fr. Seraphim's trip to Santa Cruz in 1981, and of the context in which he gave this talk, can be found in the book Father Seraphim Rose: His Life and Works, chapter 95.
I would like to speak tonight on a subject which is very relevant to our times: the end of the world; more particularly, the signs being fulfilled in our times which point to the end of the world.
There have been a number of times in the past when this subject has become of great interest. In fact, you can even call them "apocalyptic" times. The Apostles themselves felt that their times were very apocalyptic. (Later I will read some of the statements they made in the Scriptures which show that they really expected the end of all things to be very close.) At various other times—for example, in the West, around the year 1000—there was a great expectation of the end. In Russia near the end of the fifteenth century, again there was a period when the end was expected shortly.[As Fr. Seraphim explained when giving this talk in 1978, this was because the year 1492, according to the chronology in the Septuagint (Greek) version of the Old Testament, was the year 7000 from the creation of the world. Like the Byzantine Calendar, the Russian Calendar had the creation of the world as its starting point, until this was changed during the Westernizing reforms of Peter I in the eighteenth century] And many people in our own times have this same feeling that time is running out, that something big is going to happen. Often this is bound up with the number 2,000. That is, we have come to the end of two millennia of Christianity; a millennium is thought of as a big thing, a whole thousand years, and two of them means some great crisis must be approaching; and many people place this in the terms of end of the world [In his written outline of this talk (hereafter cited as "Outline"), Fr. Seraphim expanded on this point: "Christianity has a powerful effect on men's minds—it totally transformed civilization after the fall of Rome and the ancient pagan world, and to a large extent it governs the way men think even if they think themselves non-Christian, anti-Christian, or totally liberated from the Christian way of life and thought. And so the coming of the end of the second Christian millennium, together with the world-shaking events of the twentieth century, have produced in the air an apocalyptic mood—a mood of expecting some great change or crisis or even the end of the whole world; and this mood will probably increase right up to the year 2000"].
Of course, that does not necessarily mean anything, since we don't know the day, or the hour, or the year when the world is going to end (cf. Matt. 24:36). I will try, however, to go into what our attitude should be toward this expectation of the end.
Nowadays, when you think about "apocalyptic awareness," you think of Protestant sectarians of various kinds, who have definite ideas about what is going to happen at the end of this age. It is not only religious thinkers, however, but also ordinary secular philosophers who talk about the end of the world in a very bold way.
I will give you an example, one who should be close to us because he is an Orthodox writer: Alexander Solzhenitsyn. He has been outside of Russia since 1974, and has written about life in the Soviet Union and especially in the Soviet slave labor camps, the infamous Gulag. He is not what one would consider a "mystical" or "vague" thinker, or someone who is up in the clouds; he is very down-to-earth.
Almost three years ago he gave a talk at the Harvard University commencement, [This talk, entitled "A World Split Apart," was delivered on June 8, 1978]. in which he spoke very boldly to the people of the West (just as before that he had spoken boldly to Soviet leaders), telling them that their civilization is collapsing and is danger of being taken over by Communism, that modern humanism is not deep enough to satisfy the human soul, and that it is no model that can be followed by Russia if Russia should overthrow Communism. At the end of this address he used the following words to express his idea of the depth of the crisis which is now occurring in the world:
"If the world has not come to its end, it has approached a major turn in history, equal in importance to the turn from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance."
Here he speaks seriously of the possibility of the "end of the world," based on his observations that it is impossible for men to live long without deep spiritual roots, which have been uprooted in the East by Communism and in the West by worldly humanism.
In his other writings, Solzhenitsyn, like many realistic thinkers today, speaks of specific reasons, quite apart from spiritual ones, why he thinks that such a period of great crisis is facing humanity. He mentions things that you will find in any serious analysis of today's news: namely, such things as the nearness of the exhaustion of the earth's resources (if they are used at the present rates); the disastrous pollution of air and water and soil (which is much worse in Russia than in America); the overpopulation of the world and the approaching disastrous shortage of food which seems to be coming; and, of course, the development of weapons in the last few decades, which makes the virtual annihilation of human life possible.
All this relates to the physical signs of an approaching great crisis, the end of the modern age, and perhaps the end of the world itself. But much more remarkable than these are the spiritual signs that are multiplying in our times. This is what I would like to talk mostly about tonight.