These reflections grow out of a conversation with a good friend nearly a decade ago, at the height of the popularity of the Left Behind
series, in which we pondered how might an Orthodox Christian evaluate the bewildering eschatology that underlies these and other such popular works on the “end-times.”
I should like to start by writing a bit concerning the origins of “pretribulational rapturism,” which are often (especially in polemical literature1) traced back to the apocalyptic visions that a 16 year old Scottish girl, Margaret MacDonald, reported to have in the earlier part of the 19th century. While it is true that MacDonald claimed to have a number of visions where she received new “revelations” concerning the end of the world, it is doubtful that this eccentric claim had much impact in the formulation of “end-times timelines” during the past two centuries. While her spiritual leader and mentor, Edward Irving, did manage to place some of his works on the shelves of many leaders of the 19th century “Prophetic Conference” movement, the notion of post-apostolic revelations was widely discredited in these circles (the direct ancestors, incidentally, of 20th century dispensationalists). It is far safer to assume that many Bible teachers arrived at their conclusion that believers in Christ must be either resurrected or raptured at the beginning of a 7-year Great Tribulation through simple theological deduction. In their minds, the Bible teaches that God has two different peoples, with two different plans: Jews and Christians. God’s saving dealings with one people couldn’t coincide in time with his dealings with the other, so after the death of Christ and the establishment of the Church, the plan for the Jews was suspended until a later time. The 7-year Great Tribulation (cf. Daniel 9:24-27) was understood to be the “time of trouble for Jacob” (Jeremiah 30:7)—that is, the time when the plan for the Jews would be resumed. It follows by resistless logic, then, that the Church must be cleared from the scene before such a thing could happen. The Church would experience, according to H. A. Ironside, “Not Wrath, But Rapture.” Thus, it was only after much deduction that the doctrine became firmly established in these circles, even if its positive Scriptural support was feeble at best. (I Thessalonians 4:16-17, Revelation 3:10 and Revelation 4:1 were usually the sole texts offered in support of the doctrine, and each passage can be otherwise and more satisfactorily explained exegetically.)
So much for that. I have recounted the interesting development of eschatological thought in North American fundamentalism not only to dispel the oft-repeated Margaret MacDonald myth, but also to illustrate a point. An Orthodox Christian reading the account above will doubtless be struck by the lack of any reference to Christ himself. This is certainly the case not only in this instance, but indeed with much of popular thought concerning the “end-times.” It is no wonder, then, that South African Reformed theologian Adrio König gave his fascinating monograph the sobering title The Eclipse of Christ in Eschatology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1989)! Numerology, mathematical calculations, political agendas, conspiracy theories and flat literalism in biblical interpretation have produced what can truly be called “sci-fi eschatology”—an understanding of the end-times majoring on the minors of chronology, date-setting, and character identification2. This understanding of eschatology, which counts with such popular exponents as Hal Lindsey (author of the infamous Late Great Planet Earth) and Tim LaHaye (co-author of the Left Behind series), is vigorously rejected by many Protestants; yet few prophetic voices have been raised to denounce this nonsense, and then only in certain, very restricted, academic circles. Although this debate is quite alien to the Orthodox Christian context, the external agitation affords us the opportunity to calmly consider our own thinking concerning the consummation of all things.
It is my contention that the Orthodox faith is thoroughly eschatological in its perspective, and because of this little time is found to indulge in so-called “speculative eschatology.” In other words, the reason why we spend no time at all attempting to figure out how things will work out at the end of time is that everything we say and do bears the marks of our living firm hope for the “bring[ing] of all things in heaven and on earth under one head, even Christ” (Ephesians 1:10). Note, for example, the following words from the anaphora of the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom:
“Remembering this saving commandment [Take, eat! Drink of it, all of you!] and all those things which have come to pass for us: the Cross, the Tomb, the Resurrection on the third day, the Ascension into heaven, the Sitting at the right hand, and the second and glorious Coming…”
In the Eucharistic mystery, which stands at the very center of the life of the Church, we have not only a participation in the sacrifice of the Lamb of God on Calvary, but also a participation in the heavenly banquet of the Kingdom of God. Thus, at that moment, we can confidently speak of the entire history of salvation (including the “second and glorious Coming”!) as having “come to pass for us” already. This is possible because we believe that all of history and prophecy is summed up in the person of our Lord, God and Savior Jesus Christ. Israel, covenant, kingdom, land, sacrifices, victory—
all of these have been assumed by Him and reinterpreted in Him. Thus, we regard it as foolishness when we hear that the modern state of Israel, the United Nations, the European Union, or the Vatican are the key to prophecy, because we are confident that it is in Christ that all things find their culmination. The King has come, announcing that the Kingdom is already among us (cf
. St Luke 17:20). Because of this we also reject the heresy of chiliasm, which promises a future kingdom as though the word of Christ were false and the age of Kingdom had not dawned already. Christ has brought to fruition the presence of the Kingdom through his victory over sin, death and hell. But even though the Kingdom is among us, that old serpent, the devil, continues to work the mystery of iniquity. This is why look forward with joy to the last day, when the promise of God to our forefathers Adam and Eve will be completely fulfilled, and the Seed of the woman will forever crush the serpent’s head (cf
. Genesis 3:15). Until then, we know that human flesh sits at the right hand of the Father, and because of that, that future victory which is already won is ours in Him.
So the next time we are troubled by the outcome of the ages, or bothered by the majoring on minors of some, look up, for thence shall rise the Morning Star, to consummate the victory he already won, to fulfill the Kingdom that is already at work, and to sit with us at the heavenly Banquet in which he already has made us participants.
1 For instance, cf. Dave MacPherson, The Incredible Cover-up: The True Story on the Pre-trib Rapture, Rev. and combined ed. Plainfield: Logos International, 1975.
2 I am indebted to Spanish Evangelical scholar Dr José Grau for this wonderful term, which appears in his exceedingly useful manual of eschatology as “escatología ficción.”