Luther’s View of the End Time – Part 8

René Malgo

A Comforting Day
Our life can be tumultuous. Things do not always go to our liking. We will have to deal with our own sins, the sins of others, and the raging of Satan in the invisible realm. This is as sure as the Amen in church. Martin Luther had to experience this many times as well. Luther knew that believers can cling to only one thing: Jesus Christ Himself and the certainty of His return. That is what can comfort us “in this last phase.” 

The Devil Is on the Loose
Martin Luther was no saint; he was very conscious of that. He pointed to his hot temper and loquaciousness as his biggest problems. One of the dark areas in the Reformer’s legacy remains his poisoned relationship with the Jewish people toward the end of his life. Among other things he recommended that their synagogues be burned, their houses demolished and their scriptures confiscated.

Luther’s hatred of Jews is such a hot issue that some wishful explanations have been put forward. Eva Berndt, a Berlin academic, says that Luther’s anti-Semitic writings are forgeries and that he always maintained a friendly attitude toward the Jews. That is an attractive thought, which unfortunately could not be confirmed by research into church history. And, it stands to reason that Christian, especially Protestant, historians would have a keen interest in clearing their greatest hero of this black mark. Yet, however one interprets or whitewashes this flaw of the Reformer: We should remember that anti-Semitism was the norm in Luther’s day. The much-admired humanist Erasmus of Rotterdam, for instance, praised France for being free of Jews and felt that hating Jews was a Christian virtue.

Much more unusual than his attacks on the Jews, were Luther’s friendly statements about Jews at the beginning of the Reformation. But when the expected end-time conversion of the Jewish people did not occur, the Reformer was disappointed. This disappointment, as well as the anti-Semitic climate of his time, however, is only a partial explanation. Luther’s understanding of the end time, in which he thought he was living, increased the severity of his anti-Jewish sentiments by several degrees. According to Luther, the world was dominated by the devil and the end was near; for those reasons, he wielded fierce weapons against all whom he identified as enemies of the gospel.

Luther’s hatred of Jews had nothing to do with the racist anti-Semitism of the German National Socialists 400 years later, but rather with his conviction concerning Satan and the end time. He was convinced that man stood in the final phase of the cosmic battle between God and the devil. So that, now everyone who opposed Christ in this end-time conflict proved to be a tool of Satan. Luther’s harsh words about adherents of the pope, and the peasant revolt even 20 years before his anti-Jewish diatribes, give witness to what by modern standards would be classified as hate speech. The Jews, as formerly the peasants, those faithful to the pope, “false brothers” and zealots were painted by Luther in one broad stroke as end-time instruments of the devil. 

They obscured the path to salvation, which he had rediscovered for himself and the world through such long spiritual torment of the soul. For this reason, the Reformer also repeatedly plunged himself, body and soul, into fierce controversies. The rediscovered gospel was at stake, which could not be allowed to disappear, given the rapidly approaching wrath of God on the Day of the Lord.

Luther felt the rejection and the disdain he experienced from the Jews were the result of stubbornness and delusion induced by Satan. Contrary to his earlier opinion, he now claimed that the Jews “were damned for all time.” He saw the Jews of his day as in league with the devil. Luther’s end-time conviction remained the same throughout his life. However, its character changed: where he was optimistic at the beginning of the Reformation, he turned more and more pessimistic toward the end of his life.

He actually thought of his terrible anti-Jewish proposals as “tough mercy.” He felt they could contribute to retrieving a few of those snared by the devil from the fire of God’s wrath. However, philologist Dietz Bering’s analysis finds that Luther was much harder on the Jews than on all the others, whom he also suspected to be on Satan’s side. It seems then that in addition to Luther’s beliefs concerning the end time and Satan’s opposition, the medieval anti-Semitic sentiments of the populace took hold of him again. In fact, till the end Luther remained a man of the Middle Ages, who also believed in witchcraft and sorcery.

The Dear Day of the Lord
The wrath of God that would come over all unsaved mankind was for Luther a proximate and solid reality. Christ “will come down on the Lord’s Day in powerful majesty and glory, and with him the whole host of angels; He will be seated among the clouds, and everyone will see Him. None will be able to hide or escape; all will have to appear.”

That will be frightful for all those who do not belong to Christ, for they will have to carry the burden of their sins and remain forever under God’s wrath (John 3:36). Luther realized: “God, by virtue of His nature and majesty, is our enemy; He demands the keeping of His commandments and threatens transgressors with death.” This is the insurmountable problem: no man can keep God’s law and please Him. It is necessary for God Himself to take the initiative. As Luther continues to explain: “But when He attaches Himself to our weakness, He no longer is our enemy.”

This connection can only happen at the cross, where the “joyful exchange takes place and the poor, despised, bad little whore” becomes the bride of Christ. Thus, the Day of the Lord will be “terrible,” yet, on the other hand, also a “comforting day. Terrible for all unbelievers and the godless,” who do not have Jesus Christ, but “comforting for all believers and the God-fearing,” who are bonded to their Savior by faith.

Luther’s end-time anticipation for the believers was not pessimistic—rather optimistic. His “Theology of the Cross” was inseparably bound to a theology of the resurrection. He was convinced that Christians could, at any time, “in the blinking of an eye,” be resurrected and changed (1 Cor 15:52). This will happen at the dawn of the Day of the Lord, when believers, whether dead or still among the living, “will be taken up to meet the Lord in the air and will be with the Lord forever.” Therefore, Luther feels believers can and should say: “Come, dear Day of the Lord, Amen.”

The redeemed, in Luther’s vivid description, will exchange “a mortal and stinking body for a beautiful, exquisite and fragrant one.” A man will remain a man and a woman a woman, “each according to his own kind and nature, although the appearance and function of the body will be different.” Erich Sauer puts it this way: “God’s goal is not destruction but redemption.” And so, at the death of his 13-year-old daughter Magdalena, Luther could comfort himself while shedding tears: “Oh, you dearest little Lena, you will be resurrected and shine as the stars and the sun.”

The Day of the Lord will bring an actual resurrected life with God in a new universe. This, Luther believed also: “I am waiting for another life, which is more certain than the present visible one.” He realized “that man was created for living.” And that is why we “rightly and with groaning hope for that day when all will be restored.”

Luther believed that all of creation will be changed and beautiful, as we also. He was not a prophet of doom but the herald of a new world: “Heaven and earth will be renewed for our sake.” For Christians, this life is “a preparation for the future one”; and, if “God has adorned this corrupt life with such innumerable blessings, what will he do in the future one, in which there is no more sin and where eternal justice will hold sway?”

God’s new world will be “transformed through Jesus Christ and will be 100,000 times more glorious than it is now.” Luther felt that he would then “break forth from his grave like a shining star.” He stressed that “whoever does not have his heart set on that life does not know the reality of faith and the gospel.”

Yet the Reformer also declared: “As little as the children in their mother’s womb know about their arrival, is what we know about eternal life.” He refrained from speculating about the new creation after the Lord’s return. And, even though he thought about the eternal world as something concrete, he did not count on an “actual kingdom” in Israel.  The idea of a Thousand-year Kingdom of God on this earth remained in his mind a “Jewish, worldly, carnal and temporal teaching which appeals to the masses.” This disapproving stance had to do with Luther’s difficulties concerning those fanatics in his environment who, while talking about the Holy Spirit, were intent on bringing about the Thousand-year Reign on earth by force and human laws.

It is anyone’s guess whether Luther would have changed his opinion about the Thousand-year Reign, if some of the zealots of his time had not spread such mad ideas about the subject. Yet, Luther’s negative attitude shows how our environment unconsciously does influence our convictions—for the good as well as the bad. And Luther’s anti-Semitism, his thoughts about the end time, experiences with the devil, battles with the fanatics, his hopes, fears and conviction of faith, were inevitably interconnected.

Genuine Near-Expectation
In the last analysis, whenever Luther spoke of the Day of the Lord, he was waiting for a person: Jesus Christ. “For He will surely come, says the Apostle, will appear and show Himself to be the true God and righteous Savior; then all will be glorious.” Like a bride, he longingly anticipated the bridegroom, who will arrive to take his wife with him to his heavenly home for all time. In one letter, Luther encouraged a pastor with these words: “We shall be resurrected by Him and stay with Him for all eternity. So, be careful not to denigrate your holy calling. He will come and not delay, He who will free us from all evil.”

Since Jesus Christ was central to Martin Luther’s thinking, his near-expectation remained levelheaded. To be alive at Christ’s return was not the paramount issue; he only wanted to finally see his Lord and Savior. And if he had to die before the return of Jesus Christ, that was all right with him. For example, when the wife of a nobleman wished him a long life, Luther staunchly replied: “May that not be! Even if God offered me a paradise to remain in this life another 40 years, I would not want it. I would rather engage an executioner to chop off my head—that is how evil the world is now.”

His wish to live until the very end of time was obviously quite minimal. He simply wanted to see Jesus—whether by death or at the arrival of the Day of the Lord. Luther knew that he would be resurrected. That was enough for him. His near-expectation was all about the person of Jesus Christ. And thus his prayer, even in deepest depression, temptation and fear, was: “If this be my hour and Your divine will, then with peace and joy I will gladly depart from hence upon Your word.”

Midnight Call - 11/2017

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