The New Year and the End of the Age
Fr. Thomas Hopko · January 3, 2011
As we enter the New Year, Fr. Tom is thinking about the end of the world or "age." Don't miss this powerful and prophetic talk!
As we begin this new year of 2011, which is the first year of the second decade of the 21st century, when we enter into the new year, we always think about time. We think about the past and all that has happened, and then we, of course, think of the future and the expectations, and one issue that always comes up whenever we think about time, like around the new year, we think of that question about the end of the world, the end of the ages. You know, how do we Christians relate to time and how do we relate to the end of the world, which for us would be connected, would be identical with, the parousia of Christ, the presence of Christ, what we call popularly the “second coming of Christ,” the coming of Christ in glory, when all things are consummated in Christ and the end of the ages come and there’s the restoration of all things in Christ, then, as the Scriptures, Christian Scriptures would say, all things are subjected to Christ. Every knee in heaven and on earth and under the earth bows before him, although not all creatures will like that, and, for some of them, it will be an experience of torment.
But we do believe that there is that end, there is the end of the ages, the end of the age and the coming of Christ at the end, and then the inauguration of the unending kingdom of God. That is certainly a Christian teaching. It’s in the Creed; we all say it. When we were baptized, at every Eucharist, at every compline service in the Church. It should be part of a person’s daily rule to say the Nicene Creed, where we say, “I look for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the age to come.” Or, perhaps, more accurately, the life of the coming age, the age which is coming, the age which is on its way. And, by the way, technically in the Creed, the term there is “age” not “world.” You know, sometimes in the Creed we say, “I look for the resurrection of the dead,” or “I expect the resurrection of the dead” and “expect and look for the life of the world to come.” Well, it’s not the world coming; there is no new world. There is a new age for this one world. God makes all things new, he doesn’t make all new things.
And so, we Christians do believe that, at the coming of Christ at the end, there will be this incredible cataclysmic transformation of the whole of Creation, the glory of God will be revealed. No one will be able to deny it or withstand it. Everyone will have to come to terms with it. And those who love it, who love his coming, his epiphany, for them that would be glory and beauty and bliss and joy forever and ever. And for those who fight against it and who don’t want it and who try to escape it, they won’t be able to do so, and it will be experienced as what we popularly call “hell”: torment.
So at this time of the year, the beginning of the new year, we think about these things and we reflect on them. And I would just share with you today, as a reflection at the beginning of this new year, a conversation that I had with my professor of theology, my teacher, my master in theology. His name was Dr. Serge S. Verhovskoy. He was a layman; he was not ordained a priest. He was a Church reader, I believe, technically, was an ordained reader. But he was a layman who taught theology; he taught dogmatic theology at St. Vladimir’s Seminary when I was a student. And I was his kind of hand-picked successor. Of course, fortunately, all the other faculty members agreed with Dr. Verhovskoy. Fr. Schmemann, Fr. Meyendorff, all the rest of the faculty members, the council. And, indeed, I was ordained a priest; I went to Ohio for five years, served as a parish pastor. Then I came back to New York and I had another parish, St. Gregory in Wappingers Falls, during which time I studied for a doctorate, and then I studied with him. I met with him several hours every week, and we discussed all of the various points of Church doctrine, of dogmatic theology; we went through everything. And we did that for years and years, you know, together. We used to joke that before he died, he wanted me to hear his opinion and his understanding about just every aspect of the Christian faith, and we used to joke that because we were Orthodox, he had to tell it to me three times, if not twelve times or seventy times or a hundred times.
So, you know, I went through all these things with him in great detail. And I always like to say that I understand my own vocation in many ways as being a mouthpiece for this man, a kind of a microphone. He was not well-known; he was not popular in the Church, like others of his colleagues were at St. Vladimir’s. He was a rather eccentric man; he was in some sense a social— had difficulty in social relations with people. But he was an encyclopedia of theology and knowledge of the Bible, the Scriptures, the Fathers, the liturgical texts. Probably the most learned man I ever met, from the point of view of data, you know, knowing just data: what did John Chrysostom teach about this or that? He could tell you, you know?
So in any case, I spent a lot of time with him, and this one day, probably around 30 or 40 years ago, 35 to 40 years ago in the 1970s, I believe it happened, we were having this conversation about eschatology. “Eschatology” is the technical term in theology for the doctrines of the last things; “eschaton” means “the end.” You know, what will happen at the end. How do we understand the end? So we were having this conversation this day at his house in his office where we met weekly several times and discussed everything from A to Z, from creation to eschatology, from the beginning to the end, the arche and the telos, and we went through everything in between several times. And I learned very very much from him. I don’t want to blame my errors and mistakes on him, but so much of what I teach I got from him, through him and my other teachers, of course. But in any case, we’re having this conversation this day about the end, about eschatology, that was the theme of our discussions at that particular period.
And so we were discussing, to put it in shorthand, theological shorthand, in theology when we speak about the end of the world, or the end of the ages, or the coming of Christ, we speak about the first coming of Christ and the second coming of Christ. And then we speak about the end of the ages that has already taken place in history with the first coming of Christ, and then we speak about the not-yet of the end of chronological history because Christ has not yet come again in glory. So the shorthand term would be the “already” and the “not-yet.” What has already happened, what has not yet happened. So that’s usually how it’s formulated.
So we were discussing this day about the “already”: what has already happened. And here, the teaching very quickly and simply put, is this: what has already happened is that Christ has come. What has already happened is that the Messiah has lived on earth. What has already happened is that God’s plan of salvation has been completely and totally fulfilled in the crucifixion and the death and the resurrection and the glorification of Christ, the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on his disciples, and the establishment of the final covenanted community of God on earth, the New Testament Church, the Church of Christ, that exists until Christ comes again in glory to testify and bear witness to him. To preach the Gospel about him; God’s gospel in him, and to testify that in him the Messiah was on earth and all things have been fulfilled.
Everything has—and here comes our word—everything has already been done. Everything has already been done. And we can say, and we do say, in Orthodox theology—this is ancient Christian teaching—that in the coming of Christ to be crucified, the coming of the Christ in the form of a slave to die on the cross, the coming of Christ in order to slay death and destroy the devil and forgive all the sins and recreate creation and be risen from the dead and be enthroned at the Father’s right hand until his coming again in glory, the outpouring of the Spirit—that is already the end of the world.
That is already the end of the ages. There’s nothing new to be added to that within the history of humanity on the planet Earth. There’s just nothing new. It’s all done. It’s all completed. It’s already fulfilled. It’s already accomplished. When Christ dies on the cross and he says, “Tetelestai—It is finished.” Well, it’s really finished. It’s really fulfilled. It’s really perfected. It’s really done. There’s nothing more or new to be done except … preaching the gospel till he comes, bearing witness to him until he comes, dying for him if necessary in this world, and then expecting his coming and the resurrection of the dead and everlasting life.
Now, the professor and I were discussing that day how mystically, theologically, the end of the world has already happened. The end of the ages has already happened. In the death of the Messiah, the end of the ages has come. There’s no more what was called in German theology what was called “Heilsgeschichte.” There’s no more holy history. There’s no more holy history; the history is over. God’s marvelous, mighty works in history have now completely and totally been accomplished. There’s nothing beyond Jesus. There’s nothing beyond Christ. There’s nothing beyond Pascha and Pentecost in the Christian understanding. There’s nothing beyond the resurrection of Christ, his enthronement and glorification and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. The only thing beyond that is his coming. But there is no “new thing.”
And so we would say that in Christ, the new heaven and the new earth has already come. We would say that in him, the kingdom has already come. When Christ says, for example, to his disciples, “There are some of you standing here who will not taste death until you have seen the kingdom of God come in power,” how the early Christians understood that was to say they had seen the risen Christ. In fact, Peter, James, and John even saw the glorified Christ before the crucifixion on the Mount of the Transfiguration. When Christ was transfigured he showed them the end of the ages. He showed them his glory when he appeared with Moses and Elijah. Then he said that he had to die, he had to be crucified, and that he would be raised and he would be glorified, and then everything would be perfected in him, not yet in us, but already in him.
And then, of course, connected with this understanding, this dogma, this Christian doctrine, firm Christian Orthodox doctrine, would be the parallel doctrine that the Church of Christ, the final covenanted community in the Messiah, the last covenant, the last testament, the last deal, so to speak, between the true God and his people on earth, is the Christian Church. You have the Noah covenant, you have the Abrahamic covenant, you have the Mosaic covenant, and then you have the final covenant, which Isaiah, Jeremiah, and the prophets and the psalms all spoke about: when God’s epiphany would take place on earth, the Messiah would come and all things would be filled with the glory of God and the kingdom would come on earth. What the messianic secret was, though, was that this kingdom would come through the crucifixion of Jesus and his glorification, and would come at the end of history chronologically, but that the death and resurrection of Christ and his enthronement and the New Testament Church would not be the end chronologically of history. The end, chronologically, would be only when the risen Christ would return again in glory. But mystically, theologically, ecclesiologically, relative to the Church, the Qahal Israel, the assembly of God’s people, this would all be completely and totally fulfilled in the Church of Christ, the Church of the New Testament, the final covenant.
So, we were discussing that day about the fact that as the Apostle Paul said in his letter to the Corinthians, that the end of the ages has already come upon us. You know, if you read the tenth chapter of the first letter of the Apostle Paul to the Corinthians, you have the Apostle giving an instruction to those Corinthians about the activities of God in history. And then he speaks about how the Fathers of old went through the cloud, they passed through the sea, they were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea. They drank the same spiritual food. They ate the same spiritual food; they drank the same spiritual drink. They drank from the spiritual rock which followed them. St. Paul says the rock was Christ. They went through the wilderness. They became idolaters. They apostatized against God. Only the great martyrs and saints and prophets of the Old Testament were faithful. Many committed immorality, and they were destroyed by God. They grumbled against God. They did all terrible things. And then the Apostle Paul says in the middle of that tenth chapter, he said: Now these things happened to them as a warning, and they were written down for our instruction—the Christians’—and then it says this sentence: “Upon whom the end of the ages has come.” Isn’t that amazing? He writes, “Upon whom the end of the ages has come.”
So what the Apostle Paul is saying is that, since Christ has come, the Messiah was here, God’s Son was incarnate; he lived on earth; he fulfilled all righteousness; he was sacrificed on the cross to ransom us from our sins. That he was killed in order to recreate the whole of reality and to bring the new heaven and the new earth—which is in fact, this heaven and this earth, renewed and made new—to make all things new. That this is the end and this has already happened to us. In the Greek language of the New Testament, it says, “These things appeared typologically—or typically—to those people of old and they were written down as a warning or an admonition to us.” And then it says, “eis ous ta telē ton aionon katēntēken,” and that means, literally, “to whom—or for whom (ta telē) the ends (ton aionon) of the ages (katēntēken) has arrived, is here, has come.” So the claim is that the ends of the ages has come upon us already.
Mystically, theologically, it’s completely and totally over. Now, in that teaching of St. Paul, we have to also reflect a bit about what are called the “apocalyptic passages” in the New Testament, particularly the synoptics and maybe particularly even Matthew’s Gospel, where Jesus speaks with his disciples about the end of the ages, the end of the world. And in fact you have that very disconcerting conversation where they ask Jesus when the end of the ages are going to come. When is the end of the world going to be, and Jesus refuses to answer. He says, “This is only for the Father to know, not even for the Son.” And that’s a hard sentence to interpret, you know, what does it mean? That Jesus didn’t know when the end of the world was? Well, you can actually say, yeah, in his humanity, he really says that he doesn’t know, and he wasn’t lying. He’s saying—but he wasn’t so much saying that he doesn’t know; he was rather saying, “We don’t need to know; it’s not for us to know. This is not part of the revelation now.”
Now certainly in his divinity Jesus knew; in his humanity he did not, but in any case what is pretty clear is Jesus says, “Don’t think about this. When the end of the ages comes, the Lord God Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth, my Abba, Father, wants to find you working, watching, praying, keeping the commandments. He doesn’t want you sitting around, trying to figure out when the end of the world is coming.” So Jesus forbids the people and doesn’t even tell them, chronologically, when the end of the ages are going to come, when the end of the world is going to come. But, in those chapters, he does speak about the end. For example, he says, “There will be wars and rumors of wars, and they will kill each other” and all that, but he says, “But the end is not yet; the end is not yet. These are the signs that the end is approaching,” but he says very clearly, “These are not signs of the end; they’re signs of the approach of the end, but not the end.” He says very literally, “But the end is not yet.” You see? And then he says that the Gospel has to be preached. There has to be an apostasy; the people have to fall away. False prophets have to come. Men’s love has to grow cold. He who perseveres patiently to the end will be saved. The Gospel of the Kingdom must be preached throughout the whole world as the testimony to all the nations. And then he says, “And then the end will come.”
But he doesn’t say when that is, chronologically. He doesn’t put a date on it. He doesn’t put a date on it, and he says those things happen. But even before that, he already said, “Many false christs will come; many false prophets will come. A great apostasy will take place on the part of the Christians.” And then it says, “You will hear of wars and rumors of wars. See that you are not alarmed, for this has to take place. This must take place.” But he says, “But the end is not yet. It is not yet.” So when there’s a big clash between good and evil or right and wrong, murder and so on, wars and catastrophes, the end is not yet! It’s a sign that the end is very close, is coming, but it is not yet.
And then, in these chapters in the synoptic gospels, Mark and Matthew and Luke, he tells his disciples how they ought to behave. He says you have to stand in this time of tribulation. Anti-christs will appear, false prophets will appear. Many will say, “Christ is here; Christ is there.” Don’t believe them. There will be great signs and wonders to lead astray if possible even the elect. Don’t go there, he says. Don’t listen to these things. Just keep the faith. Keep the commandments. Be watching for God and be ready at any moment when he should come and when these things should happen.
But then he speaks about terrible devastation that was like in the days of Noah, where people were living, drinking, being married and then all catastrophes came upon them and so on. Now, these texts—I’m not going to speak in great detail about them. In some sense I’m not capable of that—but I would like to say this for your reflection: In those texts, I think that it would be accurate to say that Jesus, in these texts or how these texts have been delivered to us… They obviously were remembered by people, then they were put together in some collected form, and then they were printed in the gospel: of Matthew, Mark, and Luke. It’s the evangelists’ work. But I think that what you have there, I would suggest to you that what we have there is a conflation of several endings.
Jesus was speaking first of all about the ending of his own life in this violent, horrible crucifixion that would take place, that would bring everything to its close. Then, I think that he conflated that with the destruction of the city of Jerusalem. That the sign that the end had come after the Messiah was crucified is that the holy city would be destroyed and the Temple would be destroyed, never to be rebuilt again. And so you had this terrible destruction of Jerusalem in the year 70, a few decades after Jesus was crucified, where some of the scholars and historians tell us that it was a devastation like you couldn’t even imagine, that people were eating the flesh of their own children. The torture was immense; the city was razed. It was plowed under. It was utterly and completely destroyed. And this was considered to be an apocalyptic, eschatological event. Eschatological because it showed the end of everything, and apocalyptic because it was catastrophic and revelatory of the power of God.
But then in those chapters, there’s also the end of any given person’s individual life. Two men are in bed together: one is taken, one is left. Two women are grinding at the mill: one is taken, one is left. Watch and pray: you don’t know when the hour is coming. It will come like a thief in the night. Grigoreite. Watch. Be ready. And that could certainly be interpreted that every one of us is supposed to be ready for the moment of our individual death.
Even if the Lord doesn’t come at the end of the ages for the whole of creation, he can come this very day for me or for you. You could be riding home from work today, get in a car crash, and, boy, you meet your maker! The end has come for you. And you’ve got to be ready for that end. And then, of course, all these things prefigure and pre-typify the end of the very world itself. So the crucifixion of Christ, the destruction of Jerusalem, any person’s personal death, and the end of the ages all are somehow conflated and brought together in one very particular vision.
Now, in addition to that, you have the teaching that there are going to be people who are going to believe in Jesus, who are going to witness all these things, and who are going to testify and preach that the end of the world has already come in him. Already. It’s over, it’s done. There’s nothing new. The Messiah’s been killed. The kingdom is in glory in him. He will come in his kingdom at the end. And, by the way, that’s the proper translation. The thief on the cross can say to him, “Remember me, O Lord, when you come into your kingdom,” but there’s variant readings of that same text in the Scripture, and the one that’s used liturgically in the ancient Christian Church is the dative case, not the accusative case. It’s not “when you come into your kingdom,” but “when you come being in your kingdom.” Not “eis tin vasilian,” but “en ti vasilia.” When you come as king, when you come in your kingship, remember me.
For the Christians, the believers in Jesus, they not only believed that the end had come in him, but they believed that the end had come for them, and that’s what baptism was all about. When you were baptized into Christ, you died with him. Your earthly life was over. It was complete. It was finished. You were dead, as far as this world was concerned. And when you came up out of the baptismal water, and the hands were laid upon you and the chrism was put on your head, like we do in the Eastern, ancient Christian tradition, in the Eastern Church. We have this myrrhon, chrism, consecrated by the bishops of the Church, the successors to the apostles, giving us the seal of the gift of the Holy Spirit. And the Holy Spirit, according to St. Paul, is the foretaste, the guarantee, the earnest, the token, the pledge, of the coming kingdom of God.
And those who have been baptized, and have been sealed with the gift of the Holy Spirit, the Spirit becomes one spirit with them, they are already dead to this world, and they are already alive to the age to come, and they are already living in the age that is still coming but is not yet here. So they are already in what is not yet here. And the Church of Christ, for us Orthodox Christians, ancient Christians, the Qahal Israel, in the Mashiah, in the Messiah, our Church gathering is the gathering of people who are already dead to this world, who are already risen together with Christ, who are already sealed with the Holy Spirit, who already live by the Holy Spirit of God, who already are able to relate to the one, true, living God as Abba, Father, and who already belong to the kingdom to come, the kingdom that is coming but is not yet here.
So the Christian person lives in two times at the same time. We live in two ages at once. We are still in this world, in this age, which is not yet the kingdom of God, but, being members of Christ, and being members of his body, being the Church of Christ, we already live in the age to come. So we live in what is not yet the kingdom, and we live in what is already the kingdom. To the extent that we are en Christo, in Christ, to the extent that we are en Pneumati to Agio, in the Holy Spirit, we belong to the age to come already. But to the extent that we are not yet biologically dead, or that the end of the world has not yet come, we are still in this world.
So we are having that discussion with Professor Verhovskoy that day, about 35 or 40 years ago, saying that the end of the ages has come upon us. We Christians already belong to the end of the world. We already belong to the future age. We already have no lasting city here. We are already risen with Christ. Our life is already hidden with Christ in God, as the Apostle Paul says. We belong to Christ in the coming age and have here no investments, no interests, no properties, no possessions, no citizenship. We have a citizenship with the saints in Christ in the age to come. This is already how we understand ourselves.
Now, since that’s the case, we are told, stop thinking about the chronological end of the world. What do you have to think about the chronological end of the world for? You’re already dead. Why should it even concern you, when the end of the world is going to be? And, anyway, the Lord said not to be concerned about it. Don’t pay attention to it. Live in the end already. Live in the future kingdom already in Christ, in the Holy Spirit. But don’t go around trying to figure out when it’s going to happen and is it chronologically near and all that kind of stuff.
Another issue came from the Scriptures, though, and that was the allegation that the first Christians thought, really thought, that Christ was going to come very soon, and that the chronological end of history would take place perhaps even in their own lifetime. And the Apostle Paul perhaps even thought and taught that that was going to happen. He was wrong on that point, but his wrongness was part of the revelation of Scripture. [What] God revealed to us through, you might say, the early Christian understanding that the end was going to come very soon, is that “very soon” for God and “very soon” for us [are] not the same.
And so, in the letter of Peter in the New Testament, there was that debate already. Where is this coming kingdom? Why hasn’t it come yet? And people who knew that the Christians were expecting the end of the ages, they were chiding them, saying, “Ho, ho, ho. You said that the end of the world is coming, and Christ was coming, but where is he? He’s not here.” And so, in II Peter 3, the Apostle answers and says, “Do not ignore this one fact, beloved, with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years is as one day. The Lord is not slow about his promises as some count slowness, but he is forbearing toward you”—and another version of the text says “forbearing toward us”—Not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.”
And so the claim is that the end will only come when the full number is fulfilled. And I used to like to semi-joke with people when they would say, “You know, Fr. Tom, the end hasn’t come yet. What do you think about that?” And I would always say, “Well, I’m very happy about that, because, had the early Christians had been right that the end was going to come chronologically very quickly—and they didn’t understand what quickness meant with God—and it did come, then, I wouldn’t exist, and neither would you! So I’m very, very happy that the end, chronological end, is delayed. Is delayed until the full number is included in the kingdom who are going to be saved.” You know, the 144,000 of the Apocalypse has to be completed. The full number from the Gentiles and the Jews and so on, and we want to be in that number. I do! I want to belong to the kingdom of Christ in the age to come. And thank God he didn’t come already, otherwise I wouldn’t have had the chance and neither would you.
So the answer that we would give is that with God’s time—it ain’t like our time—but we should always be ready that Christ could come at any moment. One of my New Testament professors, Dr. Veselin Kesich, used to teach us that every Christian must life as if the end were imminent, immediately coming, coming any minute, coming the next moment, coming next Sunday during the Liturgy, coming on Pascha night, whatever. We have to be ready, always, for that end. But we must never, ever stick our nose into when, chronologically, that end would actually be. When that end would be chronologically, we don’t know, and we’re not supposed to try to figure it out.
And one interesting thing that you see when you read Church history is that practically every age and generation thought that they were living in the last times. The early Christians certainly thought they were living in the last times. When they were getting murdered as martyrs, they definitely thought that they were in the last times. And then when Christianity was established under Constantine, the holy Fathers in the Church thought it was the end of the world because the divinity of Christ was being rejected by Christians themselves. You had the Arian heresy. So a lot of the Church Fathers thought that the heresies that were triumphing on earth were signs of the end of the world.
And then, certainly, when all the icons were being thrown out of the Church, and they were killing all the people who were harboring icons, the people thought it was the end of the world. When the Muslims attacked, the Arabs and then the Turks, and the churches were being destroyed, they thought it was the end of the world. When the whole Western Church apostatized and changed the doctrine and defiled what Orthodox thought was the perfect, true Christian faith and were defiling the Gospel, they thought it was the end of the world. Sometimes they even thought the Pope was [the] Anti-Christ. And, by the way, the Protestants also taught the Pope was [the] Anti-Christ. And the Catholics, Romans, who believed in the Papacy, they thought Martin Luther was the Anti-Christ. So every age had its Anti-Christ.
In Russia, they said Peter the Great was the Anti-Christ because he destroyed the church structures and the Old Believers were persecuted and even put to death. The Old Believers always thought that the Anti-Christ had come with Peter the Great. Then in our more recent time, people thought the Marxists were the Anti-Christ. When they were bombing and exploding churches in Eastern Europe and in Russia, when the Bolsheviks came and just literally blew up church after church after church and people were watching them being dynamited, they said, “This is certainly the end of the world!” So every age and generation thought it was the end of the world, chronologically.
However, in our conversation with Prof. Verhovskoy, we agreed, “Yeah, you should think so. You may even think so when you look at events, because there’s always the events of the victory of the devil in this world.” But you should never, ever, ever think you know when the chronological end of the world is coming, because you don’t know, and the Lord Jesus Christ refused to tell you, and he told you not to be interested in it. He said, “When the Lord comes, he wants to find you working.” He doesn’t want to find you sitting around discussing the end of the world. So maybe we’re not doing a good thing here today, except to say that and to make that point.
Still, the question remains: what about the chronological end of the world? We’re not supposed to know it. We’re not supposed to care about it. We’re supposed to keep the faith. We’re supposed to keep the commandments. We’re supposed to do God’s will. We’re supposed to suffer in this world. We’re supposed to save ourself from this adulterous and perverted generation. And it’s not for us to be digging around and trying to decipher Scripture or prophecies of Daniel or anything else, or the Book of Revelation, to try to figure out when it is the end of the world.
However, to go back to the conversation that day with my professor, we were talking about all these things and insisting that, in the Church, we already experience the end of the world, but chronologically the end of the world has not yet come. We have the risen Christ. We have the Holy Spirit. We are in Christ. We are anointed. We eat and drink in the kingdom of God.
The Holy Eucharist are those who eat and drink in God’s kingdom. Before the supper, Jesus said, before his crucifixion, he said, “How blessed are they who will eat bread in the kingdom of God.” In Luke’s Gospel, he said, “I will not eat and drink again with you until I eat and drink with you in the kingdom of God.” And the Christians understood that as the Holy Eucharist. When we say, “This is my body, broken. This is my blood, shed,” we are eating and drinking in the kingdom of God. And in some sense, the risen Christ’s eating and drinking with the apostles, like on the shore of Galilee and in the upper room, proving that he was risen from the dead, was also an eating and a drinking in the kingdom, because he was already in the kingdom. He was already glorified. He was no longer simply in his purely human form on the planet Earth. The risen Christ was already the deified, glorified, divine Christ who’s coming in glory at the end, who is still a perfect human being: the God-man. So the Christians have that reality, and that’s the reality in which we live.
So in that conversation, we were discussing all these things. We were discussing Christ’s crucifixion. We were discussing how Pentecost was called the last and the final day in the Bible, when the Holy Spirit was poured out, how it was the pledge and image of the coming age, when the kingdom of God will come with the second coming of Christ, the parousia. We discussed the Holy Eucharist. We discussed how saints, many great saints, live completely and totally in the age to come. In the Coptic life of St. Anthony the Great, it said that he already had his risen body, even though he had not died yet. That’s how holy he was. Some saints even bi-located before they died. They had the new control and way of dealing with human flesh. They were clairvoyant. Time wasn’t a problem for them. They could know what was going on all over the place. They could know what was going to happen in the future. They could know what was happening 25 miles away. They were already living the life of the age to come, and they were still in this world.
So we were discussing all that, and affirming that, and agreeing, yes, that’s the Christian teaching. But at that conversation, I couldn’t resist. I couldn’t resist. So toward the end of the conversation, I said, “Well, Professor”—I called him “Prof”—“Well, Prof, this is true. This is our faith. Thank you for teaching me. Thank you for pointing everything out to me.” But then I said, “But, Prof,” I said. “What do you think? Do you think that maybe, chronologically, according to the calendar”—this is around the 1970s. I said, “Do you think like maybe the end is really going to come pretty soon, temporally, chronologically? Do you think we’re at the end, like really in the last times before the end of the world?”
And I will share with you now his answer. He looked at me and he said, “My dear Tom, don’t you know the holy Scripture that we’ve just been talking about? We’re not even supposed to be interested in this. Our Lord forbade us. He wouldn’t tell us. He said, ‘Keep the commandments. Do what you’ve got to do, and I’ll take care of what’s happening.’ ”
And I said, “Yeah, that’s right.” I said, “But still, what do you think? Do you think, perhaps, reading the signs of the times, seeing how people are behaving, looking at the calendar, that we’re already at the end of the 20th century”—at that time, 1970s, let’s say—“that maybe it’s really, like, the end’s going to be pretty soon on the calendar?”
And then he said to me, “My dear Tom, don’t you know the holy Scriptures?”
I said, “Well, yeah. That’s what we’re talking about, right? I hope so. Let’s see if you do. That’s why I’m asking you these questions.”
And he said, “Well, all I can say is that, as I read the holy Scriptures, it’s pretty clear that the end is not going to come very soon, according to a calendar. It’s not going to come right now, immediately, for sure. That’s my conviction.”
And I said, “Well, why do you say that?”
And he said, “Because the Lord said in the apocalyptic passages of the Gospels that when there’s fighting and there’s war and the evil people are killing the good people and there’s many Christian martyrs, he said specifically: ‘The end is not yet.’ The end is not yet.” And so, my professor said to me that day, “I don’t think that the end is here yet, because the conflict between the evil-doer and the righteous, between the atheist and the believer, between the anti-Christian and the Christian is too stark, is too clear. In the Soviet Union and in Russia and in Communist countries, they’re still killing people. They’re putting them in prison camps. There’s still martyrs all over the place. That, according to the Scripture, is the penultimate age. It’s not the last age yet. It’s the age that comes before the last one.”
And so then I said to him, “Well, if that’s the penultimate age, if that’s the time before the last one, on the calendar, what’s the last one like?”
And then he looked at me, kind of disappointed, and he said, “You should know that, Fr. Tom”—I was a priest already. “You should know that. According to the Holy Scriptures, the final age is when the Christians themselves apostatize. When there are no longer huge numbers of Christian martyrs. When the Christians themselves deny Jesus and their Lord. When the Christians themselves change the Christian faith and start reading the Bible and making interpretations of it according to their own mind and their own desires. The end will come, as Jesus said in Luke’s Gospel, ‘When I return, will I even find the Faith on the earth?’ ” Not only “faith” but “the Faith”: “E Pistis.”
So the Professor told me; he said, “Chronologically, the end of the world will come when there will be almost no believers. And there will be many who will claim to be believers. They will claim to be worshiping God. They will claim even to be Christians, but, in fact, they will be heretical apostates. They will have defiled and perverted and twisted the Gospel so it’s no longer even the Gospel of God. It’s the gospel that they themselves made up and pinned on God.”
So, in two words, what the professor said that day was the last age is the age of Christian apostasy, when you have the abomination of desolation standing in the holy place. In other words, when in the sanctuaries of the churches, you just have abominations. You don’t have truly testifying martyr Christians who are together with Christ and have already died with him in baptism or already risen, are witnessing to him and are expecting the age to come and are saying, “Come, Lord Jesus; come quickly. Your kingdom come. Your will be done. Your name be glorified. As in the heavens, so also in us on earth.”
Like it says in the Lord’s Prayer—because the Lord’s Prayer is an eschatological prayer. We say, “Our Father, who art the super-God over all the heavens. Make your name be sanctified. Make your kingdom come. Make your will be done as in heaven, in the risen Christ who is glorified, so also in us, his members on this earth. And loose from us everything that we owe to you, as we loose from all the others whatever they owe us. Give us to eat this day the super-essential bread of the coming age”—that’s what the “daily bread” in the Lord’s Prayer is; it’s not “daily bread”; it’s the epiousios artos. It’s the bread of the coming age, the bread of Christ’s own body, his word, his body and blood.
And then it says, “Lead us not not into temptation” [which] means, “Let us stand in the trials and the testings and the temptations of the final tribulation of the Anti-Christs, the sons of perdition, the men of lawlessness, the demonic age when the devil is let loose. Let us stand in that age, because that’s the last age. And let us not apostatize. Let us be faithful to Christ as Christ is, to God as God really is. Let us be real Christians. Let us be real members of Christ’s body as his Church. Let us not be heretical, schismatical apostates and perverts and perverting the very Gospel of Christ himself and saying all kinds of things in the name of God and Christ that are simply not true.”
“That’s the end of the world,” the professor said. And he said that he thought at that time, in the 1970s, it had not yet come.
So the question I would raise today, for us, in our conversation now: has it come? Is it now here? And, boy, oh boy, I can tell you folks, I’m really tempted to think that it is. I’m really tempted to think that it is. As one Russian Orthodox priest said to me a few years ago; he said, “What the prison camps and the barbed wire and the forced labor and the machine guns and the murderers and the executions of Christians could not accomplish, Western secularization will. It’ll kill the souls of people. In the name of freedom, they will revolt against Christ and against God himself. And they will change the Gospel.”
And so this priest told me; he said, “The Western investment, the computer chip, the drugs and alcohol, the discos, the porno—when that triumphs, and is even defended by Christians, when they kill their own kids in the womb, when they claim you should be free to marry anybody you want to, however many times and not even get married if you don’t want to, when bishops even, claiming to be bishops, could be married multiple times, and if they are married, they could be married to men if they’re men, and women if they’re women, and you have lesbian bishops and gay bishops and 13-times-married bishops, and people, sexually active and not-married bishops and all that, where you have the whole New Testament being [re-]written, where you have the divinity of Christ being denied, where you have the resurrection of Christ being denied, where the Church is nothing but an inclusive society where everybody can celebrate ‘life’ as they defined it—that’s going to be the end of the world. That’s the end of the age. That’s when you can know the end is really near.”
So, dear brothers and sisters of Ancient Faith Radio, I can tell you, I’m tempted. I am really tempted to violate the teaching of Jesus, when Jesus said, “Don’t think about these things. Mind your own business. Do what you’ve got to do. It’s not for you to know.”
I’m tempted to say, “Yes, Lord, but, boy, oh boy, it looks an awful [lot] like what was predicted and what was foretold.” Because we do really live in a time of Christian apostasy. Orthodox Christians themselves are apostates. We are. Members of our own Orthodox Church are apostates. We have such nominalism in our Church, such secularization. A lot of our churches are nothing but ethnic clubs, and clergy men on ego-trips and spouting all kinds of spirituality, of monasticism, and dressed like monks when they’re not any more of a monk than I don’t know who—Hugh Heffner. I mean, we have massive apostasy and nominalism even in Orthodoxy.
And we shouldn’t even look at others, because that’s not our business. God judges those outside. We just look at ourself. And in the Peter letter in the New Testament, it says, “The hour has come. The time has come for judgment to begin with the household of God.” And if it begins with us, what about those who don’t accept the Gospel? So the way things are going, and the way things look right now, I’m tempted to say you could make a pretty good case that we are chronologically really near the end. Because you can imagine what would be beyond what we’re experiencing now. You could ask this question in all honesty: how could things [possibly get] worse?
How? Because you have a massive atheistic movement. You have massive attacks against Christianity. You still have massive divisions and separations among Christians. You have massive apostasies against the Gospel in all the churches, including even the Orthodox churches. And sometimes you feel that the chaos and the confusion is so bad that you don’t know how it could even be repaired. Now, with God, all things are possible, but sometimes, I like to say, it seems to me that the toothpaste is out of the tube, and once the toothpaste is out of the tube, you can’t put it back in. And we Orthodox who are still following structures of the Turkish yoke and the Middle Ages in our Church order and the way we do things and how we dress and how we act and what turns us on, as Fr. Alexander Schmemann used to say, instead of being the living body of Christ that witnesses to the kingdom that is still to come, our churches are corpses of societies that have been long dead and are stinking because they’re rotting because they’re corrupted and don’t exist any more.
In fact, a Roman Catholic writer named Walker Percy, said, “How come all the churches smell of death? And the churches that teach that you have to be born again, they smell twice as badly of death?” We reek of death, and yet we’re supposed to be the living body of Christ. So God knows. And it ain’t our business. And that’s what we have to keep telling ourself every day: it’s not our business.
But we can’t lie. When we look at the way things are today in the world, in Christian churches, or so-called allegedly Christian churches, and even in our own Orthodox churches, you’re really tempted—at least I’m really tempted sometimes to think that the end is really going to be pretty soon. Yeah.
And when I look at my own self, my own weakness, my own carnality, my own apostasies every minute, even though I’m a protopresbyter celebrating the Divine Liturgy three times a week and praying with nuns every day. You want to say, “Where your treasure is, there’s your heart.” Well, where’s my heart? Is it in the coming kingdom? Is it in the risen Christ? Do I live by the Holy Spirit? Do I eat and drink the Body and the Blood of Christ unto condemnation and judgment, or do I drink it for the healing of my soul and body and life everlasting? And then I don’t dare to look around. I shouldn’t even allow myself to look around, but I do look around. And when I look around, I can honestly say, “O Lord, have mercy on us all. Just have mercy, have mercy, have mercy on us all.”
So it may very well be that, chronologically, we are near the end. It sure looks that way. God forgive me, but it sure looks that way. But then I tell myself, “The early Christians thought so, and it looked that way to them… The holy Fathers thought so, and it looked that way to them…” And we can say that when we see the triumph of secularized, apostate, atheistic humanity, including even Christians who no longer accept the Gospel, you can say, “Well, it sure looks like the end, then.”
But we have to remember everybody always thought it was the end, and maybe Christians are always supposed to think that they’re living in the end, whether it is the end or not. Now, as a matter of fact, we don’t know. Maybe the life on the planet Earth, the human life, will go on for generations to come. Maybe it’ll go on for more centuries. Maybe it’s got to get worse and worse and worse and there will be no faith at all on earth, because there still is some faith, no doubt about it. There still are saints. There still are prophets. There still are martyrs. And I would even say there are those kind of people even among the atheists, who are probably atheists by mistake because they just don’t know any better and have been lied to, but they’re good, righteous, holy people.
Certainly there are good Christians in all of the Christian churches. And certainly there are saints, really holy saints, in the Orthodox churches, too. Not too many—but there never were too many—but they are there, and I know people who are really holy. I know them. As one Desert Father said, “I’m not a monk, but I’ve known monks.” Well, I ain’t no saint, but I’ve known some. I’ve really known some. And I know some that I would say right now are very holy people living according to the kingdom to come.
So maybe the end isn’t going to come very soon chronologically, but one thing’s for sure. My end is going to come pretty soon. I’m 72 years old this year. How much longer am I going to live, even if the world doesn’t end? And I should be dead already anyway, if I’ve been baptized. I should already be living in the kingdom if I’m a Christian. And that’s what I have to tell myself every day.
So whether it’s chronologically the end or whether it’s not is beside the point. It may well be, but we shouldn’t really get into it too much. We should obey our Lord, who said, “When I come in glory, either at the moment of your personal death or at the end of the world, I want to find you repenting. I want to find you working. I want to find you weeping over the sins of the world and your own sins. I want to find you singing, ‘Alleluia’ to God. I don’t want to find you sitting around or lying around, thinking about whether or not it’s the end of the world. That’s my business; that’s not yours. Your business is to do your job. And your job is to be a faithful Orthodox Christian to the end, whenever that end would come. And when it comes, that’s my business, and I’ll be sure to know how to take care of it. Believe me,” says the Lord God Almighty. “I will know. But you be ready. Be ready every breath, every minute, because I am coming. I am coming soon. Who knows what that ‘soon’ means? But I am coming.”
Now whether it’s tonight or whether it’s centuries from now doesn’t really matter much. But what does matter is that we would be believing, we would be repenting, we would be keeping the commandments, we would be confessing our sins, we’d be praying for the whole of creation, including every apostate, heretic, and atheist that we know. We’d be praying for our Church, we’d be praying for our bishops. We’d be praying for one another. And we’d try to live according to what we are praying. That is all that matters.
But let’s have our prayer also be: May your name be sanctified. May your kingdom come. May your will be done, as in the heavens in the risen and glorified Christ, so in us, the members of Christ, on earth. Yea, come, Lord Jesus. Come quickly. Come, Lord Jesus. Yea, come quickly.