By the Rev. Metropolitan of Nafpaktos and Saint Vlassios, fr. Hierotheos Vlachos
All of the events that are linked to the Second Coming of Christ are called “eschatological”* because they pertain to the last, the ultimate day; in other words, they pertain to the events that will take place after the present world has come to its end. We usually refer to “the end of History”, but this does not fully express the reality of matters, given that History is not strictly confined to historical events, but also embraces the lives of the saints. The lives of the saints after death, as well as the lives of the people after the Second Coming of Christ, do not constitute a so-called meta-historical era; they too are regarded as part of a historical era: it is the history of the saints.
* (Greek eschatos = hindmost, last)
Just as the world will not be destroyed altogether but will be renovated, so will mankind not be annihilated but transformed; and History likewise will also never cease, but merely change its content and its life.
Thus, whenever we refer to eschatological events, we mainly refer to all those things that will take place during the Second Coming of Christ, when He will be passing judgment on mankind. Therefore, although we may be waiting for those eschatological events, we can nevertheless say that – from the aspect of our way of living – the “final times” are already present, given that saints are already savoring the Kingdom of God, from this lifetime. As we shall see further along, the saintly persons are already given a foretaste of all those things that are to be revealed during the so-called “end of Time”. Temporally speaking, we may be awaiting the eschatological events, but modally, they arrive and are experienced, by saints.
We shall preoccupy ourselves in this chapter with three specific topics that are linked to the eschatological events that have to do with Christ’s Second Coming. First of all, we shall take a general look at Christ’s Second Coming; secondly, we shall set out the theological truth behind the resurrection of our bodies and thirdly, we shall examine the events pertaining to God’s Judgment, which are linked to both the Coming of Christ and the bodily resurrection of Man.
_____The glorious Coming of Christ_____
Throughout all the Biblical-Patristic tradition, it is stated that Christ will come once again to this world, this time to judge mankind. This is a fact that cannot be doubted by Christians. Christ Himself – in the excerpt referring to the coming Judgment Day – speaks of His new and glorious Arrival. He says: “……when the Son of man comes, in all His glory…” (Matthew 25:31). The word “when” is not a hypothetical term; it is a temporal one, which implies that there is a time when Christ will come to this world once again, and in fact with immense glory. And elsewhere, Christ said: “…… and then they shall behold the son of man, arriving in clouds……” (Mark 13:26).
In the Acts of the Apostles, where Christ’s Ascension is recorded, it is said that the angels had remarked to the astonished disciples: “……men of Galilee, why do you stand gazing towards the heavens? This Jesus, who was swept away from you up to the heavens, will come in the same manner that you had seen Him heading towards the heavens…….” (Acts 1:11). The manner in which He rose to the heavens will therefore be the same one, when He returns to earth.
The Apostle Paul teaches us that those who will be alive at the time of arrival of the Son of Man – and in fact those who are righteous – will be seized “within clouds, to encounter the Lord in the air….” (1 Thess. 4:17). And it is also written in the Book of Revelations that: “…behold, He comes with the clouds, and every eye shall behold Him……” (Rev. 1:7)
These passages, which are all very representative, declare that the faithful unshakeably believe that Christ will come to earth to judge mankind, when the end of this world comes, along with the beginning of the new life. That is the reason the Creed includes the confession: “…and coming once again in glory, to judge the living and the dead, Whose Kingdom is never-ending…”
In the Holy Bible, there are many expressions that divulge the Coming of Christ; we shall present just a few of them – the most indicative. First of all, the second coming of Christ is referred to as “Day”, and in fact “the Day of the Lord” and “Judgment Day”. The Apostle Paul writes: “…for the day of the Lord cometh…” (2 Peter 3:10). Elsewhere, the Apostle Paul calls it the “Day of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Cor. 1:8), or “the Day of Christ” (Phil.1:10) and elsewhere, “the Day that will declare everything” (1 Cor. 3:13). Furthermore, John the Evangelist calls it the “day of judgment” (1 John 4:17). It is called “Day”, because compared to this present life –which is darkness- it denotes a new reality. The image of “day” is not irrelevant to the image of “sun”, given that Jesus is the “Sun of Justice”, Who will be appearing at that time hence the use of the term “Day”.
John the Evangelist links this “Day” to the end-Times events, calling it the Day of end-Times. In the Gospel of John, Christ Himself speaks of “the last day”. At some point, He says that He will resurrect man “on the last day” (John6:39) and elsewhere that His word shall judge mankind “on the last day” (John 12:48). Here, the word “day” – which is linked to the tem “last” rather indicates the last day prior to the commencement of the Kingdom of God. Hence it is linked more to the end of this present life.
The Day of the Lord is inseparably linked to the presence of the Coming Christ. It is for the same reason that other expressions are also used, to denote this reality. It is characterized as “the day of the epiphany of God’s glory” (Titus 6:13). It is also called “the day of the epiphany of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Timothy 6:14). Elsewhere it is linked to the notion of “presence”, because that is when Christ will present Himself.
The disciples had asked Christ: “and what shall be the sign of Your presence and the end of the world?” (Matthew 24:3). On that day, the glory of God is to be revealed, and all of mankind – including those who were ignorant of it until that moment – shall behold it. The Apostle Peter had spoken of the “revealing of God’s glory” (1 Peter 4:13) and the Apostle Paul respectively of the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ “from the heavens, along with His angelic hosts” (2 Thess. 1:7).
These passages that we previously brought to mind are indicative of the faith of the Church, who is steadfastly based on both the revelatory words of Christ Himself, as well as the certainty of the Apostles, that the day will definitely come, when this world will come to an end, and Christ will come to judge mankind, who will have been resurrected in the meantime, as their souls will enter into bodies once again in order to present themselves before the awesome Tribunal to be judged.
However, while it is certain that Christ will be coming to judge mankind, from what we can see in the Holy Bible, it remains entirely unknown, when this immense and glorious day will be. Christ Himself had said to His disciples: “As for that day or hour, nobody knows a thing; not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, except only the Father.” (Mark 13:32). After the Resurrection, when the disciples thought that day had in fact come, Christ rid them of their incorrect perceptions, by clarifying that: “it is not for you to know the years or the seasons that the Father has placed within His own jurisdiction” (Acts 1:7)
Of course, when Christ says that no-one else knows that point in time except for the Father, it does not mean that He, as God, is also ignorant of it. The fact is, that humans and angels are ignorant of the exact time. It is understood that whatever the Father knows, the Son also knows. Saint Symeon the New Theologian, on interpreting this detail, says: “no-one knows, except only the Holy Trinity – the one, indivisible Godhead”. The Triadic God - Father, Son and Holy Spirit – Who share a common essence and nature, are definitely aware of when the world will end and when Christ will return. Christ’s claim, that even the Son is ignorant of when the world will end, “implied that He was ignorant according to His human nature, and not according to His Divinity”. In other words, Christ was referring to His human nature and not His Godhead, and He clearly wanted to demonstrate that it is the created, who cannot possibly know the hour and the day of the end of the world and His Second Coming. The hour and the day of Christ’s Second Coming is not only unknown; in fact, it will even catch us unawares. When revealing this truth, Christ specifies that it will happen in the manner that lightning strikes. Just as a bolt of lightning appears suddenly from one end of the sky to the other, “thus like will be the Son of Man, on that day of His” (Luke 17:24).
The Apostle Paul uses another image, to demonstrate the sudden arrival of Christ. This image is borrowed from the act of robbery. Just as a robber enters a house without any prior warning, that day will come upon us in the same way: “Know ye, that the Day of the Lord shall thus come, like a robber in the night.” (1 Thess. 5:1-2) When the time is appropriate, “the blessed and only master, the king of kings and ruler of rulers” (1 Timothy 6:15) will indicate the day of His epiphany.
The unexpectedness of the arrival of that day appears in other passages of the Holy Bible also. When teaching about the unknown element of the grand day of His epiphany, Christ brought as an example that two people would be in the fields and the one shall be swept up while the other shall be left there. Two women shall be at the mill grinding – the one will be swept up and the other will be left behind. (Matthew 24:40-41)
When referring to this reality, the Apostle Paul elucidates that those who are still living on that day and have not yet died, will be transformed in an instant - in no more than the blinking of an eye. “…as none of us shall be put to sleep (die), for all of us will be changed, in the blinking of an eye, during the sounding of the last trumpet..” (1 Corinthians 15:51-52).
Despite the obscurity and the unexpectedness of that day, there are certain signs that proclaim its arrival. One cannot be fully aware of this event, but, depending on one’s degree of preparedness and spiritual alertness, one can perceive the criticality of the times by certain external characteristics; these were described by Christ Himself (Matthew 24)
The basic points as described by Christ are that the Gospel will be preached throughout all of creation; an immense apostasy will prevail in the people all over the world and many false prophets will make their appearance. The antichrist, with the miracles and the signs that he will employ, will strive to deceive even the chosen. Wars, persecutions, famines, earthquakes will be prevalent, etc.. However, we need to mention that even with these indications, it is still difficult to comprehend the end of the world and the Coming of Christ. The Church cultivates the eschatological sermon, however, She simultaneously determines that it is no easy task interpreting the major events of every generation. Only those who are enlightened and who have received a revelation by God are able to faintly discern whether the events taking place are in fact the events that are precedent to the Coming of Christ, for the sole purpose of leading the people to repentance and their return to God. It is therefore the conviction of the Church that Christ is positively going to come again to judge mankind, but that the hour and the day remain unknown. Only the ones with an enlightened nous can faintly discern whether the days are approaching by judging the various events taking place, but even so, they still cannot pinpoint the arrival of that day, in accordance to Christ’s specification. This is why – in the Orthodox Church – we avoid appointing the years and the seasons that we think thee eschatological events will take place. These are the bounds that the Holy Fathers also limit themselves to.
We will now highlight a few points from patristic teaching, which are quite indicative:
___First point. The claim pertaining to the judgment of mankind, which will follow the Second Coming of Christ, is “difficult to interpret”, according to saint Symeon the New Theologian, because it does not involve present or visible events, but future and invisible ones. This is why those who speak and those who hear are in great need of much prayer, much study and much cleansing of the nous. And this is imperative, so that those who do speak, will know things well, and those who listen, can hear prudently.
These words by saint Symeon the New Theologian – whom we shall refer to again, later on, when we refer to the forthcoming Tribunal that will be set up with the arrival of Christ – are quite interesting, because many mistakes have arisen with regard to this matter. There are people who speak of eschatological events in a rather man-centered manner, and in the long run, distort the words of the Bible and the Fathers, thus causing delusions but also desperation among men. There are likewise others, who perceive the words of the Scripture and the Fathers according to their personal ideas. That is why one requires spiritual prudence and profound discretion to comprehend these words and be led to repentance; because everything that leads us to psychological fear and human desperation is not Orthodox. On the contrary, the true and Orthodox is what leads man, through spiritual fear, to a hope according to God, to repentance and prayer.
___Second point. Saint Symeon the New Theologian says that the day of Christ’s Coming is called the Day of the Lord, not because it is the last of the terrestrial days, nor because Christ is going to come on that day, and not even because that is the day on which Judgment will take place, but “because it is precisely then that God and master of all will shine forth with all the glory of His Godhood”. Thus, this day is called “the day of the Lord” for the manifestation of the light of Divinity, and not for an ordinary presence. In the way that all the stars are extinguished during the daytime by the radiance of the tangible sun, the same thing will happen on that day. Everything visible will recede and give way to the Creator of heaven and earth. Then, the One Who is invisible to all, shall be the only One Who will be “both daytime and God”. Thus, it will be a day of unprecedented joy for the saints. For the sinners, who never managed to see this light in their lifetime through catharsis, Christ will be equally inaccessible in the future.
___Third point. In the Holy Bible, whenever there is a reference to Christ’s Coming, lightning, clouds, thrones and other such images are also mentioned. Saint Gregory Palamas says that all information on the Second Coming of Christ involves a condescension: all the events described are naturally beyond the potential of the human mind, logic and senses to grasp; Christ, on the other hand, knowing exactly what is going to take place, “is displaying a condescendence, which corresponds to the perceptiveness of those being taught, by rendering to them the information they are able to perceive”.
Human nature has familiarized itself with human and perceptible events, and has thus become able to comprehend the eschatological events. This is why Christ – out of condescension – has used familiar images and representations. Of course there will be a judgment day, there will be a rejoicing of the righteous and affliction for the sinners and there will be Paradise and Hell, nut all these will not be tangible things, since we know full well from Patristic Tradition that these are not created things. Even the “fires of Hell” are not a manufactured and tangible thing, but something that is definitely uncreated. The reader must be patient and read through the entire book titled “Paradise and Hell”, so that he can understand how all these realities are to be perceived. Thus, we must not remain fixed to the tangible examples and lose the essence of what is being said. Nor, of course, should we merely observe the essence of these things and totally overlook the examples; because, if Christ used them, we too should adhere to them and explain their more profound meanings, thus leading mankind towards repentance and not to fearlessness.
___Fourth point. The Second Coming of Christ is juxtaposed to His first coming. When referring to His First Coming, we are referring to the Incarnation of Christ and when referring to His Second Coming, we are referring to Christ coming again, to judge mankind. There is of course an obviously clear difference between the First and the Second Coming.
Saint Gregory Palamas outlines the difference between these two Comings, saying that during the First Coming, the glory of Christ’s Divinity was hidden within the flesh that He had assumed - from us, and for our salvation. Even now, the glory of His Divinity continues to be veiled before the Father, with His divine-like flesh. But then, during His Second Coming, “He shall disclose His full Glory”; He will then be appearing in His full radiant splendor, illuminating the far reaches of the universe with the rays of His Divinity. And when interpreting the words of Christ, that “when the Son of Man comes in all His glory, and all His angels with Him”, he clarifies that during His first coming, Christ had brought His angels with Him and was in fact surrounded by His angelic hosts - only invisibly – and that He had purposely suppressed their zeal against God’s opponents; However, during His Second Coming, Christ will come will come with all his angels, visibly, in all His glory and majesty.
___Fifth point. In the works of Saint Symeon the New Theologian, we can trace one more truth regarding the Second Coming of Christ, and especially with the judgment of mankind. Saint Symeon extensively analyzes how the Second Coming and the future Tribunal will be taking place chiefly for the sinners who have been living in vices and sins, and not for the saints, who are already living in the Presence of Christ. All those who are children of that Light, and all those who become the sons of the future Day, “the day of the Lord shall never arrive”; Christ will of course come to judge mankind, however, they have already been judged from this lifetime and no Tribunal will be awaiting to try them. The presence of Christ is a matter of joy and jubilation. When a Christian observes with due reverence and fear the commandments of Christ and lives in repentance, he becomes related to that Light, and thus, in reality, he has passed judgment from this lifetime. A theumen is baptized by the divine fire and the Holy Spirit “and all of him becomes fully pure, fully untainted, a son of the light and of the day, and no longer of a mortal human”. I will quote a remarkable passage by Saint Symeon the New Theologian, because I cannot overlook it and not bring it to your attention, and also it is impossible for it to be presented in my own words.
“Such a person shall also not be judged in the future Tribunal, for he has been judged beforehand; nor shall he be checked by that Light, for he has received the light beforehand; nor shall he upon entering the fire be tested or burned, for he has been tested beforehand; nor shall he then perceive the day of the Lord, for on account of his conversing and his union with God, he shall himself have already become a bright and glorious day.”
The statement of Saint Symeon is amazing. I would like to comment on the fact that judgment essentially takes place from this lifetime; the person who sees the light is baptized in the Holy Spirit and he does not need to think about the day of the Lord, because with his union to God, he is already a bright and glorious day. We need to note the word “union”, which is indicative of man’s communion with God. It is a fact, that if man becomes a bright and glorious day himself, he will not be able to discern the arrival of that Day. That Day is his own personal existential event; thus, the Second Coming will be apparent mainly to the sinners, who have lived during the present lifetime with their vices and did not keep God’s commandments.
For the Saints, it will be a natural state, which they already experience from the present time. Of course the saints also await the Second Coming of Christ, for the resurrection of their bodies, which are presently waiting in an incorruptible state, so that the whole of man will eventually taste the bounteous gifts of the great Day and glorious epiphany of our Lord Jesus Christ. Consequently, the Second Coming of Christ is an indisputable fact, since it is testified by the revelatory word of God, the reassurance of the Apostles, and by the experiences of the saints, who are already savoring the Kingdom of God.