“The World’s Last Night”: C. S. Lewis on the Second Coming

C. S. Lewis (shown above) was perhaps the most versatile Christian writer of the twentieth century. His literary output included:

– Children’s stories packed with allegory (Chronicles of Narnia, some of which have been adapted to film)

– Science fiction (Out of the Silent Planet space trilogy ; again packed with allegory, and surprisingly decent science fiction from a non-techie of his day)

– Other fictional/fantastical works such as The Great Divorce (a bus trip to heaven — my favorite), The Screwtape Letters (letters of advice from a senior devil to a junior tempter), and Till We Have Faces: A Myth Retold (Lewis’s own favorite, but too deep for the average Joe)

– Scholarly works in his field of medieval and renaissance literature

– Poignant autobiographical writings (Surprised by Joy; A Grief Observed)

– Talks and essays explaining the fundamentals of biblical Christianity and related issues. His books in this area include Mere Christianity, Miracles, and The Problem of Pain. Several collections of his essays have also appeared (God in the Dock, The Weight of Glory, etc.). It is to one of these essays that we turn in this post.

“The World’s Last Night” is the final piece in the volume The World’s Last Night and Other Essays. The title comes from the first line of John Donne’s “Holy Sonnet XIII”: “What if this present were the world’s last night?”

Here Lewis addresses the topic of the Second Coming. The return of Christ is an integral part of the New Testament faith, yet can be much more difficult for modern people to accept than other Christian teachings like the Golden Rule or justice for the oppressed.  Lewis is keenly aware of this, and so in this essay he says he “will endeavor 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.”

European theology in the early twentieth century was under the spell of Albert Schweitzer when it came to Jesus and eschatology. Schweitzer was an accomplished musician, theologian, philosopher, physician, and humanitarian. Schweitzer’s The Quest for the Historical Jesus (first published in German in 1906) painted Jesus and his early followers as being obsessed with a very imminent end of the world. Since the world did not in fact end in the first century, that would seem to leave Jesus as deeply mistaken about his own mission. Schweitzer’s point of view seemed convincing, and (to devout Christians) embarrassing. In reaction, many thinking Christians had quietly tiptoed away from much consideration of the Second Coming by the time Lewis wrote his essay in 1952.

I will summarize his arguments, so readers here can judge how well he succeeds in meeting our reservations on this doctrine. But first I will note the long-term outlook for our corner of the universe if there is no supernatural intervention, and also introduce the notion of Christ’s Second Coming.

The Future of the Solar System According to Science

This Wikipedia article describes the formation and evolution of our Solar System.  Knowing its mass and composition, and the laws of nuclear physics (e.g. fusion of hydrogen) and classical physics (gravity, momentum, heat transfer), we can calculate out a star’s past and future forms.  The sun formed from the coalescence of a hydrogen cloud some 4.6 billion years ago. Gravitational shrinkage heated the core enough to trigger hydrogen fusion by 4.5 billion years ago. Material around the sun accreted into planets.    (The heavier elements like silicon, oxygen, carbon, and iron that are prevalent in the inner rocky planets like earth came from fusion and explosions of earlier stars, so our bodies are literally composed of stardust.)

The sun is a pretty typical “main sequence” star. It is growing brighter at a rate of about 10% every 1.1 billion years. A billion years from now, the earth’s surface will be so hot that the oceans will boil away. This will likely be the end of life as we know it on planet earth. In this timeframe, Mars will become approximately as warm as earth is now, offering the possibility for life to subsist there for perhaps another billion years. By the time the sun enters its red supergiant phase in 5.5 billion years, swelling out to the diameter of earth’s present orbit, even Mars will be uninhabitable. Interestingly, a consistent theme in the New Testament is that the end of the world will be a fiery event, a time when “the elements will be destroyed with intense heat, and the earth and its works will be burned up.” (II Pet 2:10, NASB).

There are, of course, other catastrophes (many of which are also fiery) which may lead to the demise of the human race well before the sun does us in. Nuclear or biological warfare could do the trick, or a collision with a medium-sized asteroid.

There are various theories regarding the fate of the universe as a whole. The leading contender is that the universe will continue to expand, taking other galaxies out of sight of our Milky Way cluster in about 2 trillion years. In 10-100 trillion years, nearly all hydrogen will be consumed and star formation will cease. When those last stars burn out, the universe will be dark and cold. The cosmos that began in a fiery Big Bang will peter out in an icy Big Freeze.

What Is the Second Coming About?

The New Testament teachings about the return of Jesus are spread throughout the four gospels (which tell the story of Jesus’ life and teachings) and the letters written by his key followers such as Peter and Paul.  As Jesus of Nazareth, God the Son entered into human existence from “below” (e.g. questionable parentage, peasant class, abandoned by friends, unjustly condemned, mocked, tortured and killed).

After his resurrection, he had paranormal powers like being able to appear within locked rooms. That would seem like a good time for him to fly around and whack all the bad guys and heal all the sick people. But he did not do that. Instead, he worked more subtly. He chose to commission his followers (yes, those fisherman who never seemed to understand his points, and who ran away when things got tense) to spread the “good news”. That good news, or gospel, was that Jesus has made a way for all to share in the divine life, through:

(a) acknowledging that we owe gratitude and obedience to our Creator, and that we fall short of His holiness,

(b) by faith accepting Christ’s righteousness and  sacrifice on the cross for us, and

(c) following him closely on a daily basis, in a life of trust, personal integrity and helping others.

To reject this good news is to reject God’s gracious purposes for human life, and instead to assert one’s own righteousness and autonomy. Thieves, prostitutes, and tax-collectors (the first-century equivalent of today’s rapacious Wall Street bankers) were welcomed into God’s kingdom by Jesus, as long as they deeply acknowledged their need for God’s mercy and in turn extended that mercy to others. Men who considered themselves good on their own merits were lambasted by Jesus, even if these men were respectable and outwardly pious.

This is still Christ working “from below”, through the fragile persuasion and sacrificial lifestyles of his followers, not through coercion. Many Christian thinkers believe that the hiddenness  of God in this present age allows people to freely choose to love and honor Him in a way that would be impossible if He were physically visible or if miracles happened on demand. Jesus likened this current, gradual spreading of the gospel throughout the world to a little yeast being permeating a big bowl of dough, and to a tiny seed growing into a large shrub. He told inquirers that, although “the kingdom of God is among you” (Luke 17:21), this kingdom is not outwardly observable.

There will come a time of reckoning, though, when Christ will intervene from “above”. This is illustrated in the story Jesus told of the wheat and the weeds. Here Jesus pictures the present age as a time when both godly and ungodly people are present and when good and evil can be difficult to cleanly separate; a premature attempt to stamp out evil would thwart the production of the full complement of good:

The kingdom of heaven is like a man who sowed good seed in his field.  But while everyone was sleeping, his enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and went away. When the wheat sprouted and formed heads, then the weeds also appeared.

The owner’s servants came to him and said, “Sir, didn’t you sow good seed in your field? Where then did the weeds come from?”

“An enemy did this,” he replied.  The servants asked him, “Do you want us to go and pull them up?”

 “No,” he answered, “because while you are pulling the weeds, you may uproot the wheat with them.  Let both grow together until the harvest. At that time I will tell the harvesters: First collect the weeds and tie them in bundles to be burned; then gather the wheat and bring it into my barn.”

Then he left the crowd and went into the house. His disciples came to him and said, “Explain to us the parable of the weeds in the field.”

He answered, “The one who sowed the good seed is the Son of Man [i.e. Christ].  The field is the world, and the good seed stands for the people of the kingdom. The weeds are the people of the evil one, and the enemy who sows them is the devil. The harvest is the end of the age, and the harvesters are angels.

 “As the weeds are pulled up and burned in the fire, so it will be at the end of the age.  The Son of Man will send out his angels, and they will weed out of his kingdom everything that causes sin and all who do evil.  They will throw them into the blazing furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.  Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. Whoever has ears, let them hear.”  (Matt. 13:24-29, 36-43 NIV)

Here Jesus states that the present “age” or “eon” will end with a forceful intervention. This intervention will involve the rendering of judgment, and meting out of appropriate consequences.  Jesus frequently warned that no one knows when this day of judgment will arrive, thus we need to always live so as to be prepared for it: “So you must also be ready, because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him.” (Matt 24:44)

The judgment appears to be quite binary. It entails classifying people into two categories: righteous and unrighteous. This judgment will be based less on what deeds people have or haven’t done, and more on how they have responded to the good news as described above. Those who welcome Christ’s coming will be transformed, body and soul, to resemble the resurrected Jesus. This will enable a deep level of joyful fellowship with God and one another in a never-ending party.

In addition, the physical creation will be renewed. Paul writes that “the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious liberty of the children of God.” (Rom. 8:21). The book of Revelation (21:3-4) describes the new creation in these terms:

Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God.  He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.

For a deeper treatment of the Biblical presentation of the Second Coming and the final judgement, see “Appendix A. The Final Judgment “in  The Atonement Wars: What the Church Fathers Actually Wrote.

Difficulties With the Second Coming Dealt With By Lewis

Lewis notes five difficulties that moderns have with this concept. I will list them here, then go into more detail below on each point.

(1) Apocalyptic thought and writings were rife among first century Jews, so maybe Jesus was just parroting misguided notions of his day.

(2) Jesus appeared to be mistaken in teaching that his return would happen in the lifetime of his hearers.

(3) A sudden end to the world as we know it conflicts with deep-seated views of the world gradually getting better and better.

(4) People in the past have predicted specific dates for the Second Coming, which led to foolish and costly responses.

(5) A belief that this world may end soon could lead to neglect of our duties.

Difficulty (1):  Apocalyptic Thought Was Already Present In First-Century Judaism

The fact that some other people were already advocating some similar concepts has no logical bearing on whether Jesus’ teachings were valid. Lewis points out this obvious logical point, but then goes further. He suggests that:

..our Lord’s production of something like the other apocalyptic documents would not necessarily result from his supposed bondage to the errors of his period, but would be the Divine exploitation of a sound element in contemporary Judaism: nay, the time and place in which it pleased him to be incarnate would, presumably, have been chosen because, there and then, that element existed, and had, by his eternal providence, been developed for that very purpose…Do we suppose that the scene of God’s earthly life was selected at random?—that some other scene would have served better?

Difficulty (2): Jesus appeared to be mistaken in teaching that his return would happen in the lifetime of his hearers.

There are many verses in the New Testament which bear on the timing of the Second Coming, and many schools of interpretation. Most of these passages do focus on the nearness or potential nearness of this event. On the other hand, II Peter 3:8-9 deliberately tempers our expectations, noting God’s gracious purpose in postponing the day of judgement:

But do not forget this one thing, dear friends: With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day.  The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.

To grind through all these verses and their interpretations is far beyond the scope of this blog post. I will just focus on Matthew 24:34, “I tell you the truth, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened.”  Mark 13:30 and Luke 21:32 read essentially the same.

Lewis takes this verse to mean that Jesus was predicting that all the events of his Second Coming would transpire within the lifetime of his hearers, which history has proven to be flat-out wrong. Thus, in Lewis’ words, this is “certainly the most embarrassing verse in the Bible.”

Lewis gets Jesus off the hook by noting that in this same passage Jesus admitted that he did not know the timing of his Second Coming: “But of that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father alone” (Matt. 24:36 NASB). Lewis claims that it is consistent with the Incarnation that Jesus would genuinely share in some of the limitations of humans:

To believe in the Incarnation, to believe that he is God, makes it hard to understand how he could be ignorant; but also makes it certain that, if he said he could be ignorant, then ignorant he could really be. For a God who can be ignorant is less baffling than a God who falsely professes ignorance…. The taking up into God’s nature of humanity, with all its ignorances and limitations, is not itself a temporal event, though the humanity which is so taken up was, like our own, a thing living and dying in time. And if limitation, and therefore ignorance, was thus taken up, we ought to expect that the ignorance should at some time be actually displayed. It would be difficult, and, to me, repellent, to suppose that Jesus never asked a genuine question, that is, a question to which he did not know the answer. That would make of his humanity something so unlike ours as scarcely to deserve the name. I find it easier to believe that when be said “Who touched me?” (Luke 7:45) he really wanted to know.

This is a reasonable resolution of this seemingly embarrassing verse. Other resolutions have been proposed. Some take “generation” to mean “race”, and thus understand Jesus to be saying that the ethnic group to which he was speaking, i.e. the Jews, would remain until his return. We might also take “this generation” to denote “this type of people” in a moral, rather than chronological sense; thus, Jesus was saying here that there will always be people around who are rejecters of God’s word. Other views are that the “generation” that sees the signs of the end times start to happen will be around to see the final ending, or that Jesus’ hearers would see examples of all the signs that portend the end, even though the end itself has not come.

Yet another viewpoint (which I find the most persuasive) is to take a step back and look at Matthew 24-25 as a whole. Parallel passages are Mark 13 and Luke 21. This section of the gospels is known as the Olivet Discourse.

The occasion of this discourse was a shocking remark by Jesus. The Temple in Jerusalem was a stunning edifice. Herod the Great had rebuilt the Temple complex in a magnificent way. Gigantic stones shored up the broad Temple mount, which held the Temple itself and other colonnaded courtyards. The Temple was made of gleaming white limestone, and dominated the skyline. It also dominated the religious service of the Jews, with thousands of animal sacrifices made each year towards atonement for sin. The Presence of God Himself was thought to dwell in its inner sanctum. Below is a reconstruction of the Temple.

As Jesus and his followers were leaving the Temple area a few days before his arrest and trial, some of the disciples commented on how massive and magnificent it was, including the stones of its construction. Jesus’ response must have made their hair stand on end: he replied that the Temple would be destroyed so utterly that not one of those stones would be left on another.

This was way outside their grid. Jesus left the city, tramped across the Kidron valley and then took a seat on the Mount of Olives, looking back at Jerusalem and the Temple. At that point, the inner circle disciples came up to Jesus and pressed him to elaborate on what he had just said about the Temple. Here is how the story goes according to Mark (13:1-7):

As he was leaving the temple, one of his disciples said to him, “Look, Teacher! What massive stones! What magnificent buildings!”

 “Do you see all these great buildings?” replied Jesus. “Not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down.”

As Jesus was sitting on the Mount of Olives opposite the temple, Peter, James, John and Andrew asked him privately,  “Tell us, when will these things happen? And what will be the sign that they are all about to be fulfilled?”

Jesus said to them: “Watch out that no one deceives you.  Many will come in my name, claiming, ‘I am he,’ and will deceive many.  When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed. Such things must happen, but the end is still to come.  Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be earthquakes in various places, and famines. These are the beginning of birth pains.

Luke (21:5-7) puts it:

Some of his disciples were remarking about how the temple was adorned with beautiful stones and with gifts dedicated to God. But Jesus said,  “As for what you see here, the time will come when not one stone will be left on another; every one of them will be thrown down.”

  “Teacher,” they asked, “when will these things happen? And what will be the sign that they are about to take place?”

According to Mark and Luke, the disciples were asking solely about the destruction of that Temple. Only in Matthew is some extra verbiage added about the “end of the age.” Most likely the disciples could only envisage such a cataclysmic event as equating to the end of the age and the establishment of the Messianic kingdom:

Jesus left the temple and was walking away when his disciples came up to him to call his attention to its buildings. “Do you see all these things?” he asked. “I tell you the truth, not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down.”

 As Jesus was sitting on the Mount of Olives, the disciples came to him privately. “Tell us,” they said, “when will this happen, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?” (Mat. 24:1-3)

Even here, the immediate issue is the destruction of the existing Temple. Jesus proceeds to answer their question by describing many things that would happen before the destruction of the Temple. He says over and over again that events X and Y and Z will happen, but don’t be misled into thinking that these mean that the end (of the Temple) is here yet. In the Mark 13 passage quoted above, Jesus says there will be false prophets, wars, rumors of wars, earthquakes, famines, and persecutions – but these do not mean the end is imminent. They are only the early warning signs. The sign that the destruction of the Temple (and indeed of all Jerusalem) was finally at hand would be (according to Matthew and Mark) when the “abomination of desolation” was seen to be standing in the holy place. Luke states this sign as, “When you see Jerusalem being surrounded by armies, you will know that its desolation is near” (21:20). Jesus’ urgent advice upon the appearance of this final sign was:

Then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains, let those in the city get out, and let those in the country not enter the city.  For this is the time of punishment in fulfillment of all that has been written.  How dreadful it will be in those days for pregnant women and nursing mothers! There will be great distress in the land and wrath against this people.  They will fall by the sword and will be taken as prisoners to all the nations. (Luke 24:21-24).

Jesus spoke all these things about 30 A.D. It is a matter of historical record that in following decades, there were many false prophets in Judea, and notable wars, earthquakes, and famines in the Roman world, including Judea. This is consistent with Jesus’ listing of calamities which were NOT to be taken as imminent signs of the end. Finally, in 66 A.D. Roman armies attacked Jerusalem to quell a Jewish rebellion. When they temporarily broke off their assault, the Christians who had been in Jerusalem heeded the prophetic words of Jesus and fled to Pella, in what is now Jordan. The Romans returned, and in 70 A.D. they slaughtered and enslaved the inhabitants of Jerusalem, and destroyed the Temple so completely that not one stone remained on another. The historian Josephus estimated that over a million Jews were killed.

A “generation” in the Bible is typically 40 years. The devastation of the Temple and of all Judea was in fact experienced by the generation to whom Jesus addressed the Olivet Discourse. Thus, instead of being an embarrassing verse to explain away, Matthew 24:34 may be viewed as a remarkable prophecy which was fulfilled precisely as Jesus said. This should increase our confidence in Jesus’ other predictions.

Why did Lewis miss this viewpoint? Most likely it did not occur to him to challenge the assertions of Schweitzer about Jesus’ view of the end times. Also, it seems that Jesus in the second half of Matthew 24 (from about v. 36 onward) does move the discussion away from the destruction of the Temple, and towards the Second Coming proper. It was common for Jesus to take a conversation that started around some temporal issue, and move it to spiritual, eternal concerns.  In the first half of the chapter, Jesus was stressing that the event (Temple destruction) is not imminent, and will not happen until after many signs have occurred. This calamity is local, such that it could be avoided by leaving Jerusalem and walking 60 miles away. In the second half of the chapter, he was stressing that we should live as though the Second Coming is imminent. This event will come suddenly and unexpectedly to the whole earth, although presumably after the overthrow of the Temple. In the middle of the chapter there perhaps some overlap or back-and-forth between these two concepts, so it is common to get confused there.

There are many issues regarding the Olivet Discourse and Bible prophecy that I cannot address here.  It is important to realize that the cosmic imagery (sun darkened, stars falling, coming on the clouds, etc.) in Mat. 24:29-30 was widely used in the Old Testament (e.g. Isa 13:10, 19:1-2,34:4; Ezek 32:7-8; Jer 4:28; Ps 18:9) to refer to God’s intervention with judgement, especially with the overthrow of a physical kingdom. Thus, Jesus here was not predicting bizarre astronomical phenomena, but was using well-understood apocalyptic language to warn the current generation in Jerusalem, and (in Mat. 26:64) their leaders, that utter catastrophe would strike their nation within a few decades.

A thorough exposition is Philip Mauro’s The Seventy Weeks and the Great Tribulation. Originally published in 1921, it is available from Amazon, and also on-line here and elsewhere.  Bible teacher Jonathan Welton has put his new book Raptureless: An Optimistic Guide to the End of the World on line.  My favorite all-around books on eschatology are Kim Riddlebarger’s A Case For Amillenialism and Win the World or Escape the Earth? by Ian Rossel and Tony Wastall.

Difficulty (3):  A sudden end to the world conflicts with deep-seated views of the world gradually getting better and better.

The generation that came of age in the beginning of the twentieth century could look back on extraordinary progress in the human condition, especially in Europe.  Thanks to industrialization and the harnessing of fossil fuels, productivity in agriculture and fabrication soared, yielding enormous increases in per capita wealth. Discoveries in science and medicine improved the quality and span of life, and made sense out of the physical world. Overt slavery was abolished and many diseases were conquered. Transport changed from horse to steam locomotive to the motorcar and aeroplane. With only brief exceptions, peace (the Pax Britannica) reigned in Europe from the close of the Napoleonic wars in 1815 until the outbreak of World War I in 1914. The British ruled the seas and maintained a balance of power on the Continent. The U.S. got past its bloody civil war, and grew in prosperity while celebrating the advance of democracy in the rest of the world.

These outward developments seemed to justify the more mystical or abstract assertions about the inexorable progress of the “world spirit” made by English Romantic poets and by German idealist philosophers. Lewis says that these conceptualizations of world-evolution are mere “myths.” He did not dispute Darwinian theory as a scientific explanation, but he objected to unwarranted extensions:

For purposes of this article I am assuming that Darwinian biology is correct. What I want to point out is the illegitimate transition from the Darwinian theorem in biology to the modem myth of evolutionism or developmentalism or progress in general…it would not follow—it is, indeed, manifestly not the case—that there is any law of progress in ethical, cultural, and social history.

I think that this “difficulty” is less pronounced for us in the early twenty-first century, especially in the West. We, or our parents, have witnessed the spread of vicious philosophies and political regimes that led to the enslavement, torture, and massacres of tens of millions within the past 80 years. Lifespans and agricultural productivity are leveling off. Real incomes are stagnant for all but the top 10%.  We live with the specter of nuclear annihilation and climate runaway, and anticipate a future where our children will not live as well as we have.

So, in my opinion, the Second Coming is no longer widely seen as an irritating intrusion into a world that is developing splendidly all by itself. However, we are probably even more locked in to an overall non-supernatural worldview than when Lewis wrote this essay.

Well into the 1800’s, most folks in Europe and the Americas believed that the world was created a mere 6000 years previous, and that God had already intervened once on a global scale by flooding the entire earth. It was therefore not much of a stretch to hold that God would shortly intervene with second cataclysm, this time with fire instead of water. However, now that we can explain essentially all the world in terms of natural laws operating on matter and energy over billions of years,  it seems less probable that some agent from outside this universe would suddenly sweep in and shut the whole thing down.

It is well to bear in mind, though, that one of the more certain findings of science in the past 60 years is that this universe had a distinct beginning, as an inconceivably hot and dense pinpoint. If some agent set that event in motion, that agent must be “outside” this universe and would have the power to undo what was done some 14 billion years ago. If that agent made the universe with the purpose of producing sentient life-forms (which is consistent with the “anthropic” fine-tuning of many physical constants that permit ordinary matter to exist), it would not be out of order for said agent to call it all finished within the span of existence of homo sapiens.

And of course, whether or not this is the world’s last night, it may well be your last night. You likely do not know the hour or even the decade of your own passing, but it will almost certainly fall within the present century.  Either way, it would seem wise to make the sorts of decisions that would bear the ultimate scrutiny.

Difficulty (4):  People in the past have predicted specific dates for the Second Coming, which led to foolish and costly responses.

Lewis acknowledges that this has indeed happened. He mentions what was perhaps the most spectacular instance in modern times, when hundreds of thousands prepared for the Second Coming in 1843-1844, following the predictions of upstate New York lay preacher William Miller.

The Jehovah’s Witnesses predicted Christ would return in 1914. Dispensationalists have held that the apocalypse would come within 40 years of the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948, or within 40 years of the Israeli capture of Old Jerusalem in 1967. Radio preacher Harold Camping insisted that Judgement Day would occur on May 21, 2011. These false predictions serve to discredit the genuine prophecies. They are like the boy who cried “Wolf!” so often that no one believed him when the wolf really appeared.

Lewis notes tartly that we should know better than to give credence to any such predictions:

If you do not believe our Lord’s words, why do you believe in his return at all? And if you do believe them must you not put away from you, utterly and forever, any hope of dating that return? His teaching on the subject quite clearly consisted of three propositions. (1) That he will certainly return. (2) That we cannot possibly find out when. (3) And that therefore we must always be ready for him.

Difficulty (5):  A belief that this world may end soon could lead to neglect of our duties

Lewis answers this concern:

All achievements and triumphs, in so far as they are merely this-worldly achievements and triumphs, will come to nothing in the end. Most scientists here join hands with the theologians; the earth will not always be habitable. Man, though longer-lived than men, is equally mortal…Taken by themselves, these considerations might seem to invite a relaxation of our efforts for the good of posterity: but if we remember that what may be on us at any moment is not merely an End but a Judgment, they should have no such result…

Frantic administration of panaceas to the world is certainly discouraged by the reflection that “this present” might be “the world’s last night”; sober work for the future, within the limits of ordinary morality and prudence, is not. For what comes is Judgment: happy are those whom it finds laboring in their vocations, whether they were merely going out to feed the pigs or laying good plans to deliver humanity a hundred years hence from some great evil. The curtain has indeed now fallen. Those pigs will never in fact be fed, the great campaign against White Slavery or Governmental Tyranny will never in fact proceed to victory. No matter; you were at your post when the Inspection came.

Lewis’s Closing Comments on the Final Judgment

We have all encountered judgments or verdicts on ourselves in this life. Every now and then we discover what our fellow creatures really think of us… I am thinking of what we sometimes overhear by accident or of the opinions about us which our neighbors or employees or subordinates unknowingly reveal in their actions: and of the terrible, or lovely, judgments artlessly betrayed by children or even animals. Such discoveries can be the bitterest or sweetest experiences we have…I suppose the experience of the Final Judgment (which may break in upon us at any moment) will be like these little experiences, but magnified to the Nth.

For it will be infallible judgment. If it is favorable we shall have no fear, if unfavorable, no hope, that it is wrong. We shall not only believe, we shall know, know beyond doubt in every fiber of our appalled or delighted being, that as the judge has said, so we are: neither more nor less nor other. We shall perhaps even realize that in some dim fashion we could have known it all along…

I do not find that pictures of physical catastrophe—that sign in the clouds, those heavens rolled up like a scroll—help one so much as the naked idea of judgment. We cannot always be excited. We can, perhaps, train ourselves to ask more and more often how the thing which we are saying or doing (or failing to do) at each moment will look when the irresistible light streams in upon it; that light which is so different from the light of this world—and yet, even now, we know just enough of it to take it into account. Women sometimes have the problem of trying to judge by artificial light how a dress will look by daylight. That is very like the problem of all of us: to dress our souls not for the electric lights of the present world but for the daylight of the next. The good dress is the one that will face that light. For that light will last longer.

******* ********* * * * ** * * * **


It can be instructive and encouraging to learn of the predictions in the Old and New Testament which have been fulfilled. As with any subject, however, a range of opinions can be found. Among scholars of the late nineteenth century there was a strong vein of skepticism regarding biblical prophecies and historical accuracy of the scriptures. There has been a gradual but clear trend in the past century of ongoing archaeological finds which confirm the general historical accuracy of the Bible.

For instance, in a scholarly article Paul Ferguson describes how he was taught in college that the prophecy in Ezekiel 26:1-14 of the destruction of the Phoenician city of Tyre was incompatible with the historical facts. Later, Ferguson studied Phoenician inscriptions and history himself, and found the critics to be  incorrect. His article gives the details.

Critics with motivations to denigrate the Bible make claims that the Bible is full of errors and contradictions, but closer examination often shows those claims to be baseless. Resources exist in print and on line to help resolve most difficulties. While I do not subscribe to absolute literal inerrancy, in the vast majority of cases where discrepancies are claimed, I find these resources provide reasonable solutions.

We have seen that even the great C. S. Lewis could be bamboozled by the critics. Although Lewis did a masterful job excusing Jesus for being supposedly mistaken about the circumstances of his own Second Coming, Lewis’s apologetic for this “embarrassing” passage would have been unnecessary had he not caved in so easily to the skeptics of his day.

(See also: C. S. Lewis on the Medieval Mind )

About Scott Buchanan

Ph D chemical engineer, interested in intersection of science with my evangelical Christian faith. This intersection includes creation(ism) and miracles. I also write on random topics of interest, such as economics, theology, folding scooters, and composting toilets, at www.letterstocreationistists.wordpress.com . Background: B.A. in Near Eastern Studies, a year at seminary and a year working as a plumber and a lab technician. Then a B.S.E. and a Ph.D. in chemical engineering. Since then, conducted research in an industrial laboratory. Published a number of papers on heterogeneous catalysis, and an inventor on over 100 U.S. patents in diverse technical areas. Now retired and repurposed as a grandparent.
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5 Responses to “The World’s Last Night”: C. S. Lewis on the Second Coming

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