Sergius Bulgakov: The End of the World is Nigh!

On this point science and the Bible agree (sort’ve): the history of the present universe will come to conclusion. Whether the universe continues to expand indefinitely, ultimately approaching the temperature of absolute zero (big freeze), or at some point begins to contract, ultimately collapsing into a dimensionless singularity (big crunch), does not matter. Either scenario, or any of the others about which cosmologists speculate, represents the destruction of humanity and of all life.

The Bible knows nothing of these cosmological theories and their inglorious endings. It simply knows the promise of the resurrection: Christ Jesus will return in glory to raise the quick and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end. The end of the present aeon and the inauguration of the new is described in the apocalyptic imagery of new heavens and a new earth:

They will say, “Where is the promise of his coming? For ever since the fathers fell asleep, all things are continuing as they were from the beginning of creation.” For they deliberately overlook this fact, that the heavens existed long ago, and the earth was formed out of water and through water by the word of God, and that by means of these the world that then existed was deluged with water and perished. But by the same word the heavens and earth that now exist are stored up for fire, being kept until the day of judgment and destruction of the ungodly.

But do not overlook this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day. The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance. But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a roar, and the heavenly bodies will be burned up and dissolved, and the earth and the works that are done on it will be exposed.

Since all these things are thus to be dissolved, what sort of people ought you to be in lives of holiness and godliness, waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be set on fire and dissolved, and the heavenly bodies will melt as they burn! But according to his promise we are waiting for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells. (2 Peter 3:1-13)

“The fire of the world and the convulsion of the elements,” Sergius Bulgakov explains, “are symbolic images of the unimaginable, since the end of the world lies beyond the world’s present being, transcends it” (The Bride of the Lamb, p. 383). We must not imagine that the transfiguration of the cosmos is something that the cosmos can bring about on its own. It cannot be the product of natural physical processes nor can it be explained on the basis of cosmological evolution. It is a new act of God, analogous to the original act that brought the world into being from out of nothing, yet not identical to this act—not a new “six days of creation” but a transformation beyond our imagining. We must think of continuity and discontinuity, a passage to a state of existence of which we cannot conceive within our present scientific and historical categories, an event that surpasses time and all human calculations.

An ontological connection is thus affirmed between our world and the world to come. They are one and the same world in its different states. However, the evolution transition from the one to the other is excluded; they are separated—or united—by a chasm, a transcensus. … The universal catastrophe, turned toward the world, will take place within the world’s limits but at its very boundary and in this sense outside its time: “the day of the Lord so cometh as a thief in the night” (1 Thess. 5:2). It will be transcendent to earthly time, independent of any calendar date. … Human life is connected by its yesterday and tomorrow, between which today is suspended, but the last day of the world will not have a tomorrow and will not become a yesterday. It will, in general, put an end to this manner of computing time. It is outside of it, in another temporality; it will never be in this time . Whence the suddenness of its coming, which is a transcensus. … This does not mean that the second coming will nonetheless take place in one of the hours of life of this world, or on one of its calendar dates, even if an unknown one. On the contrary, this means that that day and that hour cannot, in general, be known, for they do not belong to the time and life of this age, but are beyond its limits. (pp. 384-385)

In light of Pascha, we know that the end is nigh and already impinging upon historical existence, and Holy Scripture exhorts us to prepare ourselves and be ready; but we cannot predict the day and hour of the changing. Bulgakov likens the end of the world to death. When a person dies, those who survive the deceased mark his death with a date on the calendar; but for the person himself, death occurs beyond the grave, where there are other times and seasons. When the eschatological conclusion arrives, however, there will be no one left to perceive it as an event in time. In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, the trump will sound and the Eschaton will be made manifest—and the old time will cease to be. As the Russian theologian phrases it: “The net is torn, and a supertime suddenly shines through it—not as a calendar event but as something that transcends our time” (pp. 384-385).

The promise of the new heavens and the new earth must remain, therefore, an object of faith until its divine fulfillment. Bulgakov is not surprised that many Christians have doubted the eschatological promise and succumbed to the temptation of relying upon their own self-sufficiencies and cosmological prognostications. “Where is the promise of his coming?” we have repeatedly asked over the centuries. But the end of the present age and the commencement of the new belongs to the free and omnipotent determination of the Father and can only be known by him: “But concerning that day or that hour, no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father” (Mark 13:32).

(Go to “The Parousia of the Son”)

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2 Responses to Sergius Bulgakov: The End of the World is Nigh!

  1. Charles Twombly says:

    Aidan, thanks for bringing Bulgakov into the spotlight. Brandon Gallaher is helping us see that arch-rivals Bulgakov and Florovsky were not such strange bedfellows after all. Eager to see more.

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      I’ll probably be blogging on Bulgakov for at least two weeks. I can understand why Florovsky disliked his sophiology, and I can understand why it was so controversial at the time. I’m finding Aidan Nichols’s book very helpful in understanding his theology better, though I suspect that much of it will remain “beyond my sympathies,” as well as my comprehension. But at this point it is his eschatology that interests me the most.

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