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 coming, 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 (Mark 10:37). On the contrary, He allowed them to ask the questions, and He answered them. These answers take up the entire 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. Then there will be various signs, such as wars, famines, earthquakes – and all these are not the end but rather the beginning of the tribulation. Then there will be the moral signs: the persecutions of Christians; the increase of evil; the growing coldness of love, 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. Then another sign is that the Gospel is to be preached to the whole world, after which the end will come. Another sign is that there will be a terrible tribulation, i.e. 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” (Matt. 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,” i.e. 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. 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.
But He tells us that the day and hour of His coming are not for us to know. 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.
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.
As I mentioned earlier, the age of the Apostles – the first century – was full of the expectation that Christ would soon return. Today it is a little difficult for us even to imagine how the Apostles could be so filled with fervor for Christ that they could go to all the ends of the world; but 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; St. Aristobulus 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 that they were to go out to all the lands and preach the Gospel. Already by the time of the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in A.D. 70, 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 seed of the Gospel had been planted.
And we see, if we take any one particular country that received the Gospel, how over the centuries it brought forth fruits. It had saints, the lives of people were completely changed, and there was a total difference between the time that country was pagan and the time it accepted Orthodox Christianity. If you take any country in the West, such as Britain or France, or in the East, such as Byzantium or Syria or Russia, you will see that this is the case.
There are a number of Scriptural passages in which the Apostles mention the coming of the end. For example, in Philippians 4:4-5, St. Paul writes: “Rejoice in the Lord always… The Lord is at hand.” St John mentions in 1 John 2:18: “Little children, it is the last hour.” 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 us a full description of the actual end of the world by fire (3:10-13).
So, from that very time, those who were fervent Christians had a definite idea: the world is soon coming to an end. Of course, nineteen centuries have passed since that time. Does that mean that the Apostles were mistaken? Or that anyone else who thinks so is also mistaken, and 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 are to understand this in the right way, and the right way is the spiritual way. If we ourselves are leading 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.
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 in categories so that they fit into chapters of the Apocalypse.
Of course, the big mistake made by the people who go overboard in these details occurs when they fall into the heresy of chiliasm: the expectation of Christ coming to earth for a thousand years. Chiliasm, a heresy fought by the early Fathers of the Church, constantly comes up again in sectarian circles, especially in times of historical uncertainty and crisis. It is the teaching of a reign of Christ on earth before the end of the world: a reign of peace and prosperity under Christ, Who will reign with His elect in Jerusalem and conquer all foes. This troublesome heresy was widespread even in the early history of the Church and was condemned by the Second Ecumenical Council in A.D.381. That was when the phrase was put in the Creed: “…and His Kingdom shall have no end.” This phrase was introduced into the Creed with the specific intention of countering the chiliastic teaching of the heretic Apollinarius.
The idea of chiliasm arose out of a misinterpretation of Apocalypse chapter 20, which says the devil was bound for a thousand years and Christ came and reigned with His saints. If you just read the text straight through without stopping and interpreting it according to what the Holy Fathers have said about it, you can get the idea that there is to be a period of a thousand years between two future comings of Christ. This means you have to have two different Judgments. In fact, the Protestants do: they have a “Great White Throne Judgment,” and some other kind of Judgment. This confuses the whole picture of Christian eschatology.
In the universal interpretation of the Orthodox Holy Fathers, however, there is no mystery about this. The reign of Christ with His saints is occurring now. This is the Church. This is the life of grace in the Church with the Sacraments, which Protestants, not having, do not understand. 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 the millennium. The “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 and the Second Coming of Christ.
Expectation of a chiliastic coming of Christ (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, Seventh-Day Adventists, and many other sectarian groups have preached this doctrine, often predicting the exact year and day of the end 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, and in more modern times; but they have never been more widespread than today, not merely among small groups of sectarians, but among political and religious leaders of humanity. This I will talk about a little later as one of the signs of the end.
Now let us turn to some of the spiritual signs of the end. Most of these signs are bound up with the figure of Antichrist, the world ruler at the end of time, the last great enemy of Christ. Many people have a very superficial idea about him: Luther thought it was the Pope, others have a caricatured 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 (1 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, like some Roman emperors, and especially those who have tried to deceive 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 antichrists should prepare us for the coming of the great Antichrist.