Thursday, December 15, 2005

"The Late Great Planet Earth" According To Luther

Well, for those of you at least as old as me, you remember Hal Lindsey’s book, The Late Great Planet Earth. Hey it was the 1970’s, and it was so obviously going to be the end of the world at any moment- well of course not quite the end- there were still 7 years for those not raptured to struggle through plagues and war, and the mark of the beast. I’ll never forget the jaws dropped down a few years ago when some non-Reformed Christian friends were telling me about how we’re all going to have computer chip implants in our hands or foreheads, and I was willing to get one if it would make my life easier. Well, it was no surprise to them that I would take “the mark of the beast” from Intel or Microsoft- I was already a Calvinist.

Interestingly though, for Luther it was also the end of the world in the 16th Century. While Lindsay made some big bucks with his books, Luther didn’t. As early in his career as 1522, Luther preached that his generation was living in the last days:

"I do not wish to force any one to believe as I do; neither will I permit anyone to deny me the right to believe that the last day is near at hand. These words and signs of Christ compel me to believe that such is the case. For the history of the centuries that have passed since the birth of Christ nowhere reveals conditions like those of the present. There has never been such building and planting in the world. There has never been such gluttonous and varied eating and drinking as now. Wearing apparel has reached its limit in costliness. Who has ever heard of such commerce as now encircles the earth? There have arisen all kinds of art and sculpture, embroidery and engraving, the like of which has not been seen during the whole Christian era".

Source: Martin Luther, The Sermons of Martin Luther Volume 1 (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1996), 62. Available on line at:

In 1542, Luther said, “I hold that Judgment day is not far away. I say this because the drive of the gospel is now at its height.” (Source: Ewald M. Plass, What Luther Says: An Anthology Volume Two (Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1959), 696).

In a Table Talk Luther says also,

It is my firm belief that the angels are getting ready, putting on their armor and girding their swords about them, for the last day is already breaking, and the angels are preparing for the battle, when they will overthrow the Turks and hurl them along with the pope to the bottom of hell. The world will perish shortly. Among us there is the greatest ingratitude and contempt for the Word…As things are beginning to go, the last day is at the door, and I believe that the world will not endure a hundred years. For the light of the gospel is now dawning. That day will follow with thunder and lightning, for the voice of the Lord and of the trumpet are conveyed in the thunder. It will come from the east, and the earth will be severely shaken by the crash with such horror, that men will die of fear. I believe that the last day is not far off, for this reason: the gospel is now making its last effort, and it is just the same as with a light which, when it is about to go out, gives forth a great flash at the end as if it is intended to burn a long time yet, and then it is gone. So it appears to be in the case of the gospel, which seems on the point of widely extending itself, but I fear that it also will go out in a flash, and that the last day will then be at hand. It is just so with a sick man: when he is about to die he often appears most refreshed, and in a trice he has departed.

Source:Hugh Kerr, A Compend of Luther’s Theology (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1966), 244-245. (cf. LW 54:427; Tabletalk online, entry: Of Angels: DLXIX.

Thus, the entirety of his Reformation career embraced an impending consummation of history. Mark Edwards points out:

In general Luther viewed the history of his own time as the realization of the apocalyptic predictions of Daniel and Revelation. The events of his age, he was convinced, were certain signs that the End Time was at hand. The 1530 foreword to his translation of Daniel makes clear how firmly set this conviction was. Following traditional exegesis, Luther identified Daniels ‘kingdom of iron’ with the Roman Empire, which, through its transference to the Germans, had survived into Luther’s own time and would persist until the last day. The papacy was the antichrist alluded to in the eleventh chapter of Daniel, and the Turk was the small horn that replaced three horns of the beast in the seventh chapter. The appearance of the papal antichrist and the success of the Turk left no doubt in Luther’s mind that the apocalyptic drama was in its final act” [Mark U Edwards, Luther’s Last Battles (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1983), 97].

Lutheran scholar Paul Althaus notes that the “Middle Ages feared the Day of Wrath but Luther desires the coming of Jesus, because he will bring an end to the antichrist and bring about redemption. Luther can call it ‘the most happy Last Day.’”( Paul Althaus, The Theology of Martin Luther (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1966), 420-421).

Well, its easy to be cynical against Luther and his "Last Days Madness". But I must confess, for the first time in my life I'm feeling it a little bit myself. A few months ago, around the time some of those big earthquakes hit, I ran into one of the pastors at my church. While talking about the massive destruction and loss of life, I commented, "You know, I think it really is the end of the world." His response: "Oh really? Do you have a date set yet?" This reminded me immediately how important it was to live each day Corum Deo. My world could come to end at any moment. Rather than looking for the secret knowledge of God (like when the end of the world is going to come), I should be living each day as if it were my last, using God's revealed will for daily life in Romans 12-16.