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RESEARCH: Martin Luther and the End of the World

Daniel Walther

 

Martin Luther often expressed different and sometimes contradictory theological views, but he did not waver in his basic beliefs, such as justification by faith. That is true also of his ideas on the end of the world; and this phase has, curiously, not retained the attention of the numerous Luther scholars as have other aspects. From the beginning of his reformatory career to the year of his death Luther clung firmly to the hope of the return of Christ though he had various notions as to the time and manner of the end. Mr. R. Vinglas has carefully examined Luther's eschatological views (together with those of John Calvin), and his findings are of great interest to us.1 Luther's numerous pronouncements on the end of all things are reminiscent of statements made often before his time, but some of them would also fit very well into our own views.

Luther lived in a stormy age, seething with new ideas and revolutionary concepts and groaning with the agonies of a laborious re birth (renaissance). Luther stood in the midst of the tempest that resulted in many ideological and armed conflicts; but what caused the greatest anxiety to his age, especially 1528-30, was the constant menace of, the Mohammedan on slaught. This threat had been hovering over the West ever since the Mohammedans succeeded, in 711, in entering Europe by the western gate of Spain; and the situation became alarming when later the seemingly irresistible pressure from the East placed Europe in a huge pincer which threatened to crush it. As the Turks approached Vienna the mounting anxiety was reflected in Luther's writings and talks. This caused him to preach a crusade against the Turks.2 (By the way, he applied Gog and Magog to the Turks.)

Luther was so impressed by the precarious- ness of the times in 1528 that he expected the end to come before he had time to finish the translation of the Old Testament. For this reason he proposed to translate first of all the book of Daniel, which was to be brought as soon as possible before "the poor Christians" of these "last times" before everything perished. The imminence of the end was indeed uppermost in his mind: "Things are going toward their end." And he added, "I hope the last day will not be long delayed, not over a hundred years." 3

Discussing the celebration of Easter, Luther wrote in 1539: "The old coat has stayed, along with its big rent, and may continue to stay this way till the last day. Things are going toward their end, and if the old coat has stood the patching and tearing for around fourteen hundred years, it can stand the patching and tearing for another hundred; for I hope that everything will soon have an end. Easter has now been see-sawing for about fourteen hundred years, and it may keep on see-sawing for the short time that is left, since no one will do anything about it, and those who would like to do something cannot." 4 Again, discussing the time of the end, he was impressed that the day of judgment was not far off and that the world could not last "three hundred years longer." 5

Like Melanchthon and other religious re formers of his day, Luther manifested great interest in Bible chronology. He shared the usual very old view that the world would stand six thousand years. Since it took seven days for the creation of the world, and since a day is like a thousand years, the world would stand six thousand years before the seven-thousandth year, which .was to be the millennium, a period of rest. But then, Luther was so impressed by the impending doom that he opined that the end might come in the midst of the sixth millennium. According to Luther's computation, the world was 5,500 years old in the year 1540, which was to be about the right time for the end of all things to occur.6

As to the time of the end, Luther rejected the thought that it was possible for man to know the year. This view he expressed very forcibly in his commentary on chapters 11 and 12 of the book of Daniel. He took this stand especially in order to counteract the definite date setting in which many of his contemporaries indulged, such as Melchior Hoffman and also his friend Michael Stiefel, a pastor in Lochau, who predicted that the end of the world would occur on October 19, 1533.7 On the other hand, while Luther rejected the tendency to set a definite date, he was convinced that there were too many indications in his own time to harbor any doubt as to the approximate time of the end. In 1526 he wrote, "I hope that the day is near at hand when the advent of the great God will appear." While translating the prophet Habakkuk, in 1526, he was impressed Habakkuk was instructed by the Lord to strengthen the faith of those who are "despairing of the coming of Christ." 8

Great as it was, the Turkish menace was not the only reason Martin Luther harbored the very strong conviction that the end was at hand, but we find this thought abiding with him throughout his career. Already in 1520, which saw the publication of the famous Reformatory tracts, he expressed forcibly his ideas on the end of the world. In his "Address to the Christian Nobility (1520) he said, "I verily believe that the judgment day is at the door, though men are-thinking least about it." 9 After the Diet of Worms he was imprisoned at Wartburg, where he translated the New Testament, and again he expressed his conviction that the end of all things was at hand. It would be easy to give further statements on Luther's very firm belief that he was living in the last day.

Luther knew that his notions were not shared by everyone. "I do not wish anyone to believe as I do, nor will I permit anyone to deny me the right to believe that the last day is near at hand." 10 Many of his sermons dealt directly with the end of the world and the coming of the Lord, such as the one on "the bridegroom cometh; go ye out to meet him." In 1544, shortly before his death, he wrote to a friend that he had nothing else to say than that he was hoping for Christ's return that same year. "It appears to me as if the world itself were approaching its end and, as the Psalmist says, is waxing old. ... So there is nothing to hope for, except the day of our great God." u On another occasion he said that the world could not last until 1548.

Particularly interesting are Martin Luther's reasons why he wrote that his age would witness the end of all things. Like everyone else who harbors the blessed hope, he considered the signs in the heavens and on the earth as being an indication of the nearness of the end. Among the many other signs that he mentions, let us consider a few. For one thing, he spoke of the unbelief and indifference of his age. "Now that the end of the world is approaching," he wrote in his "Preface to the Prophet Jeremiah," "the people rage and rave most horribly against God, and blaspheme and damn God's word," and he concluded: "If the last day were not close at hand it would be small wonder if heaven and earth were to fall at such blasphemy. The fact that God can tolerate such a thing as this is sign that the Day is not far off." 12 Then he saw another sign in the excessive tendency of a pleasure-loving generation, overindulgence in eating and drinking.

One interesting idea was that Luther thought the gospel was spreading as never before. The translation into the vernacular, which is Luther's most endearing contribution, hastened, of course, the spreading of the gospel and confirmed him in his belief. But he was also convinced that before the end the whole world would become Christian. Then again he was convinced that Daniel's prophecy about the increase of knowledge before the time of the end, was applicable to his time. Never was there an age since the birth of Christ "like the present" when "men are so delving into the mysteries of things that today a boy of twenty knows more than twenty doctors formerly knew."

As to the distress among nations, Luther saw it in his own day, of course, and there was dis tress to be sure. Whenever a war occurs in any time in history the tendency is to consider that the present war is the worst of all and the pre ceding ones were very mild in comparison. So it was with Luther, who said, "Wars at the present time are of such a character as to make former wars appear as a mere child's play." 13 As another sign he mentions storms as they were never reported before. "There are such storms and tempests and waters rolling as have never before been seen or heard."

Lastly, let us mention Luther's particular idea of Antichrist, whose "raging was a definite Sign of the end." Who was that Antichrist in Luther's mind? Interestingly, the Antichrist is applied to both the Pope and the Turk! "The person of the Antichrist is at the same time the Pope and the Turk. Every person consists of a body and a soul. So the spirit of the Antichrist is the Pope, his flesh is the Turk. The one has infested the Church spiritually, the other bod ily. However, both come from the same Lord, even the devil." 14

Thus we follow the leader of the Reformation in his views and find comfort in the fact that this mighty and gifted warrior, who shook the foundations of the Western world, harbored in his heart the fervent hope of seeing the Lord coming in the clouds of heaven.

One day Luther saw his children standing around a table, and he noticed how their eyes glistened as they looked longingly on a dish of peaches. "This," he mused, "is a pattern of those who rejoice in the hope (Rom. 12:12). Oh, if only we would behold the last day with the same happy and fond expectation."

 

 

 

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1 R. V. Vinglas, "Eschatological Teachings of Luther and Calvin." Thesis, S.D.A. Theological Seminary, 1948.

2 "Heerpredigt wider den Ttirken." Werke (St. Louis ed.), vol. 20, pp. 2165, 2166.

3 "CoIIoquia oder Tischreden." Werke, vol. 22, p. 16. Table Talk (Hazlitt, ed.), p. 325. On the reliability of Luther's Table Talk as a source, see the critical study of President Smith, Luther's Table Talk (New York, 1907), pp. 43, 44, 76-81. Vinglas, op. cit., p. 38, seq.

4 "On the Councils and the Churches," Works. (Holman, ed.), vol. 5, p. 185.

5 The Familiar Discourses of Dr. Martin Luther, translated by H. Bell (London, 1818), p. 7.

6 "Chronikon Oder Berechnung der Jahre der Welt" Werke, vol. 14, p. 714. 

7 "Haus Postille," Wereke, Vol. 13b, p. 2435. On Stiefel's prophetic elucubrations see Ibid., Vol. 21b, pp. 1841,1865- 1870. Vinglas, op. cit., p.10. "Auslegung des Propheten Daniel," Werke, Vol. 6, pp. 902, 939, 949. 

8 "Preface to the Prophet Habakkuk," Works, vol. 6, p. 431.

9 "An Open Letter to the Christian Nobility of the German Nation," Works, vol. 2, p. 161; Werke, vol. 10, pp. 348. 331.

10 "Church Postil," Writings of M. Luther (Lenker, ed.), vol. 10, p. 62.

11.Luther's Letter to Jacob Probst, Dec. 5, 1544. Luther, Letters (M. A. Currie, ed.), pp. 446, 447.

12 Works, vol. 6, p. 410.

13 "Kirchen Postflle,

14 Werke, vol. 13b, p. 1378.14 Werke (Weimar ed.), vol. 3, p. 158. Vinglas, op. cit., p. 23.

 

 

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