ESCHATOLOGY. A term applied to doctrines relative to the state after death.

The End of the World

WE read in the New Testament that the heavens and the earth are reserved unto fire against the day of judgment, when they shall be burned up, and all be made new. It is said that the elements shall melt with ferment heat, the stars fall, and the sky pass away like a scroll that is rolled together. On these and similar passages is based the belief of Christendom in the destined destruction of the world by fire and in the scenic judgment of the dead and the living gathered before the visible tribunal of Christ. This belief was once general and intense. It is still common, though more vague and feeble than formerly. In whatever degree it is held, it is a doctrine of terror. We hope by tracing its origin, and showing how mistaken it is, to help dispel its sway, free men from the further oppression of its fearfulness, and put in its place the just and wholesome authority of the truth. The true doctrine of the divine government of the world, the correct explanation of the course and sequel of history, must be more honorable to God, more useful to men, of better working and omen in the life of society, than any error can be. Let us then, as far as we are able, displace by the truth the errors prevalent around us in regard to the end of the world and the day of judgment.

It will help us in our proposed investigation, if we first notice that the ecclesiastical doctrine as to an impending destruction of the world is not solitary, but has prototypes and parallels in the faiths of other nations and ages. Almost every people, every tribe, has its cosmogony or theory of the creation, in which there are accounts, more or less rude or refined, general or minute, of the supposed beginning and of the imagined end of nature. All early literatures from the philosophic treatises of the Hindus to the oral traditions of the Polynesians are found to contain either sublime dreams or obscure prophecies or awful pictures of the final doom and destruction of earth and man. The Hebrew symbols and the Christian beliefs in relation to this subject therefore stand not alone, but in connection with a multitude of others, each one plainly reflecting the degree of knowledge and stage of development attained by the minds which originated it. Before proceeding to examine the familiar doctrine so enveloped in our prejudices, a brief examination of some kindred doctrines, less familiar to us and quite detached from our prejudices, will be of service.

The sacred books of the Hindus describe certain enormous periods of time in which the universe successively begins and ends, springs into being and sinks into nothing. These periods are called kalpas, and each one covers a duration of thousands of millions of years. Each kalpa of creation is called a day of Brahma; each kalpa of destruction, a night of Brahma. The belief is that Brahma, waking from the slumber of his self absorbed solitude, feels his loneliness, and his thoughts and emotions go forth in creative forms, composing the immense scheme of worlds and creatures. These play their parts, and run their courses, until the vast day of Brahma is completed; when he closes his eyes, and falls to rest, while the whole system of finite things returns to the silence and darkness of its aboriginal unity, and remains there in invisible annihilation through the stupendous night that precedes the reawaking of the slumbering Godhead and the appearance of the creation once more.

A little reflection makes the origin of this imagery and belief clear. Each night, as the darkness comes down, and the outer world disappears, man falls asleep, and, so far as he is consciously concerned, every thing is destroyed. In his unconsciousness, everything ceases to be. The light dawns again, he awakes, and his reopened senses create anew the busy frame and phenomena of nature. Transfer this experience from man to God; consider it not as abstract and apparent, but as concrete and real, and you have the Hindu doctrine of the kalpa. When we sleep, to us all things are destroyed; and when we awake, to us they reappear. When God sleeps, all things in themselves really end; and when he wakes, they begin anew to be. The visible and experimental phenomena of day and night, sleeping and waking, are universalized, and attributed to God, It is a poetic process of thought, natural enough to a rich minded, simple people, but wholly illegitimate as a logical ground of belief, But being stated in books supposed to be infallibly inspired, and in the absence of critical tests for the discrimination of sound from unsound thought, it was implicitly accepted by multitudes.

Closely allied to the foregoing doctrine, yet in several particulars strikingly different from it, and evidently quite independent in its origin, was the Great Year of the Stoics, or the alternative blotting out and restoration of all things. This school of philosophers conceived of God as a pure artistic force or seed of universal energy, which exhibits its history in the evolution of the kosmos, and, on its completion, blossoms into fire, and vanishes. The universal periodical conflagration destroys all evil, and leaves the indestructible God alone in his pure essence again. The artistic germ or seed force then begins, under its laws of intrinsic necessity, to go once more through the same process to the same end.

The rise of this imagery and belief is not so obvious as in the last instance, but it is equally discoverable and intelligible. Every animal, every flower, every plant, begins from its proper specific germ or force, goes through a fixed series of growths and changes, and relapses into its prime elements, and another and another follow after it in the same order. The seasons come and go, and come again and go again, Every planet repeats its revolutions over and over. Wherever we look, this repetition of identical processes greets our vision. Now, by imaginative association universalize this repetition of the course of phenomena as seen in the parts, and take it up and apply it to the whole creation, and you have the doctrine in hand.

It is a poetic process of thought not scientific or philosophic, and without claim to belief; yet, in the absence of scientific data and standards, it might easily win acceptance on authority.

The Scandinavians, also, have transmitted to us, in their sacred books, descriptions of their belief in the approaching end of the world, descriptions rude, wild, terrible, not without elements of appalling grandeur. They foretell a day called Ragnarok, or the Twilight of the gods, when all the powers of good and evil shall join in battle, and the whole present system of things perish in a scene of unutterable strife and dismay. The Eddas were composed in an ignorant but deeply poetic and fertile age, when all the mythological elements of mind were in full action. Their authors looking within, on their own passions, and without, on the natural scenery around them, conscious of order and disorder, love and hate, virtue and crime, beholding phenomena of beauty and horror, sun and stars, night and tempest, winter and summer, icebergs and volcanoes, placid moonlight and blinding mist, assisting friends and battling foes, personified everything as a demon or a divinity. Asgard, above the blue firmament, was the bright home of the gods, the Asir. Helheim, beneath the rocky earth and the frozen ocean, was the dark and foul abode of the bad spirits, the Jotuns. Everywhere in nature, fog and fire, fertility and barrenness, were in conflict; everywhere in society, law and crime were contending. In the moon followed by a drifting cloud, they saw a goddess chased by a wolf. The strife goes on waxing, and must sooner or later reach a climax. Each side enlists its allies, until all are ranged in opposition, from Jormungandur, the serpent of the deep, to Heindall, the warder of the rainbow, gods and brave men there, demons, traitors, and cowards here. Then sounds the horn of battle, and the last day dawns in fire and splendor from the sky, in fog and venom from the abyss. Flame devours the earth. For the most part, the combatants mutually slay each other. Only Gimli, the high, safe heaven of All Father, remains as a refuge for the survivors and the beginning of a new and fairer world.

The natural history of this mythological mess is clear enough. It arises from the poetic embodiment and personification of phenomena, the grouping together of all evil and of all good, then imaginatively universalizing the conflict, and carrying it out in idea to its inevitable ultimatum. The process of thought was obviously natural in its ground, but fictitious in its result. Yet in a period when no sharp distinction was drawn between fancy and fact, song and science, but an indiscriminate faith was often yielded to both, even such a picturesque medley as this might be held as religious truth.

The Zarathustrian or Persian scheme of a general judgment of men and of the world in some respects resembles the systems already set forth, in other respects more closely approaches that Christian doctrine partially borrowed from it, and which is hereafter to be noticed. Ahura Mazda, the God of light and truth, creates the world full of all sorts of blessings. His adversary, Angra Mainyus, the author of darkness and falsehood, seeks to counteract and destroy the works of Ahura Mazda by means of all sorts of correspondent evils and woes. When Ahura Mazda creates the race of men happy and immortal, Angra Mainyus, the old serpent, full of corruption and destruction, steals in, seduces them from their allegiance, and brings misery and death on them, and then leads their souls to his dark abode. The whole creation is supposed to be crowded with good spirits, the angels of Ahura Mazda,

seeking to carry out his beneficent designs; and also with evil spirits, the ministers of Angra Mainyus, plotting to make men wicked, and to pervert and poison every blessing with an answering curse. Light is the symbol of God, darkness the symbol of his Antagonist. Under these hostile banners are ranged all living creatures, all created objects. For long periods this dreadful contention rages, involving everything below in its fluctuations. But at last Ahura Mazda subdues Angra Mainyus, overturns all the mischief he has done, by means of a great deliverer whom he has sent among men to instruct and redeem them raises the dead, purifies the world with fire, and, after properly punishing the guilty, restores all nature to its original paradisal condition, free from pain and death.

In the primitive state of mankind, when the germs of this religion were conceived, when men dwelt in ignorance, exposure, and fear, they naturally shuddered at darkness as a supernatural enemy, and worshipped light as a supernatural friend. That became the emblem or personification of the Devil, this the emblem or personification of God. They grouped all evils with that, all goods with this.

Imaginatively associating all light and darkness, all blessing and bale, respectively with Ahura Mazda and Angra Mainyus, they universalized the fragmentary embodiments and oppositions of these into one great battle; and under the impulse of worshipping faith and hope, carried it to its crisis in the final victory of the good. Plainly, it is mere poetry injected a little with a later speculative element, and dealing in mythological fashion chiefly with the phenomena of nature as related to the experience of man. No one now can accept it literally.

This survey of the various heathen myths of the end of the world has prepared us, in some degree, to consider the corresponding view held by the Jews, and more completely developed by the Christian successors to the Jewish heritage of thought and feeling.

The Hebrews believed themselves to be exclusively the chosen people of God, who directly ruled over them himself by a theocratic government represented in their patriarchs, law givers, prophets, and kings. Jehovah was the only true God; they were his only pure and accepted worshippers, sharply distinguished from the whole idolatrous world. The heathen nations, uncircumcised adorers of vain idols or of demons, were by consequence enemies both of the true God and of his servants. This contrast and hostility they even carried over into the unseen world, and imagined that each nation had its own guardian angel in the Court of Jehovah in heaven, who contended there for its interests; their own national guardian, the angel Michael, being more powerful and nearer to the throne than any other one. In the calamities that fell on them, they recognized the vengeance of Jehovah for the violation of his commands. In their victories, their deliverances, their great blessings, especially in their rescue from Egypt, and in the many miracles which they believed to have accompanied that great passage, they saw the signal superiority of their God over every other god, and the proofs of his particular providence over them in distinct preference to all other peoples. He had, as they piously believed, made a special covenant with Abraham, and set apart his posterity as a sacred family, exclusively intrusted with the divine law, and commissioned to subdue and govern all the other families of the earth. When this proud and intensely cherished faith was baffled of fulfillment, they never dreamed of abandoning it.

They only supposed its triumphant execution postponed, as a penalty for their sins, and looked forward with redoubled ardor to a better time when their hopes should break into fruition, their exile be ended, their captivity appear as a dream, Jerusalem be the central gem of the world, and the anointed ruler wield his sceptre over all mankind.

But misfortunes and woes were heaped on them. Their city was sacked, their temple desecrated, their people dragged into foreign slavery, forbidden to celebrate the rites of their religion, slaughtered by wholesale. Many times, during the two centuries before and the first century after Christ, did they suffer these terrible sorrows. Their hatred and scorn of their heathen persecutors; their faith in their own incomparable destiny; their expectation of the speedy appearance of an anointed deliverer, raised up by Jehovah to avenge them and vindicate their trust, all became the more fervent and profound the longer the delay. Under these circumstances grew up the Jewish doctrine of the Messiah, as it is seen in that Apocalyptic literature represented by the Book of Daniel, the Sibylline Oracles, the Book of Enoch, the Assumption of Moses, the Fourth Book of Esdras, and similar documents.

The Jews were remarkably free from that habit of mind which led almost all the other nations to personify the most startling phenomena of nature as living beings, which created fetiches of stocks and stones and animals; saw a god in every wind, season, star, and cloud. The Semitic mind and literature were more sober, rational, and monotheistic. The place occupied in the thoughts of other peoples by the phenomena of nature was held in the thoughts of the Jews by political phenomena, by ritual, legal, and military relations. And the poetic action of fancy, the mythological creativeness and superstitious feeling which other people exercised on the objects and changes of nature, the Jews exercised on the phenomena of their own national history. The burning central point of their polity and belief and imagination was the conviction of their own national consecration as the exclusive people of God, meant to conquer, teach, and rule all the infidel nations; that Jehovah was literally their invisible King, represented in their chief ruler; that every great triumph or disaster was a signal Day of the Lord, a special Coming of Jehovah to reward or punish his people. During their repeated bondages under the Persians, Syrians, Greeks, Parthians, Romans, their feeling of the antagonism between themselves and the other people increased. From the time of the Babylonish captivity the Persian doctrine of good and evil spirits had infiltrated into their belief; and they adopted the notion of Angra Mainyus, and developed it (with certain modifications) into their conception of Satan. Then, in their faith, the war of Jews and Gentiles spread into the invisible world, and took up on its opposite sides the good and the fallen angels. And, finally, the idea of their Messiah became the centre of a battle and a judgment in which all the generations of the dead as well as of the living were to have a part; and which should culminate in the overthrow of evil, the subjection of the heathen, the assignment of the righteous to a paradisal reign, and of the wicked to a doom typified by the submersion of Sodom and Gomorrah in fiery brimstone.

How plainly this doctrine was the result of the same poetic process of thought with the other schemes already depicted! Only they were developed on the basis of natural phenomena; this, on the basis of political phenomena. It is simply the imaginative universalization of the struggle between Jew and Gentile, and the carrying of it to its crisis and sequel. And when inexplicable delays and the accumulation of obstacles made the realization of the expected result amidst the conditions of the present world seem ever more and more hopeless, the growing and assimilative action of faith and fancy expanded the scene, and transferred it to a transmundane state, involving the destruction of the heavens and earth and their replacement with a new creation.

Is there any more real reason for believing this doctrine than there is for believing the other kindred schemes? Not a whit. It is a mistake of the same poetic nature, and resting on the same grounds with them. Two thousand years have passed, and it has not been fulfilled; and there is ever less and less sign of its fulfillment. It never will be fulfilled, except in a spiritual sense. The Jews will finally lose their pride of race and covenant, abandon their special Messianic creed, and blend themselves and their opinions in the mass of redeemed and progressive humanity, and no more dream of a physical resurrection of the dead amidst the dissolving elements of nature.

And now we must notice that besides all these poetic pictures of the end of the world, there are prophecies of a similar result which wear an apparently scientific garb. Many men of science firmly believe that our world is destined to be destroyed, that a close for the earthly fortunes of mankind can be plainly foreseen. No little alarm was felt a century or more ago, when it was discovered that there was a progressive diminution going on in the orbit of the moon, which must cause it at length to impinge upon the earth. But La Grange exhibited the fallaciousness of the prophecy, by showing that the decrease was periodical and succeeded by a corresponding increase. Intense and widely spread terror has repeatedly been felt less a comet should come within our planetary orbit, and shatter or melt our globe by its contact. But the discovery of the nebulous nature of comets, of their great numbers and regular movements, has quite dissipated that fear from the popular mind in our day.

There are, however, other forms of scientific speculation which put the prophesied destruction of the world on a more plausible and formidable basis. It is supposed by many scientists that all force is derived from the consumption of heat; and that the fuel must at last be used up, and therefore no life or energy be left for sustaining the present system of the creation. This theory is met by the counter statement that the heat of the sun and other similar centres may possibly not depend on any material consumption; or, if it does, there may be a self replenishing supply, loss and repair forming an endless circle.

It is foretold by some chemists, that the progressive interior cooling and contraction of our orb will cause ever greater interstices or vacant spaces among the solid substances below the outer crust; and that into these pores, first all liquids, then all gases and the whole atmosphere, will be absorbed: so that the world will be left desolate, utterly uninhabitable by life.

Again: it is said that all force or energy tends at every transformation to pass (at least partially) into heat; and therefore that, finally, all force will be frittered down into the one form of heat, all matter vanishing from its separate shapes into the state of a homogeneous, nebulous fire. The portentous sight, repeatedly descried by astronomers, of a nameless world, away in remotest space, which has suddenly kindled, blazed, smouldered, darkened, and vanished forever from its place, is perhaps a solemn symbol of the fate of our own planet; hinting at a time when the earth, too, shall make itself a funeral pyre,

And, awed in distant orbs, some race unknown Shall miss one star whose smile had lit their own.

This same final crisis is also prophesied on the basis of a slight retardation to which the planets are subjected in their passage through the ethereal medium. No matter how slight the resistance thus interposed, its consequence, it is thought, must accumulate and ultimately compel all material bodies to approach each other; and, as their successive collisions convert them into heat and vapor, nothing will be left at last but one uniform nebula. The process of evolution will then begin anew, and so the stupendous history of the universe repeat itself eternally.

This is the sublimest of all the generalizations of science. It may be true, and it may not be true. At any rate, it differs immensely in the moral impression it makes from that made by the current theological doctrine of the same catastrophe. We can contemplate the scientific prophecy of the end of the world with a peace of mind which the traditional prophecy does not permit.

In the first place, the ecclesiastical doctrine makes the destruction of the world a result of wrath and vengeance. The angry God looms above us with flaming features and avenging weapons to tread down his enemies. We shrink in fright from the wrath and power of the personal Judge, the inexorable Foe of the wicked. But the scientific doctrine makes the end a result of passionless laws, a steady evolution of effects from causes, wholly free from everything vindictive.

Secondly. The ecclesiastical doctrine makes the dreadful conclusion a sudden event, an inconceivable shock of horror, falling in an instant, overwhelming all its victims with the swiftness of lightning in the unutterable agony of their ruin. But the scientific doctrine makes the climax a matter of slow and gradual approach. Whether the worlds are to be frozen up by increasing cold, or to evaporate in culminating heat, or to be converted into gas as they meet in their career, the changes of the chemical conditions will be so steady and moderate beforehand as to cause all living creatures to have diminished in numbers by insensible degrees, and to have utterly ceased long before the final shock arrives.

Thirdly. The ecclesiastical doctrine makes the sequel imminent, near, ready to fall at a moment's warning. At any hour the signal may strike. Thus it is to the earnest believer a constant, urgent alarm, close at hand. But the scientific doctrine depicts the close as almost unimaginably remote. All the data in the hands of our scientists lead their calculations as to the nearest probable end to land them in an epoch so far off as to be stated only in thousands of millions of years. Thus the picture is so distant as to be virtually enfeebled into nothing. We cannot, even by the most vivid imagination, bring it home closely enough to make it real and effective on our plans.

And, finally, the theological dogma of the destruction of the world professes to be an infallible certainty. The believer holds that he absolutely knows it by a revelation of supernatural authority. But with the scientist such a belief is held as merely a probability. A billion of centuries hence the world may perhaps come to an end; and, on the other hand, the phenomena which lead to such a belief may yet be explained as implying no such result. And these two issues, so far as our social or ideal experience is concerned, are virtually the same.

A brilliant French writer has suggested that even if the natural course of evolution does of itself necessitate the final destruction of the world, yet our race, judging from the magnificent achievements of science and art already reached, may, within ten thousand centuries, which will be long before the foreseen end approaches, obtain such a knowledge and control of the forces of nature as to make collective humanity master of this planet, able to shape and guide its destinies, ward off every fatal crisis, and perfect and immortalize the system as now sustained. It is an audacious fancy. But like many other incredible conceptions which have forerun their own still more incredible fulfillment, the very thought electrifies us with hope and courage.

And thus the conclusion in which we rest at the close of our investigation is the belief that the world is to last, and our race to flourish on it virtually forever. This conclusion is equally a relief from the frightful burdens of superstition, and a consolation for our own personal evanescence. The stable harmony of natural beauty and beneficence, amidst which we individually play our brief part and vanish, shall stand fast, blooming with fresh growths, and shining with fadeless light, and the successive generations of our dear fellow men shall grow ever wiser and happier, beyond the reach of our farthest vision into the future. And if we recognize in the great catastrophic myths and previsions of the poets and scientists the fundamental truth that the things which are seen are temporal, while the things alone which are unseen are eternal, the end being a regular and remote sequel in the creative plan of God, free from anger, retributive disappointment, or cruelty will not alarm us. For if souls are substantial entities, and not mere phenomenal processes, they will survive the universal crisis, and either at the lucid goals of their perfected destiny rejoice forever in a reflected individual fruition of the attributes of God, or else start refreshed on a new career with that redistribution of the cosmic matter and motion which in its gigantic and eternal rhythm of development and dissolution the ancient Hindu mind figured as the respiration of Brahm and which ambitious science now generalizes as the law of evolution.