This is the tenth in a sporadic series on the Catechetical Lectures of St. Cyril of Jerusalem. The previous post was The Holy Spirit and Miracles, Then and Now.
One part of Patristic theology that gets very little play these days from anyone is their eschatology, i.e., their idea of the sequence of the events that end history. This is a tragedy, because the Patristic idea of what the Scriptures have to say on the subject is important for two primary reasons: because they were the closest to the composition of the text (esp. the New Testament ones), and because they lived in the political system that related to same texts.
But few these days want to consider what they have to say:
- They do not deal with the issues with the precision that is de rigeur with modern prophecy exponents. For the last two centuries, prophecy preachers have been expected to lay out a very precise timetable of the end. I am inclined to think, however, that one of the lessons of the Patristic method is that modern style precision is not to be expected in the interpretation of the Scriptures on this subject.
- They are not univocal on the millennium. Most of the church was premillenial until Origen, who introduced amillenialism.
- They do not support many of the ideas that are now thought to be Biblical. This includes the pretribulational rapture or postmillenialism.
So let’s look at what Cyril has to say. He spends an entire lecture (XV) on the subject. In very broad outline, let me hit some of the high points:
The two comings of Christ are of a different nature:
We preach not one advent only of Christ, but a second also, far more glorious than the former. For the former gave a view of His patience; but the latter brings with it the crown of a divine kingdom. For all things, for the most part, are twofold in our Lord Jesus Christ: a twofold generation; one, of God, before the ages; and one, of a Virgin, at the close of the ages: His descents twofold; one, the unobserved, like rain on a fleece; (Psalm 72:6) and a second His open coming, which is to be. In His former advent, He was wrapped in swaddling clothes in the manger; in His second, He covers Himself with light as with a garment. (Psalm 104:2) In His first coming, He endured the Cross, despising shame (Hebrews 12:2); in His second, He comes attended by a host of Angels, receiving glory. We rest not then upon His first advent only, but look also for His second. And as at His first coming we said, Blessed is He that comes in the Name of the Lord, (Matthew 21:9) so will we repeat the same at His second coming; that when with Angels we meet our Master, we may worship Him and say, Blessed is He that comes in the Name of the Lord. The Saviour comes, not to be judged again, but to judge them who judged Him; He who before held His peace when judged , shall remind the transgressors who did those daring deeds at the Cross, and shall say, These things have you done, and I kept silence. Then, He came because of a divine dispensation, teaching men with persuasion; but this time they will of necessity have Him for their King, even though they wish it not. (XV, 1)
Just because there are bad things going on now doesn’t mean the end times are around the corner:
Take heed that no man mislead you: for many shall come in My name, saying, I am Christ, and shall mislead many. (Matthew 24:4,5) This has happened in part: for already Simon Magus has said this, and Menander , and some others of the godless leaders of heresy; and others will say it in our days, or after us.
A second sign. And you shall hear of wars and rumours of wars. (Matthew 24:6) Is there then at this time war between Persians and Romans for Mesopotamia, or no? Does nation rise up against nation and kingdom against kingdom, or no? And there shall be famines and pestilences and earthquakes in various places. These things have already come to pass; and again, And fearful sights from heaven, and mighty storms. (Luke 21:11) Watch therefore, He says; for you know not at what hour your Lord does come. (Matthew 24:42) (XV, 5,6)
A necessary prerequisite for the second coming is the preaching of the Gospel to the world, although Cyril jumps the gun a bit:
You have this sign also: And 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) And as we see, nearly the whole world is now filled with the doctrine of Christ. (XV, 8 )
After this the Antichrist will come, when the Roman Empire has ended, and the ten kingdom were in place:
But this aforesaid Antichrist is to come when the times of the Roman empire shall have been fulfilled, and the end of the world is now drawing near. There shall rise up together ten kings of the Romans, reigning in different parts perhaps, but all about the same time; and after these an eleventh, the Antichrist, who by his magical craft shall seize upon the Roman power; and of the kings who reigned before him, three he shall humble , and the remaining seven he shall keep in subjection to himself. At first indeed he will put on a show of mildness (as though he were a learned and discreet person), and of soberness and benevolence : and by the lying signs and wonders of his magical deceit having beguiled the Jews, as though he were the expected Christ, he shall afterwards be characterized by all kinds of crimes of inhumanity and lawlessness, so as to outdo all unrighteous and ungodly men who have gone before him; displaying against all men, but especially against us Christians, a spirit murderous and most cruel, merciless and crafty. And after perpetrating such things for three years and six months only, he shall be destroyed by the glorious second advent from heaven of the only-begotten Son of God, our Lord and Saviour Jesus, the true Christ, who shall slay Antichrist with the breath of His mouth , and shall deliver him over to the fire of hell. (XV, 12)
It is noteworthy that the time of rule of the Antichrist, roughly equivalent with what is called these days the Great Tribulation, only lasts 3 ½ years, after which time Jesus Christ comes back.
The Antichrist will rebuild the temple to win the favour of the Jews:
And again he says, Who opposes and exalts himself against all that is called God, or that is worshipped; (against every God; Antichrist forsooth will abhor the idols,) so that he seats himself in the temple of God. (2 Thessalonians 2:4) What temple then? He means, the Temple of the Jews which has been destroyed. For God forbid that it should be the one in which we are! Why say we this? That we may not be supposed to favour ourselves. For if he comes to the Jews as Christ, and desires to be worshipped by the Jews, he will make great account of the Temple, that he may more completely beguile them; making it supposed that he is the man of the race of David, who shall build up the Temple which was erected by Solomon. And Antichrist will come at the time when there shall not be left one stone upon another in the Temple of the Jews, according to the doom pronounced by our Saviour ; for when, either decay of time, or demolition ensuing on pretence of new buildings, or from any other causes, shall have overthrown all the stones, I mean not merely of the outer circuit, but of the inner shrine also, where the Cherubim were, then shall he come with all signs and lying wonders, exalting himself against all idols; at first indeed making a pretence of benevolence, but afterwards displaying his relentless temper, and that chiefly against the Saints of God. (XV, 15)
It’s interesting to note that Cyril portrays Antichrist as something of a “fake Jew,” but that one thing he is not is a pagan. That’s interesting in a society (a pre-Islamic one, I might add) where paganism was so widespread, even after Constantine.
After Antichrist’s rule Jesus Christ returns:
But let us wait and look for the Lord’s coming upon the clouds from heaven. Then shall Angelic trumpets sound; the dead in Christ shall rise first (1 Thessalonians 4:16)—the godly persons who are alive shall be caught up in the clouds, receiving as the reward of their labours more than human honour, inasmuch as theirs was a more than human strife; according as the Apostle Paul writes, saying, For the Lord Himself shall descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the Archangel, and with the trump of God: and the dead in Christ shall rise first. Then we which are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air; and so shall we ever be with the Lord. (1 Thessalonians 4:16,17) (XV, 19)
Then there shall be the judgement:
When the Son of Man, He says, shall come in His glory, and all the Angels with Him. (Matthew 25:31) Behold, O man, before what multitudes you shall come to judgement. Every race of mankind will then be present. Reckon, therefore, how many are the Roman nation; reckon how many the barbarian tribes now living, and how many have died within the last hundred years; reckon how many nations have been buried during the last thousand years; reckon all from Adam to this day. Great indeed is the multitude; but yet it is little, for the Angels are many more. They are the ninety and nine sheep, but mankind is the single one. For according to the extent of universal space, must we reckon the number of its inhabitants. The whole earth is but as a point in the midst of the one heaven, and yet contains so great a multitude; what a multitude must the heaven which encircles it contain? And must not the heaven of heavens contain unimaginable numbers ? And it is written, Thousand thousands ministered unto Him, and ten thousand times ten thousand stood before Him (Daniel 7:10); not that the multitude is only so great, but because the Prophet could not express more than these. So there will be present at the judgement in that day, God, the Father of all, Jesus Christ being seated with Him, and the Holy Ghost present with Them; and an angel’s trumpet shall summon us all to bring our deeds with us. Ought we not then from this time forth to be sore troubled? Think it not a slight doom, O man, even apart from punishment, to be condemned in the presence of so many. Shall we not choose rather to die many deaths, than be condemned by friends? (XV, 24)
It’s interesting to see Cyril’s comment about the whole earth being “but as a point in the midst of the one heaven,” the truth of which the science of the day had no way of quantifying.
Cyril concludes by exhorting his students to stay faithful to God, a lesson of the course of the end times:
And though I have many more testimonies out of the divine Scriptures, concerning the kingdom of Christ which has no end for ever, I will be content at present with those above mentioned, because the day is far spent. But you, O hearer, worship only Him as your King, and flee all heretical error. And if the grace of God permit us, the remaining Articles also of the Faith shall be in good time declared to you. And may the God of the whole world keep you all in safety, bearing in mind the signs of the end, and remaining unsubdued by Antichrist. You have received the tokens of the Deceiver who is to come; you have received the proofs of the true Christ, who shall openly come down from heaven. Flee therefore the one, the False one; and look for the other, the True. You have learned the way, how in the judgement you may be found among those on the right hand; guard that which is committed to you (1 Timothy 6:20) concerning Christ, and be conspicuous in good works, that you may stand with a good confidence before the Judge, and inherit the kingdom of heaven:— Through whom, and with whom, be glory to God with the Holy Ghost, for ever and ever. Amen. (XV, 33)
Through all of this and the other things he says here, there is one remarkable fact: in all of his copious references to the Scriptures, there is not one reference to the Book of Revelation. There is no reference to the lake of fire, no books to be opened, no thousand year reign (literal or symbolic), no Jerusalem coming out of heaven. Why is this?
The answer is found back in the fourth lecture. Let’s start with his enumeration of the books of the Old Testament:
And of the Old Testament, as we have said, study the two and twenty books, which, if you are desirous of learning, strive to remember by name, as I recite them. For of the Law the books of Moses are the first five, Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy. And next, Joshua the son of Nave , and the book of Judges, including Ruth, counted as seventh. And of the other historical books, the first and second books of the Kings are among the Hebrews one book; also the third and fourth one book. And in like manner, the first and second of Chronicles are with them one book; and the first and second of Esdras are counted one. Esther is the twelfth book; and these are the Historical writings. But those which are written in verses are five, Job, and the book of Psalms, and Proverbs, and Ecclesiastes, and the Song of Songs, which is the seventeenth book. And after these come the five Prophetic books: of the Twelve Prophets one book, of Isaiah one, of Jeremiah one, including Baruch and Lamentations and the Epistle ; then Ezekiel, and the Book of Daniel, the twenty-second of the Old Testament. (IV, 35)
This is the same canon that the Jews used then and use now, or the “Protestant” canon of the Old Testament. This should warm the hearts of anyone who is opposed to what Catholics call the “Deuterocanonical” books (more about this here.)
Now to the New Testament:
Then of the New Testament there are the four Gospels only, for the rest have false titles and are mischievous. The Manichæans also wrote a Gospel according to Thomas, which being tinctured with the fragrance of the evangelic title corrupts the souls of the simple sort. Receive also the Acts of the Twelve Apostles; and in addition to these the seven Catholic Epistles of James, Peter, John, and Jude; and as a seal upon them all, and the last work of the disciples, the fourteen Epistles of Paul. But let all the rest be put aside in a secondary rank. And whatever books are not read in Churches, these read not even by yourself, as you have heard me say. Thus much of these subjects. (IV, 36)
It’s the same canon we use today, except that…Revelation is missing. Cyril does not accept Revelation as part of the New Testament, something that is doubtless related to the position of the church at Jerusalem on the subject.
The whole story of the canon of Scripture, how it varied during the Roman Empire church and how we ended up with more than one would be a long business (to use Origen’s phrase) to recount. But variations in the canon were not uncommon, even of the New Testament. Cyril had contemporaries (Athanasius comes to mind) who accepted Revelation as part of the canon, but evidently Cyril and his colleagues in Jerusalem had another opinion, at least at the time when Cyril delivered his lectures.
There are two lessons to be derived from both his exposition of the end and his position on the book of Revelation.
First, the general course of events he lays out isn’t one that would pass muster with most prophecy preachers today, but the general outline is there. Without Revelation Cyril uses the book of Daniel, Jesus’ own description of the end, and Paul’s letters to put together the sequence of events. The fact that what he comes up with is as close as it is to what we teach today (and there are variations in that) is a witness to the continuity of the scriptures. Revelation isn’t the outlier it’s sometimes portrayed to be, but an integral part of God’s message.
Second, the favourite scripture of the cessationsists, which I discussed in the last post in this series is this:
For we know in part, and we prophesy in part. But when that which is perfect is come, then that which is in part shall be done away. (1 Corinthians 13:9, 10)
Their idea is that, with the coming of the New Testament (the “perfect”), there was no further need for spiritual gifts.
But when did the perfect come? Certainly it was written in the time of the Apostles (I have friends who will disagree with that, but they’ll just have to live with it). But how can one reasonably say that the perfect had come when its entire acceptance took somewhere around four centuries? Wouldn’t it be reasonable to say that such a dispensational change would have to wait until the twenty-seven book New Testament was accepted in its entirety everywhere? And what self-respecting cessationist would put a dispensational change in, say, the third or fourth century?
I believe that the promulgation of the canon of Scripture was a divinely guided process. But it was just that: a process whereby God, rather than forcing the issue at one time, lead the church into a more voluntary acceptance of the canon and content of the New Testament. (It should be compared to the way that the Qur’an was done.) That should tear up our fine lines of demarcation, and we should concede the drawing of same to God, not reserve it for ourselves.