Updated: Nov 7, 2020
As He was sitting on the Mount of Olives, the disciples came to Him privately, saying, “Tell us, when will these things happen, and what will be the sign of Your coming, and of the end of the age?” And Jesus answered and said to them, “See to it that no one misleads you. For many will come in My name, saying, ‘I am the Christ,’ and will mislead many. You will be hearing of wars and rumors of wars. See that you are not frightened, for those things must take place, but that is not yet the end. For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom, and in various places there will be famines and earthquakes. But all these things are merely the beginning of birth pangs.
- Matthew 24:3-8
One of the more interesting phenomena of the past few months is the increased frequency of the question(s), “Are these the end times? Is Jesus about to return?” I saw an ad on social media for a man who claims to be reading the signs and predicting Jesus’ return for his 330,000+ followers. Expectations of Christ’s return almost always correspond with rising instability in events beyond our control and to which we are subject. Pandemics, political revolts, and hurricanes come to mind… Just prior to His ascension when the disciples asked about His return, Jesus bluntly told them they didn’t need to know times and epochs set by the Father. (cf. Acts 1:6-7) I think it is reasonable to assume that, if they did not need to know, then neither do we need to know. But that has not stopped speculation. Not in this century, or the last century, or in every other century between the time of Christ and today… Apparently, the world in which we live is a harsh place. So much could be said about the second coming of Christ that this may be a foolish effort on my part, but I hope to provide some context for us. We need to understand better, so we know how to live today.
The Revelation of St. John, which captures our imagination so powerfully, is the conclusion to a long, long story that begins with, “In the beginning, God…” God. The Scriptures are God’s book, God’s story, not ours. The task of each Christian is to locate him/herself in God’s story, not vice versa. Contrary to how we read it in America today, the Revelation is not a prophecy of how things will end, though certainly it does prophesy that there is an end. Rather, the Revelation opens a window on the war that has been waged since the creation of man in the Garden. The rebellion of Adam and Eve brought death into God’s creation. The rebellion of Cain introduced sin as a being, a presence, “crouching at your door” (Gen. 4:7). That is not how we typically think about sin. Nonetheless, that is how sin is introduced – as a dangerous entity desiring to master Cain.
The whole point of the Incarnation of the Son of God, His crucifixion, death, and Resurrection – the whole point – was to destroy death (the final enemy) and set in motion the restoration and redemption of God’s creation. The Ascension of Jesus Christ reveals the union between heaven and earth, the restoration of spiritual and physical union between the Triune God and human beings and, indeed, all creation. The outpouring of the Holy Spirit is God’s gift to us so that we may receive the strength and power to overcome the sin mastering us and, therefore, may also participate in this salvation, restoration, and redemption of creation. That’s the end of the story until Jesus returns. That’s it. There is no more. Everything since Pentecost is the end times, which means everything we read about in the Revelation is currently ongoing now. St. Paul told us, “For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the powers, against the world forces of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places.” (Eph. 6:12)
What St. John saw is what is happening, not what will happen. St. John recorded the ongoing reality of eternal worship, as well as the birth pangs of Christ’s coming reign and Kingdom. Nations and kingdoms go to war; disease and natural disaster roll and wind across the earth, markers of the evil that seeks to claim us in death and turn us from the Lamb Who takes away the sins of the world. This age or epoch will one day come to an end, but until that time, the intense spiritual battle continues. Materialism – the view that what we see is all that exists – is deeply entrenched in the American mind. We may anticipate some future spiritual world, but we rarely think about spiritual forces in our midst. Our view needs to change. Jesus brought light to the darkness of our world. He overcame the world in which we live and saved it. He didn’t accept or adopt it. We cannot truly understand our lives, current events, or human history apart from a deep awareness of the spiritual realm in which our physical life exists. Throughout the New Testament, we are given hints, but only hints.
In his second letter to Thessalonica (ch. 2), St. Paul indicated the first sign of Christ’s return is apostasy. What is scariest about the notion of apostasy is that most of us have no idea what would actually constitute apostasy. Apostasy is the rejection or abandonment of Christian belief for a different belief system. We see that in so many of our adult children who no longer see any value in Christian life and faith, but they do not call themselves “Christian.” The Greek word used by St. Paul has two aligned meanings: desertion, as in deserting a military post or deserting one’s family, and second, a moving away from the place where one once stood. Indeed, St. Paul told the Thessalonians to “stand firm,” specifically, stand firm in truth and in the tradition of Christianity received. We see apostasy in those who want Christian life and faith to be something else, something palatable, something acceptable to our world, and to still call that “Christian.” In St. Paul’s time, the Church was similarly challenged to adapt and to accommodate. Before we can stand firm, we must know the Truth, embrace our tradition, and learn to walk in the Gospel. Let us be certain we stand firm for apostolic Christianity not false opinion. This leads to the issue of the anti-Christ.
The anti-Christ for which so many look is not a single individual in a particular generation. Pointing to a political or religious figure and saying, “that is the anti-Christ” is a stunted understanding. St. Paul speaks of the “man of lawlessness,” using the same word in Romans 5 in reference to both Adam and Christ. The anti-Christ, then, is a cumulative figure that emerges in Scripture from the beginning. In his first letter, St. John stated that all sin is lawlessness (3:4), which would necessarily mean each one of us participates in the anti-Christ being, at least to some extent. Additionally, the son of perdition who St. Paul wrote “took his seat in the Temple of God,” is not a reference to the Jewish Temple destroyed in AD 70. Rather, to sit in the presence of God, to sit in His seat, is to make oneself greater than God, to put oneself above God, and to do so is the quintessential act of arrogant rebellion against God. Thus, the anti-Christ, the son of perdition, is humanity, human beings in all times and places, who, along with Satan and his demonic host, place our wants, our thoughts, and our opinions above God, our Creator and our Father.
So much more could be said about the Revelation, but time and space do not allow, nor am I an authority on the complexities of apocalyptic literature. The point I want to drive home is this: every Christian in every age is living in the end times and suffers the birth pangs of Christ’s coming rule. To some degree, each of us participates in both the triumph of Jesus Christ and the rebellion of the anti-Christ. Being unaware of this is dangerous for us. Think of it like this: if we are not participating in the spiritual battle against the forces of evil, are we really participating in the spiritual life of Christ in His Kingdom?
When people ask about the return of Christ, I want to ask “why?” Why is His return such a pressing issue? If we could verify that Jesus plans to return next March, would that alter how we live? These questions are so very important for us to answer. While I have no idea when Jesus Christ is going to return, I am absolutely certain that every one of us is going to die. If we learn nothing else from COVID-19, let us acknowledge that our fear of death is a near-impenetrable wall that both keeps us safe and prevents us from living. How odd that is for a people who claim to follow the God Who has destroyed death and Who set us free from the paralyzing fear of the end.
Most of our fascination with the return of Christ is rooted in the desire to be sure we are one of the ones who is saved, not one of the damned. The thing is, whether Jesus returns next week or in the next millennium, we all, without question, unequivocally, are going to die. So, if there is prep work you think you need to do before Jesus returns, then you probably ought to get after it now. Time is short. Entering the inseparable unity of the spiritual and physical is a good place to start. We cannot live one way in our material existence and expect a different life in spiritual birth at death.
Are we living in the end times? Yep, we are. One day, this age and epoch will end, but in the meantime, you are going to end. I am going to end. We need to make sure we are not misled by soothing reassurances of false teaching nor by the fears we are encouraged to embrace. If you study Scripture, learn tradition, live obediently, and pray to know the truth, the Truth will find you, and you will realize there is no need to be frightened. We are not supposed to worry about the end of this age. We are supposed to invest ourselves in living spiritually rich lives today.
In Christ –
Rev. Elizabeth Moreau - Copyright 2020
(For whatever clarity is provided above, I am indebted to the intellectual work on the Apocalypse by Fr Stephen de Young, St. Gabriel’s Orthodox Church, Lafayette, Louisiana. Any failure of clarity is my own.)