Full text of C. S. Lewis’s essay titled ‘The World’s Last Night’
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The World’s Last Night. First published in Religion in Life, Volume 21, Winter 1951-2, under the title Christian Hope: Its Meaning for Today, it was later published under its new title in The World’s Last Night and Other Essays, U.S. 1960. It is now available in Fern Seed and Elephants, 1998.
There are many reasons why the modern Christian, and even the modern theologian, may hesitate to give to the doctrine of Christ’s second coming that emphasis which was usually laid on it by our ancestors. Yet it seems to me impossible to retain in any recognizable form our belief in the divinity of Christ and the truth of the Christian revelation, while abandoning or even persistently neglecting the promised and threatened return.
‘He shall come again to judge the quick and the dead,’ says the Apostles’ Creed. ‘This same Jesus,’ said the angels in Acts, ‘shall so come in like manner as ye have seen Him go into heaven.’ ‘Hereafter,’ said our Lord Himself, by those words inviting crucifixion, ‘shall ye see the Son of Man coming in the clouds of heaven.’
If this is not an integral part of the faith once given to the saints, I do not know what is. In the following pages I shall endeavour to deal with some of the thoughts that may deter modern men from a firm belief in, or a due attention to, the return or second coming of the Saviour.
I have no claim to speak as an expert in any of the studies involved, and merely put forward the reflections which have arisen in my own mind and have seemed to me, perhaps wrongly, to be helpful. They are all submitted to the correction of wiser heads.
The grounds for modern embarrassment about this doctrine fall into two groups, which may be called the theoretical and the practical. I will deal with the theoretical first. Many are shy of this doctrine because they are reacting, in my opinion very properly reacting, against a school of thought which is associated with the great name of Dr. Albert Schweitzer.
According to that school, Christ’s teaching about His own return and the end of the world — what theologians call His apocalyptic — was the very essence of His message. All His other doctrines radiated from it. His moral teaching everywhere presupposed the speedy end of the world. If pressed to an extreme, this view, as I think Chesterton said, amounts to seeing in Christ little more than an earlier William Miller who created a local scare.
I am not saying that Dr. Schweitzer pressed it to that conclusion, but it has seemed to some that his thought invites us in that direction. Hence, from fear of that extreme arises a tendency to soft-peddle what Schweitzer’s school has overemphasized.
For my own part, I hate and distrust reactions not only in religion but in everything. Luther surely spoke very good sense when he compared humanity to a drunkard who, after falling off his horse on the right, falls off it next time on the left. I am convinced that those who find in Christ’s apocalyptic the whole of His message are mistaken.
But a thing does not vanish, it is not even discredited, because someone has spoken of it with exaggeration. It remains exactly where it was. The only difference is that if it has recently been exaggerated, we must now take special care not to overlook it, for that is the side on which the drunk man is now most likely to fall off.
The very name apocalyptic assigns our Lord’s predictions of the Second Coming to a class. There are other specimens of it—the Apocalypse of Baruch, the Book of Enoch, or the Ascension of Isaiah. Christians are far from regarding such texts as Holy Scripture, and to most modern tastes the genre appears tedious and unedifying.
Hence there arises a feeling that our Lord’s predictions, being much the same sort of thing, are discredited. The charge against them might be put either in a harsher or a gentler form. The harsher form would run, in the mouth of an atheist, something like this: ‘You see that, after all, your vaunted Jesus was really the same sort of crank or charlatan as all the other writers of apocalyptic.’
The gentler form, used more probably by a modernist, would be like this: ‘Every great man is partly of his own age and partly for all time.’ What matters in his work is always that which transcends his age, not that which he shared with a thousand forgotten contemporaries. We value Shakespeare for the glory of his language and his knowledge of the human heart, which were his own, not for his belief in witches or the divine right of kings or his failure to take a daily bath. So with Jesus. His belief in a speedy and catastrophic end to history belongs to Him not as a great teacher, but as a first-century Palestinian peasant.
It was one of His inevitable limitations best forgotten. We must concentrate on what distinguished Him from other first-century Palestinian peasants—on His moral and social teaching.
As an argument against the reality of the Second Coming, this seems to me to beg the question at issue. When we propose to ignore, in a great man’s teaching, those doctrines which it has in common with the thought of his age, we seem to be assuming that the thought of his age was erroneous. When we select for serious consideration those doctrines which transcend the thought of his own age and are for all time, we are assuming that the thought of our age is correct. For, of course, by thoughts which transcend the great man’s age we really mean thoughts that agree with ours. Thus I value Shakespeare’s picture of the transformation in old Lear more than I value his views about the divine right of kings, because I agree with Shakespeare that a man can be purified by suffering like Lear, but do not believe that kings, or any other rulers, have divine right in the sense required.
When a great man’s views do not seem to us erroneous, we do not value them the less for having been shared with his contemporaries. Shakespeare’s disdain for treachery and Christ’s blessing on the poor were not alien to the outlook of their respective periods. But no one wishes to discredit them on that account.