The Truth About the End Times

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I live in the South – which means plenty of bumper stickers warning, “In case of rapture this car will be unmanned.” I grew up surrounded by preaching on the last days in a context that was decidedly Dispensationalist, Pre-Tribulation, etc. If you are a reader who does not know what all that means then you’ve missed a huge part of our American Culture. It means one believes that time is divided into different “dispensations” and that the end of the world will have seven years of the worst possible calamities, complete with the Great Beast, the Anti-Christ, (all known as the Great Tribulation), but with the Church being “caught-up” into the air to meet Christ and go to heaven just before the beginning of the Great Tribulation (hence, “pre-tribulation”). This is the larger story behind the popular “Left-Behind” series of novels which are selling like hotcakes in the Evangelical culture. Of course, the books are more interesting to read if you happen to be a Pre-Tribulation Dispensationalist.

These are not esoteric doctrines in this part of the world. You could have a fairly serious discussion with a pious farmer about various aspects of end-time Dispensationalist doctrine. Many local Churches will advertise “Prophecy Workshops” of one sort or another – explaining various details of the doctrine and, always, making comparison to present-day headlines (Not to mention the televangelists who major in End Times).

Is this simply an aspect of Christian teaching that is a hallmark of some Protestants, or is it a serious distortion of Christian teaching? And if it’s a distortion, does it matter?

Apart from all the various details involved in “end-time” teaching – the larger theological picture is overlooked. That picture is the radical change in eschatology from that of the Scriptures. Eschatology is the term for the study of things that have to do with “the last things” [eschatos]. For moderns following popular end-time teaching, there is an expectation of a coming event in history, but no sense that time itself is changed or given a different character by the Second Coming of Christ (much less His first coming). It is this loss of a proper understanding of time that, it seems to me, carries the largest error in popular end-time teaching.

It is possible to view time in a straightforward, chronological manner, as one event following another. Indeed, this seems the most natural way to view things – particularly to a modern mind. Of course, such a view of time is as devoid of God as is the naturalist view of creation in which it exists and operates independent of God. Both views are just variations on a secular theme. One can be religious in a secular setting, but the secularization of the faith is a radical departure from the faith “once and for all delivered to the saints.”

I have written about this secularization particularly in my articles on a One-Storey Universe versus a Two-Storey Universe. The point of that metaphorical distinction is to help us think about the consequences of modern secularized thought. As I have noted before, the primary religious effect of secularized thought (which is the mindset of a majority of modern Christians) is to exile God from what we think of as the “ordinary” world. Strictly chronological thought about time (including the end-times) is a secularization of time. God becomes an actor in history, but history remains somehow inert. Time is not effected by its encounter with God (in the modern secularized account).

The clear Biblical and Gospel teaching is that the Kingdom of God has as much effect on time as it has on everything else in our world. Christ is the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End. When He stands of the stage of history, the very End of history is standing in our midst. It is not merely 33 A.D., it is the fulfillment of all things. Thus, Christ does not say, “Before Abraham was I was or I existed,” but rather, “Before Abraham was I am.” There is a world of difference.

Christians themselves are not purely confined to chronological time. “We have been translated into the kingdom of His dear son” (Col. 1:13). This is not something we are waiting to see happen – it has already been accomplished. Of course there is also our experience of praying, “Thy Kingdom come,” and for a fulfillment that we await, and yet we already have a “foretaste” of that Kingdom, in the gift of the Holy Spirit. Indeed the presence of the Holy Spirit in our midst takes us “out of time” or rather brings us into the “time of the Kingdom.” The Eucharistic meal that Christians eat, is not a chronological event in which we “remember” something that is past. It is the Messianic Banquet; Christ is truly present on the altar. The Body and Blood of Christ which we take into our mouths belongs not only to our time but also to the “time” of the Kingdom.

Of course there is a chronological time in which we live – and yet that time has been altered and revealed as a sacrament of the Kingdom in the coming of Christ. Every minute is a Spirit-bearing minute and not merely a tick on a clock.

We then, as workers together with him, beseech you also that ye receive not the grace of God in vain. For he saith, I have heard thee in a time accepted, and in the day of salvation have I succoured thee: behold, now is the accepted time; behold, now is the day of salvation (2 Cor. 6:1-2).

These verses carry more meaning than simply “you should convert today.” The “accepted” time and the “day of salvation” are also eschatological events – our end has come upon us now.

The tragedy of living in two-storey chronological time (first storey is chronological, second storey is timeless), is that we fail to see the true character of every moment now. We waste our time reading newspapers and wondering about events in the mid-East, as though any of that would tell us something about the Kingdom of God. People live secularized lives, just “marking time” waiting to be raptured out of this wicked world so that God’s great plan for the end of the world can take place.

The truth about the end times is that Christ Himself is the End. “Therefore, if any one is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has passed away, behold, the new has come” (2 Cor. 5:17).

I am an Orthodox Christian. I believe in the Second Coming. “He shall come again to judge the living and the dead.” But the One who is coming is none other than the One in Whom I partake at every Eucharist. He is none other than the One Whom I am called to serve in the “least of these my brethren.” Such things are “eschatological” moments. Better to serve Christ in the least of these than to waste time thinking about Bible prophecy and the pattern of events at the end of the world. It will come as a thief in the night, anyway. And if we are not serving Him in the least of His brethren we will be found to have no oil in our lamps.

In case of the rapture, everything will be unmanned. For when Christ comes, He will come to judge the whole earth. Most importantly, we should learn to see time as it truly is – as it is being transformed by the Lord of time and is itself a vehicle, a sacrament of His presence. Now is indeed the Day of Salvation.

Comments

  1. says

    You deal very carefully with the matter: but in my experience, dispensationalism and its cronies are the start of very, very serious dissent from the rest of Christendom. Its insistence on some issues like the resumption of temple sacrifice points to a fundamental misunderstanding of the gospel, which goes far deeper than the West-East divide in the church. That is to say, that although the faith of many of these folks would be happily inconsistent with their theological confessions, the implications of pre-Trib dispensationalism leads it beyond the pail of ortodoxy in its broadest definitions. I say this as one who grew up with some of these ideas and beliefs.

  2. Ioannis Freeman says

    Dispensationalists, in general, are about as anti-Semitic as they come.

    The Jews will not be vacated by Christ during the millennial reign of Christ, so the doctrine of the rapture goes. Rather, the Jews will remain on Earth and inherit blessings. Then, at the end of 1000 years, poor Jews will burn in eternal fire with the rest of the “unsaved” brew.

    What irks me the most is the lack of courage of Christian Zionists to spew this vile curse in just so many words.

    We “Southern-reared” folks have not seen the last of the conflated love-hate relationship between Zionism, as doctrine, and dispensationalism as heresy.

    In the meantime, we continue to give glory to God, as is right to do.

  3. says

    The truth about the end times is that Christ Himself is the End.

    i enjoyed the writing and i’m glad to have stumbled upon it. However, I do encourage the necessity for studying and contending for revelation of the last days with fasting and prayer.

    Jesus said to His disciples, “Learn what this means…” (Mt 24:32).
    I believe it is likely that the duties of serving others has robbed the heart of the costly oil needed. Though service and ministry to others is important, the oil of intimacy seems to primarily be bought through “costly“ encounters directly with God by “watching and praying,” divine impartation, and the release of prophetic observation. We should not limit ourselves by spending the days serving the least as unto Christ and casting aside Biblical prophecy, lest we be overtaken by that Day. I believe this is possibly why Jesus gave this exhortation in Matthew 24:32. If we have a conviction that Christ will return in this generation, why not prepare and seek prophetic insight of the soon works of the Bridegroom? Who is this King, and what is the new work He going to do upon the whole earth as a Lion treading the winepress?

    Sadly, disinterest has generally arisen because of the “who thinks what’ll happpen when” is robbing the hearts of many. It’s a low vision for the most devastating and glorious hour of human history. The Revelation of Jesus Christ is best viewed not as a series of encrypted events, but as the unfolding of this Man’s personality, affections, and His perfect leadership over all of the earth. This Book was designed to fascinate our hearts and thrill our spirits in love…to provoke us to watchfulness and zeal to be rooted and grounded in His Kingdom on that Day of shaking.

    To not diminish the fellowship of the Holy Spirit and Christ as the Omega, I believe we can begin to peer into the depths of the mystery from the ages to be revealed in the fullness of time, now. Daniel was a man like us.

    -Bradley

  4. says

    Bradley,

    I understand your points, but the interest in “Bible Prophecy” concerning the last days has a pretty poor history in Christianity – mostly as a distraction or as apocalyptic fear. In Matthew 25 the criteria for judgment is indeed, having “done it unto the least of these my brethren.”

    There is a place for study of Scripture – but you’ll find very little about the “end times” in the writings of the Fathers and for good reason. To pray and watch does not mean to pray and try to decipher Biblical puzzles.

    We should pray, fast, give alms (all forms of mercy), repent of our sins, and seek to remember God in all that we do. These are the admonitions of the Fathers of the Church. If you do these things, you will not lack oil in your lamp when the Bridegroom comes.

  5. wordsmyth says

    As with much of your writing, I find this post to be a blessing. Lately I have been feeling like time is “slipping away” and passing ever more quickly. Anyhow, I spent some time in a pre-trib dispensational church. It was actually pastored by the son of a Jewish convert to Christianity. So the pastor was EXTREMELY interested in all things pertaining to Israel and the role of the Jews in the end times.

    I’ve heard Catholics discuss the book of Revelation in pretty great detail. But never seen any Orthodox discussion of it. I think I read somewhere that Orthodox do not include any readings from Revelation during Diving Liturgy. Is that true? I wish I could remember where I read that, but I can’t. If it is true, why is that the case?

  6. says

    The book had a stronger history in the Western Church and was slower in acceptance in the East (before the Canon of Scripture was settled). It was accepted by the Eastern Church, but is not appointed at any time for reading in Church. This does not mean that the Church treats it as less than Scripture. But there is little apocalyptic reading in Orthodox services of any sort. I can think of readings from Ezekiel, but in that case (at least the one I’m most familiar with) it is understood to be speaking about the Most Holy Theotokos and her perpetual virginity.

    There are some “end-time” sort of things to be found in larger Orthodox culture and there has been a sort of popular apocalyptic interest in parts of the Orthodox Church in some of the areas where it had been weakened by Communist persecution – but these are largely seen as abberations.

    Probably the largest outbreak of apocalypticism in Orthodoxy occurred in Russia following the reforms of Patriarch Nikon (that resulted in the schism with the “Old Believers”). It was a time of great difficulty.

    But the modern protestant fascination with the end times has virtually no precursor in Christian history. It’s a largely modern phenomenon and a very powerful political force as well. But the treatment of Scripture is almost bizarre in the history of exegesis.

    My personal beef is the almost complete destruction of a true eschatological doctrine – which means no true approach to sacraments – the secularization of time, etc. This, I believe, undermines traditional Christian teaching.

  7. says

    wordsmyth (and anyone else interested in an Orthodox talk on the Apocalypse),

    Fr. Thomas Hopko has a wonderful CD series that you can purchase HERE. I’ve listened to it a couple of times and highly recommend it (for what that’s worth).

  8. Bonnie says

    In the words of a piece of modern “praise music”:
    Alleluia, he is coming.
    Alleluia, he is here.

  9. says

    Yes sir, i do understand. I repent if I sounded backbiting or out submission to you; truly, that is not my heart.

    In agreement, the study of eschatology has been done mostly out of alterior motives throughout the majority of Church history- and not on the basis of the Revelation of the Bridegroom and who we are as His Bride. I have been taught that a common misperception is that most generations believed they were in the End Times. Through all of Church History, it’s been reported less than 1% of believers (excluding the generation of Christ). If this evidence is correct, then this suggests that the vast majority of the today’s believers have kept a sustained conviction of the End of this Age.

    As I tried to explain earlier, it’s not about deciphering. However, I do highly value the study of the End-Times (gnōsis), but I more so highly value the revealing of who Jesus is upon my heart (epignōsis). Passion sustains the pursuit for excellence.

    Whenever I hear Christ exhort us to watch, I believe the LORD is calling to understanding the times and seasons. To not study the end-times could open the door for His rebuke and eternal regret (Mt 16:3). In its highest form through prayer and intimacy, I believe this releases a prophetic perception and an annointed observation of what the Lord is doing on the earth. Concerning the parousia (procession), Christ will be glorious, contrasting His stable almost unknown birth, and I believe before this time, there will be those forerunner proclamations throughout the earth. (Is 42:10-14)

    Surely the LORD GOD does nothing, unless He reveals His secret to His servants the prophets. A lion has roared! Who will not fear? The LORD GOD has spoken! Who can but prophesy?

    The Word is vast concerning the End Times (over 100 chapters!). There is actually far more about the Second Coming of Christ than His first. It is my conviction from reading the Scriptures this revelation of the Kingdom to Come not only fueled the Apostles lives, but also charistically brings one of the core contexts of what Apostolic Community is genuinely about. A body of this kind is eternally conscience. Present losses are counted as nothing because of the present anticipation. and these few reasons are why I do boldly encourage the necessity for studying and contending for revelation of the last days with fasting and prayer.

    -Bradley

  10. Margaret says

    Thank you for this posting, Fr. Stephen. As with many of your postings, you have clarified some thoughts and concepts I have wondered about as a Christian. I especially appreciate your saying this, “Better to serve Christ in the least of these than to waste time thinking about Bible prophecy and the pattern of events at the end of the world. It will come as a thief in the night, anyway. And if we are not serving Him in the least of His brethren we will be found to have no oil in our lamps.”

    I think it helps me greatly with perspective. I thank God that you are a priest, and that you are willing to write this blog.

  11. Carl says

    1 Tim. 1:3–7, “As I urged you when I went into Macedonia, stay there in Ephesus so that you may command certain men not to teach false doctrines any longer nor to devote themselves to myths and endless genealogies. These promote controversies rather than God’s work—which is by faith. The goal of this command is love, which comes from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith. Some have wandered away from these and turned to meaningless talk. They want to be teachers of the law, but they do not know what they are talking about or what they so confidently affirm.”

    I think a lot of the time spent figuring out where in Daniel and John’s timelines we are now comes down to “confidently affirming” “endless genealogies.” All we need to know is that the day is soon.

  12. says

    First time commenting here. Thank you, fatherstephen.

    One of my parishioners jokes that he wants a bumper-sticker that reads, “In the event of rapture this vehicle will be parked outside the Divine Liturgy.”

    – Fr. Paul, St. Thomas, Sioux City

  13. mattyonke says

    Father Paul,

    That sticker is hilarious and I want one!

    Father Stephen,

    Very good post. I agree completely with the emphasis on Christ now, on the altar, in our mouths, and in our acts of charity.

    One question, prior to being a Byzantine Rite Catholic, I was a presbyterian of the preterist school of prophetic interpretation. They view most of the prophecies, excepting those explicitly considering Christ’s second coming, to refer to the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. which they view as the completion of the inauguration of the Kingdom (i.e., the destruction of the temple was the end of the old order).

    Is there much in the Fathers to support this sort of view. I must admit, though I find myself little concerned with the topic these days, it does make a lot of sense of a lot of the prophecies.

    Thoughts?

    Matt

  14. says

    To my knowledge there is very little if any such thought in the Fathers. They did not write about the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. as significant other than as a fulfillment of Christ’s prophecy about it as an event. More complex speculations were always held in great suspicion.

  15. Ioannis Freeman says

    We can trace the doctrine of dispensationalism, from which the doctrine of the rapture arose, to the Rev’d John Darby in the mid-19th-century. Spread to the rest of the UK and the North American continent by equally disaffected “Brethren,” the doctrine underwent permeations in the forebears of Dallas Theological Seminary, Bob Jones University, and even such renowned evangelists as Billy Graham, especially in Graham’s early tent-revival meetings back in the 1940’s and 1950’s. I saw Graham distance himself from the debates about dispensationalism that arose after the 1970 publication of the book entitled Late Great Planet Earth (author Hal Lindsey).

    Sometimes knowing historical roots for doctrine permits insights not otherwise available. May God be the source of inspiration to receive glory as we deepen our commitment with the Great Fast. Therefore, I would like to elaborate on history briefly and then draw a handful of conclusions.

    The doctrine of dispensationalism comes not only from a disaffected and former priest of the Church of Ireland (similar to the Episcopal Church USA and member of the worldwide Anglican Communion), but also from one who refused allegiance to the King of England during a period of crackdown by Darby’s bishop in Ireland–long before the Irish revolution.
    A compilation of Darby’s extant texts appears at: http://www.stempublishing.com/authors/darby/. This was an Irishman’s “last straw,” and Darby disavowed communion with the Church of Ireland.

    My conclusions to my cursory study of Darby and more than a dozen 20th-century dispensationalists are seven in number:

    1) elevation of belief in constructed (prior “secret” or lesser known) biblical chronologies as what post-Renaissance thinkers might call “real” time, which can be labeled by other names, too. Father Stephen has done us a great service both on this blog and in podcasts concerning the topic of chronological time as product of a “two-storey universe”
    2) disdain of the real eschaton, a point made by Father Stephen, with my thanks
    3) coercive stage productions, which vary according to the charismatic personality of the leader or pastor, concurrent with blinding-light experiences. Ironically, blinding-light moments become as “authoritative” as Holy Scripture in so-called real time. These conversion moments are dated and timed, similar to recovery dates for 12-step recovery experiences, thus elevating the ego of the individual’s recount of a “person’s” history (individual as distinguished from person). My point of authority will be much debated among dispensationalists, and I ask forgiveness for any offence, because I do not desire such. For example, in response to a question whether one has been saved, the response should be something like this imaginary response: “Yes, on 13 December 1982 at 8:05 PM.” If you have ever pronounced the date and time of a human birth or date and time of death, as have I, one sees a parallel trust in so-called real time.
    4) imperative behaviors of the “Brethren” to reproduce by leading others to the “sinner’s prayer,” best done with tears and histrionics to override inner doubts about whether the prayer “took” like an immunization from death. (By the way, doubts are discouraged if not also forbidden)
    5) absolute unwillingness to entertain the value of history, culture, languages “in situ” (such as semiotic differences among Attik, Koine, late Byzantine, and Demotic Greek denotations and contextual interpretation of Holy Scriptures)
    6) psychological harm is widely spread, as well as support of end-times delusions distributed among manic mood and psychotic individuals. (This breaks my heart, and I pray for them especially)
    7) proof-texting without attention to context, and even at risk of eschewing alternative Traditions such as the holy Fathers of Orthodox Christianity

    Kyrie eleison. Kyrie eleison. Kyrie eleison.

  16. says

    Fr Stephen,
    I especially appreciate your situating the fascination with the end times prophecy in the context of the sacraments. It’s something I noticed, in a small way, several years ago. I was puzzling over the question and it came to me that these people, without knowing it, have an honest yearning for the Eucharist. Since they can’t have it, they yearn for that which is to come in historical, chronological time. It is a good appetite gone wrong. I see very similar patterns in the obsession with “young earth” theories where people proof-text their way through Genesis just as they would the Revelation. May God grant these zealous seekers a ‘zeal according to knowledge’ and may he grant us, who have this knowledge, the zeal proper to it.

  17. MichaelPatrick says

    I think the violence done to time by dispensationlism is spot on.

    A related violence is to the scriptures themselves, by a selective hermeneutic that says only the epistles of Paul, for example, were written for believers in this age. Other scriptures were given for believers in other times. The notion that the Psalter, for example, has immediate relevance for today’s church is unfathomable for dispensationalism except as a historical or sentimental curiosity.

  18. Herman says

    Fr. Stephen expresses the opinion in his blog, “The Truth about the End Times” that popular American (which means largely protestant) end-time teaching and study is generally a bad thing, and the “loss of a proper understanding of time” is the largest error in it.

    While I heartily agree that an Orthodox understanding of time is important for Christians to have, I must disagree that the lack of seeing time this way is strictly associated with popular American eschatology. I believe this error is found at large throughout Western Christian thought and is not specific to end-time teaching. It is, as was said, an error of the modern mind.

    I want to free us from the possible inference we may take from the blog: that we should not study prophecy, or specifically end-time prophecy. As I remember, about 2/3s of the bible is prophecy and a significant portion of that pertains to the last days. It would be odd indeed if we were supposed to ignore 2/3s of the bible, or for that matter any of its parts as though they were “straw!” No, as a student of the bible one should be a student of prophecy; and as a student of prophecy one should include end-time prophecy.

    Interestingly, the passage referred to (1 Thess 5:1-6) when saying that study of the end-times is useless because Jesus will come “as a thief in the night” is actually a commendation of the brethren for having studied these things. The passage describes them as being therefore in the light while those who are in darkness will have the end come upon them as a thief.

    One might argue that this passage introduces a longer segment which expounds what it means to be in the light, and this longer passage does not mention study of prophecy or the end-times. But the passage itself directly commends the brethren for having knowledge of the signs of the coming of the Lord as though this was part of the teachings of the Church and they had applied themselves well to it.

    I would like to think I am mis-reading the article, and the complaint is with “popular” end-time teaching only and not with study of the biblical truths and Orthodox teaching on the subject. I would certainly agree that the so-called “rapture” so commonly taught as “pre-trib” (by which folks usually mean “before anti-christ’s seven year reign”) is incorrect and misleading. But while I suppose less popular, you can find many sources that describe this event as mid- or post-tribulation. For one example, the earliest I have been able to interpret what I’ve seen from the Fathers of the Church on this would be the mid-point of the seven years. More probably they say the “catching up” occurs at the end.

    The idea that we should avoid study of the end-times, to the extent that it exists in Orthodoxy, is certainly not universal. In fact, volume one of the lecture series, “Lectures of Fr. Seraphim Rose,” entitled “Living the Orthodox Worldview” expressing the opposite opinion, was recently remastered to electronic format in which he said, “It is obvious for any Orthodox Christian with some awareness of what Orthodoxy is, with some awareness of what the world looks like today, who looks at the world from the point of view of Orthodoxy, who has an Orthodox world view; It is obvious that our world is coming to an end. The signs of the times are so obvious that one might say that the world is coming crashing to its end.” He then spent a lecture elucidating those signs.

    In fact Fr. Seraphim thought it crucial that Christians know the signs of the times today. He lamented “how tragic it is to see Christians and above all Orthodox young people with this incalculable tragedy hanging over their heads who think they can continue what they think is a normal life in true terrible times … totally unaware that the fools’ paradise that we live in is about to crash. They are completely unprepared for the desperate times that lie just ahead of us.”

    If he is right about the epochal moment we find ourselves in, and I am convinced he is, we should exhort one another to every effort to place ourselves in the light. That would include knowing the signs of the coming of the Lord as well as all the other elements of Christian truth and faith mentioned in 1 Thess chapter 5.

    The lecture I quote is described as “the final pastoral talk of Fr. Seraphim’s life – the fruit of his spiritual growth as an Orthodox Christian and his matured outlook as an Orthodox pastor. The “Lectures of Fr. Seraphim Rose” is available from http://www.sainthermanpress.com

  19. says

    I think there is, of course, an admonition to be aware of the times in which we are in and the signs of the Lord’s coming. But I believe that most of what passes for that is indeed a waste of time. Occasionally I think Fr. Seraphim Rose may have had more to say on the subject than is helpful, but that will be for others to judge.

    To be found working when the Master returns and to be found faithful is sufficient. There will always be plenty of evil to resist, no matter what time it is. In a sense, all times since the Ascension of Our Lord, have been the last times and we have seen many apocalyptic events in the centuries. But to try and match headlines with prophecy, I think, is a fairly fruitless excercise. Many of the great Fathers on the Holy Mountain never found it necessary to read a newspaper to know how to pray for the world and to resist the devil.

    To watch – generally means to stand in prayer with our heart directed to God. If we do this, we will have fulfilled the commandment.

  20. Jerry says

    It seems to me that the simpler we can keep any message or writing of how any of us perceive Christ would be advantageous. Maintaining, invoking or bringing about the joyous and burning desire to do His will, as we were as new converts, should be paramount to all. To be childlike.
    These times do seem to be in tumult and economically dire and so we ascribe to them that we must be nearing the end of time as we know it. Thusly the bumper stickers. Yet historically speaking during medieval times when plagues were ravaging the populace, and many not adhering to the cannons of the Roman church at that time were being burned at the stake and many suffered other horrendous deaths, it must have seemed much more closer in their minds? Wonder if they dared having ox or donkey cart stickers then?
    As we spiral around our milky way galaxy on this speck of dust in the cosmos of untold amounts of galaxies and vastness which Christ created do we really believe we can say we are nearing our end?
    I do agree with you Fr., and I go back to my opening paragraph and add to it John Chap. 15 vs. 12.