Our family left the Mormon religion in 1983 after my mom had spent three decades as a member (and of my ancestry, nearly a century and-a-half).
As a faithful Mormon family, we did all the things we were supposed to do: Sacrament Meeting, Family Home Evening, and even Family Home Storage. For the uninitiated, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints teaches that all Mormon families should keep emergency food stored in their homes, in case of a long-term disaster—and they have done so since at least the 1930s. They even sell food storage kits, and this practice has led to detailed thinking about food cycling and what might meet the official requirements.
In a video on the official LDS website, this is a matter of obedience: “We wanted to follow the commandments and get our food storage … If you want to follow the Prophet, just do it.” For the average Mormon, this is understood as a wise way to prepare for a disaster or job loss, but it is impossible to extract this “follow[ing] the commandments” from Mormon eschatology.
Mormon theology teaches that in the “latter days” of world history, Joseph Smith would re-establish the true faith in the world that had fallen away after the time of the Apostles. That day apparently came in the 1820s, and the Mormon scriptures teach that the Second Coming would shortly follow: “[Christ] will reign till he descends on the earth to put all enemies under his feet, which time is nigh at hand.”
Being premillennial, the LDS teach that Jesus will return to earth to install his own earthly rule (in Missouri)—but not before the Great Tribulation of the Apocalypse and the scarier portions of the Olivet Discourse come tearing through the earth with a vengeance. Living “saints” would have to endure such things, should they be unfortunate enough to make it that far into history. It is not surprising, then, that disaster preparedness would be a preoccupation of people who expect to be the last generation on earth.
When my family left Mormonism, we became evangelicals. We were taught a dispensational premillennial understanding of the end-times, as well. This was not a significant change, but there was one key difference: we believed in a pre-tribulational rapture. In other words, we believed that before anything really bad happened on earth, Jesus would return and secretly take the believers “up” into heaven, so that they would not have to endure the pains of the Great Tribulation.
The disaster preparedness may have been pragmatic, but we fully expected to be whisked away before the Tribulation, and so our stored surplus food was rendered unnecessary.
For several years (now as evangelicals), we consumed the remainder of our aging Family Home Storage. Our storage closet also held many of my toys, so when we weren’t eating beans, I was pretending the beans were quicksand and sinking my G.I. Joe’s in the beans. Our end-times theology hadn’t changed much, but our attitude toward it certainly had.
Years later, I came to understand eschatology differently than in my childhood. Beginning with a careful study of Scripture, and then a survey of Christian history, followed by a humbling bow to the Orthodox Church’s authority-as-teacher, I came to understand the following as the sine qua non of Orthodox eschatology.
1. Jesus Christ is coming again.
The most fundamental expectation of the Christian Church is that Jesus Christ will physically return to earth. No matter the martyrdoms, the heresies, or the numerical setbacks, the Church has always expected that Christ would return with a sense of finality. This is so important that it is enshrined forever in the Nicene Creed, the most important and central statement of faith of the Orthodox Church: “And he shall come again with glory to judge the living and the dead.”
The Church also sees the coming of Christ as something we taste in the present. Every time the Church celebrates the Divine Liturgy, Jesus Christ himself comes into the midst of his people in the power of the Holy Spirit, being received in the Eucharist. This is an eschatological event, where the fullness of Christ is made present in both the Eucharist and in his people.
2. The Kingdom of God is now, but what is yet to come is beyond belief.
While both Mormonism and much of popular evangelicalism anticipate an early reign of Christ in the future, the Orthodox Church teaches that the kingdom of God is now. The reign of Jesus Christ is a present reality (Phil. 2:9), and was inaugurated at the ascension of Christ into heaven, where he sits down at the right hand of God. The so-called ‘millennial reign of Christ’ in Revelation is understood as a spiritual reign from heaven with the kingdom breaking through into the here-and-now.
And just as our Savior has taught us in the Lord’s Prayer, we are to pray that God’s kingdom come on earth—not later, but now.
3. The particulars of Revelation aren’t particularly important.
Ambrose Bierce defined the book of Revelation thusly: “REVELATION., n., A famous book in which St. John the Divine concealed all that he knew. The revealing is done by the commentators, who know nothing.”
It’s no minor factoid that the book of Revelation never appears in the liturgical readings of the Orthodox Church. We read from everything from Genesis to Job to Jonah to the New Testament’s epistles and Gospels, but we never read from Revelation in a liturgical/worship setting.
Revelation was one of the most disputed books in the Church canon, and while considered a part of holy scripture today, it remains a puzzling book. There is a range of opinions regarding its details, and various monks and scholars have proposed specific interpretations of the work. It is not unreasonable to suppose that it served an important purpose both in its time and for its original audience, and has since moved into a role testifying to the faithfulness of God through persecution or tribulation, no matter where or when it occurs in Church history.
The train schedule-type eschatology of Dispensationalism—complete with extensive wall charts—is foreign to Orthodoxy. That Christ is King; that he will come again; that he will vindicate his persecuted Church—these are the things with which the Orthodox Church is concerned.
Ironically enough, though Revelation is not read in the services of the Church, the services themselves look a lot like the heavenly worship described therein. Revelation is a book of worship, and the major elements are present at every Divine Liturgy. For it is in our worship on earth that we enter into the heavenly worship.
4. We each have our own personal eschaton to face, and so preparedness is always now.
Hebrews 9:27 famously says, “It is appointed unto man once to die, and after that the judgment.” None of us know when we will breathe our last, and yet we will all answer for what we have done in this life. How many millions (or billions) have pondered a “last days” scenario, instead finding him or herself being peacefully laid to rest? We will all likely return to dust, and we will all stand before God at the final judgment, regardless of when the end takes place.
St. Paul writes: “Behold, now is the favorable time; behold, now is the day of salvation” (2 Cor. 6:2). St. John Chrysostom says that St. Paul is “urging and compelling them to bestir themselves in order to lay hold of their own salvation.”
We have only today, and tomorrow is not promised to any of us. We must repent now, and again, and again, until there is no “now” in which to repent.
A young monk said to Abba Sisoes, “Abba, what should I do? I fell.” The elder answered, “Get up!” The monk said, “I got up and I fell again!” The elder replied, “Get up again!” But the young monk asked, “For how long should I get up when I fall?” “Until your death,” answered Abba Sisoes. “For a man heads to his judgment either fallen or getting back up again.” (Source)
5. Yet, we paradoxically live as if we are in an unending world.
When an Orthodox Church is built and set apart, it is consecrated until the end of the age. We don’t set out to merely sojourn on the earth, like we’re buying bus passes into eternity, with little-to-no interest in the present. We are certainly pilgrims, but we seek to establish an outfit of the kingdom of God in the here-and-now—and if possible—one that will last until the second advent of Christ.
Part of living in the now is a desire to also see God’s kingdom be manifest now. St. John Chrysostom says of the phrase “thy kingdom come”:
Seest thou how He hath taught us also to be modest, by making it clear that virtue is not of our endeavors only, but also of the grace from above? And again, He hath enjoined each one of us, who pray, to take upon himself the care of the whole world. For He did not at all say, “Thy will be done” in me, or in us, but everywhere on the earth; so that error may be destroyed, and truth implanted, and all wickedness cast out, and virtue return, and no difference in this respect be henceforth between heaven and earth. “For if this come to pass,” saith He, “there will be no difference between things below and above, separated as they are in nature; the earth exhibiting to us another set of angels.”
So we live, pray, and hope that the kingdom is made visibly present now, that holiness and virtue are increased, and that the true worship of God is spread throughout the world as it is in the throne room of God.
Storing up provisions is not a bad idea, and anyone would be wise to take a cue from the Mormons in this regard.
But the Orthodox Church does not obsess over “last days” scenarios. And as one of the most-persecuted religious groups in human history, Orthodox Christians certainly know what it means to prepare for hard times.
But the grand testimony of the Church in her saints is that our greatest preparation for hard times is simply this: repentance, humility, and faith.
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Note: My apologies to Thelma “Granny” Geer, author of Mormonism, Mama, & Me.