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), hardly matter. Either scenario, or any of the others about which cosmologists speculate, represents the destruction of 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:
But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a loud noise, and the elements will be dissolved with fire, and the earth and the works that are upon it will be burned up. Since all these things are thus to be dissolved, what sort of persons 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 kindled and dissolved, and the elements will melt with fire! But according to his promise we wait for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells. (2 Peter 3:8-13)
“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 it—not a new “six days of creation” but a transfiguration 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 evolutionary transition from the one to the other is excluded; they are separated—or united—by a chasm, a transcensus. The same thing holds for the times and seasons of this accomplishment: When will this be and will it be at al?—are questions that in the past provoked (and even now provoke) doubt and uncertainty (cf. 2 Pet. 3:4-10). 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. The calendar will even be abolished, and the connection of time will fall apart. (p. 384)
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. (p. 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, for it is a day and hour that transcends our days and hours. 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, whereas for the person himself, death does not occur in this time. But when the cosmic consummation arrives, there will be no one left to mark it as an event within the flow of events. In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, the trump will sound and the Eschaton will be made manifest. The old time will cease to be; the new will appear. 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 “chronological” arrival of the Kingdom is therefore God’s business, not ours. “It is not for you,” the risen Christ tells his disciples, “to know times or seasons which the Father has fixed by his own authority” (Acts 1:7). 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. “When will Jesus return?” we have repeatedly asked over the centuries. Doubt is inevitable. But the conclusion 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).
[Originally published on 3 July 2014; mildly edited]