Our small but growing mission of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia in Northern Appalachia has a weekly community Bible Study on Sunday afternoon at 2:30 p.m. at a downtown cafe of the university bookstore in our college town.
Above: One of our Bible Study discussions from fall 2021.
Today on the feast of the Holy Royal Martyrs (July 4 on the Julian Calendar) we were studying the Holy Apostle Paul’s Second Epistle to the Thessalonians, with its reference to the “son of perdition,” following the commentary of Archbishop Averky (Taushev) of blessed memory, synthesizing teachings on the chapter from Holy Orthodox Tradition.
This led to discussion of the Antichrist (the “son of perdition”) in Orthodox teaching, and its relevance to concerns today about developing technology that expands surveillance and manipulation of people by Artificial Intelligence and other forms of digital “reality,” seeking in effect to disembody humanity (and with it to try to erase the manhood assumed by our Lord Jesus Christ as “fully God and fully man”).
II Thessalonians 2 is one of the main biblical sources on the Antichrist (the others being the book of the Holy Prophet Daniel, and the Revelation and Epistles of the Holy Apostle and Evangelist John the Theologian). It is important to note that Orthodox tradition about this passage is far richer spiritually than any simple effort to identify the Antichrist with a particular time period or conspiracy, as is sometimes seen today in heterodox Christian faiths.
That epistle to early Christians in Thessalonica (still a stronghold of Orthodox Christian faith) by the Holy Apostle Paul references in verses 6 and 7 to the “withholder” or “restrainer” holding off the Antichrist, as interpreted by many Orthodox commentators over time. Archbishop Averky noted in his commentary that Orthodox commentators have associated this withholder or restrainer with the grace of the Holy Spirit restraining the Antichrist in synergy with both a faithful remnant of believers and Orthodox Christian rulers.
This is where the connection came with the Holy Royal Martyrs. Their martyric deaths at the hands of the atheist Bolsheviks marked the end of the major Orthodox Christian monarchy and heir to Byzantium. The overthrow of that monarchy was quickly followed by the fall of remaining major heterodox Christian monarchies as well (those not already in effect turned into secular regimes).
Killed among the Royal Martyrs and their loyal retainers was Dr. Eugene Botkin, pictured below with Tsar-Martyr Nicholas. In addition to the professional relationship of the doctor to the family, they were friends and went together to exiled imprisonment and their deaths along with other royal family members.
In his last surviving note, not long before the execution, which best historical accounts today agree was ordered by the Bolshevik tyrant Lenin himself, St. Eugene wrote:
“ … In essence I am dead but not yet buried, or I am buried alive…
“My children might still have hope of seeing me someday in this life, but I’m looking in the face of the unadorned reality…
“If faith without works is dead, then deeds can live without faith and if some of us have deeds and faith together, that is only by the special grace of God. I became one of these lucky ones through a heavy burden – the loss of my first born, six-month old Sergei. Since then I have remembered God in everything I do.
“This vindicates my last decision when I unhesitatingly orphaned my own children in order to carry out my physician’s duty to the end, as Abraham did not hesitate at God’s demand to sacrifice his only son.
“And I firmly believe that just as God saved Isaac then, He will now save my children and He Himself will be their Father. But I do not know where He will put their salvation, and my egoistic sufferings do not lose their painful acuteness. However, Job endured more… No, apparently, I can endure everything that the Lord God will please me to send down…”
Archbishop Averky in his commentary on 2 Thessalonians 2 quotes from pre-revolutionary Russian Orthodox sources such as St. Theophan the Recluse and St. John of Kronstadt, who noted that the end of the Russian Orthodox monarchy as “withholder” or “restrainer” would open the door for movements of atheism and anarchism, and demonic forces behind them. Arguably we have seen this since the execution of the Holy Royal Martyrs in both Communist and Western countries and in today’s developing global cyberspace. The past century saw an estimated 100 million victims of Communism, together with many other victims of Nazism and world wars and the Cold War, as well as those whose souls have been damaged or lost amid Western apostasy reaching around the world, which would erase Christian tradition and life.
Scriptural traditions about the Antichrist suggest many “antichrists” throughout Christian history from the start. The Holy Evangelist and Apostle John the Theologian described the “spirit of Antichrist” as the denial that our Lord Jesus Christ has come in the flesh. This also involves denial of the Church as His Body, and of the Eucharist, and of teachings and practices of Orthodox Christianity that uphold Christian family life and community.
Such a spirit of Antichrist unfolds in the history of the Gnostic heresy, with its emphasis on disembodiment in denial of the Incarnation. This involves a separation of the mind from the heart, objectifying and using the body and by extension the world in modern times through technology for purposes of will and power, overseen by supposed experts rather than God. Thus we see today the “post-human” and “trans-human” movements affiliated with Artificial Intelligence and developments such as bioengineering and the idea of an online “Metaverse.” C.S. Lewis in his twin 1940s books The Abolition of Man and That Hideous Strength called such developments “technocracy,” or the growth of a culture of technology that permeates corporate, educational, media, and government bureaucracies. The political scientist Eric Voegelin and others have described this as technocratic gnosticism in modern management or administrative regimes. More recently, the Orthodox writer Paul Kingsnorth calls this “the Machine,” which he sees as including the digital world of cyberspace in which many people today spend a great part of their day. Harvard Business School professor emerita Shoshana Zuboff has detailed how disembodied digital surveillance and behavior modification today seek to reshape human identity for the profit and power and secular views of elites (needless to say not motivated by Orthodox Christian faith).
Amid all this, we can return to II Thessalonians 2:6-7 and its individualized reference to that which restrains (New King James translation) or withholds (King James Version), often interpreted in Orthodox commentary as a particular figure. Will this be some equivalent of a new Orthodox Christian ruler helping to hold off for a time movements that could hasten the coming of the Antichrist, until God’s plan beyond time is fulfilled? Or will it be the work of the grace of the Holy Spirit upholding a core of the faithful, like the 10 people in Sodom for whom Lot prayed the Lord to spare the city, upheld by God’s grace working through the Church? Or both? The Scripture text as understood in Orthodox Tradition suggests ultimately some particular figure who will be in that role prior to the particular figure of the Antichrist assuming world power. Presumably, as with the lower-case “antichrists” of history, there can be until that time many restrainers/withholders upholding the order of Christ’s Church, a spirit of Restrainer/Withholder, as well as the nefarious spirit of Antichrist, with its paradoxical promotion of chaos to heighten demonic control. In all that, the point of the withholding or restraining is to provide more opportunity for others to be saved in our Lord’s Church. God, beyond time, knows the time, we do not, although we are called to discern the “signs of the times.” As Church members and communities, we can pray to help in this restraining/withholding today, with God’s grace and if it be His will, by redoubling our efforts at evangelization of ourselves and especially also young people in our aggressively secularizing society and expanding technocracy today.
We often have non-Orthodox inquirers present at our Bible Study, but those around our table this time included converts to Orthodox Christianity from atheism and with past individual religious histories in the Assembly of God and Jehovah’s Witnesses, Christian Science and Unitarianism–among us also a Deacon, a catechumen, and a parish warden, ranging from 20 years in Orthodoxy to a few years and to the catechumenate–quite a varied crew of American backgrounds worshipping now in the Russian Orthodox tradition in central Pennsylvania. Indeed our Holy Synod, currently based in New York City, first formed in 1920 in Constantinople in response to the overthrow of Christian monarchy in Russia by the atheist Communists and their effort to take over and destroy traditional Christianity globally. Our humble discussion today in northern Appalachia indicated at a small level the continued relevance of that history and tradition to us still today as Orthodox Christians in America. We all in common have found an ark of safety in the Orthodox Church as the body of our Lord and God and Savior Jesus Christ continuously present since Apostolic times, originating in the Holy Land in biblical times, and our mother on the earth.
In these latter days, we pray that the Lord may give us good strength and wisdom for devoting our whole heart to Him and to teaching transgressors His ways, as Psalm 50/51 puts it. May the Holy Royal Martyrs intercede for efforts to support the restraining and withholding of the spirit of Antichrist today, that more of our neighbors may be saved, and that we ourselves have more time to pray and repent, improving the time, God willing.
As Elder Anatoly of Optina wrote amid revolution and civil war in Russia:
“O Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, deliver us from the seductions of the coming Antichrist, abhorred by God and crafty in evil, and from all his snares. Protect us, and all of our Christian neighbors, from his devious nets—keeping us in the hidden refuge of Thy salvation. Grant, Lord, that our fear of the devil may not be greater than the fear of Thee, and that we not fall away from Thee and Thy Holy Church. But instead, grant us, O Lord, to suffer and die for Thy holy Name and for the Orthodox Faith, and never to deny Thee, nor to receive the marks of the cursed Antichrist, nor to worship him. Grant us, O Lord, day and night, tears and lamentation for our sins. And on the day of Thy dread Judgment, O Lord, grant us pardon. Amen.”
“Even so, come, Lord Jesus” (Rev. 22:20).
For more information on our weekly community Bible Study, please see stjohnthewonderworker.com. We are finishing up study of the Epistles of the New Testament in the next few weeks, after having studied Revelation. Starting Sunday Aug. 21 (2:30 p.m.), we plan to launch a year’s study of “From the Beginning: The Biblical Books of Genesis and Job in the Orthodox Christian Tradition.” Please join us, all are welcome! (We meet at the Bucknell Barnes & Noble Cafe at Fourth and Market Streets in downtown Lewisburg, although after July 24 and until August 21 due to summer breaks we will meet on Zoom to finish our discussion of Hebrews before beginning Genesis. Details about joining the Zoom meetings will be on the above web link.)