Saint Ambrose of Optina
In your letter on the 18th of January, you passed on to me your son's question: "According to the Gospel, before the end of the world, mankind will be in the most horrible state that it has ever been in. This condition rejects the possibility of the continual moral perfecting of mankind. If one accepts this, is it possible to continue laboring for the good of mankind? Why continue laboring for the improvement of mankind if one is convinced that it is impossible to achieve moral perfection for mankind before the end of the world?"
In your letter on March 24, you asked the same question in a different way: "The duty of a Christian is to do good and to strive so that good triumphs over evil. It says in the Gospel that evil will triumph over good at the end of the world. By what means can we strive for the triumph of good over evil, knowing that our strivings will not be crowned by success and that evil will win in the end?"
Tell your son that evil has already been conquered. Evil has not been conquered by human might and strivings, but by our Lord and Saviour Himself, Jesus Christ the Son of God; Who descended from heaven, became man, and suffered as a man; Who vanquished the power of evil along with its originator, the devil who held dominion over the human race, through His suffering on the Cross and through His Resurrection. The Lord freed us from demonic, sinful slavery. He himself has said: Behold, I give unto you power to tread on serpents and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy... (Lk. 10: 19). In the mystery of Baptism, power is given to all believing Orthodox Christians to trample upon evil and to do good. This is accomplished by fulfilling the Gospel commandments. No one can be forcibly bound by evil except those who are careless in keeping God's commandments, and especially those who voluntarily give into sin.
Those who desire to conquer evil by their own power manifest a lack of understanding of the Christian mysteries in the Orthodox Church. This evil has already been conquered by the Advent of the Saviour. This lack of understanding is a sign of the proud self-assurance of man because man desires to do everything on his own without turning to God for help. The absurdity of such an approach is clearly pointed out to us by the Lord Himself: Without Me ye can do nothing (Jn. 15: 5).
You write that it says in the Gospel that evil will triumph over good at the end of the world. This is said nowhere in the Gospel. The Gospel says that there will be less faith in the end times (Lk. 18: 8) and that the love of many will grow cold because of the increase of lawlessness (Matt. 24: 12). The Apostle Paul says that the man of lawlessness, the son of perdition [the Antichrist] who apposes and exalts himself above that is called God, will appear before Second Coming of the Saviour (II Thess. 2: 3-8). It is also written in this passage that the Lord Jesus will kill the Antichrist by the spirit that proceeds from His mouth and that He will put an end to the Antichrist's reign by His Second Coming. Do we see the victory of evil over good in this passage? Any victory over good is, in fact, only temporary. On the other hand, it is not correct to say that mankind is continually perfecting itself. The betterment of life, progress, is only external and concerns the comforts of life. For example, we now use railways and the telegraph which did not exist in the past; different fuels, which were hidden in the bowels of the earth before this age, are now mined. In terms of Christian morality, there is no overall progress.
In all past ages, there were people who achieved great Christian moral perfection. These people were guided by the true Orthodox Christian Faith of Christ. They followed true Christian teaching in agreement with the Divine Revelation which God revealed through divinely-inspired Apostles and Prophets in His Church. People who are striving for perfection will be found at the time of the Antichrist. Time will be shortened for the sake of such people, as it is written: But for the elect's sake those days shall be shortened (Matt. 24: 22). In another place in Holy Scripture, we read that there were always people who gave themselves over to various sins and lawlessness in times past or who fell into various heresies and deceptions, enamored by their fallen reason (I Tim. 6: 20). These people reason according to earthly standards contrary to St. Paul's warning: Beware lest any man spoil you through philosophy and vain deceit, after the tradition of men, after the rudiments of the world, and not after Christ (Col. 2: 8).
I advise you to buy The Life of Saint Gregory the Theologian, recently published, compiled by Archimandrite Agapit. Read it through and pass it on to your son. You will see what kind of scholars there were in the 4th century A.D. Compare them with the scholars of our time. The scholars of that time, like St. Basil the Great and St. Gregory the Theologian, despite the fact that they were highly educated people and very moral, despised earthly glory and comforts, and strived for only the eternal spiritual goods. Do the scholars today follow their example? Do not the majority of them bow to earthly glory and earthly pleasures? Do they not acquire earthly goods, mixing all of this together with a false impression of their own worthiness? Do we observe in this attitude the slightest sign of a general moral perfection of men on earth?
Moral perfection is not attained by humanity as a whole, but by each individual believer, according to the degree of his fulfilling of God's commandments in humility. The final and complete perfection of man is acquired in heaven, in the eternal future life. Our fleeting life on earth is merely a preparation for the future. It is similar to those years that a youth spends in school in order to prepare for activity in the future. If the significance of man's actions were limited only to his existence on the earth, if everything ended for him here, then how could we accept the words of the Apostle Peter, who says that the earth and all the works upon it will burn (II Peter 3:10)? St. Peter adds to this thought the following words: Nevertheless we, according to His promise, look for new heavens and a new earth wherein dwelleth righteousness (II Peter 3: 13). Without the future, blessed, eternal life, our earthly sojourn would be incomplete and impossible to understand.
The desire to labor for the good of mankind is very honorable if it is placed in the right perspective. The prophet-king St. David says that we should depart from evil and then do good (Ps. 32:14). Contemporary man does just the opposite. In theory, everybody wants to work for the good of their neighbor; however, they give very little concern for the fact that they should first cleanse themselves from evil and then care for their neighbor.
The vast majority of the younger generation is very concerned that there should be great activity for the improvement of humanity. Unfortunately, this resembles someone who, although he never finished high school, allows himself to dream of becoming a professor and great instructor in a university. On the other hand, it is another extreme to conclude that striving for the betterment of man is pointless since it is impossible to push humanity forward. Every Christian is obliged to labor for the good of his neighbor according to his strength and social position. At the same time, this should be done properly and at the right time, as we mentioned above, so that our labors will be successful in God's eyes and according to His will.
In your first letter, you mentioned the books, Self-help and Independent Action. I am not acquainted with the contents of these books. I might add here that, in times past, people used to say, "Without God, you can not even get to the doorstep." The Lord Himself tells us, Without Me you can do nothing (Jn. 15:5). I can see from the titles of these books that our new 'wisemen' reason differently. Have you noticed that things produced in an amateur way [self-made] are sold for the lowest price and that amateur work is often criticized as being hack-work?
In general, how can we understand self-help and independent action from a Christian point of view? You and your son should read attentively the Gospel of St. Matthew from the beginning of the fifth chapter to the end of the tenth chapter. After reading this, he should try to fulfill the Gospel commandments contained in these chapters. Through such Christian 'self-activity', he will gain for himself great help in the moral, Christian sense.
In conclusion, I would like to say that you should advise your son not to confuse external human activity with spiritual-moral activity. First of all, to some extent, he will discover progress in external discoveries which are partially found in science. On the other hand, in relation to Christian morality, I repeat, there is no overall progress in mankind. As a matter of fact, in many of the sciences and spheres of human knowledge, progress is noticeably absent. For example, it seems to me that contemporary scholars do not understand mythology and, in general, classical antiquity as well as St. Basil the Great and St. Gregory the Theologian understood them.
Translated from: A Collection of Essays and Letters of the Optina Elder Hieroschemonk Ambrose, Moscow, 1894.