Orthodoxy and the Apocalypse

And Christ said unto them, “It is not for you to know the times or the seasons, which the Father hath put in his own power” (Acts 1:7)

We live in difficult times, and for some of us the times are more difficult than others. We also live in a culture of apocalypticism, in which numerous movies, made from many angles, use imagery drawn from one Christian corner or another to create excitement and horror.

We live in a time when the headlines of the media themselves seem apocalyptic. There are always “wars and rumors of wars,” unspeakable crimes against children, sometimes even perpetrated by their parents.

We live in a time when the “hearts of many have grown cold.” In some cultures the Church is not only disdained but openly hated (this has not yet manifested itself so much in America as in certain places within the world where open assaults on Christianity are more tolerated within the culture). Often this hatred is driven by the Church’s uncompromising stand on certain moral issues and its renewed witness in certain parts of the world.

And yet, all of these events added together do not make for the time of the Apocalypse. Though it is always true that every day brings the end of history nearer to us, Christians are not bidden to live as the prisoners of history. Rather, having been translated from this world “into the Kingdom of His dear Son” (Colossians 1:13), we have transcended the prison of history and live increasingly in the freedom of the age to come. Every sacrament of the Church, and the Church herself, is a participation in the age to come. Thus the gates of hell cannot prevail against the Church because in Christ, we have already prevailed against those gates ourselves. Pascha cannot be undone.

Having said this, we cannot make the culture to cease its efforts to sell Christians fear and to market the Apocalypse like any other horror genre.

We are assured in Scripture that:

But ye, brethren, are not in darkness, that that day should overtake you as a thief. Ye are all the children of light, and the children of the day: we are not of the night, nor of darkness. Therefore let us not sleep, as do others; but let us watch and be sober. For they that sleep sleep in the night; and they that be drunken are drunken in the night. But let us, who are of the day, be sober, putting on the breastplate of faith and love; and for an helmet, the hope of salvation. For God hath not appointed us to wrath, but to obtain salvation by our Lord Jesus Christ (1 Thess. 5:1-9)…

Modern evangelical tradition has taken this verse as an excuse to support its morbid fascination with constant wrangling over the meaning of various Biblical prophecies, with the idea that we are not overtaken as theives in the coming of our Lord, because we have grasped some rational scheme of Biblical interpretation.

In truth, we are not overtaken as theives because we are children of the light and children of the day – that is we already to an extent live in the age to come. It is only the light of that Day that can illumine in us the reality of its coming, which is why we may arm ourselves with faith and love and the hope of salvation, being assured by the brightness of that Day which shines in our hearts that God has not appointed us to wrath.

These things are spiritually (noetically) known and are not revealed by mere rationality.

None of us should be surprised when darkness behaves as darkness – what else can it do? There is a clear teaching in Scripture that darkness becomes even more dark as that Day approaches, but it only becomes more dark because the Light of Christ is drawing near. Darkness has no “darkness” of its own, only a hatred of the Light. The wrath of God is not a punishment sent on the world, but the world’s own fomenting of anger against the light, because its deeds are dark.

Thus we are cautioned in Scripture:

Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful; and let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near (Hebrews 10:23-25).

The connection between our meeting together and the Day drawing near is clear. The gathering (synaxis) of the Church is an eschatological moment – it belongs to the age to come. Where else would we rather be as that Day draws near, than standing in that Day itself? In the Light of Christ and the mystical banquet we stand far removed from the wrath of God, but rather yield ourselves to our only sure hope. We give ourselves to the perfect love which casts out fear.

Orthodoxy would do well to avoid the temptations set before us by the marketers of fear, no matter how well meaning they may be. We are not of the darkness but of the day, and we do not need to be afraid of the dark.

18 Responses to “Orthodoxy and the Apocalypse”

  1. Margaret Says:

    Thank you! Thank you, Fr. Stephen!

  2. Sophocles Says:

    Father bless,

    Thank you, Father. Your post encouraged me.

    The Apocolypse, as every aspect of the Christian Faith, has many vantage points.

    I myself tend to stay and speak from within “the scary part” lopsidely out of balance with what you write of here. It is good to be prodded by what you have written here towards a different vantage point to a different and moer complete understanding of this event.

    What I understand you to be saying is (we all) once having been in darkness, now, being in Christ the darkness has passed away for us and we are to live in the Light, Him, and that living in Him, when He does return, we will be found in Him.

    I also see in Scripture a constant warning for those of us who are in the Light to guard this state of being, to not let ourselves be lured back to Egypt and its old familiar pleasures. Even in the passage to the Thessalonians above Paul tells us in a sense that yes, we are in light, having passed out of darkness and therefore now let us not sleep, let us remain sober putting on the armaments to remain sober and not to be overtaken by the night once again.

    As well in the passgae to the Hebrews above Paul urges us to stir up one another up to love and good works with the unspoken implication that it is necessary to stir up love and good works because if not stirred, they would tend to settle down into the depth of our nature until “stirred up”.

    And always that the Lord returns is also a call to be afraid to some degree of what state he will find us in upon His return. He states this often as do the other Holy writings.

    Throughout Israel’s history, in anticipation of His coming, there were the Prophets in essence saying, “He’s coming! He’s coming! The Great Day of the Lord approaches!” up until the Baptist finally laid eyes upon the Long Awaited One.

    And in the New Testament we find that this warning a call has not ceased but merely changed in nature as the nature of existence changed at the Incarnation and the subsequent events of our Lord’s Life.

    I think I myself tend to speak of the final and terrible Day of the Lord in order to stir myself up because I know from whence I came in my affections and desires and it is a constant effort to remain on the Cross for me, dead to this world, that I may be alive to Him.

    Your post helps to remind me that I indeed have entered upon a new state of being which is to be lived and not thought about merely.

    Thank you for stirring me up to further love and good works with this post.

    In Christ,

    Sophocles

  3. fatherstephen Says:

    Sophocles,

    What you describe is truly a Godly use of the admonitions in Scripture and differs greatly from the curious and silly use of Biblical prophecy used by so many as a distraction from where our attention should be. Blessed is that servant who is found watching when He comes. But watching is guarding our heart and repenting of our sins, not mastering someone’s rationalized matrix of Biblical prophecy. Thank you for your good words!

  4. AR Says:

    Someone I know stopped having Rapture nightmares after converting to Orthodoxy.

  5. fatherstephen Says:

    Isn’t it a tragedy that what should be our greatest hope has become the stuff of nightmares? It is a tragedy. It’s strange that the adoption of Darbyite Dispensationalism by at first a small segment of the Protestant world should become almost a matter of Evangelical orthodoxy and a major influence in the political world. Bad teaching has bad consequences.

  6. Isaac the Syrian Says:

    I wouldn’t even describe it as “almost” a matter of orthodoxy Father. Among the fundamentalists I know, including my own father-in-law, a failure to not just hold to dispensationalist eschatology, but rather to small minutia like being a pre-trib, mid-trib, or post-trib believer can be the basis for schism. The evangelical churches I have seen appear to leave a little more leeway about the timing of the Rapture, but I haven’t seen any that would accept a pastor that taught the traditional orthodox amillenialism that most Christians in most times and places have held to.

    I think the real dark side of the Rapture belief is the gnostic hope of total escape from the cosmos rather than the belief that God is going to remake the cosmos anew and we are going to live in it. N.T. Wright really hammers this point among Protestants and gets a lot of flack for it as a consequence. What I do know is that I was raised to see the Rapture as a total escape from this world, that is was imminent, and that it could be the excuse to avoid all kinds of normal responsibilities any person planning on being around for a normal lifetime would take care of. Make prudent plans for retirement? Nah, the Lord will surely come before then.

  7. AR Says:

    Yes, Father, it is tragic.

    Isaac, for certain hermeneutic reason, it’s pretty much impossible to be a dispensationalist without holding to some variation of the rapture-tribulation-millenium timeline. However, the central doctrinal tenet of dispensationalism is that the church is not Israel and Israel is not the church. I think this is the biggest reason why the more thoughtful of evangelicals cling to dispensationalism. Their only other option is reformed covenant theology, and reformed circles are starting to go off the deep end with the attempt to correlate the Old and New Testaments.

    Patriarchalism is becoming big, as many Christians try to re-order the Christian family along Old Testament lines, where the wife can be corporally disciplined by her husband and has fewer rights, and sons and daughters alike have their spouses chosen for them by their parents, then continue to live with one set of parents after marriage, still a part of their household rather than setting up their own. And then there are always attempts to revive dietary laws, clothing customs, and other O.T. restrictions. This is pretty scary stuff, and dispensationalism provides a lot of people with a tough bulwark against this kind of thing. When you don’t have the authority of the Church, you have to prove everything you believe and so you try to you come up with airtight systems.

    And then there are the everyday evangelicals who simply cling to dispensationalism, because their leaders have chosen it and therefore it’s their orthodoxy. With these kinds of people, the rapture and etc. seem to take front and center. I think the reason is that the “exciting” futuristic stuff is the hook that the leadership uses to get lay people into dispensationalism, and for these less critical sort of folk, it remains central.

  8. fatherstephen Says:

    AR

    Very insightful comments. Culture, any culture, has layers of complexity. I think you put your finger very gently on a number of the layers that surround dispensationalism and its sons in America.

  9. AR Says:

    Thank you, Father. I appreciate being able to discuss the issues I’ve had to struggle with.

  10. Amy Katherine Says:

    “We are not of the darkness but of the day, and we do not need to be afraid of the dark.”

    Father Bless,
    Thank you!

  11. Dale Says:

    Father, I appreciated this post and the focus on the love of God that the Orthodox promote when talking about the life to come. My question is in regards to the “wrath of God” that is so often focussed on by evangelicals. The message often appears to be live appropriately or face God’s awful wrath as written about in revelations or elsewhere. What does the Orthodox Church teach in regards to the wrath of the Lamb or wrath of God and how does it mesh with the love of God that was so great that the incarnation could occur.

  12. fatherstephen Says:

    Dale, read this article. Although a little hard on the West, it is still be very good presentation of the Orthodox understanting of wrath, hell, etc.

    http://www.orthodoxpress.org/parish/river_of_fire.htm

  13. Stephen W Says:

    I read this article over ten years ago, and coming to Orthodoxy from a protestant background, I can really say that it radically changed my concepts of heaven, hell, love and even my relationship towards God. At the time I quite enjoyed the harshness towards the west, because I was ready for a change. Although creating a negative reaction towards my past, I have since come to appreciate my roots. I remember reading that article and a few other things and quickly realized that someone was putting words to many of the thoughts I already had. I think that this is a very common experience for many. I believe that this is because of the image of God being in everyone and when I was presented with these verbal icons, things began to take shape. At least this is how it worked for me.

  14. Dale Says:

    Father Stephen,

    Thank you for the article. I will take the time to read it well. I truly appreciate your willingness to assist us all on our journeys,

  15. Dale Says:

    FatherStephen, forgive me for going on in this. I thank you for the article and enjoyed it (although I am not convinced the tone was always the most loving but that is not the point). One issue still dwells in my mind however and I would appreciate your thoughts.

    I can easily accept the idea of God pouring his love on all for eternity and the idea of respecting our free will to hate that love if we choose. however what still doesn’t quite mesh for me is the idea of an all knowing God that knows what choice we will end up making still “lovingly” creating us even though he knows we will choose eternal torment. Would it not be more loving to allow them to have never existed? I realize the issue this brings up with free choice. And why do I believe and yet one seemingly similar chooses not to. I thank God for giving me eyes to see but does that suggest that God did not give an unbeliever the same ability to see because if they had that same ability why does one believe and one not? Maybe I should file this under “Mysteries that are beyond my ability to understand” but I seek understanding if possible.

    I trust that God is loving.. He simply must be and I ask forgiveness if I lack reverence in the questions I ask. Sometimes I feel as Job (minus the incredible hardships) seeking answers that God will respond to indirectly through describing who He is and who I am so that I am left with refound but approriate humility but yet no direct answers.

    I am going on and on. I apologize.

    and one last thing. Thank you for the recommendation of Holy Trinity Sobor in Winnipeg. I contacted a couple parishes in winnipeg and it seems Holy Trinity Sobor is half Russian half english but St. George is all english so I think we will try attending there. It is an OCA parish as well with some connection to the Romanian Epicopate as well it seems. We move in a few weeks and it will be good to regularly attend a parish we can call home.

  16. fatherstephen Says:

    Dale,

    We cannot with complete assurance know how someone of evil heart responds to the relentless love of God for eternity. One or two of the fathers (extreme minority report shall we say – St. Isaac of Syria and St. Gregory of Nyssa) thought that eventually God’s love conquers all. There are many others (majority) who hold that the wicked refuse God’s love eternally. But God only knows.

    However, the teaching on the nature of hell and the fire of God’s love is consistent and a proper teaching of the Church.

  17. Dale Says:

    Father Stephen,

    While the “western” me likes to have all the ends tied up, I truly appreciate the honesty in a response that is able to leave the answer as a mystery. I am reminded of Aslan’s response to Lucy I believe it is when he says that she only needs to understand that which pertains to her own journey. I realize narnia may not be an authoratative theological writing but parts of it seem rather helpful.

    Speaking of Lewis’s writings… Would you say that his portryal of heaven in the Great Divorce reflects a rather orthodox understanding? Specifically the idea of continual progression towards the more beautiful, an always increasing closeness to the Christ that we seek feebly even now.

  18. fatherstephen Says:

    Yes, I think it is a fairly Orthodox image. One of my favorite books.

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