Will you be left behind? This is the obvious take away question one gets after watching the Left Behind movie. I recommend watching the film to get a glimpse of a premillennial worldview, but I don’t recommend reading the series- it’s 16 books long . . . I stopped reading when they couldn’t wrap it up in seven. Seven is a “perfect” number that comes up a lot in Revelation . . . but there’s really nothing perfect about a 16 book end times series!
For Orthodox Christians who have come into contact with Evangelicals that focus on the Tribulation and Rapture the question often comes up, why isn’t our Church talking about any of this stuff? An example of this sentiment comes from an “ask a priest” question I found online and have titled “the misguided parishioner” which highlights this concern:
“Concerning the end times, the Orthodox Church has always in my experience brushed it aside saying it is rather too complicated to be spoken about. Maybe all my interpretations are wrong, but if no one else in the church is about to talk about it and I mean talk in depth, then is it not my right to start doing as God instructed and read those passages for myself?”
For me this is where the discussion starts getting fun. You see, for most of the Western world since the Renaissance (14th century) knowledge has been equated with the intellect and rationality. So when we can talk about something we assume that means we have knowledge of it, and when we do not speak of something we assume it means that we are ignorant of it. As Orthodox Christians we wholly reject this understanding of knowledge. Following St. Gregory Palamas and the great hesychast (stillness) tradition that preceded him, we hold that the most important truths are at their core mysteries, and these are not mysteries to be solved, but mysteries to be lived. This is how we understand the sacraments, prayer, salvation, and eschatology (the theology of last things).
We also reject the modern practice of private interpretation. Historically the Church has seen private interpretation for what it really is; a fast track to heresy. It wasn’t an ignorance of the Bible that led to heresies like Gnosticism, Arianism, and Docetism; rather it was that typically heretics interpreted on their own, apart from the Church, her creeds, services, hymns, saints, and hierarchy. And it was to these things the Fathers appealed in rejecting heresies. So is it our prerogative to read Scripture? Yes! But this is not enough, it is equally important that we place ourselves under the guidance of the Church and its interpretive community rather than isolating ourselves and risking falling into heresy.
So how do we answer the question of whether we as Orthodox Christians are not simply dodging the important eschatological questions? First, we take Christ’s words seriously “no one knows the day or hour” (Matt 24:36), so we don’t try to find out when the end is coming. Second, we use the Revelation of John and other eschatological Scriptures primarily for guiding our worship. This is why we see the numerous parallels between Revelation and the Divine Liturgy. We believe much of the kingdom of God to be a present reality, so we don’t look “out there” into the future to find it. As Christ explains to the Pharisees “The kingdom of God is not coming with signs to be observed; nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or, ‘There it is!’ For behold, the kingdom of God is in your midst” (Luke 17:20-21). We recognize this each week when we give the kiss of peace saying “Christ is in our midst.” And lastly, the kingdom of God is a mystery. It is not something we can rationally comprehend, and to do so is to replace the kingdom with an idea of the kingdom. Instead of trying to rationally comprehend the kingdom we ought to spend our efforts participating in it, for it is in our midst.