The End Times and the Book of Revelation

By Fr. Mikael Fälthammar

This article is a translation of Fr. Mikael Fälthammar’s podcast series in Swedish about Orthodox Christian Faith. Fr. Mikael is the pastor of a small mission parish called Holy Resurrection Antiochian Orthodox Church in Göteborg, Sweden. If you would like to make a donation to the mission, you will find a link to donate with credit card or paypal on their website www.kristiuppstandelse.se.

The third angel sounded his trumpet, and a great star, blazing like a torch, fell from the sky on a third of the rivers and on the springs of water— the name of the star is Wormwood [which is a bitter herb, also called absinthe]. A third of the waters turned bitter, and many people died from the waters that had become bitter. (Revelation 8:10–11)

In a book called “The World as an Icon” by Per-Arne Bodin, there is a chapter about the great eschatological expectations in Russia during the past three or four centuries, and especially the belief that Russia and the Russian Empire play an important role in the end times. There is one particular passage about the catastrophic nuclear meltdown in Chernobyl. Bodin writes,

The extent to which the religious tradition is still alive in certain religious circles can be demonstrated by the way people reacted to the nuclear meltdown in Ukraine 1986. In Ukrainian, the name Chernobyl means wormwood or absinthe. And the nuclear accident has come to be associated with the prophecy about the end of the world in the book of Revelation. The eschatological speculations in the wake of this catastrophe … were so strong that the atheist Soviet Union was forced to use very exceptional means to quell the unrest. In the atheist state newspapers they published an interview with the Orthodox Metropolitan in Kiev! The Metropolitan was asked to comment on the relationship between Chernobyl and the prophecy in Revelation 8, and he answered that no one knows the day or the time of the last judgment.

The issue of the end times has been something that Christians have discussed for as long as Christianity has been around. The Creed says, “we believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the son of God, … who … came down from Heaven and was incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary … suffered and was buried … rose from the dead …” and the last words about Jesus, the Son of God are, “ascended into heaven, sits at the right hand of the Father, and he shall come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom shall have no end.” The second coming of Jesus Christ is something that we proclaim, as a key pillar of our faith. We do this during every liturgy in the Orthodox Church.

The concept of the end times comes to us from the Bible. For example, in the Old Testament there are many apocalyptic texts, or in other words, passages that talk about the second coming, the end times, the end of the world, etc. The book of Daniel talks about this at length. In the New Testament, the book of Revelation is the main source of apocalyptic literature. But Jesus also speaks about the end times in a number of passages in the gospels, and St. Paul also talks about what will happen in the end times.

There is a veritable briar patch of different viewpoints regarding the end times. In the last two hundred years, there have been more interpretations offered about the end times than at any other period in history. The interpretations become more and more imaginative and unconventional. But this article is not going to list all the modern and heterodox interpretations. Instead, we are going to look at the Orthodox views regarding the end times.

We will focus especially on the book of Revelation, and the way the Orthodox Church has discussed it. We will look back over the canonical process by which the book of Revelation came to be included in the Bible. And then we will talk about various interpretations of the end times, and of Revelation. We will talk about which interpretations have been rejected in the Orthodox Church, and which interpretations have been accepted.

We will also talk about healthy exegesis, that is, a healthy way of understanding how we apply scripture to our lives. How do we avoid going overboard when we are connecting the book of Revelation to our own lives, especially when it looks like we might be living in the apocalypse? Just to clarify, the word apocalypse is from Greek, and it means “unveiling” or “revealing.” In other words, the true meaning of the apocalypse is something that reveals information about the end times. However, in English, the word apocalypse has come to mean something catastrophic and fearful.

We will also talk about some hot button issues having to do with the end times. For example, the concepts of the antichrist whose name is 666. Pop culture loves to talk about these things, and there has been a lot of speculation about what 666 could mean. We will talk about the “Whore of Babylon,” which some Puritans identified as the Pope of Rome. We will also talk about an idea that has developed very recently, called the rapture. And we will finish on a positive note.

The reception of the book of Revelation

It is interesting to consider how the book of Revelation was received in the Orthodox Church[1]. In the Western part of the Roman Empire, the book of Revelation was warmly received very early after it was written. The same was true in the Eastern part of the Empire, at first. The Fathers in the East confirmed that it was written by St. John, and that it was apostolic. But later on, the Fathers in the East began to question whether it really was written by St. John. Many Fathers were also very sceptical about the rich imagery in Revelation, since they seemed to be nearly impossible to interpret and clarify. The Fathers reacted strongly to the concept of the thousand-year reign of Christ (which today is usually referred to as “the millennium” when people discuss Revelation). It didn’t help that the Montanists (an esoteric sect in the 200’s and 300’s) used the book of Revelation a great deal. The Fathers rejected any kind of literal interpretation of Revelation. You might even say that it fell out of favour in the Eastern Church.

The effects of this are visible, for example, in the fact that Revelation has never been a part of the lectionary in the East. That is to say, we never read it during a service in church; neither during the Divine Liturgy, nor at any other service. We read every other book in the New Testament in church, except for Revelation. Remarkably, the Orthodox Church in Georgia excluded Revelation from their bible until the beginning of the 1000’s because they were so sceptical of it.

In the Western Church, there was a theologian called Victorinus who wrote a commentary which was later revised by St. Jerome, during the late 300’s. St. Jerome edited out the chiliastic tendencies, that is to say, the speculations on the thousand-year reign of Christ.

In the East, however, one of the earliest known commentaries on Revelation was written by a theologian called Oikumenios in the late 500’s. He was non-Chalcedonian, and an alarmist. He felt that he saw a description of his own current day in the book of Revelation. He wrote a rather liberal and creative interpretation, and he drew a number of unorthodox conclusions. Oikumenios’ commentary was one of the few that even existed in the Eastern Church at that time.

It was considered to be such a bad commentary, that another theologian felt obligated to write a better and a more Orthodox commentary a few years later. His name was Andrew, the bishop of Caesarea. He was a well-known commentator, and was probably asked to write this book by the Patriarch of Constantinople. Andrew of Caesarea has had an enormous influence on the way the Eastern Orthodox Church has perceived the book of Revelation. We have already mentioned that the Orthodox Church in Georgia did not accept the book of Revelation until the 1000’s, and one of the reasons that they finally did accept it, was that the commentary by Andrew of Caesarea was translated into Georgian. When the Georgian Church was able to read the commentary, and could hear an Orthodox explanation of this puzzling book, they were able to accept it.

Andrew of Caesarea was neither alarmist nor sloppy in his interpretations. Rather, he was very professional in his comments. Anyone who is familiar with the Fathers’ commentaries on the scriptures recognizes the Fathers’ tone of voice and their method in Andrew of Caesarea’s commentary. He is pastoral, liturgical and sacramental in the way he interprets Revelation.

In order to understand the bigger picture, we have to look at the major world events that occurred just before Andrew of Caesarea was writing. At the end of the 500’s, there was a Byzantine Emperor called Justinian (known as St. Justinian in the Orthodox Church), who enlarged the Christian Roman Empire significantly, for example by reuniting large portions of Italy to the Eastern Empire. Justinian was a bigger-than-life figure who made sweeping administrational changes. He nearly succeeded in reuniting the Chalcedonian and non-Chalcedonian churches. Everything was coming together, the empire was taking a big step forward, perhaps a step towards its former glory.

But everything ground to a halt suddenly. Toward the end of Justinian’s reign, there was a great plague which is now known as the “Justinian Plague.” It spread across the empire in several waves during several years, and decimated the population. Some estimate that least one fifth of the whole population all around the Mediterranean died from the plague.

The plague threw everyone’s life into chaos. The army was decimated. The workforce was decimated. Dead bodies were left rotting on the streets, and no one even dared to touch them. People left the weak and the elderly to die alone. It was an apocalyptic time, in other words, and it brought with it a kind of moral collapse as well. So many farmers died that there was food shortage and widespread starvation because no one could produce enough food. In addition, there were a number of very harsh winters at the end of the 500’s, and so the famine and starvation worsened and people froze to death. Naturally, people began to make a mental connection between these events and the book of Revelation, and we can certainly understand why.

But that isn’t the end of the story. Things got even worse. There were a number of earthquakes that severely damaged several large cities in the empire. The Persians invaded from the East, taking advantage of the fact that the Byzantine army was depleted. It doesn’t even stop there. The emperor Maurice was murdered in 602, leading to several years of civil war.

When Andrew of Caesarea was writing this commentary, his city had recently been under Persian occupation. We should not be surprised that people thought they were living in the end times. People have read their own current events into Revelation at pretty much every period of history between when was written and now. There are always people saying, “this or that emperor is connected to such and such figure in the book of Revelation.” Or perhaps they say, “this earthquake is the one which was written about.” This was also the way things were at the time of Andrew of Caesarea.

A less discerning commentator would have joined the majority of people, reading his own time’s current events into the book of Revelation. But Andrew of Caesarea did not do that. Instead, he wrote in a systematic and objective way, following the Holy Fathers’ exegetical tradition. One of the clearest indications of his maturity as a writer is that he gives examples of a number of different interpretations or meanings for each verse or passage in Revelation. He weighs these interpretations against each other. He writes, “some say one thing, but I say this other thing.” He might even give two or three parallel interpretations that are equally plausible. In other words, he does not have an axe to grind. He listens as much as he talks. He is faithfully and dispassionately conveying the whole picture of the tradition.

When theologians fail to show this kind of mature thinking, there can be dire consequences. Take for example, Harold Camping, a TV preacher who prophesied sometime around 2012 that the world would end on a specific date. He put up billboards in a number of cities proclaiming that the world would end, and encouraged people to sell everything they owned and prepare to leave this life. But we are still here. He was wrong. Some of his followers had sold everything they owned, and had used all their money to pay for the billboards. Naturally, their lives were ruined by his deception.

Mysteriously, it is almost always the case that the supposed date for Jesus’ return is very close to our time, usually in the immediate future. Why is it always about me and us? Why do they never conclude that people in a distant future will experience these things? Could it be because such predictions don’t sell quite as well as the notion that the end of the world is right around the corner? Harold Camping revised his prediction, and predicted the second coming would happen a few months later. But Jesus did not come back on that day either. We’re still here.

People are easily manipulated and misled. This is probably an aspect of what it means to be human, ever since the fall. What is remarkable is that in our time, some very protestant readings of the book of Revelation creep into the world of Orthodoxy. People spread the fear of vaccines, warning of a new world order, and such things. People are teaching in the name of Orthodoxy, but the impulse and the thought processes are very much Protestant. The clouds of worry sneak in, and people forget the foundational Orthodox Christian understanding that we are always assured of the victory of Christ in the end.

People who make such speculations often tell us to be vigilant, but what they usually mean is, “you must acknowledge that I, elder so-and-so, have made the correct interpretation, or you will face judgment.” Christians should always be vigilant, to be sure. But this primarily means being vigilant in our own personal lives against sins, against our own complacency and passions. We are vigilant, asking for the Holy Spirit to guide us into a life that is virtuous and Christ-like. We keep our vigils so that we can hear the voice of the Holy Spirit speaking through the Church as it guides us into the fullness of the stature of Christ. This basic approach to the book of Revelation is found in the writings of Andrew of Caesarea.

Andrew of Caesarea did not predict the date of Jesus’ return. Instead, his method was sober, reading the scriptures and interpreting them in line with the father’s tradition. In fact, he explicitly denies that there is any special correlation between the events of his day and the book of Revelation.

Although many people have tried to guess when Jesus will come back, the attitude of the Church is to wait with joyful anticipation of His return. The Church knows that Jesus will return, but we do not know when it will happen. For that reason, Andrew of Caesarea emphasizes that the end is always near for each person because we are all going to die in the relatively near future. We hope to live a long and happy life, but at every Divine Liturgy, we also pray for, “a Christian ending to our life … and a good defence before the fearful judgment seat of Christ.” And the reason we do this is that we do not know when our own individual death will happen. Death can come to us very suddenly. In that sense, the end is always near for every one of us. Therefore, Andrew of Caesarea advises us that when we read the book of Revelation we need to focus on this other, personal sense of the end times, instead of trying to guess, or working ourselves up into a frenzy about the end of the world.

Many young people become obsessed with the study of the end times and the return of Christ, often experiencing great anxiety. Admittedly, it is something to fear. We call it the dread judgment seat of Christ. But God is good! Christ is the “lover of mankind” (philanthropos), and provides for his faithful. That is why we Christians focus on living lives that are consistent with the teachings of the church, and consistent with the will of God so that we are ready, whenever that day comes. We do this “in the fear of God, with faith and love.” We make our own preparation, not out of a sense of terror but out of an empowered freedom in Christ, because God is the “lover of mankind.”

The Russian Orthodox Metropolitan, Hilarion Alfayev writes about the end times, in his book about the Mystery of Faith, he writes,

The character of the Antichrist has always drawn a great deal of attention. Ironically, it seems that many Christians are more concerned about the arrival of the Antichrist than they are about the final victory of Jesus Christ over the Antichrist. The eschaton [the end times] is interpreted as a time of fear, global catastrophes and desolation. The end of the world is no longer awaited with eagerness, as it was in the early church, but rather, with anxiety and fear. In contrast to this, the New Testament and the Patristic eschatology [the teachings about the end times] is hopeful, and comforting. It is focused on Christ instead of the Antichrist.

We may also consider one of the prayers in the Divine Liturgy which points towards the same mindset as Metropolitan Hilarion describes. In the great feast of the Liturgy, when the bread and wine have been placed on the altar table, we thank Jesus Christ for everything he has done.

Having in remembrance, therefore, this saving commandment and all those things which have come to pass for us: the cross, the grave, the third-day resurrection, the ascension into heaven, the sitting at the right hand, and the second and glorious coming, thine of thine own, we offer unto thee in behalf of all and for all.

Even though this event is in the future, we are so certain that the “second and glorious coming” of Christ will happen that we can give thanks as if it has already happened. We look forward to the return of Jesus Christ with hope and joy. And in the Divine Liturgy we are already in the time of the second coming.

Controversial Imagery of Revelation

We now turn to some of the usual hot-button issues around the end times. The first issue is around the concept of the Antichrist, the mark of the beast and the number 666. These images come to us from Revelation 13:16-18.

[The Antichrist] also forced all people, great and small, rich and poor, free and slave, to receive a mark on their right hands or on their foreheads, so that they could not buy or sell unless they had the mark, which is the name of the beast or the number of its name. This calls for wisdom. Let the person who has insight calculate the number of the beast, for it is the number of a man. That number is 666.

Many people have guessed what this number is supposed to mean. Truthfully, no one can be entirely sure. Andrew of Caesarea writes that, “time and experience will reveal to those who live [spiritually] sober lives in all vigilance, what the name means.” That means that whenever the reality that this number is referring to comes about, the person who lives in the tradition of the church, in a spiritually sober and healthy lifestyle, will understand what the number is all about. It will be entirely clear at that time.

We Christians have received a different “mark” or “sign” on our right hands and on our foreheads. This “sign” is also put on our eyelids, ears, nostrils, lips, both hands, both feet, and on our chests. It is the mark, or the seal, of chrismation, the seal of the gift of the Holy Spirit. We are called to live in the Holy Spirit, and that means living in a way that is always preparing for life in the Kingdom of Heaven. St. Isaac the Syrian says that this life has been given to you for repentance from the deeds of the world. Don’t waste your time on corruptible things.

When we have received the “mark” of holy chrism, we are already called to prepare ourselves, to follow Christ no matter the cost. This is the calling of every Christian. If we live that way, it is impossible for us to be marked with the Antichrist’s mark on our forehead and our right hand. This is the truth by which we should be spreading peace and calm to anyone who is anxious about the mark of the beast. We should calm them by exhorting them to live the way that the church teaches. Be obedient to your bishops, and follow the instructions of the church, fast and pray. You have the sign of chrismation on your forehead and on your right hand.

Andrew of Caesarea commented on the meaning of the sign being written, “on their right hand and on their forehead.” He interprets the hand as indicating good deeds. The mark on the hand implies that the good deeds cease. It doesn’t need to be a literal sign or symbol. It’s not a barcode (which, by the way, was once identified as the mark of the beast, not so long ago). It’s not the vaccine. It is not microchips in the vaccine. Rather, the mark of the Antichrist refers to a person who does not live according to the will of God, and who does not do these good deeds. When Andrew of Caesarea interprets the sign being on the forehead, he says that this indicates that people spread heresies and false teachings, in disobedience to the church, especially the things that lead people away from God. The tragedy and the threat of the mark of the beast is the tragedy of someone who neglects good deeds, and who deliberately invents and spreads false teachings, leading others astray. But we who have the sign of chrismation on our forehead and on our hand busy ourselves with good, Christian deeds. As long as we hold fast to this faith, we are in no danger of receiving the mark of the beast.

One of the most important points of Andrew of Caesarea’s interpretation is that the mark of the beast is not something you stumble into unawares. On the contrary, the image of the mark of the beast refers to a deliberate rejection of what is right. You don’t catch the mark of the beast like a cold. It doesn’t happen to you. The mark of the beast is a symbol for something that only becomes your own personal reality when you have taken it upon yourself, accepting it and knowing full well what you are doing.

It is insidious to tell faithful Christians that the mark of the beast would be something that happens to you by mistake. The logical conclusion of such teaching would be that the judgment of God might come upon you despite your faith in Jesus Christ, and that your faith cannot save you from threats that you don’t even understand. The logical conclusion would also be that it does not matter if you repent of your sins, if you receive the sacraments or if you love your neighbour. All that matters is which preacher you happened to listen to.

If the only thing that will save you is the one who warns you of this “mark of the beast,” then you become dependent upon such a teacher. He is the only one who can tell you how to be saved. This form of posturing is, sadly, all too common. The leaders who do this are basically proclaiming themselves as new messiahs, since they want you to believe that you cannot know what the mark of the beast is without their help.

In the early church, there were a number of heretical sects which claimed to have a secret tradition that had been passed down to them from the apostles, but only a select few knew it. If you received this secret knowledge, you achieved a higher plane of consciousness, called gnosis.

St. Vincent of Lerins, on the other hand, taught that true doctrine is that which has been believed and practiced by all men [all Christians], always and everywhere. There is no secret doctrine which has any truth to it. Any secret wisdom is no wisdom at all. The Christian truth has always been out in the open.

There is clearly a gnostic flavor to many of the new teachings about the mark of the beast. Priests who teach these things might warn you to be discerning and vigilant, telling you that if you are vigilant and discerning you cannot fail to conclude that such-and-such is the mark of the beast. By implication they mean that if you have not concluded this, then you are not vigilant and discerning. But no church father has ever said that the mark of the beast is going to be something that happens in a given year, in a given country. No church father ever identified these images with specific events. Modern preachers have invented new and false doctrines, and they count on their listeners being too afraid to question the innovations out of a fear of God’s judgment.

At the beginning of the book of revelation, St. John explains that Revelation is sent as a message from Jesus to seven churches in specific cities. Andrew of Caesarea interprets these seven churches as symbols of all churches, since seven is used in the bible as a number of fullness. In other words, the revelation of St. John is sent to the whole church, to all churches. It is a universal message. It is not a secret gnosis.

Another image from Revelation that many people will have heard of is called “the whore of Babylon.” This comes from Revelation 17:3-6.

There I saw a woman sitting on a scarlet beast that was covered with blasphemous names and had seven heads and ten horns. The woman was dressed in purple and scarlet, and was glittering with gold, precious stones and pearls. She held a golden cup in her hand, filled with abominable things and the filth of her adulteries. The name written on her forehead was a mystery: Babylon the great, the mother of prostitutes and of the abominations of the earth. I saw that the woman was drunk with the blood of God’s holy people, the blood of those who bore testimony to Jesus. When I saw her, I was greatly astonished.

This has been interpreted in a number of ways over the years. Some people say, for example, that Rome was the whore of Babylon, when the Christians were being persecuted before the time of Constantine. Others have claimed that the Pope of Rome is the whore of Babylon. That particular interpretation has been commonly accepted among the denominations of the radical reformation, such as the Puritans.

Andrew of Caesarea disagrees, and writes that Rome is not the whore of Babylon. At the time when Andreas of Caesarea was writing, Rome was only a shadow of its former self, and did not lend itself to that comparison. The passage about the whore of Babylon continues, and says, “For all the nations have drunk the maddening wine of her adulteries. The kings of the earth committed adultery with her, and the merchants of the earth grew rich from her excessive luxuries.’”

But at the time of Andrew of Caesarea, this would have been a gross exaggeration if it referred to Rome. It was not the centre of the world anymore. Therefore, he would not interpret the whore of Babylon as a way of referring to Rome.

He raises the question about whether Rome would rise up again in its former glory at the end of time. But he concludes that it is much more likely that the whore of Babylon represents earthly kingdoms and regimes and governments in general, and especially the temptation and allure of power and pleasure. It refers to all of the passions, lusts, pride and hate, and to all the ways that we, as sinners, have strayed from the glory of God. The image of the whore of Babylon is referring to more general reality, and not a specific kingdom or a specific government or a specific person.

Another image from Revelation is the one we started with, the star that falls down and poisons the water. We mentioned at the beginning of the article that people interpreted this image as a prediction of the nuclear meltdown in Chernobyl in the 1980’s. Andrew of Caesarea wrote about the image of the star, but obviously not in relation to Chernobyl specifically.

Either the star means these things which come upon men from the heavens, or the devil is signified by this, concerning whom Isaiah, ‘how did he fall from heaven, the morning star, rising at dawn.’ For [the devil], upset, agitated and bitter, makes people drunk through pleasure, and thus connives to bring chastising punishment on them here; not to everyone but only the one third on account of the long-suffering of God. And he causes people not to believe in the future reward, bringing spiritual death down upon those who do not endure.

This is yet again a case where Andrew of Caesarea has a pastoral approach. The risk of deception is always present, but sin is always the culprit. The fallen star is the devil and the poison is not the radiation poisoning from a nuclear reactor in Chernobyl (even if that poisoning was a terrible tragedy), but the poison of sin. The falling star is a spiritual poison that makes the soul sick with greed, pride, vanity, immorality etc.

Our final image from Revelation is what has come to be known as the rapture. This is a rather common misinterpretation of the end times in Protestant circles (most of the time in charismatic churches). The rapture is based on a passage from 1 Thessalonians 4:15-18.

According to the Lord’s word, we tell you that we who are still alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will certainly not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord for ever. Therefore encourage one another with these words.”

This passage has been the subject of a very strange interpretation in modern times, one which could not really be used to, “encourage one another,” as St. Paul writes. But rather, it is a terrifying interpretation. The idea is that people are going to suddenly be transported up to heaven and disappear from the earth. Some people say that the rapture will happen before all the plagues and tribulations that are described in Revelation. Others say that the rapture will happen afterwards. The reasonings behind these two positions are a bit of a tangled-up mess which we will not get into right now.

But in short, one of these interpretations says that people are supposed to be raptured so that they are spared from the suffering and tribulations that come. When we combine these ideas with other Protestant heresies, for example that you are only truly saved if you speak in tongues, then the consequences are spiritually abusive. A child who has not started speaking in tongues does not see herself as fully saved. She must then conclude that she will not be raptured with her mom and dad before the dreaded tribulations come. Children believe that they might be left on earth with their little siblings, abandoned to endure the terrors of God’s wrath alone. It is an absolutely catastrophic pastoral failure on the part of people who teach such things, and is a reminder of why heresy is such a serious matter.

It is even more remarkable that this particular heresy is only two hundred years old. According to some, the whole idea of the rapture started with the imaginings of a Scottish twelve-year-old called Maggie McDonald. In any case, Cyrus Scofield, a preacher whose notes on the bible had a large influence on the revival movement in the 1800’s, took up this idea as a main element in his teachings. Scofield’s revival sermons emphasized the imminent return of Christ.

The idea of the rapture has become a mainstay of many Protestant Evangelical denominations. There is a series of books called “Left Behind,” which tell the story of a person who is left behind when his Christian friends are raptured. All of his unsaved friends are left on earth. Based on this, there is actually a website called youvebeenleftbehind.com where you can hear a recorded message for all the people who have been left behind after the rapture. There are even bumper stickers that say, “Warning! In the case of the rapture, this car will be unmanned.” Well, it was nice of them to warn us. There is another bumper sticker too, which says, “if the rapture happens, can I have your car?”

When St. Paul writes about this in the letter to the Thessalonians, he uses the same words as when he describes how he was “raptured up into the third heaven” in 2 Corinthians.

I know a man [referring to himself] … who was caught up [or raptured] to the third heaven. Whether it was in the body or out of the body I do not know—God knows. And I know that this man—whether in the body or apart from the body I do not know, but God knows— was caught up to paradise and heard inexpressible things, things that no one is permitted to tell.

St. Paul also writes about Christians being “caught up” into the air, this is a pastoral, empathetic, and comforting message to a fearful group of Christians in Thessaloniki. It is not a doomsday prophecy. The people in this church were asking how it was possible that Jesus had not come back sooner. The earliest Christians expected Jesus to come back in their lifetime, and when he did not, it was very puzzling to them. They wondered what was going to happen to the people who had died before Jesus came back. St. Paul’s words basically boil down to, “do not despair, Jesus Christ will provide for those who have fallen asleep in the Lord. They will rise from the dead and join us and we will all live together with Jesus.” That is the point of the teaching about being “caught up into the heavens.”

St. Paul says that the trumpets will sound, which is a common term used in literature about the end of time, not just the beginning of the next phase of time. He says that Jesus will return in glory. The Greek words that he uses remind us of the way the gospels tell the story of Jesus’ ascension into heaven. In the same way that Jesus ascended into heaven he will come back. In glory. We will be with him. This is a message full of hope, not dread, and is a gentle and pastoral message.

We end with the observation that when the Orthodox Church speaks about the end times and about the second coming, it is always a hopeful message. We hope in the victory of Christ. The Orthodox Church has suffered greatly throughout the ages, but she has always been the church of hope. Anyone who comes to the Orthodox Church for Pascha cannot help but be overwhelmed by the hope and joy of the Orthodox. Everyone is shouting and singing, “Christ is risen!” He is risen from the dead and has trampled down death by his death and given life to those in the graves! Jesus Christ is the one who has defeated death and sin, the devil, the beasts and all the enemies. Jesus is the victor for all time. He is the only true victor in all of creation. Inasmuch as we, in the church, are his body, we belong to him. That is why we look forward to his second coming with hope and joy. That is the message which we are called to preach to the whole world when we speak about the end times. Hope. Joy. The expectation of peace.


[1] In researching this topic, I found a book by Dr. Eugénia Scarvelis Constantinou very helpful. The book is called, “Andrew of Caesarea and the Apocalypse,” and it is called that because Dr. Constantinou discusses a commentary on Revelation by Andrew of Caesarea who lived in the 500’s.