Book review: An Orthodox perspective on the end times

Ultimate Things
An Orthodox Christian Perspective on the End Times
By Dennis E. Engleman; foreword by Thomas Hopko
296 pages, bibliography and index
Conciliar Press, Ben Lomond, Calif., 1995
Anyone who, like the sorely misguided 19th-century "higher critic" Adolph von Harnack, considers Eastern Orthodoxy "a perversion of the Christian religion [that reduces it] to the level of pagan antiquity," as many "modern" Protestants and secularists do, would not expect a book like Ultimate Things from an Orthodox author and an Orthodox publishing house.

This is a concise, cogent, and—supremely—a highly readable recapitulation of Orthodox thinking from ancient times to the present on the close of history, the rise of antichrist, the apocalypse and Armageddon, and the Second Coming of Christ. Except for those educated in a handful of Orthodox institutions of higher education and the growing population who have discovered the writings of California-born Orthodox scholar and monk Seraphim Rose, most—probably even most Orthodox—Americans are likely unaware that Orthodoxy even has a body of teaching on this topic that has been of great popularity among charismatics in particular and evangelical Protestants in general.

This book should put an end to that misperception.

Without directly engaging the endless stream of evangelical interpreters and authors on the end times, Dennis E. Engleman answers most of them by looking at the biblical passages on the topic and at the prophetic tradition of Orthodox holy men and women since the close of the apostolic age. He and his sources agree with evangelical writers of both dispensational and charismatic schools on many details of interpretation, but Engleman and his sources part company with the evangelicals on some presuppositions that could have soul-saving or -damning consequences.

They agree with many evangelical teachers that we may now be living in the last days—that antichrist may be alive even now and be preparing his rise to world dominion. They agree that the Gog and Magog spoken of in the book of Revelations are ancient tribes of what is now Russia, and that their mention by the Apostle John refers to a pivotal role that part of the world may play in the end times.

They agree that the "calendar of weeks of years" laid out in the Old Testament book of Daniel seems to culminate in our own time, give or take a generation or two. They even agree that the term "rapture" used by evangelicals to refer to the "beaming up" of Christians to be with Christ in the eternal plane is an apt one.

Where they differ primarily is in the dominant evangelical beliefs that Christ will take His church out of the world through "the rapture" before the great tribulation culminating in Armageddon, and that after that mother of all battles He will come back, with those previously raptured, to reign on this earth for a millenium.

The Orthodox Church condemned such earthly utopianism at the Second Ecumenical Council in 381, Engleman says, and the vast preponderance of Christians—Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Protestant—held millenialism as heretical until the present century, when the interpretations of dispensationalists and charismatics in works like the Scofield Reference Bible and the writings of dispensationists like Hal Lindsay and charismatics like Pat Robertson became dominant in conservative Protestant interpretation.

The traditional view of all three major branches of Christendom has been that the millenium described in the New Testament is a figurative term represented not by a future age but by the present one or the one that may have ended quietly in our lifetime. Satan has been bound not for one thousand years but for two, approximately, while the Gospel has spread and grown until various forms of Christian belief are dominant throughout the world in our time.

It is vital that this be understood, Engleman says, because when the antichrist restores the temple in Jerusalem and sets up his world kingdom there, those who think the thousand-year reign of Christ is yet to come are likely to mistake antichrist for the second coming of Christ. Those who make that mistake, and worship antichrist as the Messiah, will be condemned to perdition, and the New Testament is emphatic in teaching that many Christians will be so mistaken.

The other major departure Engleman's study takes from evangelical views of ultimate things is his view that imperial Russia, not western democracies like the United States and their varied denominations, was pivotal in restraining the "mystery of lawlessness"—or holding back the appearance of antichrist. In this view, the Russian Revolution was the means used to bring once-holy Orthodox Russia down to the level of secularism and materialism of the Western nations. Once that was accomplished, as prophets like St. Seraphim of Sarov in the past century and Alexander Solzhenitzyn in our own time predicted it would, Marxist-Leninism just faded away in Russia and its primary sphere of influence.

Even the author of this book's foreword, the Rev. Thomas Hopko of St. Vladimir's Orthodox Seminary, takes issue with that view, but I found it a highly plausible explanation for the growing rejection of Christian culture by most Western democracies, including our own.

In short, this is a compelling book that anyone of any denomination, who wants knowledge on the end times, should give careful consideration.

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© 1996 Jon Kennedy