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ON THE END OF THE WORLD.
ON THE END OF THE WORLD.
“LORD, thou hest been our refuge from one generation to another. Before the mountains were brought forth, or ever the earth and the world were made, thou art God from everlasting, and world without end.” Amen.
THE expectation of the near approaching end of the world was intimately interwoven, my friends, with the creed of the original church, and many Christians of the earliest time hoped or feared, that they should witness this great event, and behold the day of the Lord’s return. The same expectation was renewed from time to time. In the following centuries numerous prophets arose, who proclaimed the day and hour of the end of the world; and there are some, even among our own contemporaries, who believe they can read on the dial-plate 224of the world’s great time-piece, and determine what time it is in the kingdom of God. Then, namely, when the year one thousand after the birth of Christ drew near, many voices announced that this thousandth. year of the Christian era would infallibly conclude the succession of ages, and bring in the end of the world; and the people full of terror and anxious expectation looked forward to the things that should come; the thoughtless man became contemplative and serious, the pious redoubled the exercises of devotion, and numerous pilgrims wandered to the Holy Land, that the great day of judgment might find them at the grave of the Redeemer. Experience has belied all these prophecies. The specified years and days arrived, and men looked with eager expectation to all quarters of the heavens, to discover the precursors of the consummation so near at hand; but the heaven altered not its form, the earth swerved not from its course, and every thing moved on in its accustomed track; the stars rose and set, as they had done since the memory of man, and day and night, summer and winter, alternated as they had done for thousands of years. Nature, in its steady order, in its equal course, and in the unexhausted fulness of its strength, mocked at human folly, which attempted to fathom its secret energies of life, and calculate the duration of its years, and presumed they knew what, as the Lord himself says, “no man knoweth, no, 225not the angels in heaven, but the Father only.” More rarely than at former periods, have proclaimers of the world drawing to its close appeared in our days; and if at times such a prophetic voice is heard, it is not attended to, and fills no minds, as formerly, with fear and apprehension..
But this is not, perhaps, merely the fruit of wisdom, which disclaims the knowledge of what cannot be known, but also the consequence of unbelief, the result of an irreligious view of the world, according to which many of our contemporaries consider the world not as the work of an Almighty Creator, who can destroy what he has constructed, but as the changeful product of an eternal power of nature, which obeying, not God, but its own law of inward necessity, is moved in a circle without beginning and without end. In the minds of many in these days, all idea of an end of the world is effaced; and hence it is, and not from a modest acknowledgment of the limitation of human faculties, that there arises in most of them that indifference, with which they repel all questions referring to this great event. But the end of the world is as essential an article of the Christian laid], as the doctrine of its creation and government: a religious view of the world necessarily leads to this reflection, and religious feeling is never more powerfully awakened, than when we transport ourselves in idea to the time when the structure of the world falls to pieces, the entire order of things at present 226subsisting, terminates, and a “new earth and a new heaven cometh, wherein dwelleth righteousness.” I will, therefore, present this great and serious consideration to your minds, and address you on the end of the world. Ask not, what will such a contemplation profit? its object lies in itself. The magnitude of this consideration is its importance, and its seriousness is. its power. Let us then meditate on it in our inmost souls.
But as the days of Noe were, so shall also the coming of the Son of Man be. For as in the days that were before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day that Noe entered into the ark, and knew not until the flood came and took them all away; so shall also the coming of the Son of Man be. Then shall two be in the field; the one shall be taken, and the other left. Two women shall be grinding at the mill; the one shall be taken, and the other left. Watch, therefore, for ye know not what hour your Lord doth come.
JESUS and the Apostles, as often as the last things which should happen were the subject of their discourse, spake in figures, and only in figures could they speak of a change which will occur perceptible by the senses, but which never has been subjected to human experience. The image and the thing itself, the doctrine and the figurative words in which it is clothed, are closely conjoined in these discourses; so that in many cases we do not distinguish, 227with certainty, the one from the other, but may easily either take the symbol for the thing signified, or consider that which is more than symbol as mere figure. Hence the difference of opinion among the expositors of Scripture on the doctrine of Christianity, respecting the latest things which are to happen. But if we declare ever so much to be figure and allegory, which is accustomed to be held for doctrine, still we cannot mistake, that Jesus and the Apostles proclaim an end of the world, and speak of a period when the now existing order of things shall cease, and a new earth and a new heaven shall appear. This period is most frequently called ‘the day of the Lord,’ or ‘the coming of the Son of Man,’ and we collect from the descriptions of this day, that it will be an epoch completely subversive of the subsisting order of things. This Jesus indicates, when he compares in the text, the time of his return, and the time of the deluge, and says shortly before, that “the stars shall fall from heaven, and the powers of the heavens shall be shaken.” The Apostles speak in the same manner of this time, and Peter, for instance, says, “on the day of the Lord the heavens shall pass away with a great noise, and the elements shall melt with fervent heat, and the earth also, and the works that are therein shall be burnt up2222 2 Pet. iii. 10..”228
Christianity, therefore, manifestly inculcates a dissolution of the world. In discoursing to you on this doctrine, I shall first shew what we are to understand by the end of the world, then state the reasons which lead us to expect such a change of things, and, lastly, excite those sentiments which the thought of the termination of worldly things, may and ought to awaken. When the Scripture announces an end of the world, it does not mean what we understand thereby in scholastic language, but in the language of common life, not the system of the universe, not the. whole countless host of suns and stars, which move in infinite space around the source of all life and light, but the earth, the planet which God has allotted for an habitation to the human race. The Lord, indeed, speaks, in a passage preceding the text, of a time when “the sun shall be darkened, and the moon shall not give her light, and the stars shall fall from heaven, and the powers of the heavens shall be shaken.” But this is evidently a figure, of which he makes use, after the example of the Prophets, in order to depict the greatness of the change of which he speaks. Revelation has not instructed us concerning the heavenly bodies and their inhabitants and destinies; we know nothing further of the stars, than that they shine over our heads, and in regular tracks perform their course round their suns.229
Revelation is given to the human race, and what information it affords us respecting future things, relates to our species and its place of abode. By the end of the world, therefore, of which Scripture speaks, a change is to be understood which will take place in the earth, in the planet inhabited; by mankind. But Jesus Christ has as little revealed the nature of this change, as the way and manner in which it will be effected. Will this change be a destruction of our planet, or only a transformation, a metamorphosis? Will the earth cease to exist as earth? Will it vanish from the spheres? Will the sun, perhaps, which led the youthful and blooming daughter for thousands of years with golden cords round his shining countenance, one day draw her when grown old into his burning lap? Or will the decaying earth be born again and renovated, and formed for the residence of more perfect creatures? We know not. Reason can venture on this point but uncertain conjectures, and Revelation has not declared it. Just as little do we know of the manner in which this destruction or transformation of our planet will be effected, whether by a derangement of its native energies, or by the influence of another heavenly body pressing on its path. Scripture teaches this only, that the now existing order of things shall cease, and with the destruction or transformation of our planet an essentially altered condition of the human race shall begin. Though we may not verbally 230and literally interpret the passages of Scripture which treat of the end of the world, yet we obviously collect from the words of Jesus Christ; “the sun shall be darkened, and the moon shall not give her light, the stars shall fall from heaven, and the powers of the heavens shall be shaken2323 Matt. xiv. 29.,” and from the words of the Apostle, “The day of the Lord will come as a thief in the night, in the which 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 burnt up2424 2 Pet. iii. 10.:” from these words we obviously collect, that every human institution shall cease, the frame of the earth disappear, the law of nature undergo a change, and the present order of things terminate. And all those parts of Scripture, which either describe the return of the Lord in great power and glory at the end of time, or represent the future judgment and the separation of the good from the bad; or speak of that corruptible which shall put on incorruption, and that mortal which shall put on immortality; or express the expectation of a new heaven and a new earth, wherein dwelleth righteousness; all these representations lead to the conclusion, that with the destruction or transformation of the earth the present constitution of our race will have its end, and a new and more perfect state of the same will commence.
This is what we have to understand by the end of 231 the world,—a dissolution or transformation of our planet, with which the existing order of things ends, and a new and essentially different state of the human race commences. But this expectation is no idle dream, no empty fiction of an enthusiastic fancy; the doctrine of Christianity approves itself to reason on the clearest grounds. For that the earth is liable to subversion and destruction, is manifest from this, that it is a body, a mass composed of different materials and impregnated with vital power. Its magnitude and the fulness of its strength do not exempt it from that law which all worldly things obey, but only prolong its existence and the periods of its changes; so that thousands of years elapse, before that takes place in this gigantic frame, which the small body experiences in the course of a few moons and years. But it is a body similar to every other body, it is finite and contained in space; its inhabitants have reckoned its length and breadth; it bears, like all bodies, relation to other bodies; the beams of the sun rouse its vigour, and the weight of the cold. moon presses. upon it, and forces its seas over the boundary of their shores; it is continually changing, like every other body; firm land is buried in the depth of floods; islands rise out of the ocean; here a volcano soars aloft, there another sinks back into itself. The earth being a body is, consequently, like all other bodies, subject to the law of mutation and dissolution. And whoever would doubt, that 232that which daily happens to the members of this great body, could also befal the entire frame, let him learn. from the study of nature and from history, that our planet has already experienced transformations, by which its whole form has been changed. There was a time, which the study of nature as well as history indicates, when the earth was not what it now is, a tune, of which Scripture speaks when it says, “And the earth was without form and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters:” a time, when our planet was formed, under mighty conflicts of the elements, for the abode of the various species of beings which now occupy it. At that period, when the mountains were raised, and the valleys sunk, the islands rose above the level of the sea, the sea retreated within prescribed limits, and the bowels of the earth melted, and bursting through the surface forced their way to the air, at this period of disorder and jar of elements, the form of the earth could not be that, in which we now view the dwelling-place of our species.
Prior to this time of either the first formation or the renovation of our planet, already grown old, history indeed is silent; but traces of the time, when there were living creatures and even men on the earth, (though as yet the elemental conflict had not subsided, and its conformation 233was not yet completed, and different kinds of animals from the present inhabited it) have been preserved in the traditions of primaeval nations, of wide-spread inundations and monsters of earth and sea; and the petrified limbs and stiffened forms of unknown animals which are found on the summits of the highest mountains and in the undisturbed. plains of the icy sea, lead us to the same supposition. In like manner the history of the peopling of our earth brings us to the conclusion, that it once had another shape, and was not inhabited by men. It was peopled by degrees from Asia, and thousands of years appear to have passed away before the migrating tribes from the mother-land of our species extended themselves over the desert plains of the other parts of the world, inhabited only by animals. Now this gradual population of the earth brings us back, (since we reduce all nations to one people, this people to one family, and this family to one man and one woman) to the beginning of the human race, and from this to a period, when the earth being fashioned in the shock of elements was not yet the abode of our race.
Yes, there has been a time, when our planet wore a different appearance, and could not sustain beings of our species; and once again the time will come, when it will cease to be the dwelling-place of mankind, and will either assume a new form, or disappear from the rank of stars. How and by means 234of what instruments this change will be brought about, we are indeed ignorant; but more than one possibility is conceivable. Deep in the earth there rages a fire, which throws up. mountains, melts stones, and sends forth burning floods, and terrified, nations often hear the subterranean thunder which shakes the lands, so that rocks tremble and cities are overthrown. Swelling seas cover the half of its surface, which, as they formerly sank, so that large islands started up, may once again uplift themselves and break in over their shores. Other innumerable heavenly bodies travel near our planet in infinite space, and several of them are contiguous to its path; the sun may attract it so that it shall perish in his sea of fire; the moon may lower itself into its atmosphere, so that all its seas shall pass their shores, and endless inundations overwhelm it; a wandering star may come in hostile contact with it, so that after a fruitless contest it must yield to the stronger enemy and be driven from its place. The earth bears in its bosom destroying powers, and bodies float around and near it which threaten its dissolution. Therefore thou wilt not subsist for ever, thou cradle of our race, thou land of blessing and of cursing, thou grave full of joy and life; thou Paradise full of pain and death, thou scene for thousands of years of our wisdom and folly, our virtues and vices; no, thou canst not last for ever! thou thyself also, like every thing which thou bearest, must obey thy law, the 235law of mutability and destruction I Possibly thou mayest continue thy course for thousands of years longer with strength and gladness, attended by thy moon, and led by the shining sun. Possibly thou mayest still for thousands of years maintain the succession of days and nights, summer and winter in invariable order, and see the generations of men come and go. Perhaps also the day of the Lord is nearer than we imagine. We cannot penetrate into the mysterious obscurity of thy existence, we cannot measure thy vital power, nor count thy years. But finite art thou and transitory, of that we are certain, as thy children are finite and transitory; for that which is created is not eternal and imperishable, as the Creator is eternal and immutable; for thee also a limit is fixed, even thy long day will decline. He that formed thee, will change thee; he that created thee, will destroy thee; even thy strength shall decay, even thy structure shall fall into ruins, even thy law and thy order shall be no more. We look for a new heaven and a new earth.
Only the frivolous and foolish man repels with unconcern every thought of the future final destiny of his kind, and of the earth which bears and nourishes it, and remains unmoved and unaffected, when forewarned of the day of the Lord. But the pious and wise man, without being absorbed in fruitless researches into what is unfathomable, and without wearying himself in vain endeavours 236 to determine that which cannot be determined, attentively regards the earnest words, “Watch, for ye know not what hour your Lord will come,” dwells in silent meditation on the great thought of the end of the world, and is led by it unto God, awakened to a holy seriousness, and elevated to sublime anticipations and hopes. Above all, that sense of the emptiness of worldly things fixes on his attention, which teaches him to seek the Eternal and Immutable, and awakens the consciousness of a power in his own being, which defies the destroying violence of. the elements. On all sides, indeed, wherever we turn our eyes, we are met by images of decay; history is a large silent field covered with ruins and graves; what we bear in the memory is past and gone; what we built we see totter, and in the humiliating feeling of diminished and wasting energy of life, the sad idea of approaching dissolution often occurs to us. But we are never more forcibly affected by the feeling of the vanity of worldly things, than when we transport ourselves in imagination to the day of the falling world, and hover as it were over the ruins of our destroyed planet. The earth has now filled the measure of its years, and its time is come; the conflict of the elements begins, and in the mighty struggle all the works of men perish, and the last of our race are buried under the ruins of falling palaces and cottages; and not only the works of men, but the 237works of nature also come to an end; the barriers of beach and shore are broken through; the mountains, thousands of years old, bend their heads, all life stiffens, the beautiful structure of plants and animals is resolved into rough matter, the powers of destruction rule, wild and lawless. And now the conflict is ended, now the earth is again waste and void, and darkness is on the face of the deep.
But our meditation cannot end in the feeling of the insecurity of all things arising from these thoughts; we are not able to bear this annihilating feeling; we must, if we would not sink under it, merge it in another feeling which will again raise and strengthen us. We must turn from the vanity of worldly things to him that is Eternal and Imperishable, and never is he, who existed “before the mountains were brought forth, who is from everlasting and shall be evermore,” never is he present to our souls in a more lively manner, than when we look up to him from the midst of images of destruction. Yes, the sense of the vanity of every thing temporal and earthly, which springs from the thought of the perishing world, leads us to God the Eternal and Imperishable; and whilst our contemplation is directed from the world which passeth away to the everlasting Creator, it is as if we were borne by a higher power over a waving sea and an unsteady ground to a safe rock. For the Eternal and Immutable is our Lord and Father, 238and has poured into our being a ray of his light which is never extinguished, the power to know and to love him; and when we are conscious of this power, and look up to him in whose sight a thousand years are as yesterday, we feel the full signification of the important words; “The world passeth away and the lust thereof, but he that doeth the will of God abideth for ever2525 1 John ii. 17..” With the sense of the vanity of worldly things there springs likewise from the thought of the end of the world a sense of our dependence on God, which induces a holy awe of our Lord and Judge, and earnestness and faithfulness in the practice of good. Every thing, indeed, our origin and our end, what we know and what we attempt, reminds us of our limits, and thereby brings us to a feeling of dependence on a superior Power. But nothing can awaken this feeling more forcibly, than the thought of Him, who, as he of old laid the foundations of the earth and stretched. out the heavens, will again fold the heavens together as a garment, and will shake the strong places of the earth. God spake once, “Let there be light, and there was light,” once again he will say, Let there be darkness, and it shall be dark, for he “speaks the word, and it is done; he commandeth, and it standeth fast.”
This sublime thought of the Almighty Lord of 239the universe occurs to us, when we consider either the beginning or the end of the things of this world; and then he appears before us great, majestic, and awe-inspiring, the Lord of lords and King of kings, in his might and splendour. And now we feel that we are dust, but his is “the kingdom and the power and the glory;” that “in him and through him and to him are all things ,” that “in him only we live and move,” that he “worketh all in all.” We become deeply conscious of our dependence on God, and now a pious fear of our Lord and Judge fills our hearts, and an ardent desire is excited to please Him, in whose hand rests our fate in time and eternity, by pure intentions and blameless conduct. On this is founded the moral effect of the doctrine of Christianity concerning the return of the Lord, the serious import of the words, “Watch, for ye know not what hour your Lord doth come,” and the strength of the exhortation, “Rejoice, inasmuch as ye are partakers of Christ’s sufferings, that, when his glory shall be revealed, ye may be glad also with exceeding joy2626 1 Peter iv. 13..”
But however the thought of the end of the world may dispose the mind to seriousness, yet it does not deject it, but rather strengthens it, and exalts it to glad anticipation and lofty hope. For while it reminds us of the relation which the earth bears 240to other heavenly bodies, it leads us to the conjecture, that the inhabitants of the earth also have an affinity with other stars, and by the power of Him who has wound an all-uniting band round all stars and all suns, may be removed from the present to another dwelling-place. And now the obscure but grand idea strikes us, of our connexion with the universe, the idea of an eternal duration in other parts of the immense creation, of passing from star to star, from sun to sun. But nothing expands the heart more, nothing raises the soul higher than the thought, that we are not fastened to the earth with everlasting fetters; it is but the cradle, in which our first strength is developed; we shall one day leave this cradle behind us, and more freely and boldly emerge into an immeasurable life: it is but the first step of an infinite ladder, on which we ascend ever higher and higher to the stars above, and from the stars to the sun, and from our sun to the suns which our vision can scarcely reach, and from these suns to the worlds beyond, which no human eye has seen, and no language names. We form these conceptions, when we think of the relation the earth has to other heavenly bodies, and consider that, because a limit is ordained to it, it cannot be the eternal abode of the human race. And this conception becomes Hope and Expectation, when we observe the instructions of Scripture respecting the last events; for it manifestly describes 241the end of the world as a time, when the human race shall be removed into other parts of the universe, and pass over into a more perfect state. It tells us, the Lord will bring his own into heaven; it describes heaven as the abode of blessed spirits, who see God, and promises the faithful and pious, eternal bliss. Thus ends the thought of the end of the world in the greatest conception that man can imagine, in the highest expectation that he can form. Therefore we look forward with seriousness indeed and devout awe to the day of the Lord; but we rejoice also in his coming, for we wait for “a new heaven and a new earth, wherein dwelleth righteousness.” Amen.242243
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