Written by Vladimir Moss
HAS THE REIGN OF THE ANTICHRIST BEGUN?
For several decades now, beginning in some of the Protestant Churches, and spreading to the Orthodox, there has been speculation that the reign of the Antichrist has begun, and that his servants are already being sealed with his seal and with the number “666”. There has been no agreement about what the seal of the beast really is, nor about the meaning of his number. Nor has any Orthodox Church Council given an authoritative interpretation of the thirteenth to twentieth chapters of Revelation and their symbols – the first beast, the second beast, the horns and heads of the beast, his seal and image and number, the whore of Babylon, etc. In spite of this absence of authoritative interpretation and guidance, schisms have already begun to appear on this soil in more than one Orthodox country. This is a tragic phenomenon, and would appear to make a fresh attempt to achieve clarity and consensus on this question urgent.
However, we have to accept from the beginning: God may have deliberately concealed the interpretation of these texts because the time is not ripe, because the Antichrist in his last, personal incarnation, has not yet appeared. If so, then any attempt to fix the correct interpretation may be not only premature, but harmful and impious because bound to be mistaken. After all, did not the holy theologian, speaking in the Holy Spirit, say: “Here is wisdom. Let him that hath understanding count the number of the beast” (Revelation 13.18)? In other words, a special gift of wisdom, of spiritual understanding, is required in order to understand this mystery. And who, in our corrupt generation can claim to have that gift, which was not given to the Holy Fathers of earlier generations and has not been given to the leaders of the Church in the present generation? It is precisely for this reason that no attempt will be made in this article to provide a definitive answer to the question: who (or what) is the beast, and what is the meaning of his number? Instead, a different, but perhaps more necessary question will be addressed: do we have good reason to believe that we have reached the very last times of the world? More precisely: have all the prophecies relating to the times preceding the appearance of the Antichrist already been fulfilled?
One of the most recent saints of the Orthodox Church, Holy New Martyr James (Arkatov) of the Altai in Siberia (+1991), who had the gift of prophecy, once said in conversation with some Old Ritualists: “You have already been talking for an hour about the coming Antichrist, but allow me to ask you: to what seal or trumpet or cup, or in general to what powers, do you relate this [Soviet] regime under which we are living?” At first the guests were perplexed by the presence of a stranger, and even the master of the house was embarrassed. One of them said: “If you want to say something, say it.”
Then James briefly expounded his understanding of the basic prophecies. “First, all the prophecies spoke not only about one time of the reign of the Antichrist, but about three sections of the last times: the first was called ‘the beginning of sorrows’, according to the prophetic word of the Saviour, or ‘apostasy’, according to the Apostle Paul, and in the Revelation of the Apostle John it is referred to as the coming out and reign of the beast from the sea with his head-followers. The second section of the last times is ‘the beast was and is not’ or the time of the preaching of the Gospel throughout the world, and, finally, the third period, which is in fact the time of the enthronement of the Antichrist. The Saviour calls it ‘the end’, the beginning of which is the placing of ‘the abomination of desolation’ or the coming ‘out of the beast from the abyss’ (St. John the Theologian), who is the eighth in number in the dynasty of the beasts and is of the number of the seven, or the appearance of ‘the man of sin’ (St. Paul the Apostle). As for the ‘whore’, is it not clear to you that this image refers to a traitor-church that has betrayed Christ, that which should be ‘the bride of Christ’, but which has been united with the scarlet beast? In the Apocalypse there are three ‘women’, and all three signify the Church, it is only by their clothes and their activity that we can distinguish them: on the way into the wilderness she is clothed in the sun, but there she is divided into her who is clothed in scarlet and her who goes out to meet Christ, clothed in pure white, which is the righteousness of the saints.”
And so the holy martyr divides the last times into three stages: (1) the Soviet period, which began in 1917 and has not fully come to an end yet; (2) the Triumph of Orthodoxy, which will see the spread of the True Faith throughout the world for a short time; and (3) the reign of the Antichrist.
St. James’ schema was not unique to himself: many saints of the Russian Catacomb Church expressed similar thoughts. All agreed that the abdication of the tsar, “he who restrains”, according to St. Paul (II Thessalonians 2.7), marked the beginning of the last times, the reign of the Antichrist. However, Soviet power was not the Antichrist in the literal, personal sense, but the collective Antichrist. He had his own seals, the red star and the hammer and sickle, if not his own number. He had his own “abomination of desolation”, “priests” appointed by himself, whom he put in the churches of God to defile them. And all those who were sealed with his seal in the spiritual sense – that is, accepted communism, or did not resist it spiritually – fell away from Christ. As for the “whore”, this was the false church of the Sovietized Moscow Patriarchate, which, by accepting the joys and sorrows of the collective Antichrist as its own joys and sorrows, had clearly accepted his seal and fallen away from Christ and Orthodoxy.
But the Catacomb saints did not believe that the period of Soviet power, or the collective Antichrist, would be followed immediately by “the end”, the reign of the personal Antichrist, the false king of the Jews. On the contrary: they believed that after the violent overthrow of Soviet power (in a war with China, according to several elders) True Orthodoxy would be re-established in Russia under a True Orthodox tsar. Moreover, some also believed that this would lead to the spread of Orthodoxy throughout the world, in accordance with the words of the Lord: “This Gospel of the Kingdom shall be preached in all the world for a witness unto all nations; and then shall the end come” (Matthew 24.14). For, as St. John Maximovich (+1966) once explained, this prophecy of the Lord has not yet been fulfilled. “The Gospel of the Kingdom” must refer to the Orthodox Gospel, and not to Catholic or Protestant heresies; and we cannot say that the Orthodox Gospel has yet been preached to all nations.
In fact, if we include the pre-revolutionary saints who prophesied the fall and resurrection of Russia, we have a “great cloud of witnesses” who clearly imply that today, in the year 2007, we have not yet reached “the end”, the reign of the personal Antichrist, and that many great – and greatly joyful – events have to take place before his coming: Monk Abel the Prophet, Elder Seraphim of Sarov, Elder Porphyrius of Glinsk, the Elders of Valaam, Elder Barnabas of Gethsemane Skete, Righteous John of Kronstadt, Elder Aristocles of Moscow, Martyr-Eldress Dunyushka of Siberia, Hieromartyr Andronicus of Perm, Elder Anatolius of Optina, Elder Alexis (Mechev) of Moscow, Elder Nectarius of Optina, Martyr-Eldress Agatha of Belorussia, Elder Theodosius of Minvody and others.
So why do people find it so difficult to believe that there can be any improvement before the end, and insist that the very last days, the reign of the personal Antichrist, are upon us already?
Many saints believed that they were living just before the end. We may recall two fairly recent examples. In 1848 St. Callinicus of Cernica in Romania decided not to build a church because he believed that the end was so near, and was only persuaded to build it by the appearance to him of Saints Nicholas and George. Again, St. John Maximovich believed that the Antichrist had been born in 1962…
Paradoxically, such a mistake is more characteristic of saints than of sinners because saints feel the growth of evil around them more acutely; their spiritual senses are trained to feel the increase in iniquity and the love of many growing cold, whereas sinners, being immersed in evil, are less sensitive to this. And there is no doubt that evil has grown today to unprecedented proportions. This fact, combined with the weakening of the Church on earth, and its ever-increasing divisions, must lead the deeply thinking Christian to wonder: how long can this continue? “How long, O Lord, holy and true, dost Thou not judge and avenge our blood on them that dwell on the earth?” (Revelation 6.10).
These words were spoken by “the souls of them that were slain for the word of God” (Revelation 6.9), and remind us of another fact that is too easily forgotten: that our age has produced not only the greatest evil, but also the greatest good – in the form of the hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions of martyrs that have shone forth, especially in Russia, but also in other lands. Now in earlier ages periods of martyrdom have always been followed by periods of missionary expansion, in accordance with the principle: “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church.” Thus the martyrs of the Roman catacombs produced the vast expansion of the Church in the time of St. Constantine the Great, and the martyrs of the iconoclast period produced the conversion of the Slavic lands. Why should not the holy new martyrs and confessors of Russia bring forth a still greater harvest of souls?
One harvest of souls that is clearly prophesied before the end is that of the Jews. St. Paul writes: “Blindness in part is come to Israel, until the fullness of the Gentiles come in. And so shall all Israel be saved. As it is written: There shall come out of Zion the deliverer, who will turn away impiety from Israel” (Romans 11.25-26). This prophecy has certainly not been fulfilled yet.
Some argue that this is impossible because it is precisely the Jews who destroyed the Russian empire and who are controlling the present descent of the world into the depths of depravity and anti-Christianity. But does not the example of St. Paul himself persuade us that the Lord is capable of making the greatest sinners into the greatest saints? And would not the conversion of the Jews be the greatest demonstration of God’s long-suffering mercy?
Again, others argue that the Jews will be converted only during the reign of the Antichrist. However, St. Paul says that the sign for the conversion of the Jews will not be the reign of the Antichrist but the “coming in of the fullness of the Gentiles” – that is, the preaching of the Gospel throughout the world. This spiritual resurrection of the Jews will not be total, and a large part of them will again apostasize and follow the Antichrist; but the fact of the resurrection cannot be denied and must modify our attitude towards this race, which, though cursed by God, has nevertheless not been totally abandoned by Him, and has been preserved in existence when many other nations have perished.
And who will convert the Jews if not the Russians, who have suffered so much from them, but whose history and culture has become the history and culture of a large part of the Jewish race itself (one sixth of all Israelis are Russian Jews)? If this seems fantastic in view of the present collapse of Russian civilization, let us remember the interpretation of a passage from the book of the Apocalypse given by the holy new Hieromartyr Bishop Mark (Novoselov): “[St. John] with complete clarity speaks about the conversion of the God-fighting people to the Church of Christ, when she, few in numbers and powerless from an external point of view, but powerful with an inner strength and faithfulness to her Lord (Revelation 3.8) will draw to herself the ‘remnant’ of the God-fighting tribe. ‘Behold, says the Lord to the Angel of the Church of Philadelphia, I will make them of the synagogue of Satan, who say they are Jews, and are not, but do lie; behold, I will make them to come and make obeisance before they feet, and to know that I have loved thee.’
“Gazing with the eye of faith at what the Lord has done, and applying the ear of our heart and mind to the events of our days, comparing that which is seen and heard with the declarations of the Word of God, I cannot but feel that a great, wonderful and joyous mystery of God’s economy is coming towards us: the Judaizing haters and persecutors of the Church of God, who are striving to subdue and annihilate her, by the wise permission of Providence will draw her to purification and strengthening, so as ‘to present her [to Christ] as a glorious Church, having no spot or wrinkle or any such thing, but so that she should be holy and blameless’ (Ephesians 6.27).
“And in His time, known only to the One Lord of time, this, according to the son of thunder’s strict expression ‘synagogue of Satan’ will bow before the pure Bride of Christ, conquered by her holiness and blamelessness and, perhaps, frightened by the image of the Antichrist. And if the rejection of the Apostle Paul’s fellow-countrymen was, in his words, ‘the reconciliation of the world, what will be their acceptance if not life from the dead?’ (Romans 11.15).”
The famous monarchist writer Lev Alexandrovich Tikhomirov agrees with this interpretation: “Is this conversion of the Jews that salvation of ‘all Israel’ which the Apostle Paul foretold? In the Apocalypse it is said that the saved will come ‘of the synagogue of Satan, who say they are Jews, and are not, but do lie’. But not the whole of the ‘synagogue’ will come, but only ‘of the synagogue’, that is, a part of it. But even here, where the Apostle Paul says that ‘the whole of Israel will be saved’, he means only a part: ‘for they are not all Israel, which are of Israel… They which are the children of the flesh, these are not the children of God: but the children of the promise are counted for the seed’ (Romans 9.6,8).
“The opinion is widespread among us that the conversion of the Jews will take place at the very appearance of the Saviour, when they shall cry out: ‘Blessed is He That cometh in the name of the Lord’. But this is not evident from the Apocalypse. But if the Philadelphian conversion will bring ‘all Israel’ that is to be saved to Christ, then this will, of course, be a great event, fully explaining the rejoicing of the Heavens. Israel is a chosen people with whom it will not be possible to find a comparison when he begins to do the work of God. The Jews will, of course, multiply the forces of Christianity for the resistance against the Antichrist. ‘If the casting away of them be the reconciling of the world,’ says the Apostle Paul, ‘what shall the receiving of them be, but life from the dead?’ (Romans 11.15).”
And so our answer to the question: “Has the Reign of the Antichrist Begun?” is: “Not yet: many prophecies concerning the resurrection of Orthodoxy before the end have not yet been fulfilled, and even if it is difficult, in the present, extraordinarily corrupt state of the world, to see how this could possibly happen, it is necessary to believe the Word of God and the prophecies of the saints more than our own ears and eyes; for ‘with God all things are possible’”.
But the objection will arise: what about the bar-codes, the passports, the bio-chips – all the technology which seems, for the first time in history, to show in a concrete manner how the prophecy concerning the seal of the Antichrist could be fulfilled? We are not denying that the Antichrist, when he comes, may well use this technology, or its more sophisticated successor, to seal his servants. But the appearance of the technology is not the same as the fulfilment of the prophecy. Here we must be wise, as the son of thunder warns. We must not take a shadow, or foreshadowing of the truth, for the truth itself.
Let us consider first: is the number “666” evil in itself? The answer, according to St. Gregory Palamas, is: no; this number, like all the other numbers, has been created by God, and so is good. What is evil is not the number itself, but the end to which it is used.
How will it be used? We know from the Holy Fathers that the seal will be used as a sign that the person sealed willingly and consciously accepts and believes in the Antichrist. Thus St. Nilus the Myrrh-gusher prophesied: “On the seal will be written the following: ‘I am yours.’ ‘Yes, you are mine.’ ‘I go willingly, not by force.’ ‘And I accept you in accordance with your will, and not by force.’ These are four utterances, or inscriptions, which will be written in the middle of this accursed seal…”
Now has anyone discovered that these four inscriptions are to be found on any modern technological device? As far as the present writer knows, the answer to that question is: no. In any case, such inscriptions make no sense before the appearance of the Antichrist himself. For what does “I am yours” mean if we do not know who “you” is? It follows that before the actual appearance of the Antichrist, and the people’s willing and conscious acceptance of him as the true King of the Jews and God, the prophecy cannot be fulfilled.
At the same time, the appearance of the technology is undoubtedly a sign of the times (Matthew 16.3), a sign that we are approaching the end, and that we must prepare ourselves spiritually for the coming of the Antichrist.
The world has probably been close to the end many times before – for example, in the time of Julian the Apostate, who tried to rebuild the temple at Jerusalem. But each time the Lord has delivered the world from the Antichrist. As L.A. Tikhomirov writes: “In history there have been times when the pressure of evil has been so strong that it seemed that there was no further reason for the world to exist, and if the anti-God mood had become finally entrenched then the end of the world would have come. The multitude of small ‘potential’ antichrists, of whom the Apostle John already spoke, would immediately have promoted from their midst someone capable of growing into the real Antichrist. Such epochs, of which ours is one, in their character truly constitute the last times. But are they chronologically the last? We cannot know that, because if the free will of men, amazed by the disgusting sight of the abomination of desolation in the holy place, strives again towards God, the Antichrist, already ready to enter the world, will again be cast into the abyss until conditions more favourable for him arise, while the Lord will again lengthen the term of life of the world so that new members should be prepared for the Kingdom of God.”
One day, however, the Antichrist will indeed come, and we will have to be prepared. And even if his coming is not “at the doors”, we must still be prepared, because we can receive the seal of one of his forerunners. So the appearance of signs of the times, and signs of the end, is God’s mercy to us, a wake-up call, a call to vigilance which must not be ignored.
Let us recall the context of St. Paul’s words on the Antichrist in the Second Epistle to the Thessalonians. Many Thessalonians were so convinced that the Second Coming of Christ was at hand that they had even stopped working. St. Paul considered this harmful, and asked them “not to be quickly shaken from your mind, nor to be disturbed, neither through a spirit, nor through a word, nor through a letter supposedly from us, that the Day of the Lord has come. Let no man deceive you by any means; for that Day will not come unless there is first the apostasy and the man of sin, the son of destruction, is revealed…” (2.2-3).
These words are a warning also for us. Although we are, of course, much closer to the reign of the Antichrist and the Second Coming of Christ than the Thessalonians in the first century, nevertheless we also must not “be shaken from our minds” and believe that these events are already upon us when they are not. Technology alone can never separate us from Christ. We can be separated from Christ only by willingly and consciously accepting a lie – a heresy like ecumenism, or an evil leader like the Antichrist. The importance of the seal consists in its being an outward and visible sign of this inward and invisible apostasy. The seal will be destructive for those who receive it, because it will be a sign of their acceptance of the heresy of the Antichrist. But the seal has no power on its own – that is, before the appearance of the heresy and before anyone has consciously accepted it.
There is a danger that in our eschatological speculations we may, like the Jews, become fixated on the letter (or number) of the law while completely ignoring its spirit, its inner content, and so fall away from the true faith. That this is a real danger is shown by the fact that recently some zealot monks, in their zeal to avoid what they consider to be the seal of the Antichrist, have broken communion with a truly confessing bishop who does not accept their eschatology and joined a heretical bishop who does. In other words, in order to avoid a future heresy that has not yet appeared and has not yet been identified and condemned by the Church, they have embraced a past heresy (Apollinarianism) that was identified and condemned centuries ago! In the same way, many Orthodox Christians today claim to see the Antichrist in many phenomena – in new passports and globalization, in American foreign policy and the European Union – but completely fail to see that their ecumenist hierarchs are heretics who are leading them into the abyss of the Church’s condemnation. Truly they are “blind guides who strain at a gnat and swallow a camel” (Matthew 23.24)!
May the Lord grant us that most valuable of gifts, the gift of discernment, so that we may discern the signs of the times, not selectively and not in the wrong order, but in conformity with the witness of Holy Scripture and Tradition as a whole. For, as St. John Chrysostom says, it is those who do not have this depth of Scriptural knowledge who will bow down to the Antichrist…
May 20 / June 2, 2007.
Apodosis of Pentecost.
(Published in Vernost’, no. 86)