24. Expectations and Prophecies
Among the many startling claims made in the Writings of Emanuel Swedenborg the most extraordinary is this, that the long awaited "last judgment" — the day of doom predicted by the prophets of Israel and by the Lord Himself — has already taken place. It occurred, these Writings testify, in the year 1757. A more world-shaking event could hardly be imagined. Yet even as the Lord was made incarnate by birth from a virgin in the obscure town of Bethlehem, and lived his early life in a backward and despised country far from the centers of civilization, unnoticed by the high and the mighty; and even as His redemptive work was performed without leaving any remarkable effects upon the contemporary scene; so also the Last Judgment, which, He foretold, would take place at His second coming, occurred as it were inconspicuously as far as the world was concerned, and unobserved by any mortal save the Lord's servant, Emanuel Swedenborg, who acted as an appointed witness and recorder.*
And the reason neither of these two events — the incarnate life of the Lord and His coming again to judgment — made any immediate stir in the world was that they concerned a kingdom that was not of this world. When the Lord was asked how the kingdom of God would come, He therefore answered: "The Kingdom of God cometh not with observation" (Luke 17:20). At His first advent the Lord's work of redemption was effected beyond the sight of men, in the spiritual world, where He subjugated the hells. And at His second advent, which was not a coming in the flesh but a coming as Divine truth, the Last Judgment was also performed in the spiritual world, thus not among men but among spirits.
How this judgment proceeded, in fulfilment of prophecy, is now revealed in the Writings. It may be regarded as a spiritual revolution which utterly changed the conditions of the world of spirits, inducing a new order upon that world so that spiritual freedom and the possibility of progress can be assured for the spirits of men.
Before we can inquire intelligently into the effects which this last judgment has had upon the lives of men during the two full centuries that have since passed, we need to consider what men have thought in past ages about the possibility of such an event, what circumstances and conditions made it necessary, what is the nature of the world of spirits as the only possible scene of a general judgment, how the judgment was finally precipitated, and how it proceeded in order to its climax and aftermath and its intended results.
Gentile Beliefs and Legends
Prophecy, in some form or other, has been a part of every religion since ancient times. The mainspring of human progress has been a hope for an eventual state of safety and bliss. This is inscribed on every human heart. But throughout the ages the hope has been sobered by the realization of human failure; by the recognition that contrary and evil forces are at work, not only abroad but in the human heart, to prevent men from reaching their goal — the goal which their God, or gods, had intended for them.
Some nations were gripped by a pessimism which caused them to believe, as do many in India, that the created world with its individual beings is but an illusion, or at best a temporary creation bound for eventual dissolution into nothingness. In the centuries before and after Christ this took the form, as among the Stoics, of the belief that the world was predestined to pass through successive cycles again and again; and at the end of each full cycle would return by a great conflagration to the original living fire out of which it had sprung; and that it would then be born again, to repeat unendingly the same cycle.
Even the mythologies of some nations echo the universal fear and hope of mankind. In the Norse myths the end of the world was to come at the "Twilight of the Gods" — at Ragnarok, when Thor had slain the Midgard serpent, only to perish in its poisonous fumes; while the gods and their enemies mutually destroy each other in a final battle, and the sun goes out and the earth is engulfed by the sea and the stars fall from heaven and time is no more. But in the Elder Edda the sibyl foretells that then a new earth would arise out of the cosmic waters and the golden tablets of the primeval race would be re-discovered; and Balder, the god of love, would return to rule over the hosts of the virtuous in halls of purest gold.
Old Testament Prophecy and its Fulfilment
It might be thought that these legends were independent inventions of sages who voiced the fears and hopes of men somewhat differently in each nation. Yet there is a consistency in their general thought which indicates that they have a common source in a primeval revelation. And the Writings tell of an ancient Word that is now lost except for parts preserved by Moses, an ancient Word the teachings of which spread widely in the ages before our history dawned. In the portion preserved by Moses, in the first part of Genesis, there is the story of a great flood which came as a judgment, wiping out the first race of men when they had profaned their high estate. Only Noah and his seed were saved in the ark to re-people the new earth which emerged from the waters.
The Israelites religiously preserved the knowledge of the great flood. And when the nation became disobedient, the Lord inspired prophets to threaten it with another judgment to come unless it should repent. The people were indeed punished whenever they departed from their allegiance to Jehovah, and finally their temple was destroyed and they themselves were carried away as captives to Assyria and Babylonia. Yet the later prophets spoke of a more final reckoning. There would come a great and dreadful day of Jehovah, a day of doom which would burn as an oven (Malachi 4:1), when the Lord Himself would come with all His saints to fight against the wicked nations who had gathered to ravish Jerusalem. Great portents would occur. The Mount of Olives would cleave in twain, and living waters would go forth from Jerusalem (Zechariah 14:4, 8). There would be wonders in the heavens and in the earth, blood and fire and pillars of smoke, the sun would be darkened, and the moon turned into blood, and the stars would cease their shining (Joel 3). And the "Ancient of Days" would sit on the throne of judgment and the books of judgment would be opened; and the dominion over all nations would be given forever after to One who was like the Son of Man, and who came with the clouds of heaven (Daniel 7:9-14; Malachi 3:16). Then God would create new heavens and a new earth, where the wolf and the lamb could feed together on the holy mountain of the Lord (Isaiah 65:17-25).
These prophecies were scattered, vague, and difficult to reconcile. And often they were accompanied by hints of the coming of a most holy Messiah, an anointed King who would suddenly come to His temple, and who was seemingly identified with the Son of Man coming in the clouds as well as with One who should come out of Bethlehem of Judah (Malachi 3; Daniel 7, 9). It was suggested also in Daniel that many who slept in the dust of the earth would awake at the time of judgment, some to everlasting life and others to everlasting shame (12:1, 2).
Our doctrine makes clear that when the Lord came on earth, by birth from the virgin Mary, He did fulfil the prophecies of the Old Testament about the coming of a Messiah. He actually performed a "last judgment" on the Jewish Church, which had then reached its consummation and end. Indeed, the Lord Himself stated: "Now is the judgment of this world: now shall the prince of this world be cast out" (John 12:31); and He said also: "I beheld Satan as lightning fall from heaven" (Luke 10:18). The Writings teach concerning this judgment that by temptations and victories over the hells the Lord not only glorified His Human, and made it Divine and one with the Father, but also performed a redemption in the spiritual world, elevating into new heavens all those spirits of the spiritual genius who had been held captive by evil spirits. It was indeed a universal and final judgment, not only on the Jews but on all the spirits of the Ancient Church as well.
New Testament Prophecy of a Further Judgment
The Jewish prophecies about the day of Jehovah were thus spiritually fulfilled. In a spiritual sense, the sun and moon had been darkened, and the stars extinguished, and new heavens and a new earth had been formed by the finger of God. The apostle Peter, in his famous address at Pentecost, seemingly made this claim, saying "This is that which was spoken by the prophet Joel . . ." (Acts 2:16-21). Yet, despite this, the Lord made new prophecies about a further judgment, to take place on the occasion of His second advent, when He, as the Son of Man, would come in the clouds of heaven with power and great glory, after the darkening of the sun and moon and the falling of the stars from heaven. And then He would send His angels with a great sound of a trumpet to gather the elect from the four quarters of heaven (Matthew 24:29-31).
In a parable the Lord also described the second advent as the coming of the Son of Man in His glory, saying that He would sit upon the throne of His glory, and that all nations would be gathered before Him so that He might separate them, the evil to eternal punishment and the righteous to inherit the kingdom prepared for them from the foundation of the world (Matthew 25:31-46).
The book of Revelation, called the Apocalypse, further describes this judgment and the conditions that would lead up to it. John here writes at the Lord's bidding about the things that should be thereafter, and ends his book with the Lord's assurance: "Surely, I come quickly."
Since this book has deeply influenced Christian thinking, let us briefly review the prophecies which it contains. It opens with the Son of Man appearing to John in glory, giving his messages to the seven churches which were in Asia Minor. John then sees heaven opened, and watches while the Lamb opens the seven seals of a book. He sees how the dread of the coming judgment spreads over the world and hears seven angels sound their trumpets of doom and woe, until finally the temple of God is opened in heaven and the ark of the covenant is revealed.
Then there comes a great wonder in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun gives birth to a man child who was to rule the nations; and a great red dragon, seeking to devour the man child, is cast down from heaven, while the woman is kept hidden in the wilderness. The Lamb is now seen on Mount Sion with a hundred and forty-four thousand who are redeemed; and an angel having the everlasting gospel proclaims the approach of the judgment. Seven angels pour vials of wrath upon the earth, and the evil gather for battle at Armageddon. Then the scarlet woman—symbol of the city of Babylon, mother of abominations—is destroyed, and a great voice proclaims the coming marriage of the Lamb.
And so the Lamb appears — but now as a rider on a white horse; and His name is given as "the Word of God." "Out of His mouth goeth a sharp sword, that with it He should smite the nations." And an angel comes down and binds the dragon, or Satan, in the bottomless pit for a thousand years. After that Satan is loosed for a season, and his armies besiege the camp of the saints, until fire comes down from heaven to destroy them, and Satan and other beasts are cast into a lake of fire.
And then John saw the dead, small and great, stand before God's throne of judgment while the books were opened, and all were judged according to their works. The first heaven and the first earth pass away, and John sees a new heaven and a new earth. And the holy city, New Jerusalem, comes down from God out of heaven, foursquare and golden, with translucent walls, foundations of jewels, streets of crystal, and gates of pearl. A river of water of life flows out from the throne of God; and Jesus, speaking through an angel, proclaims Himself the Alpha and the Omega, saying, "Whosoever will, let him take the water of life freely."
Christian Expectations of the Last Judgment
The New Church reader can easily perceive that all these prophecies of the Old and New Testaments have now indeed been fulfilled in spiritual reality. But the apostles and the early Christians forgot that the Lord spoke only in parables. They came to expect a physical return of Christ in the clouds of the earthly sky, a resurrection of the dead in their physical bodies, a destruction of the physical world, and a renovation of the earth into a physical paradise for the chosen few.
Thus Paul and Peter were certain that the end of the age would come in their lifetimes, and that the world would then perish and its elements melt with fervent heat. For did not the Lord say, "This generation shall not pass till all these things be fulfilled"? When this did not occur, later Christians saw in every natural disaster an omen of the near approach of the last day, of which the Lord had yet said: "Of that day and hour knoweth no man, no, not the angels of heaven" (Matthew 24:36). In the year 1000 A.D. multitudes of Christians became frantic in expectation of the dreadful day of the Lord at the end of the predicted millenium. Even in our own century numberless sects have arisen, persuaded that they had calculated from prophecy the exact year and date of the Lord's return. Indeed, a certain powerful sect now declares that "Millions now living will never die," and that the Lord returned invisibly in 1874 to begin the process of resurrecting the dead saints and organizing His faithful for eternal life on earth.
Modern Skepticism and Orthodox Beliefs
There are, of course, increasing numbers among Christians who have come to regard the literal prophecies of the Bible as incredible and impossible of fulfilment. And this skepticism is furthered not only by the apparent delay of the last day which the disciples had regarded as near at hand, but also by a greater knowledge of the laws of nature and by a growing preoccupation of men with the things of this world, from the love of comfort and pleasure and pride in human achievements. Yet it should not be forgotten that the Roman Catholic Church holds as a fundamental dogma not only that the spirits of men will at death pass either into heaven or hell, or into purgatory, but that these spirits will re-enter their material but refined bodies at the general judgment at the second advent of Christ. Note also that the main branches of the Protestant Church put forth as part of their faith that Christ will return in visible manner "at the last day," to judge the quick and the dead; and that this belief in a material resurrection is shared also by the Mormons.
The New Church Doctrine of Judgment
The New Church doctrine concerning the Last Judgment is so utterly different from all these views that it is hard to find any common ground, except in the universal perception which men must have that if human beings are responsible for their actions, a time must come when they become accountable and are judged or rewarded.
The essential difference lies in the understanding of what is meant by the second advent of the Lord. The doctrine makes clear that the Lord never promised to return by a personal appearance, but by the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of truth. He was to return "in the Divine truth which is the Word," thus by revealing the interior truth of the Word.1 It is unquestionable that judgment is impossible without truth, for it is truth that unveils hidden states of evil and good. The Lord said of those who rejected Him: "I judge no man" (John 8:15); "the word that I have spoken, the same shall judge him "in the last day" (John 12:48). And of the Holy Spirit He said: "When He is come, He will reprove the world of sin, and of justice, and of judgment" (John 16:8). "When He, the Spirit of truth, is come, He will guide you into all truth. . . . The time cometh when I shall no more speak unto you in parables, but I shall show you plainly of the Father" (John 16:13, 25). The Lord's second coming would be a spiritual advent as a new unfolding of His Word, a new revelation of Divine truth in the form of plain doctrine. Only so could a last judgment be possible.
Judgment in the Spiritual World
And this last judgment could take place only in the spiritual world. There are indeed continual judgments going on in the natural world — taking the form of punishments for crimes, losses due to human error, diseases which come as the results of abuses, and misfortunes and disasters which are sometimes called "acts of God" and sometimes accidents, or which are assigned to the forces of nature. In human society evils of various kinds lead to wars and strife which are judgments on men and nations. And it is often seen how the cumulative effects of the evils of a society or a nation reach a crisis which can no longer be avoided. It is obvious that evil is punished and good rewarded even on earth, and that unless the laws of men could provide for such judgments, before the courts of justice or before the tribunal of public opinion, society could not endure.
But natural disasters and sicknesses may strike the innocent as well as the guilty, even as the rain falls on the just and on the unjust. Such events, like every detail of man's life, are governed by the Divine Providence according to laws of permission which have in view what benefits the spiritual life of man. Sickness and poverty and misfortune may be blessings in disguise. Wealth and power may be curses to some, blessings to others. Thus external failures, frustrations and trials, are not to be classed indiscriminately as judgments or retributions for sins.
In the dispensing of worldly justice, society seeks to protect itself from evil and harmful acts. The intention of evil, or evil purpose, cannot always be discerned in the natural world, and never with any certainty. Yet a bodily act which is evil in form may be done from an innocent motive or from ignorance. The final justice can be seen only when the spirit is known. For man is a spirit. The clothing which we call the material body is not permanently man's , but is shed as a discarded garment at death. And the natural mind which is formed while man is in the world, and which is indeed part of his spirit that lives to eternity, also contains many things for which man is not wholly responsible. For it takes color, without man's choice, from his environment, and it is strongly affected by his heredity.
This is the reason that a final judgment cannot be made upon man's spirit immediately after his resurrection into the spiritual world on the third day after death. The spirit of man cannot be judged until he comes into a state of freedom, and is no longer under the compulsion of thoughtless habits imbued in the world, of mass opinions unconsciously accepted, or of the overpowering lusts that originated from states of the body. Hence it is that man after death does not pass immediately into heaven or hell, but comes into a great intermediate world which the Writings call "the world of spirits." And there the spirit remains until his character is clarified or unified. It is in this world of spirits that judgment takes place; the world of which it may be said: "There is nothing covered that shall not be revealed, and hid that shall not be known" (Matthew 10:26).
The novitiate spirit undergoes a gradual change, even in his appearance, as he is weaned from natural states and comes to realize his own ruling love and chosen delights. At first he adopts a life similar to his life on earth, seeking a somewhat similar occupation and similar pleasures. His natural affections lead him to associate with spirits who are of his own nation and have external loyalties to the same church. But by degrees and stages his inward, spiritual affections begin to assert themselves. And then he may abandon many of his former habits and associations and seek out societies of spirits kindred to his own concepts of charity and use. This transference into the society of his like is what essentially constitutes his "judgment." If he is so brazenly evil that he cannot restrain himself from crime and deceit and violence, he is constantly thwarted in his persecution of other spirits and finally casts himself into some hell where that type of evil is the delight of life. In either case — although the evil may occasionally be brought before examiners and evicted from good societies — there is no great throne of judgment; no appearance of God Himself to deliver the final verdict upon the good and the evil. The judgment is simply a purification of the societies of spirits which proceeds as normally as the purification of the human body from poisons and waste material. Indeed, the Greek word for "judgment" in the New Testament is krisis, and means separation.
Why a Last Judgment?
But if this process of judgment proceeds continually upon the spirits who arrive from earth daily, what is meant by the "last judgment" which the Word predicts so frequently and in such graphic and awe-inspiring terms? What is the Last Judgment that follows the "consummation of the age?" And why is it necessary?
It becomes necessary when the normal stages of judgment are disturbed in the world of spirits. For that world, like every human society, is an organic form. It relates to the Grand Man, which is the Lord's kingdom of uses. The world of spirits is like an alimentary canal, a digestive system, which receives the newly arrived spirits who are to be absorbed like food into the body of the Grand Man. Normally, the stomach and intestines absorb the food and put it to use in the tissues. But if there is an accumulation of indigestible food in the stomach, and the digestive organs are overtaxed, there would ensue a disturbance of the whole system—a convulsive pain and a generation of poisons which would threaten the life or welfare of the body. (TCR 119, Coro. 19)
The same would be the case when the church on earth breeds evil and hypocritical spirits who accumulate in the world of spirits and upset the orderly course of judgment and the balance or equilibrium between the heavens and the hells. Such doubleminded spirits evade judgment because their interior evils, or their real motives and loves, are hidden by moral externals and by the appearance of piety which simple good spirits accept as genuine. Wicked leaders are then protected by the good who, because of natural loyalties and sentiments of sympathy, are misled by them into false beliefs. The course of judgment is then arrested, so that the evil become predominant in the world of spirits.
"The world, because it judges from externals, does not know what the state of the church is."2 Nor can the state in the world of spirits be known except from a Divine revelation. Yet every man's spirit is, unbeknown to him, in the world of spirits, and thus midway between heaven and hell. And when the church on earth approaches its end or consummation, by departing from the good of charity, and comes into spiritual darkness and confusion and thus into monstrous falsities, it is unavoidable that a last judgment, a general judgment, must occur in order to restore the equilibrium in the world of spirits, and thus assure that the good spirits there may resume their progress towards their heavens and that men on earth may retain their freedom in spiritual things.
Three General Judgments
The Writings therefore state that "a last judgment is nothing other than the end of the church with one nation and its beginning with another."3 The "flood" of Noah was actually not a flood of waters, but a judgment in the spiritual world on the spirits, or genii, of the primeval race. The end of the Jewish Church, signalized by the crucifixion of the Lord, was marked by another spiritual "last judgment"; which had its significant natural consequences in the destruction of the temple at Jerusalem and the dispersion of the Jews. And when Christendom, after sixteen centuries, was ripe for a spiritual judgment, the Lord returned in the clouds of heaven with power and great glory.
* The main treatments on the last judgment are found in the published works The Last Judgment (1758) and Continuation concerning the Last Judgment (1763) ; also recurrently in The Apocalypse Revealed (1766). The Spiritual Diary contains extensive descriptions of events connected with the judgment (nos. 4925 to about 6022) , as does the posthumous work, The Last Judgment, written before 1763. The Apocalypse Explained, written 1758 to 1759, also gives many teachings on the subject.
1 TCR 3
2 Can. Red'n. iii
3 AC 3353