Part IV: The Church in the Modern Era
A Spiritual History of Earth: Five Epochs
King Nebuchadnezzar had a dream, which Daniel recalled for him as follows: "As you watched, O King, you saw a great image .. . Its head was of fine gold, its breast and arms of silver, its belly and thighs of bronze, its legs of iron, its feet part iron and part clay. While you looked, a stone was hewn from a mountain, not by human hands; it struck the image on its feet of iron and clay and shattered them. Then the iron, the clay, the bronze, the silver, and the gold were all shattered to fragments and were swept away .. . But the stone which struck the image grew into a great mountain filling the whole earth." (Daniel 2:31-35 New English Bible)
By this image, the author of the book of Daniel probably intended to mean the four empires—the Babylonian, Mede, Persian and Greek, followed by the Roman. But spiritually speaking, Nebuchadnezzar's dream-image refers not to empires, but to eras or epochs or ages—which Swedenborg refers to as "Churches." There have been four such churches so far, since humanity has inhabited the earth; and we are now entering the fifth and last. Each era has been distinct and different from the others, with regard to the method by which people have been regenerated, their manner of worship, and the way God has governed the human race.
 The Most Ancient Church, or Age of Gold
The first church that developed on earth is called "Adam," and is described in terms of the Garden of Eden in the early chapters of Genesis. Swedenborg calls it the "Most Ancient Church," or "Age of Gold." This corresponds to the image's head. (Arcana Coelestia Chapter 10, 1114ff., Marriage Love 75)
Before it, there had been no church. People had lived and hunted on earth for a long while previously. They are referred to under the sixth day of creation. (Genesis 1:26-29) They "replenished the earth and subdued it." But these were not fully men ("Adam") because there was not yet a church. Anthropologists would express this differently, and say they were not fully human (i.e. Neolithic humans) because they were not yet living in settled communities, with tilling of the ground and the domestication of animals. (Genesis 4:2) Eden introduced cultivation into the world. Adam is referred to as the first "man" because he was the first cultivator! (Genesis 2:5-7) Spiritually speaking, Adam represents the first or "Most-Ancient" church. The molding of Adam from the dust of the ground, and the breathing into his nostrils the breath of life, represents the formation by the Lord of the "Most Ancient" church.
Evidently not all the people of those days became members of the church. In Genesis we read of the inhabitants of Nod, among whom Cain dwelt, and of scattered individuals, contemporary with Adam, who were subsequently formed into cities. (Genesis 4:16, 17) Note also that Adam's descendants all found wives! Maybe only a comparatively few people in those days achieved the Eden state; but those who did acquired most beautiful celestial graces. They loved the Lord with all their heart, soul, mind and strength; and he taught them, by direct influx, all they needed to know for their simple lives. He walked up and down with them in the garden! They practiced internal breathing, (Arcana Coelestia 1118-1120) which, as with Swedenborg, opened their eyes into the spiritual world, so that, like him, they were conscious in both worlds at the same time. When they died as to their physical bodies, they passed immediately into Heaven, because indeed there was no hell in those days, and no intermediate region either. These folks were celestial, and "love to the Lord" was the motivation and driving force of all they did. They were the best people who have ever lived on earth.
Unfortunately, in the course of time, these celestial beings were tempted by the serpent of the senses to experiment with evil. They ate of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. They rejected the tree of life, which, up to then, had been in the center of the garden (viz. the consciousness that their life came from God) and began to think of themselves as gods. And, because they were creatures of love, they now began to love themselves with the same exclusive passion with which they had formerly loved God. They had no understanding faculty with which to stop or check or brake their downward course. It soon became necessary for the Lord to close their spiritual eyes (which is meant by their being "driven out of Eden," an act of mercy on God's part). And so they continued to decline, until the "Most Ancient" church was brought to an end "drowned by a flood"—not a flood of water, but a flood of falsities rising up from their own corrupt hearts. All this is described in detail in the spiritual sense of Genesis chapters 6 through 9. (Arcana Coelestia Chapters 6 - 9)
 The Ancient Church, or Age of Silver
A branch of the "Most Ancient" church had been interested in learning truth for its own sake. These people, called "Noah," could be saved from the flood of falsities, because their interest in truth gave them power to resist their own evil desires. This power was very weak at first, but was enormously increased by the formation of a new organ of the mind, the understanding or intellect, which could now for the first time operate independently of the will.
This vital change was effected by the Lord in order that a new church, called the "Ancient Church," could be established, which was based on a knowledge of truth or doctrine, instead of being made of pure love like the church of Adam. (Heaven and Hell 327) People's eyes were now closed to the spiritual world, because there was now a hell of diabolical and malignant spirits eager to attract people's attention and thus obtain influence over them. Instead, the members of the "Ancient" church were given a written revelation from God, called the "Ancient Word," from which they could learn all the spiritual truth needed to guide them to Heaven. This required the art of writing; and so, under providence, writing was invented. Ritual worship took the place of the old direct communion with God, involving a trained and dedicated priesthood. So arose the great civilizations of Egypt, Babylon, India, etc. (Remember, all these changes and developments in human life took place for the sake of the Church and the Word.)
This second church, or "Silver Age," corresponds to the breast and arms of Nebuchadnezzar's image. (Marriage Love 76) The character of these people was spiritual rather than celestial—that is to say, they were in love to the neighbor rather than in love to the Lord. They were city folk rather than village folk, and indeed were responsible for building some of the greatest cities the world has ever known.
In course of time, the "Ancient" church fell away. Outward life became more and more splendid, but the people began to use their knowledge of spiritual things for tapping the resources of Hell instead of Heaven, and magic began to flourish. (It is well known that African magic came originally from Egypt, one of the most important centers of the "Ancient" church.) The decline and fall of this church is described in the spiritual sense of the story of the tower of Babel or Babylon. (Genesis 11) All the great nations had now become corrupt; therefore a new church had to be established among a people who knew nothing of spiritual things, and so were innocent of magic. These people were the Hebrews or Israelites.
 The Hebrew Church, or Age of Bronze (or Copper)
The descendants of Abraham were unusual in that they had not meddled with spiritualism and witchcraft! This was perhaps because, although extremely interested in religion, they had a kind of materialistic and commonsense outlook that kept them away from too much dabbling with psychic phenomena. And so the Israelites were carefully separated, and a new revelation of truth was given to them through Moses. (our Old Testament, from Genesis chapter 12 onwards Arcana Coelestia 1551) The main stress was laid on the unity of God and the need to abolish idolatry and witchcraft. In place of the pagan orgies, an elaborate system of ritual worship was instituted, which represented heavenly principles, although the people did not understand the true meaning of what they were doing. As they performed these rituals, their minds were unconsciously put into order, so that angels could be with them to bless them, and evils spirits would be kept at bay. The Hebrews thus served to keep the human race in contact with Heaven for nearly 1,500 years. Spiritually speaking, this period was the "Bronze Age," corresponding to the belly and thighs of Nebuchadnezzar's image. (Marriage Love 77)
 The First Christian Church, or Age of Iron
The Hebrew church was destroyed in the end by Pharisaism, or faith without charity—a strict adherence to the letter of the law (as interpreted by the rabbis down through the centuries) at the cost of the spirit. The actual moment of its demise was when Jesus was on the cross, and "the veil of the temple was rent in twain, from the top to the bottom" (Matthew 27:51), thus exposing the Holy of Holies to public gaze. Jesus by his redemption and glorification gave humanity a new start, taking upon his own "Divine-Human" the role of mediator formerly sustained by the high priest, and thereby opening a direct contact between every individual and the infinite God. A new revelation of truth was given—our New Testament, actually based on the Hebrew Old Testament but more transparent than any previous revelation. So the Christian church was launched, corresponding to the legs of Nebuchadnezzar's image. The early Christians were characterized by simple faith and were conspicuous for their mutual brotherly love. ("How these Christians love one another!" was originally said in all sincerity, not sarcasm!) This love was more limited and circumscribed than genuine love to the neighbor, and so their faith is likened to iron, which resembles silver but is of a lower value. (Marriage Love 78) But alas! After only about 300 years, the main doctrine, that Christ was God in human form, came to be denied, and a false doctrine was put in its place, that Christ was only a second person in a trinity of persons, and not even the most important of the three! From then on, the church was split between those who still made Jesus Christ the supreme object of their worship, and those who addressed everything to the Father merely adding the name of Christ to the end of their petitions, as a kind of guarantor "for whose sake" the prayer should be granted! The feet of the image became like iron mixed with clay.
 The New Church—the Stone which became a Mountain
By the middle of the 18th century, the first Christian church, as inaugurated by Jesus Christ, came to an end, and with it all the religious eras that had existed since the days of Adam. A new church, more purely Christian, was established, and a new revelation was given to the world, through the writings of Emanuel Swedenborg, which opened the internal sense of God's holy Word and explained in a rational manner all the spiritual truths people could possibly grasp. These doctrines of the New Church did not, of course, originate in Swedenborg's own mind, but were from the Lord himself. They were the "stone not hewn by human hands," (Dan 2: 34, 45) which hit and smashed the feet of iron and clay, so that the whole image collapsed from top to bottom. All the fragments are now being swept away, and the stone is becoming a great mountain that will fill the whole earth. (Arcana Coelestia 8581; See also True Christian Religion Chapter 14, "The Consummation of the Age, the Coming of the Lord, and the New Heaven and New Church.")
We do not mean by the New Church any particular ecclesiastical organization, but a new spiritual attitude of thought and life, which is already percolating, by a kind of osmosis, into the thinking of the whole world because the doctrines of the New Church agree with what Swedenborg found among the angels in Heaven. So, whereas the former churches all degenerated and finally came to an end, the New Church (whether or not under the Swedenborgian label) will continually grow in numbers and in spiritual grace as its teachings are more deeply understood. It is the church of the New Age.