I grew up near the end of the world. It was a generally accepted notion that we were living in the “end times,” meaning that Christ would soon return. We were taught that believers would be “raptured” out of the terrible things that would unfold and be with Christ in heaven. We were also taught that the end of the world would come about in a terrible world-wide conflagration. We hid under desks in our schoolrooms, practicing for a nuclear war (desks are known to protect you from hydrogen bombs). The end of the world was soon, and only a push of the button away.
In my teen years, there was a small publishing boom in evangelical circles as Hal Lindsey launched his Late, Great, Planet Earth , complete with maps of the troop movements for the Battle of Armegeddon. It seemed so real. An end-time cottage industry, particularly strong in America, continues to feed off such false interpretations of Scripture and, more seriously, a complete absence of true Christian eschatology. Virtually nothing in Christian theology is more essential than the End. But the End is not at all what modern popularists think or say.
In the Scriptures, time is not rightly seen as a linear reality. Modern popular Christianity essentially secularizes the world, positing a naturalist view of cause and effect and historical flow. The occasional disruptions that are matters of Divine intervention do not change the nature of this secularized view. In conversations with non-believers, such modern views of Scripture present no challenge or suggestion that the world is other than a modern person imagines, with the sole exception of a God who exists somewhere and has rules.
This naturalist/secularized view of time and creation has no place for sacraments. Actions such as Baptism and Eucharist are minimized and marginalized. A Baptism that does something, or a Eucharist in which bread and wine actually change, disturbs the fixed order of the secularized world. Sacraments become needless complications that make the evangelical project more difficult. It is far easier to say to converts, “We simply do this because Jesus told us to,” or “We only do this in order to remember Him,” than to suggest that an entire worldview is false. If the world is sacrament and symbol (in the strong sense), then the secular/naturalist view of things is profoundly wrong and the task of Christian evangelism includes the radical re-education of the world.
The place of the End in classical Christianity can only be understood from a fully sacramental viewpoint. The End is not a conclusion of the historical process, a product of things that have come before. It is not what history has been adding up to. As such, the “End” is not a description of a point in time. Its full revelation at some point is almost its least important aspect.
So. What is the End? In Christian terms, the End is Christ Himself. We can also say that the End is another word for the manifestation of the Kingdom of God. Christ Himself is described in the Revelation as the “Alpha and Omega, the Beginning and the End.” This is an eternal description, not an appellation for certain points in time. Christ describes the End as “the Kingdom of God coming in power” (Mark 9:1). As Christ goes about His ministry, proclaiming the coming of the Kingdom, the End is present in His every word and action.
The clearest proclamation of this reality is recorded in Luke’s gospel:
So He came to Nazareth, where He had been brought up. And as His custom was, He went into the synagogue on the Sabbath day, and stood up to read. And He was handed the book of the prophet Isaiah. And when He had opened the book, He found the place where it was written: “The Spirit of the LORD is upon Me, Because He has anointed Me To preach the gospel to the poor; He has sent Me to heal the brokenhearted, To proclaim liberty to the captives And recovery of sight to the blind, To set at liberty those who are oppressed; To proclaim the acceptable year of the LORD.” Then He closed the book, and gave it back to the attendant and sat down. And the eyes of all who were in the synagogue were fixed on Him. And He began to say to them, “Today this Scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” (Lk. 4:16-21)
The passage from Isaiah is a prophecy of a cosmic Jubilee Year, the coming of the Kingdom of God. In OT Law, after seven cycles of Sabbath Years, the fiftieth year comes as the crown. All debts are canceled, all land reverts to its original owner. It is a liberation that is a shadow of a greater liberation to come. It is that greater liberation, the actual coming of the Kingdom of God, that Christ references in His statement that “this Scripture is fulfilled.”
What we see in the course of Christ’s ministry is summed up in his message to John the Baptist:
Jesus answered and said to them, “Go and tell John the things you have seen and heard: that the blind see, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have the gospel preached to them.”
All that Christ does happens because He Himself is the content of the sacrament of the Kingdom. Wherever He goes, the End is fulfilled.
This is the very same reality that the Church proclaims in its sacramental and mystical life. The Divine Liturgy is not an act of remembrance, but the coming of the Kingdom of God into our midst. There we eat the true supper at the End of all things. (St. John Chrysostom’s liturgy actually refers to the Second Coming in the past tense!)
This is at the very heart and nature of the gospel. We do not proclaim something that will happen. We proclaim something that has happened and that is now among us. When the Church lives rightly, according to Christ’s commandments, it lives in the eschaton, the End of all things. It is in that light that we forgive our enemies, give to those who ask of us, and return good for evil done to us. We can do this because we have been Baptized into the End of all things. We are already dead, “and our life is hid with Christ in God.” (Col. 3:3)
The great and abiding temptation for Christianity is to temporize the gospel. When the world sinks into the mundane, the normal, and the ordinary, the gospel becomes a banality, a religious teaching that does little more than moralize or threaten. The wonder that is the Kingdom of God breaking forth in the midst of things is dismissed and exchanged for that which will be, sometime later in the chronos. The subtle message is, “Not now, not here.”
But the Kingdom of God is here and now. If we do not stand at the End of all things now, we never will. St. John the Baptist asked, “Are you the Coming One, or do we look for another.” Jesus says, “Tell John what you have seen and heard.”
There are three words worth noting regarding the End: parousia, epiphany, apocalypse. The first literally means “presence,” and is the word most commonly translated as “coming” when speaking of the Second Coming of Christ. It is a technical term in Roman usage, referring to the state visit of a dignitary, such as the Emperor. As such, it is fittingly translated as “advent,” or some such rendering. Epiphany (epiphaneia) is used to describe the manifestation or showing forth (2Thess. 2:8). Apokalypse (apokalypsis) refers to something being revealed that was otherwise hidden.
A theme, particularly carried in epiphany and apocalypse, is that what is being shown forth and revealed is already present. The Kingdom of God is among us as a mystery, but the mystery is “at work.” The mysteries of the Church (such as the sacraments) are manifestations – epiphanies and apocalypse – of the reality of the Kingdom. They are of a piece with the work of Christ Himself.
Just as the truth of creation is revealed in the work of Christ (disease and death are undone, wind and seas obey Him, etc.), so the fullness of that truth will be revealed in His Parousia. This includes the mystery of time itself. Time, like matter itself, is relative to the Kingdom of God. Its truth lies beneath it, hidden, waiting to be made manifest. As such, the Scripture speaks of the “fullness of time,” etc. In the Church’s liturgical life, time is often transformed through the revelation of its reality. Thus, the feast of Pascha is not a date on a linear calendar in which we remember something in the past. Rather, it is the event itself, made present within time. This time is now that time. Christ our Passover is sacrificed for us.
The contemporary ignorance of Christian theology has made the Christian life subject to the tyranny of secular life and time. The Kingdom of God is partitioned from the world of the “ordinary” and “normal,” and turned into just one more thing in the future that has to wait its turn. However, this is utterly false and a denial of the work of Christ. In Christ, the Kingdom of God has shattered both time and matter. The bondage and debt of the created order are being overturned. What is hidden is being revealed. That which will be is present even now. Blessed are all who have loved His appearing.