The end of the world: Its causes and signs
"And as He sat upon the mount of Olives, the disciples came unto Him privately, saying, Tell us when shall these things be? and what shall be the sign of Thy coming, and of the end of the world?" (Matthew 24: 3)
The Christian Age, instituted by our Lord during His First Advent, was, as we have seen, a distinct and grand step in man's spiritual progress. It was a new world, originating in specific causes and attaining new results. The people of that age breathed a purer atmosphere. A brighter sun shone upon them, in whose light they saw all things relating to their spiritual nature in clearer form. Their heaven was studded with brighter stars of knowledge, the earth was richer in all the elements essential to spiritual growth, and a more genial climate fostered and quickened the spiritual faculties of the human race. It was a new state, and it was, in every respect, more favorable for the development of a finer, nobler, and a more elevated character than the age which preceded it.
It was a grand step to a higher level of life, but it was not the final one. New knowledge was gained, but that knowledge consisted in unrelated facts. The world into which people had been introduced was rich in new truths, and opened many attractive fields for exploration. But it was not a scientific world. The people who could receive the new truths and breathe the new atmosphere were simple and childlike in nature. They had no idea that all things are related, that there is a Divine order in the universe of mind and matter, by which all things make a harmonious whole.
It was an age of faith, not of sight. "We walk by faith, not by sight," was the clear and sharp definition of its intellectual character by its great apostle. Truth was received on testimony, not on rational knowledge. Consequently, the firmness with which the new truths were held was measured by the validity of the testimony and the agreement of the witnesses. This was a source of great power, so long as people held to the facts, and lived by them, without questioning their truth or attempting to explain their nature; but of great weakness when they began to form doctrines and to arrange them into systems of theology.
The new age was a distinct step from a purely natural to a spiritual state. The people of that age attained to the idea that God is a spirit; that humankind possesses a spiritual nature; that there is a spiritual world, and an endless life beyond this. But their conceptions of all these truths were not clear. They saw " through a glass darkly;" they saw "in part." The great problems of life, which had never been seen before, now loomed up before the mind, but they were enigmas which they had no means and no power to solve. They saw spiritual truths through the "glass" of nature by means of the senses. But this was a very imperfect and illusory medium. It distorted the forms of spiritual truth, and so obscured its essential nature that it could not be clearly understood. The mind was not yet fully emancipated from old influences and modes of receiving truth; it still adhered to the letter so firmly that it could only rise above it with great difficulty. As an inevitable result, the truths of the new and the old age became entangled with one another - the appearance and the genuine truth could not be clearly distinguished - and the mind was led into questionings, doubt, and great errors.
This result was inevitable, and the history of the Church supplies us with abundant proof that it was so. In the new age there was a higher and a truer idea of God, but the conceptions of Him were not complete - they did not satisfy all the demands of the understanding or of the heart. So long as people worshipped the Lord Jesus Christ in affectionate simplicity, without attempting to define His relations to the Father, they met with no great disturbance to their faith. But when that question came distinctly before them they could not avoid it, and they did not possess sufficient knowledge to solve it. The knowledge did not belong to that age; it could not be found in that world. It was one of the a enigmas" of which Paul speaks, which men saw, "through the glass" of nature and the letter of the Word, with sufficient distinctness to discover its existence, but not in light clear enough to understand its nature. The result of their reasonings was a trinity of three Divine Persons so distinct in their attributes that no metaphysical subtleties and no denials could avoid the result of a practical belief in three gods. People might say one, but they thought three, and they constructed their theologies and their plans of salvation upon the notion that there were three. The Rock, which is the chief cornerstone in all Christian belief, fell upon the age and ground it to powder.
The men of the new age had some knowledge of spirit. They knew that it was distinct from matter, but they had no means of learning its nature with sufficient clearness to understand in what the distinction consisted. Generally, it was supposed to be the opposite of matter in all respects, not even possessing substance and form. But this was denying to it every conceivable mode of existence, and putting it entirely beyond the limits of human thought. To get any distinct idea of spirit, they were compelled, by the nature of the human mind, to bring it within the limits of time and space, and give it substance and form, though they made it as much of a shadow as possible. But this was acting against the premises from which they set out. The inevitable consequence was distraction, uncertainty concerning its nature, and even doubt of its existence.
Other examples might be given in abundance. Indeed, the whole history of the Christian Church is full of testimony to the fact that this age contained within it the elements of its own destruction. The human mind had been quickened with a larger influx of Divine forces, new and grand truths had dawned upon humankind; new hopes were awakened, and new aspirations roused up the affections and quickened the understanding to new activities. But there was no safety except in simple obedience. The truths of this new world were presented to the mind according to their appearances, rather than in their rational and genuine forms. They were received by faith on the testimony of others, and not in the clear light of reason. There could be no safety for such a world of thought and affection as this but in absolute obedience. The wise teachers of the age have seen this, and have warned people against the danger of using their reason. They were right in saying that the understanding must be kept in subjection to faith. In the world of which we are speaking there is no safety in any other course.
But that was impossible. In spiritual life, humanity was in a state of childhood, growing into adulthood. People were learning to think; and when people have learned to think upon one subject, they will begin to think upon all others which interest them. They were beginning to discover that all things are related, and this discovery led them to compare, to reason, and define. There was, therefore, no other course than to go on to the logical and inevitable conclusions.
This quickening of the human mind was due to a new influx of power and life from the Lord; it was the effect of His coming, and all the phenomena attending it were the signs of His coming.
We have now gained a true point of view to watch for the Second Coming, and to recognize the signs of it. We understand that we are in a world of mind; that we are talking about a peculiar intellectual and moral state, and the manifestation of a distinct degree and special forms of truth. We must look, therefore, for mental and spiritual signs. The natural objects and actions must be regarded from a spiritual point of view; they must be taken as we take words, as signs of ideas, of principles, of great spiritual activities. As these signs are not arbitrary, but the legitimate effects of the nature of the world in which they take place, and of the coming of the Lord to it, we must try to trace them to their true causes. If we can do this it will be a sure evidence that our principles and our reasoning are correct.
The first sign which our Lord gives is this, "For many shall come in my name, saying, I am Christ; and shall deceive many." This would be the inevitable result of all mental activity and independent thought in the given conditions. People would come to diverse conclusions. From intellectual temperament and bias of character, they would give undue importance to some special subject. They would insist that some doctrine which they had formulated was the essential principle of Christianity, and, according to the plausibility and power of their reasonings, many would be deceived. Every false doctrine has its followers. There is no absurdity too great for people to believe. There have been false Christs in every period of the Church, and many have been deceived by them.
The differences of opinion, which were inevitable as soon as people began to explain the rational grounds of their faith, would naturally give rise to controversy. The people of that age were earnest and passionate. They had not learned patience and toleration. They would be ready to combat any departure from common opinion. Hence would arise fierce discussions. There would be wars and rumors of wars. Evil passions would be aroused and come into conflict; one false doctrine would be arrayed against another, until all the principles which constituted the age would be involved. The conflict of opinion with opinion, of theory with theory, are the wars which are the signs of coming judgment. People do not dispute about what they know. There is no ground for a conflict of opinion about the demonstrations of geometry. Wars originate in differences of belief in what men think they know, and in the selfish loves involved in opinions and leadership. When a person begins to advocate a doctrine, however false it may be, their self-love becomes involved in it, his passions are aroused to maintain it, and they come into a mental and moral state which disqualifies him from seeing the truth, and destroys the love of it. They loves their doctrine, their opinion, and they are ready to defend and to disseminate it.
The natural result of these disputes about doctrines are spiritual famines, pestilences, and earthquakes in divers places. Heavenly affections are not fed by fierce discussions about doctrines the truth of which is a matter of opinion, or of belief founded upon personal testimony. The importance of belief in a particular doctrine is regarded as the essential requisite in spiritual life, and while the leaders of opinion are waging war against one another, love to the Lord and the neighbor are left to starve, the moral forces of the age are weakened, people are taught that it is more important to think right than to do right, and the principles of purity, integrity, and true charity lose their quickening and elevating power, and the natural passions and lusts breed a moral pestilence. The earthquakes will follow. When the fires of controversy are kindled, and are fiercely burning, there will be commotions in the Church which will shake its very foundations.
These are sure signs of a dissolving age. Its forces are arrayed against one another, and a "kingdom divided against itself cannot stand." If it were a conflict between clear and immutable truth and error, between heavenly affections and infernal passions, the result would be different. But such was not the case. People fought about questions which they themselves did not understand, and it is now generally conceded that both parties were, in many respects at least, wrong.
These conflicts of opinion; this starved and, consequently, lean and feeble condition of spiritual life, in which the vital forces of the age lost their tone, character was debased, lusts bred pestilence, and the foundations of society were shaken - these were manifest signs of the approaching end. When people begin to doubt, and to make war upon one another on account of difference of opinion, there is no possibility of arresting the conflict, and the consequences of it, until some definite conclusions are reached. The problem must be worked out to its legitimate conclusions. False doctrines give rise to evil practices, and sin is the prolific mother of error. When the destructive forces of an age are let loose, they increase in intensity and deadly power. Difference of belief rouses the passions; zeal in the defense of opinion becomes hatred; passion obscures the understanding and dulls the perception of the truth. Opposite parties lose sight of the principle in which the conflict originated, and wage war upon one another with fierce and deadly passion. They begin to afflict, to hate, to betray, and to kill one another.
This is literally true. The material world becomes the theatre of these cruelties. In these signs of the end of the age, our Lord gives us a true and terrible picture of scenes which actually occurred on the natural plane of life. He dictated history centuries before its time, though this was not His primary purpose. He was giving the natural signs of events which were to take place in the realm of the spirit; and if people would regard them as signs, rather than the actual events which He was describing, they would understand them. They would find in the pages of history, which are black with the recital of the most cruel persecutions, the fiercest hatreds, and the foulest crimes committed in the name of religion, the sure indications of the end of the world in which they had their origin. These natural conflicts and calamities were the legitimate effects of the doubt and darkness, the false principles and corrupt affections, which characterized the spiritual condition of humanity.
If time permitted, and it were necessary to the elucidation of the general principles of the subject, every particular mentioned, even those apparently the most unimportant, could be shown to be signs of the approaching end. This, however, would require volumes instead of a chapter. But if we keep in mind that the words our Lord used stand for principles and forms of a spiritual age, and describe forces operating in a world of mind, we may see that even the most unimportant and enigmatical sayings are full of significance. He is not speaking of the Judea in Asia, but of the spiritual Judea ,the Church - whose mountains are the highest and holiest affections. When the dreadful calamities of the last days come upon the age, where can those who live in Judea - who still possess any spiritual life - flee? Where can they find protection and rest but in the mountains of heavenly affections? It cannot be in faith, for that has been shaken; it cannot be in knowledge, for that has been destroyed. It can only be in a simple and childlike trust in the mercy of the Lord. A house is the state of affection in which people dwell. The top, or highest part of it, is the inmost or highest affections. In the doubt and darkness and distracting opinions of the last times, a person can find nothing in their memory or in their understanding to help they; they need not go down into them in the hope that they can find the means of averting the calamities of the "last days." The same general idea is represented by him who is in the field. There can be no going back; no help can be found in the past. There is nothing in the store-house of the memory or of the natural mind that can avert the consummation.
The conflicts and destructive passions will be still more harmful and woeful to those in whom the new spiritual life is in the first stages of creation, who are meant by " them who are with child, and them that give suck." A person must be born from above, or they cannot enter the kingdom of heaven. But wars, and betrayals, and hatreds, the lust of pride and power, abounding iniquity and coldness of pure affections, are not favorable to the implantation and growth of the tender beginnings of heavenly affections. The currents of spiritual life are frozen with the winter's cold of faith without love; its tender germs blasted in the fierce fires of lustful passions. The moral atmosphere was corrupt, and bred pestilence. "The whole head was sick, and the whole heart faint."
The culmination of calamities which can befall any age, and which foretells its end with absolute certainty, is the destruction of the central principle which constitutes it. To destroy that kills its seed, its vital center; it is the " abomination of desolation." It bears the same relation to the age of which it is the efficient cause and molding life that the soul bears to the material body. To destroy it is death to the age. The central principle of every distinct era in man's progress is the idea of God which prevails. All its specific doctrines upon the most vital subjects, all its ends of action, and the means employed to attain them, spring from it, as the form of the plant, in general and in particular, the color of its blossoms and the quality of its fruit, are determined by the seed from which it grows. When people have a true and an exalted conception of God, they come intellectually into orderly relations with the Source of all power; they become acquainted with the principles of all order; they have grander conceptions of their own nature; they are animated by nobler ends of action, and see more clearly the true methods of reaching them. Pervert, debase, or obscure that conception, and you pervert and debase all the motives and means of action; you obscure every principle of truth and goodness.
The loss of the simple, distinct, and unitary idea of God, which constituted the Christian age in its primitive purity, was "the abomination of desolation" mentioned by our Lord. The unity of the Divine personality was destroyed, as a doctrine of the Church, by the Council which established the tri-personal theory of God. It practically destroyed monotheism in the Christian world, and by so doing laid the axe at the root of its tree of life; for the Christian age was based upon the doctrine of the unity of the Godhead in the one person of our Lord Jesus Christ. He was the sun of this world. "The Lord God is a sun." "He was the true Light which lighteth every man that cometh into the world." He also declared, "As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world." If we understand by these words the world of truth and love, which is their true meaning, it follows, as a necessary effect, that when He was put out of it, as its supreme and only source of life and light, and as the only proper object of worship, the world of which He is the light must come to an end. The knowledge of His essential nature became obscured when He was given the second - and a secondary - place in the Trinity. The thoughts became distracted and the affections divided between two persons. He was not regarded as the only Creator, as the only source of life and light, as the only proper object of worship. The Divine attributes were divided between Him and two other Persons, and the result was the loss of a distinct and unitary idea of God, confusion and destructive conflict, and irreconcilable contradictions, which tended to destroy all practical belief in a Supreme Being with whom people can sustain orderly and helpful relations.
When these false doctrines had worked out their legitimate effects, bringing doubt and darkness and tribulations in every direful form upon men, the state of the age is truthfully described by the great cosmic changes mentioned by our Lord. "The sun was darkened." He was the sun in its heaven from which came all the light of its truth, all the warmth and quickening power of its love, all the joy and peace of its life. The effect of these false doctrines upon the age were precisely the same that the darkening of the material sun would have upon the earth. Science and human experience show us what terrible consequences would result from even a slight increase or diminution of the sun's light and heat. The earth would be congealed with perpetual frost, or parched and blasted with constant heat. Must not as direful effects take place in the moral and spiritual world from the darkening of its sun?
If the sun were darkened the moon could not give her light. Like the human mind, the moon has no light in itself. It can only reflect light. If the source is darkened, the objects which reflected the light must cease to shine. The Lord is the sun, faith is the moon. We can have no belief in God except by means of the light which comes from Him, as we can only see the objects of nature by the light reflected from them. Belief must perish when its cause becomes perverted or ceases to operate.
By the same principle of interpretation, stars are the knowledges of truth, or particular truths, which give us light. When the age becomes corrupt, they would fall from their places in the heaven of the mind. When love to the Lord dies out of the heart, and a true belief in Him ceases to shine in the understanding, the lusts of self and the world will drag every heavenly truth from its place in the heaven of the mind down to the dust of the earth. When the love of the Lord and the neighbor perish in any human mind, or in any era in man's history, the powers of the heavens are shaken - "the heavens depart as a scroll when it is rolled together," and its stars of spiritual knowledge "fall to the earth, even as a fig-tree casteth her untimely figs when she is shaken of a mighty wind."
I have given but an outline of the meaning of these signs, but enough has been said to indicate the point of view we must gain, and the direction in which we must look for the Second Coming. There is abundant evidence in the past history and present condition of the Christian Church to show that these signs have already appeared, and that the end is long since passed. It was approached gradually and unconsciously to the men of the age, for the very causes which destroyed it rendered them incapable of recognizing the signs of its dissolution and the coming of the Son of man. The Lord came as a thief at night, but not for the purposes of a thief. It was night because men, by their evils of life and false doctrines of religion, had darkened their minds. There was no sun in their heaven, no moon gave them light, and all their stars of spiritual knowledge had fallen to the earth. The Lord came as a thief, without noise, when they were asleep, and fancied that all their spiritual treasures were secure. They did not watch.
But when we say that the Christian age or world has come to an end, we do not mean the organized societies of the Church, nor that they are destitute of all goodness and truth. On the contrary, they are more numerous and stronger than they ever were in the past. The Jewish age came to an end more than [twenty] centuries ago, but the Jewish people are more numerous now than they were then, and they still teach their doctrines and adhere to their principles. And they are vastly more intelligent and elevated in character than they ever were, even in the palmiest days of their power. But their age has passed away. The principles which were the controlling forces in their world, and gave form and quality to it, have ceased to be the standard of right and the guiding light of the human race. We must not, therefore, confound principle with form. The tree may remain in full form, and preserve its toughness of fiber and peculiar texture of grain, for many years after it is dead. There are remains of all the geologic ages; the kingdoms of the plant and the animal are built upon them. But they have ceased to be the predominant feature of the earth; they do not give character and quality to it. New ages, superior in every form of beauty and every quality of good, have succeeded them, though the old remain and still perform an important use.
So it is with the Christian age. The essential qualities which distinguished it from all other phases and grand movements in the progress of humanity, have passed away, and they can never return. Christians may call themselves by the same name, but they are not the same. They may repeat the same creed, but the words do not stand for the same ideas. They have either become a formula devoid of life, like a dead tree, or new meanings have been put into them.
The essential principle of that age was faith, a belief founded on personal authority. The people who were the genuine children of that age - who were animated by its spirit and became the embodiment of its life - accepted the great facts of Christianity with an undoubting faith. They did not care to know the reasons and the hidden causes of things. The great facts that there is another life, that there is a resurrection from death, that there is a heaven of happiness and a hell of misery, and, above all, that Jesus Christ, who is the Redeemer and Saviour of humankind, is also the Creator of all things, and the supreme object of worship, in whose glorious person dwells the fullness of the Godhead bodily, were sufficient for them. They were new and glorious truths, and they laid hold on them with a childlike trust and an abiding affection which supplied every want and filled their whole being.
But that age has passed away. People can no longer receive truth in that way, and be content with it. The reason has been awakened from its long sleep. People will seek for causes; they will ask for the grounds of belief; they will compare and investigate, and seek for the relations of cause and effect. They do not care for human authority; they will not be content until they find the authority of the truth. The boldest and most advanced are deterred by no consequences. Let truth defend herself, and maintain her authority, they say. If she is unable to do it, she is not the truth. Let the doctrines of the Church be put into the crucible of the reason; let them be subjected to the sharpest questionings of science; and if they cannot stand the test, they are not true. Fire will not harm pure gold. Let the Sacred Scriptures, and all they teach of heaven and hell and God, be arraigned before the bar of science and the established principles of law, of language, and of order; let them be subjected to the testimony of history and the facts of experience, and let whatever cannot stand this tribulation, this spiritual threshing, be blown away as chaff.
This tendency cannot be arrested. Neither Catholic nor Protestant can effectively exclude the light from the eyes of the people, or the forces of the new age from their hearts. "Every eye shall see Him." The great army of leaders, from Pope to deacon, may exhort people to keep their reason subject to faith, and "only believe" - it will have no avail. They are themselves borne along in the same current; they themselves do not believe as the early Christians did. They may seek to terrify the timid by pointing out the dangers of unbelief. There is danger in the exercise of every human faculty. There is danger in learning to walk; but every one is willing to incur its risks for the freedom and power they gain. It is as impossible to check this tendency, and place people in the mental and spiritual condition of the primitive Christian age, as it would be to change the cultivated intellect and the robust passions of adulthood into the sweet innocence and lovely trust of infancy. That state has passed never to return.
The people of the first Christian age also formed their opinions and doctrines from the appearances of truth. This was a necessary consequence of their receiving it by faith. That mental state has also passed away. People have learned that a correct judgment cannot be formed upon any subject from external phenomena. The senses cannot be trusted even in material things, much less can their testimony be depended upon in the spiritual realm of human nature. People have begun to look into causes; they have discovered that all beings and all things are inherently and essentially related. They have learned or are beginning to discover that the sources of power lie within, and the true point of view to gain a true knowledge of the relations and qualities of all forms is from the high places of intelligence and spiritual knowledge. The true centers of power are within, and it is only from them that we can understand the facts of nature or the letter of Scripture. Having gained these positions, or having conceived the possibility of doing so, it is as impossible to ignore this vantage of light and power as it would be for the modern astronomer to lay aside his or her telescopes and calculus, desert their observatories, forget their knowledge, and return to the Ptolemaic age of astronomical science.
At the bottom, however, it is not a question of the truth or falsity of the doctrines which formed the character of the first Christian age, though the doctrines were falsified, but of the special nature of the intellectual and spiritual character of the age itself. No intellectual or spiritual progress is possible while people "only believe," even if their belief is true. There was no progress in the knowledge of the material world for thousands of years until the age of science was born. There was, indeed, an accumulation of facts, which was a preparation for the new age of science; but no additions to the treasury of facts would have constituted the scientific age, as no accumulation of materials will make a house. No distinct step in intellectual or spiritual progress is possible while people form their doctrines and theories from the letter of nature or of Scripture. That age must, therefore, complete its cycle, as the Jewish age had done, and pass away. As we have seen, its simplicity and childlike faith could not be preserved when the people of the time began to reason. In such conditions error is inevitable, and error leads to sin, and sin, in turn, blinds the understanding, dulls the perceptions, and begets more fatal errors. As the leaf and blossom of the plant contain in their own forms and nature the causes of their decay, so do all ages of human progress, whose central principle is implicit obedience, or a knowledge of truth based upon appearances only, or a belief founded upon the testimony of others.
These, as we have seen, were the fundamental principles of the first Christian age. They were the root from which it sprung; they gave to it its form and character, and they were the elements of its power and weakness. The end of that world was, therefore, inevitable, and it has come. All the signs which prefigured and attended it have appeared, and have been recorded in the pages of history. That generation has passed, and "all these things have been fulfilled." The Son of man has come in the "clouds of heaven with power and great glory." He has sent His angels with a trumpet and a great voice of a higher form of spiritual truth, and they are gathering together His elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to another. There is great mourning among the human race of the past age, who can see nothing but the dark and destructive side of this grand event; but there is hope and rejoicing among the few who have watched, and who see the dawning light and feel the quickening breath of a new life, which show that the winter has passed, and that the summer of a new and more fruitful age is nigh.