As the season of Advent draws to a close, it is probably as good a time as any to talk about the end of the world. Robert writes:
As someone who, having spent childhood in a nominally RC family, gradually became awakened to Christ and Christian faith, the hope for the eschaton has come to seem to me an indispensable part of the faith. It frustrates me that so much public discussion of this doctrine, the Parousia of Christ, is dominated by date-setters and fringe fundamentalists. Could you speak to this issue, the importance of the Parousia, from an Anglican perspective?
This is indeed a question that has gotten a lot of press in recent years. Between guys like Harold Camping predicting the exact date when the world will end and books like the Left Behind series articulating a vision of a violent apocalyptic future, it seems that one of the things that Christians are becoming best known for is our thoughts on the end of the world. And with so much juicy, mysterious, and difficult to understand but nevertheless Hollywood friendly material in the Book of Revelation, is it any wonder that so many Christians today gravitate towards apocalypticism?
The word eschaton that Robert uses is a fancy word, derived from Greek, that just means the end. In theological study, eschatology is what we call the study of last things. And it’s true that the Bible tells us that the world, at least as we know it, will one day come to an end. From there, however, the picture becomes a bit hard to put together. What Scripture reveals is limited, and what the Fathers believed about this subject was all over the map.
The reason why Advent is a good time to address this subject is because Advent is a season in which we are called to prepare ourselves for the second coming of Christ. The word Advent actually means coming, and the word parousia is a Greek word that is often used to denote the second coming or second advent of Our Lord at the end of time. The readings and the prayers that we use during this season reflect that sense of preparation and anticipation, not just for the yearly remembrance of Jesus’ first coming at Christmas but also for His second coming for which we joyfully await.
Classical Anglicanism is minimal in what it teaches about the parousia and the eschaton. Given the limited amount of information revealed in the scriptures and the lack of patristic consensus, this minimalism is not surprising. The Anglican Reformers and Divines simply did not spend a lot of time discussing this subject. Likewise, classical Anglicanism does not take the time to refute some of the ideas that have been espoused by modern Christians, like the idea of a “rapture” in which believers will be sucked up into the sky prior to final judgment (see the video above), simply because such concepts are only at most a century old and therefore were not being discussed in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. But this minimalism does not mean that Anglicanism has nothing to say about eschatology. On the contrary, the Anglican teaching on the end of the world is very important because it provides a capstone to the overall picture of salvation that is painted by the New Testament as read and understood by the early Church. And the primary place to find this teaching is in the prayer book collect for Advent.
The 1662 BCP has collects for each of the four weeks of Advent that are essentially unchanged from what was in the earlier prayer books. Only the first week’s collect really addresses the subject of eschatology. However, in 1662 the rubrics were changed to require that the collect for the first Sunday of Advent “be repeated every day, with the other Collects in Advent, until Christmas-Eve.” This instruction is given again on each subsequent Sunday. This emphasis on the daily repetition of the collect indicates how seriously the subject is to be taken. The collect reads as follows:
ALMIGHTY God, give us grace that we may cast away the works of darkness, and put upon us the armour of light, now in the time of this mortal life in which thy Son Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility; that in the last day, when he shall come again in his glorious majesty to judge both the quick and the dead, we may rise to the life immortal; through him who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Ghost, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
Herein lies the central teaching of Anglicanism upon last things. And from this prayer, and the readings that surround it, we can gather several important details about the Bible’s teaching:
1) There will be an end to the world
Anglicanism affirms that there will be a time when the world as we know it will cease to be. What exactly that looks like is hard to say. There are a number of prominent contemporary theologians, N. T. Wright being among them, who argue that the end of the world does not actually mean that the world will cease to be but rather that the world will finally be fully restored to what it was in creation, with all creatures living in harmony with one another. This is certainly a valid argument to make, so long as it does not undermine the teaching that all things as they are will eventually come to an end.
2) We are living in the last days
On the second Sunday of Advent, the traditional BCP lectionary calls for the reading of Luke 21:25-33. This passage, read along with the collect above, focuses a great deal of attention on the subject of last things. In the passage, we are told that “This generation shall not pass away, till all be fulfilled.” While in the apostolic age, this verse was often interpreted to mean that no one would die before Jesus returned, by the end of the patristic era “this generation” was being associated with the Church. We are living in the last days because we are among the generation of the Church, the generation of those who live between the Lord’s Ascension and His return, and that return could come at any moment. The time is near. Luke points us to various signs that will mark the end, including calamities and wars. When the end comes, we will know. It will be obvious.
3) We cannot know when the last day will be
It is significant to note, when looking at the collect and the readings, that no effort is made anywhere to try to pinpoint a possible date for Christ’s return. In the 1979 BCP, the reading for the first week of Advent in Year B is Mark 13:24-37 in which Jesus says that “about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” If even Jesus Himself does not know when the end of the world will be, suffice it to say that we will not be able to figure it out either. The point of revealing to us that the end is coming is not so that we can play guessing games with it, nor so that we can take out a map of world events and try to match them to the predictions made in scripture, as some modern Christians have been prone to do, but so that we may be prepared, as the season of Advent calls us to be, so that we may not be caught by surprise when the last day comes.
4) We will be judged
On that last day, the collect tells us that Jesus will return and that He will “judge both the quick and the dead,” echoing the language of the creeds. And this is where we start to approach a sensible and pastoral reason why we should be paying attention to this subject, even though idle speculation is unwarranted. What matters is not figuring out when the last day will be but understanding that on that day we will be judged. That is the day when it will be determined whether we are to spend eternity in the glory of God, in the company of angels, in full communion, in peace, love, and joy, or whether we will suffer the pain of eternal punishment in the place prepared for the devil and his angels from the foundation of time. So, yeah, it’s a big deal. The Son comes to judge in the place of the Father, and the judgment He renders will be a perfect judgment. And as we are born into sin, if our works and merits are all we have to offer when we come to stand before that judgment seat, we will be doomed to face the justice that we so swiftly deserve.
5) The grace of Christ renders us just
If we rely on our own works to save us, we are doomed. Fortunately, God has provided another way. In the collect, we ask for grace to “cast away the works of darkness, and put upon us the armour of light, now in the time of this mortal life in which thy Son Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility.” We ask, in other words, for faith, to trust in Jesus and to thus receive the grace that comes from His sacrifice, the grace that wipes away our sin and replaces it with God’s love. And we ask for it now. Not in the future. Not on the day of judgment. But now, so that “in the last day, when he shall come again in his glorious majesty to judge both the quick and the dead, we may rise to the life immortal.” If we have faith now, we will receive the grace of Christ, and thereby the last day becomes not something to be feared but something to be joyfully anticipated, the way that little children anticipate Christmas morning. For those of us who are in Christ, the last day will be the day when all the promises are finally fulfilled, when we are no longer hindered by our sin, when we begin the great adventure of life with God to its fullest.
Eschatology is an important part of Christian theology because it gives us hope for the culmination of all things in Christ. However, eschatology only makes sense if it is tied to a much larger, much deeper story about Jesus and His saving work for us. Talking about the end of the world without talking about the Incarnation, Crucifixion, and Resurrection makes no sense. We are called by God to be one with Him in faith now and to let Him worry about the last day. So long as we live in faith, we will not be caught unawares.