Luther’s View of the End Time – Part 6

René Malgo

A Fool’s Delusion
Martin Luther would hardly agree with every theological conclusion in this series. Quite the contrary. He reproached the Swiss Reformer Zwingli for being of “another spirit,” because he interpreted communion as a symbolic act instead of as the real presence of the Lord—such as Luther understood it due to his literal reading of 1 Corinthians 11:24. Thus, many evangelicals of the present would not be right-believing Christians in Luther’s eyes. Luther was shocked by the belief in a reign of God on earth as a future kingdom in Israel—as many of the first Christians believed.

Luther loved the Lord and longed for His return; that connects him with the believers before and after his time. But he remained a man of his age, influenced and marked by his environment and the theologians that preceded him. We today should not delude ourselves: we too are children of our time, influenced by our environment and the Bible teachers who have instructed us.

A Kingdom in Israel
Among the early Christians, belief in God’s kingdom in Israel was not yet unusual. Many believers understood the visions of Revelation literally, according to which the redeemed would reign on earth with the Lord Jesus for 1000 years following His return (Rev 19:20). Justin Martyr, for instance, wrote: “But I and all Christians who are true believers in every way know that there will be a resurrection of the body and that a thousand years will follow in the rebuilt, enlarged and beautified Jerusalem, about which the prophets Ezekiel and Isaiah and others have spoken.”

Even though Justin thought of the Christian Church as the “spiritual Israel,” he yet looked for a future kingdom of God in the Jewish land; although what role he envisioned for the Jewish people in this scenario is not clear. Luther could not accept this idea. That believers would “physically reign on earth” seemed to him a “foolish delusion.” For him, the time of the thousand-year kingdom was already long past. According to Martin Luther, the eternity of the new heavenly order will begin immediately upon the return of Jesus Christ. The Reformer did not see an interposed thousand-year reign. This was due in part to the manner in which he interpreted Revelation. Differences of opinion in Christian understanding of end-time events have their root in the various interpretations of Revelation, which evolved during the course of Church history.

At the beginnings of Christendom, the faith apologist Irenaeus of Lyon believed that a future thousand-year reign of God on earth would appear. Irenaeus referred to John, who wrote the Revelation, and to the two church leaders Papias and Polycarp, who were thought to have known John personally.

Greek thinking at the time of early Christendom was characterized by the philosophical conviction that a higher reality is to be found in the non-material and spiritual realm. Everything physical is subject to this higher reality and is therefore inferior. These ideas have had an influence on Christian teaching about the end time up to this day. Those who sympathize with this line of thought would inevitably regard the idea of an actual earthly kingdom of God as inferior and unspiritual. Irenaeus, as Papias before him, stood up for the teaching of a future kingdom of God on earth, precisely in order to keep such heretical thoughts and teaching within bounds.

Actually, despite occasional voices to the contrary, the dominant dogma of the church up into the 2nd century was that Jesus Christ would establish a thousand-year reign on earth following His return. Gerhard Maier observes that this view of the future still remained in the Western world “through the 3rd and 4th centuries.”

In the East, however, the star of the Alexandrian Church eminences Origen, Dionysius and Clement was on the rise. Their Scriptural views were colored by Greek philosophy. They declared, for instance, that the idea of a thousand-year reign on earth was “Jewish and carnal.” In contrast to Western interpreters, they looked at Revelation without a literal thousand-year reign in mind. Many joined them in their opinion that an earthly kingdom of God had to be viewed as an unspiritual idea. Thus, more and more Christians began to look at the thousand-year period spoken of in Revelation as a depiction of the Church age and the spread of the gospel. Subsequently, when Augustine of Hippo appeared on the scene, the influence of this interpretation was dispersed also among Western Christians.

The City of God and the Age of Persecution
The writings of Augustine would later play a significant role in Luther’s theology. Initially, Augustine still believed in a literal thousand-year reign on earth. Later, he let go of this opinion, when confronted with the thoughts of the Bible expositor Ticonius. For Ticonius, the thousand-year reign of the redeemed, as related by John in Revelation, was a symbolic description of the Christians who, after their conversion, would reign “victoriously over sin.” Since Ticonius did not interpret the thousand years literally, he firmly counted on the Lord’s return within his lifetime. This imminent expectation was not adopted by Augustine; he accepted many of his thoughts, however, with some variations.

Meanwhile, the Roman Empire had become Christian. Emperor Constantine had turned to the God of the Christians in the year 312. Since then, the Church had been steadily gaining in social power. But barely 100 years later, West Gothic barbarians conquered the new Christian center of civilization: Rome. Some claimed the Christians were responsible and called for a return to the old gods. Even among believers there was a sense of uncertainty. Augustine took on this question in his work “The City of God,” and was thus able to prevent Roman society from abandoning Christianity.

He argued that even a Christian-oriented Rome could not be compared to God’s kingdom. God never promised any earthly kingdom to be in power for ever. Kingdoms and cultures such as the Roman one would come and disappear. Augustine did not see any indication of the soon end of the world in the decline of Rome as others did. Someday the age of the Church, symbolized by the thousand-year reign, would come to an end. And then, according to Augustine, shortly before the Lord’s return, the devil would be loosed. That would be for all Christendom a time of unparalleled fear and terror. The Antichrist would snatch total power and appear to overcome the Church; and after that Jesus Christ would return. Following Augustine, this interpretation developed to be the dominant end-time view of Christendom, and was also embraced by Luther.

Another influence on Luther’s end time expectation probably was the ideas of the monastery abbot and preacher Bernard of Clairvaux, whose views had had considerable impact on Church teaching almost 400 years earlier. Luther was not completely without criticism regarding Bernard, but in general considered him one of the revered Church fathers.

Bernard divided world and Church history into three different eras, and expressed a warning concerning the last “age of persecution.” This third period would be far more dangerous than the first manifest persecution of Christians had been, because the Church now enjoyed seeming peace and prosperity. To Bernard, this very circumstance was indicative of the terror of Antichrist’s end-time rule.

Repulsed by the corruption and worldliness all around him, Bernard saw this as a seduction by Antichrist, emanating from the Church of the living God itself. That which Augustine viewed as an event in an undetermined future time, Bernard now viewed as close at hand. And that meant: The symbolically understood thousand-year reign seemed at an end, Antichrist’s time had begun, and Satan was loosed. Bernard was convinced that he was living in the end time and that many Biblical prophecies about the end of the world were being fulfilled before his very eyes. Antichrist’s seduction, which had taken root in the Church, would soon end with the return of the Lord Jesus, who then would kill the Antichrist “with the spirit of his mouth, and ... destroy with the brightness of his coming.”  

The return of the Lord Jesus did not take place, but in essence Luther agreed with Bernard’s conclusions. Thus, he did not regard his Reformation as a prelude to an era of renewed spiritual flourishing, but rather as a sign of the last days. Bernhard’s interpretation of the end time resonated with Martin Luther, when he thought (in contrast to Bernhard, however) to perceive Antichrist in the papacy.

External Influences and End-time Speculations
The medieval theologian John of Salisbury said, regarding the spiritual questions, that we “are like dwarfs perched on the shoulders of giants,” and that therefore we can “see more and farther than our predecessors.” However, that was not “because we have keener vision or greater height, but because we are lifted up and borne aloft on their gigantic stature.” 

He was right. Luther built upon these “giants” before him in formulating his own convictions. His famous battle cry: “Sola Scriptura!” did not mean that he no longer considered the thoughts of other Bible teachers. That would not even have been possible. Every human being is the product of his past, his spiritual and theological environment, his education, and many other factors of the time in which he lives. And that also means that the study of Church history is not a useless endeavor. It enables us to learn from the errors and controversies, as well as from all the positive achievements of the past. As stated already in Ecclesiastes: “There is no new thing under the sun” (1:9b). That pertains fundamentally also to the theological sphere.

“Watch therefore: for ye know not what hour your Lord doth come” (Matt 24:42). Ultimately, the first Christians could not know, neither Tyconius nor Bernard of Clairvaux or Martin Luther… And, contrary to different popular opinions, our generation cannot either. As Paul also emphasized: “But of the times and the seasons, brethren, ye have no need that I write unto you. For yourselves know perfectly that the day of the Lord so cometh as a thief in the night…Therefore let us not sleep, as do others; but let us watch and be sober” (1 Thess 5: 1-2, 6).

Luther himself knew and emphasized this. Actually, in his ‘free time” he did engage in a few rough end-time estimates, which led him to deduce that the world “could not last another 100 years,” but he never committed himself to a definite date. When his friend the mathematician Michael Stiefer calculated the day of the Lord Jesus’ return to be the 19th of October 1533, Luther immediately rejected this as unscriptural, though he noted to be only a minor “transgression.” If the Christian’s view was not being diverted from Christ, Luther could tolerate the speculations. Of utmost importance to him was always that Christ and His Holy Scripture alone remained the central focus.

Midnight Call - 09/2017

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