One generation passeth away, and another generation
Cometh : but the earth abideth for ever. —Ecclesiastes i. 4.
THE belief that the material universe is finally to be destroyed has been and still is almost universal in the Christian Church. Some have maintained that matter will be entirely annihilated ; others, that it will only be burnt up and reduced to its simple elements, and that out of these elements new heavens and a new earth will be formed, and that the new earth will be the eternal dwelling-place of the righteous. Their bodies are to be raised up from the earth, and their souls brought back and reinstated in them. The Lord is to come down from heaven and dwell with them and be their King. All traces of sin and imperfection will be destroyed in the general conflagration, and the whole earth will become an Eden, the garden of the Lord, and all those glowing prophecies concerning the peace and happiness of the righteous will be fulfilled.
About the time when this great change is to take place there has been much difference of opinion. There can be no reasonable doubt but the apostles expected it in their day, and Christians have been looking for it and predicting it every century since. Many of us can remember the excitement caused by Millerism. Many persons were so sure that they had discovered the year and the day when the end was to come that they had their ascension robes made, and, clad in them, they assembled on the appointed day, expecting that the Lord would come in the clouds of heaven, and that they would be caught up with Him in the air while the earth and the heavens were being consumed. Learned commentators and diligent students of prophecy postponed the end to 1866. It is quite safe to say now, however, that they were mistaken in the time, if not in the event itself.
There is another important point upon which there is an equally serious conflict of opinion. Some believe that the millennium—that is, a period of a thousand years in which the Lord is to reign personally upon the earth, and righteousness and peace are to prevail universally—will take place before the world is burnt up. Others believe that the world is to be consumed first and that the millennium will take place afterwards, and among those who entertain this opinion are many of the most learned divines in all branches of the church. There is a general assent to the doctrine that the earth, if not the material universe, is to be burnt up, and either annihilated or made over into a new one.
But the doctrines of the New Church teach directly the reverse of this. They declare that this earth and all the earths in the material universe were created to be the birthplace of intelligent spiritual beings, who commence their existence in a material body, and after a time discard it and pass on into the spiritual world, where they are to dwell forever. The earths are the seminaries of the heavens. The material universe was created from the spiritual universe, and bears the same relation to it that the body does to the soul, that the husk does to the corn, or the shell to the fruit. Every human being begins his existence upon some material earth, and sooner or later passes on into the spiritual world. Thus the work of creation is continually going on. New souls are continually being created and passing on to their eternal home. Generation after generation commences existence, passes across the stage of this life and on to eternity, and, as we believe, will continue to do so forever.
I invite your attention to the grounds for this belief. The doctrine is entirely in accordance with Scripture when correctly understood. There are some passages both in the Old and the New Testament which describe remarkable changes as taking place in the earth and the heavens. The sun is said to be darkened, the moon changed into blood, the stars to fall from the heavens, the foundations of the earth to be shaken, the heavens to be rolled together as a scroll, when, in the words of Peter, ” the heavens shall pass away with a great noise, and the elements shall melt with fervent heat ; the earth also, and the works that are therein, shall be burned up.” “The earth is utterly broken down,” cries Isaiah, “the earth is clean dissolved, the earth is moved exceedingly. The earth shall reel to and fro like a drunkard, and shall be removed like a cottage ; and the transgression thereof shall be heavy upon it.”
Now, it is simply impossible that all these particulars can be literally true. It is impossible that the stars should fall to the earth. The earth is a mere grain of sand compared with the stars. We can see that the sun might be darkened, but how impossible that the moon should be turned into blood ; or, if possible, what use could there be in it? In one place it is said that the earth shall be burned up, in another that it shall be removed like a cottage ; and again that ” every mountain and island shall be moved out of their places.” In one place it is said the nations are to be gathered together in the valley of Jehoshaphat. Sometimes this great consummation is represented as having taken place, and again as about to take place in some future time. The disciples asked the Lord, saying, ” Tell us, when shall these things be ? and what shall be the sign of thy coming, and of the end of the world ?” And the Lord answered,” This generation shall not pass, till all these things be fulfilled.” It is impossible to form any definite conclusion from attempts to interpret the Scripture literally. No human ingenuity, no grasp of intellectual power, can reconcile all this imagery and show its bearing upon one natural event. But, furthermore, the word translated ”world” in the phrase “the end of the world,” does not mean world in the sense of a material earth, and never did. A recent commentator says, “It is very remarkable that the word which means world in Greek is never used where what is supposed to be the end of the world is described.” The Greek word aion means an age or dispensation, or period of the church. In this sense we speak of past ages. We apply it to a special development of life and literature, as when we say the Elizabethan Age. The apostles, without any doubt, used the word aeon in this sense.
Our Lord had just foretold the destruction of Jerusalem. He had just told the disciples that there should not be left one stone upon another of the temple that should not be thrown down ; and He had said, “Ye shall not see me henceforth, till ye shall say, Blessed is he that cometh in the name of the Lord.” Then they asked Him, “When shall these things be? and what shall be the sign of thy coming, and of the end of the age,—of the Jewish Church or Dispensation ?” They supposed He was going to establish a new age or kingdom in the place of the Jewish Church. The question is, therefore, natural and pertinent. . But if they meant the earth there seems to be no reason for such a question. There was nothing in the preceding conversation to lead to such a question. If our Lord’s answer also is carefully considered it will be found to have no special application to such a question, and commentators have had the greatest difficulty in reconciling many things in it with the idea that it refers to the end of the material world. Many things apply with great pertinence to the destruction of Jerusalem, but others do not. The apostles, without doubt, found their questions answered to their satisfaction. They believed that the end would come in their day, and we find them frequently referring to it in their epistles. ” The time is short.” “The day of the Lord is at hand.” They frequently speak of being ” in the last days,” ” in the last times,” “in the ends of the age.” That they did not fully understand what the change would be in all its breadth and detail is evident from their own language.
Before our Lord’s death and resurrection they supposed the Lord came to establish a political kingdom and restore Israel to their former power and splendor. Their views became more elevated after our Lord’s ascension ; they knew that His kingdom was a spiritual kingdom, but still they did not fully comprehend its nature, and probably expected that its establishment would be attended with many signs and portents, with many civil and physical commotions. There are evidences, however, that they did not understand the terms literally which speak of commotions and destruction. At the day of Pentecost, when the apostles were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak with other tongues as the Spirit gave them utterance, some, mocking, said, ” These men are full of new wine.” But Peter said, “This is that which was spoken by the prophet Joel, And it shall come to pass in the last days, saith God, I will pour out of my spirit upon all flesh ; and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams : and on my servants and on my handmaidens I will pour out in those days of my Spirit ; and they shall prophesy : and I will show wonders in heaven above, and signs in the earth beneath ; blood, and fire, and vapour of smoke : the sun shall be turned into darkness, and the moon into blood, before that great and notable day of the Lord come.” (Acts ii. 16-20.) Thus Peter expressly declares that what they saw on the day of Pentecost was the fulfilment of this prophecy, and that it was ” in the last days.” Ought not this to be a key to the interpretation of all such language when used by the apostles, especially by Peter ?
In the interpretation of Scripture, if one part of a statement is taken literally the whole ought to be. If it is said that the moon shall be turned into blood, we must accept that as a literal fact if we do the other part of the statement. We ought to believe that the stars will fall upon the earth, even as a fig-tree casteth her untimely figs when she is shaken of a mighty wind, if we believe the other part of the statement, that the heaven will depart as a scroll when it is rolled together, and that every mountain and island will be moved out of their places. (Rev. vi. 12-14.)
According to the same principle, if we accept a statement of Scripture as referring to a particular event in one part of the Bible, it is reasonable to accept every similar statement in every part of the Bible in the same sense. If this is done I do not hesitate to say that it is impossible to prove from the Bible that the material universe is ever to be destroyed by fire. Some fact will always be found which cannot be brought to harmonize with the others. The doctrine or theory does not explain all the facts, and, consequently, either the facts or the doctrine cannot be true.
Now let us apply the doctrine of the New Church and her method of interpreting the Scriptures to those passages which are supposed to refer to the end of the world. The doctrine is this : By the end of the world is meant the end or consummation of an age, or a complete cycle in the spiritual movements of humanity. The Jewish Church was one age, which came to an end when our Lord was upon the earth. The Christian Church was another age or distinct movement in the spiritual progress of humanity. The Jewish Church was purely natural, and the representative of a spiritual church. The Jews had no hopes or aspirations beyond this world. They believed that the Messiah was to be a temporal ruler, like David and Solomon, who was to exalt them to the pinnacle of earthly power. Jerusalem was not a heavenly but an earthly city, the capital of their own kingdom, which they expected would become the capital of the whole earth. This life and this world bounded all their hopes and fears. There may have been some men who caught glimpses of something beyond, but this pure naturalism was the essential element of the Jewish Dispensation. The Christian Dispensation took a distinct step in advance. It was a spiritual church. God was a spiritual being, and not a merely temporal king. Jerusalem was a church or a heavenly city. Righteousness did not consist in a scrupulous adherence to the ceremonial law, but in a life according to the commandments. The law reached the thoughts and intentions. But these truths the church received upon authority. The church has never had any rational knowledge of spiritual truth. All her doctrines are taught dogmatically, and are to be received by faith, as matters of belief, upon testimony.
The essential characteristic of the first Christian age has been belief in spiritual truth and obedience to it ; but truth received upon authority and not rationally understood. A church or age comes to an end when the essential principle which distinguishes it from all others ceases to be a living principle. Thus the Jewish world or age came to an end when they made the Word of God of none effect by their tradition, and when their national life and civil polity and ceremonial worship at Jerusalem ceased. The first Christian age came to an end when its love for the truth had grown cold, and its belief in the truth which constituted the church had been destroyed. This, we believe, took place about a century ago. It would not be difficult to show by the testimony of the church herself that all real belief in her doctrines had perished. You can hardly find two men now who think alike upon any of the essential doctrines of the church. Even if they use the same words, they do not attach the same idea to them ; and multitudes repeat the creed without attaching any idea to it. It is not my purpose to prove this truth, but simply to state it for illustrating what we mean in the New Church by the end of the world, or the consummation of the age. You will perceive that it is not the end of an organization, of dogmas and outward forms, but of inward life. A tree may retain its form for many years after it is dead. Wood may preserve its existence for many centuries and be applied to many useful forms after its life has come to an end. So a church may retain its outward organization and teach its dogmas for many years after it is dead. Indeed, it is the distinguishing characteristic of a dead church that it is scrupulous in paying tithes of the mint, anise, and cummin of creeds and ceremonies, while it neglects the weightier matters of the law, judgment, mercy, and faith.
Having stated what we understand by the end of the world or age, let us look at the terms in which that event is described in the Bible. The doctrines of the New Church teach us that the whole Bible is written according to the correspondence of natural with spiritual things. The sun represents the Lord ; its heat represents His love received and reciprocated by men. The moon represents the cool light of faith. The stars are bits of knowledge of heavenly things held in memory. The earth represents the church ; all things on the earth represent the truths or principles which constitute the church, and everything that occurs on the earth represents some form or activity of those truths and principles. Now let us apply this method of interpretation to some of the passages in the Word which relate to this subject. The darkening of the sun means the loss from the church of that love for the Lord and of that sense of the Lord’s love which are its very life.The withdrawal of the moon’s light means the gradual loss of all belief or faith in the truths of the church. Its being changed into blood denotes the destruction of all living quality in the faith of the church. It represents the loss of all charity or brotherly love. The falling of the stars from heaven denotes the entire dispersion and loss of all the knowledges of spiritual truth, by giving them a merely natural meaning. The spiritual mind is heaven compared with the natural mind. The kingdom of heaven is within us. When those truths which relate to the spiritual man are brought down and sensualized, when the church begins to lose the spirit and to think lightly of the life, and makes much of mere dogmas and ceremonies, which is the sign of a dying or dead church, then the stars fall from heaven upon the earth, even as a fig-tree, which denotes a development of merely natural good, casteth her untimely figs when she is shaken of a mighty wind.
When the light of Divine truth is darkened in the mind ; when the warmth of spiritual love grows cold, and all belief in spiritual truth is destroyed, and all true knowledge of its facts and doctrines is lost, then the heavens depart as a scroll when it is rolled together ; the spiritual mind becomes closed to all spiritual truth, and the end of the world draws near.
If we look at any particular church and note the changes that have taken place in her when she approached her end, we shall find that the changes which are said to take place in the earth represent them in every particular. Our Lord says that many will come in His name, claiming to be the Christ, and shall deceive many. This prediction means that many will claim to have the only message of Divine truth. How diverse the doctrines are we know, and how sharp the controversies and how bitter the persecutions which have arisen among their adherents. These are the wars and rumors of wars foretold by our Lord. The conflict of evil with evil and of falsity with falsity is described as nation rising against nation and kingdom against kingdom. Famines are caused by the lack of the bread of life, which is love to the Lord and the neighbor. The pestilences foretold are the moral and spiritual evils which corrupt the hearts and minds of men, and cause spiritual disease and death. The earthquakes are the commotions in the church, which shake it to its foundations and break it up into sects, as the earth’s crust is shaken and broken into fragments by natural earthquakes.
In this manner we might take every passage in the whole Bible which refers to the end of the world, and show the special meaning of every particular, and its entire harmony with this doctrine and its bearing upon it. All these terms are not given a special meaning to adapt them to this particular doctrine. But they have this meaning everywhere, in the whole Word. The sun, moon, stars, and earth always have essentially the same meaning. The earth always means the church or those principles which constitute it. All the wars, famines, and pestilences mentioned in the Scriptures signify and represent spiritual conflicts, in which evils and falsities contend among themselves or stand opposed to goodness and truth. And we are not compelled to remain in a general application alone. We can descend to the minutest particulars, even to the kind of weapons used in these conflicts, the people who carry on the wars, and the causes of defeat or victory. The farther this correspondence is carried, the clearer it becomes and the more universal its application becomes, so that the argument from the Word comes out in the clearest and fullest manner, satisfying every condition of humanity and every demand of the reason and every statement of Scripture. I have not attempted to do more than to give an outline of the argument and show the manner in which we read the sacred symbols to learn what the Word really teaches concerning the last days. I shall invite your attention now to some of the rational considerations which confirm the belief that the end of the world is a spiritual and not a natural event.
According to the doctrines of the New Church, the material universe was created to be the birthplace of endless generations of intelligent beings, who were to pass on into the spiritual world and make room for those who should come after them. It is the essential nature of love to create, to communicate itself as fully as possible to others. As the Lord’s love is infinite, this essential element of His being can never be exhausted. He must have the same reasons to-day for creating intelligent beings that He had for creating the first man ; and there must be the same reasons millions of years hence for creating new souls to become the recipients of the Divine love and blessedness that there are now. It must, therefore, be contrary to the essential nature of the Lord that He should ever cease to create.
It has been proved by modern astronomers that our sun with its attendant planets and the myriad visible stars are moving in vast orbits around some common centre. This orbit of our solar system is so vast that it could complete only a small part of a revolution in six thousand years. How absurd to suppose that a Being of infinite wisdom would create a universe and set its worlds revolving in their orbits, and then destroy them before they had completed one revolution ! A little child is not guilty of so great a folly who builds a house of cards and throws it down for the pleasure of seeing it fall. But again, the ratio between the smallest grain of sand and our earth is greater than the ratio between our earth and the whole of the material universe ; can any supposition be more absurd than that the Lord would destroy the whole material universe because some beings who dwell upon this grain of sand have broken His laws?
The act of a man who burned his barn to kill a rat was wise compared with such a destruction of the universe. You cannot find anything in the childish ignorance or fitful spite of men so absurd as this. How irrational, then, to call it by no worse a name, to attribute such folly to infinite love and wisdom ! Suppose the Lord has been disappointed and His purpose in some respects defeated by sin, is that any reason why He should complete the defeat of His ends by a universal destruction ? But it cannot be that He has been defeated or disappointed. Omniscience saw the end from the beginning, and infinite wisdom provided the best means. The Lord can make no mistakes. Sin has only served to bring out the manifestations of His love in larger measures and in a greater variety of forms. There is no more cause for the destruction of the universe than there was to prevent its creation in the first instance. There is the same reason for its continuance, and must forever be, that there was for its creation. The Divine nature as it is in itself, the end for which the universe was created, the whole order and method of the creation and human reason, all teach us in unequivocal terms that the material universe will never be destroyed until infinite love grows cold and infinite wisdom fails to provide the ways and means for carrying into effect the purposes of infinite love, and infinite power becomes exhausted ; and when that crisis comes there will be no God and no universe and no human beings. We infer, therefore, that the destruction of the natural universe is contrary to the Divine nature, to the purposes of the Lord as declared in the creation, and to human reason.
The idea held by some, that the earth will be remade, that the Lord will give to man a better body at the resurrection, and that the new earth, if it is a material one, will be a better earth than this, practically accuses the Lord of folly, of not doing the best for His children that He could, and that is to say that His love and wisdom are not perfect. If it is replied that man finds the earth very imperfect and is constantly improving it, the answer is that it is one of the perfections of the earth that man can improve it,—it is one of the conditions of life essential to his intellectual and spiritual development. If he had no occasion to call forth his faculties they would lie dormant. If he saw no room for improvement, or found it impossible to make improvement, he would have no stimulus of hope, and all motives to exertion beyond what was necessary to support life would be taken away. Man’s nature is self-adjusting to all the conditions of life. Infinite wisdom is embodied in the creation, and when men try to improve upon the methods of infinite wisdom they show their ignorance and folly.
But the doctrine that this earth or any part of the material universe is to be made over into a new world and become the future dwelling of man after the resurrection is materialism. This result cannot be avoided. Man’s body is not a spiritual body after all, and instead of going to heaven and dwelling in one of the mansions in His Father’s house according to the promise, he must remain forever in this world. He is not essentially a spiritual being, but an earthly one, and however perfect his condition may be as a material being, he can never hope to attain to the glory and blessedness of a purely spiritual life. But the whole theory that this world is to be the eternal home of the redeemed is contrary to the oftrepeated declarations and promises of the Word. ” My kingdom is not of this world,” the Lord says. ” I go to prepare a place for you ; and if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again, and receive you unto myself; that where I am, there ye may be also.” The whole tenor of our Lord’s teachings was directed to prepare men for life in another and spiritual world which is not to be created at some future time, but which was already in existence, and when the Lord spoke was the home of all those who had passed from earth.
When we understand the term ” world” as meaning not the natural ground but the world of human life ; especially when we give the Greek word which is translated ” world” its strict meaning of ” age” or ” dispensation,” how simple it all is ! Within historic times the world has more than once passed away and a new world has been created. The Europe which the Roman conquerors knew is gone. The America which Columbus found is passed away and a new America has come into being. And turning our thought to the spiritual states of men, of which the Bible always directly speaks, the world has been destroyed and a new world created as often as one system of religious truth has lost its vitality and its power over the lives of men and a new system has been raised up by the Lord. Not to go back to remote antiquity, the world was in comparatively recent times made new when the Christian Dispensation displaced the Jewish at the coming of the Lord ; and in our own day is taking place before our very eyes the destruction and new creation of the church which the Lord Himself predicted. And all the while our faithful planet keeps steadily on its way fulfilling the purpose for which the Lord created it, as a nursery of human beings, where they may awaken to consciousness and learn their first lessons of obedience to the Heavenly Father, then to pass on to His eternal home. As saith Ecclesiastes, ” One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh ; but the earth abideth for ever.”
Author: Chauncey Giles, From Progress in Spiritual Knowledge, 1895