Contemporary Signs of the End of the World
By: Father Seraphim Rose - Continued
2. our christian attitude
First of all, I would like to ask a question: What should be the attitude of a committed Orthodox Christian toward this whole idea of
the end of the world, and toward the signs which are preparing for it? Should we dismiss all this as some kind of superstition, hysteria, and so forth?
No, we should not. We have, first of all, the answer given by our Lord Jesus Christ Himself in the Gospel. Just two days before He was to go to His Passion, His disciples came to Him on the Mount of Olives and asked Him, "Tell us, when shall these things be?"—that is, the destruction of the temple, which He had just mentioned. Then they asked Him, "And what shall be the sign of Thy corning, and of the end of the world?" (Matt. 24:3). Our Saviour at that moment did not reject the question, as He did at other times when the disciples asked things they should not be asking, such as when James and John asked if they would be able to sit next to Him in the Kingdom of Heaven (cf. Mark 10:37). On the contrary, He allowed them to ask the questions, and He answered them. These answers take up the whole of the twenty-fourth chapter of the Book of St. Matthew (where the historical events before the end of the world are set forth), and the twenty-fifth chapter (where He teaches most fully on the coming Judgment and on how to prepare for His coming). In a shorter form, these are also set forth in the Gospels of Mark and Luke. Some of these prophecies refer directly to the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple, which happened several decades after the Crucifixion, but the rest refer to the end of the whole world.
In His answer, Our Lord gives the following main points. First of all, beware of deception, of following false Christs (Matt. 24:4-5). Then there will be various signs, such as wars, famines, earth quakes—and all these are not the end but rather the beginning of the tribulation (24:6-8). Then there will be the moral signs: the persecutions of Christians; the increase of evil; the growing cold of love (24:9-12), which is one of the main signs that Christianity is dying, because the sign of a Christian, as Our Lord told us, is that he has love for others (cf. John 13:35). Then another sign is that the Gospel is to be preached to the whole world, after which the end will come (Matt. 24:14). Another sign is that there will be a terrible tribulation, that is, apart even from all the things He has mentioned already: wars, famines, earthquakes. And "the abomination of desolation [will] be in the holy place" (we must understand this according to the interpretation handed down by the Holy Fathers, which I will speak about); and "the days [will] be shortened ... for the sake of the elect" (24:15, 22).
Then again He warns about false Christs and false prophets, and about "great signs and wonders" which, "if possible, will lead astray even the elect" (24:24). That is, not only will terrible physical events happen, but there will also be deceptions which are so subtle that even the elect themselves might be fooled.
Then the sign of the coming of Christ: it will be sudden, from above, and not like His first coming (24:26-28). The signs of the very end are that "the sun shall be darkened, the moon shall not give its light, the stars will fall from heaven;” and then Christ Himself will appear in the heavens with the Sign of the Cross (24:29-31).
But He tells us that the day and hour of His coming are not for us to know (24:36). Nonetheless, we should pay attention. He gives us the parable of the fig tree: When we see its branches putting forth leaves, we know that summer is nigh; and, likewise, when we watch the signs and see these things beginning to happen, then we know that the times are ripe, that the end is drawing near (24:32-33).
Therefore, we are to watch not for a specific day or time, but rather for the signs of the end so that we can be prepared. We are especially to be prepared against deception, which is involved with one of the great events to happen at the end of the world: the coming of Antichrist, which we will discuss shortly.
The answer to Christians, therefore, is to watch and be ready for that time (24:42-44). The twenty-fifth chapter of the Gospel of Matthew is taken up with several images/parables about how we are to watch. There is the parable of the five foolish and five wise virgins: the latter are those who have their wicks trimmed, that is, who have obtained the grace of the Holy Spirit, who are practicing the Christian life rather than just learning the faith and then not doing anything about it. Another one is the parable of the talents....
As I mentioned earlier, the age of the Apostles and the first centuries was full of expectation that Christ would soon return. Though it is difficult for us to imagine today, the Holy Apostles were so filled with fervor for Christ that they went out to all the ends of the world, and they literally did. The Apostle Thomas went to India, and some say even as far as China; St. Andrew went north to Scythia, which is now Russia; Aristobolus and others went to England; St. Matthew and others went south to Abyssinia. The whole civilized world at that time was covered by the Apostles, because they had the idea that the world was coming soon to an end and they were to go out to all lands and preach the Gospel. Already by the time of the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in 70 A.D., the Gospel had been preached to virtually all the known inhabited world. From that time on began the bringing forth of fruits in all those countries in which the seeds of the Gospel had been planted.
And we see, if we take any one particular country which received the Gospel, how over the centuries it brought forth fruits. It had saints, the lives of people were totally changed, and there was a total difference between the time that country was pagan and the time it accepted Christianity. If you take any country in the West, either Britain or France, or in the East-Byzantium, Syria, or Russia- you will see that this is the case.
There are a number of passages in which the Apostles mention the end. For example, in St. Paul's letter to the Hebrews (10:37) he quotes the Prophet Habbakuk: Yet a very little while and He that cometh shall come and shall not tarry. In Phillipians (4:5): Rejoice in the Lord always, for the Lord is at hand. St. John mentions in I John 2:18: Little children, it is the last hour. And at the end of the Apocalypse, Christ Himself says, Lo, I come quickly” and then St. John says, “Amen, Yea, come, Lord Jesus” (Apoc.22:20. The Apostle Peter says in 1 peter 4:7 “The end of all things is at hand.” Elsewhere, answering those who said that the end was a long time in coming, St. Peter says (in his famous statement) that “one day is with the Lord as a thousand years, and a thousand years is one day,” and that the Lord is only being patient with us until we repent (II Peter 3:8-9). And then, immediately after that, he gives the fullest description we have of the actual end of the world by fire (3:10-13).
And so, from that very time, those who were fervent Christians had a definite idea that the world was soon coming to an end. Of course, it has been since that time nineteen hundred years. Does that mean that the Apostles were mistaken; that anybody else who thinks this idea is simply mistaken; that we should put away all ideas that the end of the world is at hand, that Christ is coming soon? No, it does not mean this. It means that we must understand this in the right way, and the right way is a spiritual way. If we are ourselves leading and conducting a conscious spiritual life, conducting the unseen warfare-against our own fallen nature and against the demons who are against us, then we will be constantly expecting the coming of Christ into our soul. Anyone who has this kind of feeling in his soul – for him, it is quite natural to expect soon the coming of Christ.
The only danger is if you go overboard and begin to try to place dates, to calculate exactly when it is going to happen, to be too concerned about specific events which are occurring and too quick to place them into categories and chapters of the Apocalypse.
For example, a famous book which came out a few years ago is entitled The Late Great Planet Earth. In twenty years it will be outmoded, and all the things he talks about. He will have to make a new book and fit it into the new events. It does not pay to go overboard on these details. Our approach has to be a little broader, a little higher, but just as firm.
Of course, the big mistake made by people who go overboard on these details occurs when they fall into the heresy of chiliasm: the expectation of Christ's coming to earth for a thousand years. This is a very troublesome heresy which was widespread even in the early history of the Church and which was condemned at the Second Ecumenical Council. That is when the phrase was put into the Creed: "...and His Kingdom shall have no end." The idea was-if you just read the text straight through without interpreting it, especially reading what the Holy Fathers have said about it-that since it says in the Apocalypse that the devil was bound for a thousand years and that Christ came and reigned with His saints, there must be a period of a thousand years somewhere between the First Coming and Second Coming of Christ. That means you have to have three different judgments. In fact, Protestants do: they have a "Great White Throne Judgment" and other kinds of judgments. It confuses the whole picture of Christian eschatology.
In the universal interpretation of the Orthodox Holy Fathers, there is no mystery about this. The whole idea of the "reign of Christ with His saints is occurring now. This is the Church. The life in the Church is such a blessed state-because we are with Christ, we have His grace, we have His Body and Blood within us-that this is like Paradise.
And this is what people call a millennium: this "thousand years" means a whole period. One thousand is a round number: 10x10x10 in symbolical language means the fullness of time between the First Coming of Christ and the Second Coming of Christ. If you expect a specific thousand-year period, then you are very anxious for this period to come and you begin to multiply all kinds of signs which you see, and with the slightest little thing that happens you begin to cry out: "This is a sign of the end . . ." And it may not be so at all. Or it may be one of those signs which occur throughout history, like, for example, the sign that there will be many Antichrists. St. John the Theologian says that even from the time when he was living there were already many Antichrists. And therefore, that is not the sign that the world is right now approaching its last ten years; it means, rather, that this is one of the spiritual signs which is preparing for the end of the world.
Such expectations as described (i.e., of Christ reigning as an earthly ruler for a thousand years) has led to fantasies and bloodshed, from the time of the Middle Ages to now; ‘Charismatic’ leaders persuade their followers either that they are Christ, or that they are preparing for Him. This is an exact fulfillment of Christ’s prophecy of fake Christs who will not come from the heavens at the end of the world.
In recent times, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Church of Christ, Seventh-Day Adventists, and many other sectarian groups have preached this false doctrine, often predicting the exact year and day of the endo of the world – which never comes on schedule – or preparing for a great ‘world leader’ who will bring peace on earth. This ‘world leader’ will be the Antichrist, about whom the Scriptures prophesy exactly. Fantasies of the coming ‘millennium’ are one of the chief ways mankind is preparing for the Antichrist.
Our times are full of this chiliasm or millenarianism. This is the basis of the Communist ideology of the perfect state on earth that will come when the ‘Dictatorship of the Proletariat’ finally ends. Such fantasies always result in tyranny in the name of a religious or philosophical ideal.
Chiliastic views themselves are not a particular sign of the end. They existed in the Middle Ages, the renaissance, as previous said. But, in these times we now live in, they have become more widespread than ever, not merely among small groups of sectarians such as the Church of Christ, Mormonism, Jehovah’s Witnesses and others, but among both political and religious leads of humanity.
Many people have a very superficial idea bout the Antichrist, the world ruler at the end of time, the last great enemy of Christ, Jesus. Martin Luther thought it was the Pope of the Roman Jurisdiction of the Catholic Church, others have a caricatural idea of him as simply a vicious dictator. We must go deeper than this, and especially distinguish between the general spirit of Antichrist, the many lesser antichrists who have this spirit to some degree, and the Antichrist himself, who will come only at the very end of time and rule the whole world.
St. John says (I John 2:18): ‘As ye have heard that Antichrist is coming, so now many antichrists have come: therefore we know that it is the last hour.’ That is, just because we have seen many with the spirit of Antichrist in the past – those who have fought against Christ, Jesus, like some Roman emperors, and especially those who have tried to deceive and are deceiving honorable, good, Christians by means of some fake teaching and seeming miracles – this does not mean there will not be a single Antichrist at the end of the world. These many small anichrists of Pentecostalism, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Church of Christ, Mormonism, Evangelicals, Promise Keepers, and so very many others; should prepare us for the coming of the great Antichrist.
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