A Sermon by Rev. James P. Cooper
And I saw the dead, small and great, standing before God, and books were opened. And another book was opened, which is the Book of Life. And the dead were judged according to their works, by the things which were written in the books. (Rev. 20:12)
This is the third in a series of four sermons on the subject of the Last Judgment and the Second Coming of the Lord. In the first two sermons it was shown how the Second Coming is a spiritual event, not something to happen in the natural world; and it was shown that there are actually two different kinds of “Last Judgment” referred to in the New Testament.
One is the personal kind which happens as each individual’s natural body dies and he enters the spiritual world. There, his essential character is revealed, and he chooses to join others like himself in either heaven or hell.
The other is the historical “Last Judgment,” a spiritual event, predicted in the New Testament, in which Jesus Christ returns “in the clouds of heaven” to finish the work begun when He was in the world, to reveal the spiritual truths which the disciples were as yet unable to bear.
The prophecies of the New Testament show that the Second Coming will not be in the world, but rather in the spiritual sense of the Word.
This is because whenever Jesus spoke of His return, He said that He would be coming in the “clouds” of heaven, and the clouds of heaven represent the literal sense of the Word. So when He said He would be seen in the “clouds of heaven” He was saying that we would see Him in the letter of the Old and New Testament when our understanding was opened by His revelation of the spiritual sense of the Word.
There have been four previous churches in the world, corresponding to the ages of man. A true church has two essential qualities, represented by the two witnesses of the book of Revelation (Rev. 11). They are the knowledge and acknowledgment of the Lord Jesus Christ as the one God of heaven and earth, and a life of good according to the commandments set forth in the Word.
The Christian Church fell and required a “last” judgment as predicted in the New Testament when it fell away from these two essentials.
This happened when the doctrine of the Trinity was invented to settle a doctrinal argument between church factions, a doctrine which breaks the One God into three mysterious persons.
The second essential of the church was lost when the doctrine of salvation by faith alone was revived in the 15th century, made a cornerstone of the Christian faith, and subsequently received by many Christians.
Thus “Mystery” and “Magic” replaced the doctrines that had been revealed to mankind by God Himself within the very church that was supposed to keep His Name and Word alive and present with mankind.
The Age of Reason in the Western world was an outward sign that the human race was approaching a level of maturity where they were finally ready for the Lord to reveal the spiritual sense of the Word, for Him to come in the “clouds of heaven.”
It was also a time when there was no longer any possibility of reviving the Christian Church because it had so thoroughly denied the two essentials of the church, the Doctrine of the Lord, and the Doctrine of Life.
At a time when people were becoming aware of the liberating effect of scientific truth, when the were beginning to understand and appreciate Rationality and Liberty, the church was offering mystery and magic. The scene was set for the Lord to send a rational revelation to the human race.
The key to being human, the thing that truly sets us apart from the animals, is the rational degree of the mind.
The word “rational” comes from the root word “ratio” which is a mathematical term for the comparison of one value to another.
Humans make choices by imagining the result of different courses of action, and weighing the expected results against each other–establishing their ratio. Sometimes we act instinctively, sometimes emotionally, and sometimes we coldly overrule our instincts and emotions and choose a course of pain and self-sacrifice for the sake of some long-term goal. That is what human life is all about.
But in order for the rational degree of the mind to work properly, in order for it to make correct choices, it must have truth to work with.
If the rational degree relies entirely on the evidence of the senses, it will be fooled. That is why the Word is so important, because, like the certified weight set used on an official scale, the truths of the Word provide a sure and constant reference point for the rational degree to test other ideas against.
The Lord had to come again to reveal new truths by opening the spiritual sense of the Word because the Christian Church had fallen away from the qualities which had made it a true church.
It no longer taught the truth about God, nor did it any longer lead men to lead a good life according to the Ten Commandments.
Men in the world were confused, and when they died and entered the spiritual world they were still unable to distinguish between truth and falsity, right and wrong. Their personal day of judgment had to be delayed until they knew sufficient truth from the Word to exercise the power of their rational minds. That truth was to be revealed and presented to them when the Lord made His Second Coming.
Until that time should arrive, those who entered the spiritual world too confused to make their choice between heaven and hell were kept apart in a special section of the spiritual world called the “lower earth.” These are the people whom the book of Revelation refers to as the “souls under the altar” (Rev. 6:9).
When adults supervise children, they do not immediately punish every slight infraction of order. Instead, they wait and watch to see if the child can restore himself to order and self-control. If not, a warning is given, but punishment is withheld until it is clear that there is no longer any self-control, that intervention is essential to restore order and freedom.
The same thing is true for the Lord’s supervision of the Church. He leads, suggests, and supports the church, encouraging it to grow in the right direction. When it deviates, He warns. But He waits until there is no longer any chance of self-discipline before He initiates a judgment. (See AC 1311)
That point is reached when there is no longer any true faith in the church because there is no charity. (See LJ 33)
The Lord made His Second Coming into the spiritual world rather than into the natural world for two reasons:
first, it was in the spiritual world where the people were who desperately needed revealed truth to enable them to find their spiritual homes (See LJ 28),
and because everything that happens in the spiritual world has its effects in the natural world, for the spiritual world is the cause of the natural world.
Emanuel Swedenborg played a part in this by being the means through which the revelations made in the spiritual world were published and spread abroad in the natural world.
Swedenborg says, “It has been granted me to see with my own eyes that the last judgment has now been accomplished; that the evil have been cast into the hells, and the good elevated into heaven; and thus that all things have been reduced to order, and the spiritual equilibrium between good and evil, or between heaven and hell, has thereby been restored” (LJ 45).
He also revealed that the Last Judgment, nor any of the other judgments before it, did not affect the whole spiritual world. Those who had already entered heaven as angels did not need to be judged, nor did those who were already devils in hell. It did not affect those who arrived from the world already knowing the difference between right and wrong.
The last judgment was only on those people who had come into the spiritual world after the Lord’s time and who had so little spiritual truth that they could not tell right from wrong, and so were unable to find their true spiritual home. These people were those who had lived in the world according to a holy external form, and who followed civil and moral laws only because they feared the loss of reputation, honor, and gain.
Such people knew, and could even teach, the doctrinals of the church, but in the secret places of their hearts, they did not live according to them. They were like the cups and platters that Jesus spoke about, clean on the outside, but filthy on the inside (MAT 23:25,26; LUK 11:39,40). Such people go through the motions and do uses only for the sake of their own pleasure, and not for the sake of being useful to others.
It is a law of the spiritual world that people with similar affections and delights associate together, and so it was that all these confused spirits from the Christian Church came together, and could maintain the illusion that they were in heaven.
But the purpose of the Last Judgment was to reveal spiritual truth to these spirits so that they could judge themselves in the light of heaven.
When the light of heaven shined on them, they could for the first time truly see the nature of their internal loves.
Those who were inwardly good, and who had always tried to live the best they could according to the truth that they had, viewed their companions with horror, and fled from them into the company of the angels whom they inwardly resembled.
Those who had lived a life of outward order, but nursed all manner of hatred and falsity within themselves also fled to be with those like themselves in hell.
In a court of law, the purpose is to hear enough witnesses until the truth is known.
Then the truth itself decides, not the court. It was the truth that caused the judgment, and each individual judged himself against the Divine truth.
The Last Judgment, and the Second Coming have already taken place, although in an unexpected way.
But then when the Lord was born, He was expected to be born in a palace, and become a great military leader who would throw off the Roman yoke. He surprised everyone by establishing a spiritual kingdom instead of an earthly one.
His Second Coming was to His already established spiritual kingdom, again, not as human observers expected or wished.
The Last Judgment is accomplished, and yet there continue to be wars, and rumors of wars, and this is because the Word was not referring to the situation in the natural world, but to the things to which they correspond in the Lord’s spiritual kingdom.
But the Second Coming has had its effect in the world. Beginning with the American and the French Revolutions in the 18th Century, there has been a general trend toward better education for more people, and a higher regard for individual freedom of thought and choice.
We can also see that in general the great wars of the Western world prior to the last judgment had to do with kings fighting with each other to extend their dominion or protect their borders. After the last judgment, the wars have been over issues relating to personal freedom.
The so-called Hundred Years War between England and France, for example, was several generations of French and English kings squabbling about who would control certain lands in Western France.
But the American Revolution, the French Revolution, the American Civil War, were all about ideals, and a conflict between the way people viewed the world and their need for personal freedom.
The Second World War may have been begun over border disputes, but to the hundreds of thousands of American soldiers who fought in that war, they were not fighting to restore the French borders, but for “Mom and Apple pie,” a charming way of defining an entire way of life. The war was in Europe and Asia, but it was seen that it threatened a whole way of life, and so people who were not directly involved or threatened, risked their lives to defend their idea of how life should be for all people.
I suspect that the English peasants who were conscripted to take part in an invasion of France in 1300 felt a little differently about their task.
However, the biggest changes are to be seen in the state of the church, which, although it will continue very much the same in outward appearance, there will be changes in the internal form of the church.
The Heavenly Doctrines of the New Church say, “To outward appearance there will be divided churches as before; their doctrines will be taught as before; and likewise the religions among the gentiles. But the man of the church will hereafter be in a more free state of thinking on matters of faith, that is on the spiritual things that relate to heaven, because spiritual liberty has been restored” (LJ 74).
When the Lord was in the world, He showed us that His kingdom was not of this world, but instead it was a spiritual kingdom.
Therefore, we should not be surprised to learn that His Second Coming would also be a spiritual event. It was made necessary because the confusion introduced by the doctrines of the trinity and faith alone had made it impossible for some people to find their way into heaven.
The Lord therefore revealed new truths, spiritual truths that were contained within the letter of the Word of the Old and New Testament, which acted light a spiritual floodlight to lead the simple out of their states of confusion.
It also served to show the internal ugliness of the evil spirits who had sought to mislead the simple good.
As we reflect on how this shows the real power of truth, we should think about the power that the truth from the Word can have in our own lives. How much better, how much more satisfying will our natural lives be if we allow God’s own truth to show us the way to an orderly life and to an eternity of peace in heaven?
Next, in the fourth and final sermon of this series, we will see how all these events in the spiritual and natural history of the church lead up to the call of Emanuel Swedenborg and also the effect that the doctrines revealed by the Lord through him had on the spiritual world.