The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse by Viktor Vasnetsov (1887)

Now I saw when the Lamb opened one of the seven seals, and I heard one of the four living creatures say, as with a voice of thunder, “Come!” And I saw, and behold, a white horse, and its rider had a bow; and a crown was given to him, and he went out conquering and to conquer.When he opened the second seal, I heard the second living creature say, “Come!” And out came another horse, bright red; its rider was permitted to take peace from the earth, so that men should slay one another; and he was given a great sword.When he opened the third seal, I heard the third living creature say, “Come!” And I saw, and behold, a black horse, and its rider had a balance in his hand; and I heard what seemed to be a voice in the midst of the four living creatures saying, “A quart of wheat for a denarius, and three quarts of barley for a denarius; but do not harm oil and wine!”When he opened the fourth seal, I heard the voice of the fourth living creature say, “Come!” And I saw, and behold, a pale horse, and its rider’s name was Death, and Hades followed him; and they were given power over a fourth of the earth, to kill with sword and with famine and with pestilence and by wild beasts of the earth. (Revelation 6. 1-8).

Are we living in the end times? 

In the Sixth Chapter of the Apocalypse of St. John, we have a description of the “four living creatures”, who attend the throne of God in heaven, singing “Holy, Holy, Holy,” now calling out four horses and their riders to lay waste the earth with conquest, war, economic collapse (sparing the oil and wine industry!), famine and pestilence, setting in motion a series of events leading to a final battle between God and His enemies at “Armageddon” (Revelation 16.16) , and the Final Judgment (Rev.20. 14,15).  It’s a horrific and frightening vision that has captured the imagination of artists and theologians alike, and has caused ordinary Christians, at least those who have read the Apocalypse of St. John, to wonder, “Are we living in the end times?”

Before we can answer this question, we have to define our terms. 

In the New Testament, there are three words associated with the End. They are “Parousia”, “Epiphany”, and “Apocalypse”. The word “parousia” literally means “presence” , and is most commonly translated as “coming,” as in the Nicene Creed, where it says, “And he shall come again with glory to judge the quick and the dead.” “Parousia” is a word the Church borrowed from Roman political culture of the day where it referred to the state visit of a dignitary, such as the Emperor. Advent, another word for “ coming,”  is the season in our church calendar leading up to Christmas where we are given to contemplate Christ’s “parousia”, “His coming again in glory.” (see Advent Collect, p. 95, BCP).

In connection with Christ’s Advent, St. Paul speaks of an “epiphany” (2 Thessalonians 2.8), which simply means “manifestation” or “showing forth.” Again, this is a term we are well familiar with from our church calendar, where in the season of Epiphany, we behold the “showing forth” of the person of Jesus Christ, whose birth we celebrated at Christmas. “Where is He who has been born King of the Jews? (Matthew 2.2) “You are my Beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” (Mark 1.11) “ We have found Him who Moses and the law and prophets also wrote, Jesus of Nazareth!” (John 2.45).

The third word is “apocalypse,” which refers to “something hidden that has been revealed”, and so is  most often translated as “revelation,” as in “The Book of Revelation.” You don’t have to be a Christian to see that we are in living in “apocalyptic times,” where the truth of so many things is being laid bare… But for St. Paul, what is of interest is “the mystery hidden for ages and generations but now revealed to his saints.” (Colossians 1. 26).

So what is “the End” which will be “showed forth” or “revealed” at Christ’s “Parousia?” The “End,” is what the New Testament calls “the kingdom of God.” It’s what Handel had us singing about in his famous, Hallelujah Chorus. “And He shall reign for ever and ever! King of Kings, and Lord of Lords!” (Rev 19.16). In Christian terms “the End” is not the “end of the world,” a description of an event at a  certain point in time somewhere in the future.  The End is a Person. It is Jesus Christ Himself. 

In the final chapter of the Book of Revelation Jesus announces to the Church, “I am the Alpha and the Omega, the First and the Last, the Beginning and the End.” (Revelation 22.13).  Here we see that “the End” that is Jesus Christ, and the kingdom of God, has been with us from the very beginning, and therefore is also present with us here and now. At the outset of his preaching ministry, Jesus declared, “The time is fulfilled. The Kingdom of God is at hand.”(Mark 215)  Everything that Jesus does, from preaching and the teaching the Gospel, to casting out demons, healing the sick, forgiving sins, stilling the storm, feeding the multitude, raising the dead, was a “manifestation” and  “revelation” of that Kingdom. And so it is with the Church. Our liturgical worship centered on the sacraments of Holy Baptism and Holy Communion, are not mental recollections of something that happened “once upon a time…” They are, rather, effective signs of the in-breaking of the kingdom of God in our midst.

What does all of this mean for our question, “Are we living in the end times?”  If by “end times” we mean “the end of the world,” then the answer clearly is, “No”. We are not living in “the end times.”

If by “end times” we mean the time in which the reign and rule of God in Jesus Christ, is being “manifested” ” and “revealed ”  in our midst, then the answer is “Yes!” We are living in “the end times”, and have been so ever since Christ’s appearing!  It’s why the most important feature of Viktor Vasnetsov’s 19th century painting, “The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse”  is what you see  above the horsemen, “hidden” behind the clouds of heaven, but now being manifest:  the reign and rule of “the Lamb that was slain from before the foundation of the world.” (Revelation 13.8). The end times are not about the end of world, but the end of the current world order.

How then are we to live in this time of conquest, war, economic collapse, famine  and pestilence, when the sound of horses’ hoof-prints is heard all around the world? Very simply: We are to live now in light of the end which has already come. How do we do that?  The program for this new world order is contained in the Sermon on the Mount, where, among other things, Jesus exhorts us  to “give to those who ask” (Matthew 5. 42), “love and forgive your enemies, and bless those who persecute you,” (Matthew 5.44), “ and not be anxious about tomorrow”( Matthew 5. 34). In short, “do not be overcome with evil, but overcome evil with good.” (Romans 12. 21).