The End of History – An Orthodox View
From The Mystery of Faith by Bishop Hilarion (Alfeyev)
From the very beginning, the Christian Church has lived in the expectation of the Second Coming of Jesus Christ. This belief is based on the words of our Lord, Who, shortly before His death on the Cross, promised His disciples that He would come again.
Do not let your hearts be troubled. You believe in God; believe also in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places; but if not, I would have told you, because I am going away to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and receive you to myself, so that where I am, you may be also. And you know the way where I am going (John 14:1-4).
Belief in the Second Coming of Christ is also reflected in the Catholic Epistles, as well as in the Pauline corpus. The teaching expressed in these texts can be summarized as follows.
First, ‘the day of the Lord’ will come unexpectedly. Secondly, before this ‘day’ there will be a period of social unrest, natural disasters, wars, and persecutions of the Church. Thirdly, many pseudo-prophets and pseudo-christs will appear who will claim to be Christ and deceive many people. Next, the Antichrist will come, who will gain great power and influence on earth. And finally, the power of the Antichrist will be destroyed by Christ.
We may note the highly significant role of the Antichrist just before the end of history. In fact, it is his activity, directed against God and the Church, that will lead the world to its last day. Who, then, is this Antichrist? Throughout history many have attempted to describe his characteristics and to predict the time of his coming. Some saw him as a great religious leader, a sort of anti-god who would attempt to replace the true faith by some pseudo-religion: he would make people believe in him and not in the true Christ. Others saw in the Antichrist a great political leader who would gain power over the entire earth.
The figure of the Antichrist has consistently attracted the special attention of many people. Paradoxically,some Christians even seem to be more interested in the coming of the Antichrist than in Christ’s final victory over him. The eschaton is often understood as a realm of fear: an imminent global catastrophe and devastation. The end of the world is not awaited with eagerness, as it was in early Christianity; rather it is feared and shuddered at with horror.
By contrast, New Testament and patristic eschatology is one of hope and assurance: it was Christ-centred rather than Antichrist-centred. When the apostles speak in their epistles of the nearness of Christ’s Second Coming, they do it with great enthusiasm and hopefulness. They were not very much interested in the chronological nearness of the Second Coming; more importantly, they lived with a constant feeling of Christ’s presence (the Greek word for ‘coming’,parousia, also means ‘presence’). The early Church lived not by fear at the coming of the Antichrist, but by the joyous expectation of the encounter with Christ when the history of the world would end.The eschatological ‘last times’ begin at the very moment of the Incarnation of the Son of God and will continue right up until His Second Coming. The ‘mystery of lawlessness’, of which St Paul speaks, is already ‘at work’ (2 Thess.2:7); it will be more and more clearly revealed in history. Together with the uncovering of evil, however, there will also be the activity of humanity’s inner preparation to encounter its Saviour. The battle between Christ and the Antichrist will end with the former’s glorious victory. The sight of Christians is directed to this victory, not to the time of turmoil that will precede it, a time which has, in fact, already begun and may continue for a long time to come.
The end of the world will mean the liberation of humanity from evil, sufferings and death, and its transformation and movement to another mode of existence, whose nature is not yet known to us. Of this glorious outcome of human history, St Paul speaks as follows:
Behold! I tell you a mystery. We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed. For this perishable nature must put on the imperishable, and this mortal nature must put on immortality. When the perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality, than shall come to pass the saying written: “Death is swallowed up in victory.’ (1 Cor.15:51-54)