From the Again Magazine – Volume 18, Number 3 September 1995 Page 26-28
Are These the End Times?
by Fr. Gordon Walker
The end of the world is upon us!”
So began an address at the Antiochian Archdiocese Clergy Symposium in July, 1994. This was by no means meant to be sensationalism. Rather, it was an attempt at a sober analysis of the condition of the world in which we now live. Even if one disregards the apocalyptic implications of the rapidly approaching year 2000, it does not take a prophet to see that we are faced with increasingly dangerous and explosive national and international conditions. Many voices—religious and secular— are warning of cataclysmic events ahead.
For more than 45 years of ministry I have taught and re-taught through every book of the New Testament except the Book of the Apocalypse (the Revelation) of Saint John. For some reason unknown to me, I have felt a subconscious restraint against teaching from this mysterious concluding book of the New Testament— until recently. Without doubt it has been the mercy of God to allow me the time and opportunity to study Orthodox writers and Church Fathers on this important prophetic book.
Throughout nearly 2,000 years of Orthodox Church history there have been a great many books written on it by renowned Church Fathers.
As Orthodox Christians we do not believe in setting dates for the Return of Christ, though His Second Advent is an article of our Creed, recited every Sunday in the Divine Liturgy. We believe the prophecies of the Apocalypse have served to prepare God’s people for the trials, tribulations and sufferings many have suffered during every age of Church history. But the special focus of these prophecies is upon the last age, the end times— the times when world history as we know it will come to a violent end. Are we, as many believe, living in the end times now?
AWESOME PROPHECIES OF THINGS TO COME
Archbishop Averky, a well-known Russian figure of our own century, writes in the introduction to his book entitled The Apocalypse of St. John (St. Herman of Alaska Brotherhood, 1985), “In the Apocalypse . . . there are given to the believing mind and heart mystical prophetic indications of the future fate of the Church and the whole world” (p. 29). Because of the fearful and awesome events predicted to occur at the close of this age, the answer to the question addressed in this article becomes exceedingly important. All throughout the Book of Revelation (the Apocalypse) numerous prophecies are given of events that will occur with increasing frequency and intensity as we near the coming of Christ and the final judgment of all mankind.
One series of events prophesied concerns the coming of Antichrist. We know the spirit of Antichrist has existed since New Testament times (1 John 2:18). But the Scriptures teach that a great and powerful Antichrist will arise at the end of this age. And many of the Church Fathers believed this terrifying man, along with his accomplice, the false prophet (Revelation 13), will eventually rule from Jerusalem. What a tragic misuse of that city where so many holy events have occurred!
The term “Antichrist” carries two meanings: “in place of Christ” and “against Christ.” On a recent trip to Southeast Asia I saw overwhelming evidence of the enormous increase in the spirit of Antichrist. Every imaginable religion is on the rise, including various pagan religions. In one country I was told that in the Ministry of Religion offices long lines often form of people who wish to switch officially from Christianity to the predominant religion of that country. In every country I visited, I saw beautiful new temples and mosques—but relatively few new churches. Although the oppressive spirit of Antichrist is spreading throughout many countries, let me hasten to add that many are also turning to Christ. And I found an amazing interest in the Orthodox Faith in places I would never have expected it. But the hot, foul, oppressive breath of the dragon of Revelation (chapter 12) was evident everywhere.
BEWARE OF FALSE PROPHETS
Lest I sound overly dramatic, let me remind you that every age has had its antichrists—from Nero and Caligula to Attila the Hun to Napoleon, Hitler, Stalin, and countless others. Also, every age has had its prophecy fanatics. And many of them have gotten rich on the books they have written fabricating fantastic schemes from the Book of Revelation.
We in the Nashville area had one who published a booklet entitled 88 Reasons Why Christ Will Come in 88. The booklets sold like hotcakes. On the day in September that he had picked for the Return of Christ, a local news reporter searched for the author. He finally found him—fishing on a lake. One would have expected that if he really believed what he had written he would have been in a church, in deep repentance and prayer.
I have personally known of other prophecy “experts” who predicted the time of Christ’s Return. Some have literally made millions of dollars from their books. As we approach the year 2000 I am sure we will see an increasing number of books published by such “experts.” Only recently, a new volume came out that is filled with unsubstantiated and weird conclusions and predictions written by a person who claims to be Orthodox. [Editor’s note: Father Walker is not referring to Ultimate Things, an excerpt of which appears in this issue!] We must avoid being part of any sensational efforts to prey on people’s fears and curiosities for personal gain. Such endeavors will ultimately produce disillusionment and loss of faith on the part of many.
THE LEGITIMATE STUDY OF PROPHECY
Prophecy always played an important role in ancient Israel as well as in the life of the Church. As late as the early l900s, Saint John of Kronstadt predicted that upon his death, the Church in Russia would enter a seventy-year period of captivity and suffering. He died only a year before the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917—and exactly seventy years after that, Gorbachev’s perestroika began the release of the Russian Church from her long years of extreme oppression and suffering.
The study of the prophecies of the Apocalypse must be done with exceeding care. We in the Orthodox Church follow the teaching of Saint Peter in rejecting private interpretation of Scripture (2 Peter 1:20). Therefore we dare not seek modern interpretations and “cunningly devised fables” (2 Peter I :16) concerning the Apocalypse. There are reliable Church Fathers that we can go to in order to check out our views and understanding.
Having said this, we must be careful not to allow the fear of being classed with the prophecy fanatics to rob us of the benefits of studying prophecy from an Orthodox point of view. The study of prophecy is one of the most effective ways to prepare ourselves for the Coming of Christ. And He Himself said, “Therefore you also be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect” (Matthew 24:44).
ERRORS ANCIENT AND MODERN
But there are many errors associated with prophecy of which we must beware. In addition to rejecting private interpretation of Scripture, and thus one’s own subjective pronouncements on prophecy, the Orthodox Church also rejects the erroneous teaching of chiliasm. This teaching interprets the thousand years mentioned in Revelation 20 as a literal “kind of ‘heavenly’ epoch and applies to the earthly Jerusalem the Old Testament prophecies which can refer only to the heavenly Jerusalem in the age to come” (Archbishop Averky, Apocalypse, p. 24). Chiliasm was repudiated as heresy by the Church at the Second Ecumenical Council in 381. The accepted Orthodox teaching regarding this thousand-year period is that it represents the Church age in which we currently live. It is true that certain more ancient teachers, such as Justin, Irenaeus, and Methodius, held the chiliastic view as private opinion. But once the Church spoke authoritatively in the Second Ecumenical Council, all faithful and informed Christians should accept her pronouncement on this matter.
Another error associated with chiliasm and widely held in our times is that of the “rapture of the Church.” This teaching holds that all “true Christians” will be raptured, or caught up into heaven, before the coming of the Great Tribulation. Proponents of the rapture theory teach that believers will escape the time of great suffering predicted by our Lord in the Synoptic Gospels and described in fearful detail in the Apocalypse.
It would be wonderful for a select few if this teaching were true. If you were to speak to an Orthodox Christian who is knowledgeable in Orthodox Church history about the Tribulation, he would be likely to reply, “Which one?” The Orthodox Church is called the Church of the martyrs. During the Bolshevik reign of terror, Stalin presided over the death of fifty-five million people, seventy-five percent of whom were Orthodox Christians (according to David Barrett’s Encyclopedia of World Religions). The Church has suffered tribulation after tribulation throughout its history.
However, we do believe there is a coming “Great Tribulation,” as the Lord Jesus Christ called it (Matthew 24:21). As noted above, it is described in more detail in the Apocalypse. But there is not one clear verse in all of Scripture that would indicate that Christians will escape that Tribulation. Rather, we are constantly admonished to be true to our faith and hold firm to our love and commitment to Christ throughout it. Apparently most who persevere and remain true to the Faith during that time will seal their faith with the crown of martyrdom.
SIGNS OF THE TIMES
Many Orthodox teachers believe there are clear indications and signs which can help us to be prepared for the Second Coming of Christ. Every generation of Christians has felt they could see these signs coming to pass—and they were not necessarily wrong. Our Lord spoke of some of these signs as being like “birth-pangs” (Mark 13:8, RSV). Birth pangs are repetitive and build in intensity and frequency until the child is born. Thus many of these signs have been in the process of occurring and recurring throughout all of Church history.
As for our times, plagues and other natural disasters seem to be increasing in intensity. Predictions are that AIDS will take more human lives than any plague ever before in history. And the Ebola virus and others even more frightening are looming on the horizon. Furthermore, in terms of property destruction and loss, Hurricane Andrew was the worst natural disaster in American history. Thirteen insurance companies collapsed because of it. Yet the worst is still ahead. In terms of earthquakes, the experts keep predicting that the “Big One” is certain to come in the Los Angeles area some time in the future. In other parts of the world, “big ones” have already been coming, with staggering losses of property and lives.
Perhaps the most fearful sign of the soon-coming Return of Christ is described in Revelation 17 and following. It is called “Mystery, Babylon the Great, the Mother of Harlots and of the Abominations of the Earth” (Revelation 17:5). “Babylon has always stood for rebellion against God…self-exaltation and idolatry” (The Orthodox Study Bible, p. 622). This symbolic use of Babylon seems to indicate a massive coalition of global, economic, political and religious powers that will bring the world to its final judgment.
It is possible that this could be a somewhat fluid coalition made up of parts or all of international businesses, nations, ethnic groups, religions and churches, perhaps headed by the Antichrist himself. It will appear to be irresistible and will be the “Mother of Abominations.” True Christians will find themselves overwhelmed when they attempt to stand for righteousness. “For all the nations have drunk of the wine of the wrath of her [Babylon’s] fornication, the kings of the earth have committed fornication with her, and the merchants of the earth have become rich through the abundance of her luxury.’ And I heard another voice from heaven saying, ‘Come out of her, my people, lest you share in her sins, and lest you receive of her plagues” (Revelation 18:3, 4).
But the good news is, Christ will return and put down all evil by the word of His mouth. Then all who have prepared for that great event will join with the great multitude, shouting, “Alleluia! For the Lord God Omnipotent reigns!” (Revelation 19:6).
Are these the end times? I think they are. The end of the world is upon us! How soon? I don’t know. But our Lord Jesus Christ said, “Watch therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour in which the Son of Man is coming” (Matthew 25:13).
“Even so, come, Lord Jesus!” (Revelation 22:20).