Incisive reflections by Lewis on the return of the Lord:
The Greek term parousia means an arrival or coming, and is used specifically to refer to the Second Coming of Christ. It is found in passages such as Matthew 24:3, 1 Corinthians 15:23 and 1 Thessalonians 2:19. It is the blessed hope which all believers eagerly look forward to and anticipate. Being a key Christian belief, it is not surprising that C. S. Lewis spoke and wrote about it.
In a poem by English cleric John Donne (1572 -1631) that Lewis quotes in a 1952 essay we find this question: “What if this present were the world’s last night?” His essay, along with six others, was published in book form with the title, The World’s Last Night.
As with his Mere Christianity, he writes not as a specialist theologian, but aims for the average Christian laymen. Thus he offers no end times countdowns here, nor does he speculate on millennial options and the like. Instead, he looks at how we should live in light of his coming. But his sharp mind does offer us deep philosophical and theological insights.
He says this about three propositions Jesus had offered on the subject: “(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.” But he first looks at why some modern Christians may not be so eager to emphasise this core Christian teaching.
He looks at both theoretical and practical reasons some have for this, including the view that Jesus must himself be rather confused – and thus not God – if even he does not know the day nor the hour. He looks at the answer of theologians “that the God-Man was omniscient as God, and ignorant as Man” but takes it further:
I think we can acquiesce in mystery at that point, provided we do not aggravate it by our tendency to picture the timeless life of God as, simply, another sort of time. We are committing that blunder whenever we ask how Christ could be at the same moment ignorant and omniscient, or how he could be the God who neither slumbers nor sleeps while he slept. The italicized words conceal an attempt to establish a temporal relation between his timeless life as God and the days, months, and years of his life as Man. And of course there is no such relation. The Incarnation is not an episode in the life of God: the Lamb is slain—and therefore presumably born, grown to maturity, and risen—from all eternity. 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 he said “Who touched me?” (Luke 8:45) he really wanted to know.
But it is the issue of how the Christian should live in light of his promised return that gets important coverage here by Lewis. “The doctrine of the Second Coming teaches us that we do not and cannot know when the world drama will end. The curtain may be rung down at any moment: say, before you have finished reading this paragraph.”
Some Christians may not like that: ‘What about my upcoming wedding?’ and the like. Replies Lewis: “But we think thus because we keep assuming that we know the play. We do not know the play. We do not even know whether we are in Act I or Act V. We do not know who are the major and who the minor characters. The Author knows.”
He goes on to say this about the divine play: “That it has meaning we may be sure, but we cannot see it. When it is over, we may be told. We are led to expect that the Author will have something to say to each of us on the part that each of us has played. The playing it well is what matters infinitely.”
As to the reality that none of us can predict the moment of his return he says “we must be ready at all moments.” He continues:
Our Lord repeated this practical conclusion again and again; as if the promise of the Return had been made for the sake of this conclusion alone. Watch, watch, is the burden of His advice. I shall come like a thief. You will not, I most solemnly assure you, you will not, see Me approaching. If the householder had known at what time the burglar would arrive, he would have been ready for him. If the servant had known when his absent employer would come home, he would not have been found drunk in the kitchen. But they didn’t. Nor will you. Therefore you must be ready at all times. The point is surely simple enough. The schoolboy does not know which part of his Virgil lesson he will be made to translate: that is why he must be prepared to translate any passage. The sentry does not know at what time an enemy will attack, or an officer inspect, his post: that is why be must keep awake all the time.
Toward the end of his essay Lewis speaks about those who might live in fear because of the Lord’s return. He says this:
What is important is not that we should always fear (or hope) about the End but that we should always remember, always take it into account. An analogy may here help. A man of seventy need not be always feeling (much less talking) about his approaching death: but a wise man of seventy should always take it into account. He would be foolish to embark on schemes which presuppose twenty more years of life: he would be criminally foolish not to make – indeed, not to have made long since – his will. Now, what death is to each man, the Second Coming is to the whole human race. We all believe, I suppose, that a man should ‘sit loose’ to his own individual life, should remember how short, precarious, temporary, and provisional a thing it is; should never give all his heart to anything which will end when his life ends. What modern Christians find it harder to remember is that the whole life of humanity in this world is also precarious, temporary, provisional.
Any moralist will tell you that the personal triumph of an athlete or of a girl at a ball is transitory: the point is to remember that an empire or a civilisation is also transitory. 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. The difference is that whereas the scientists expect only a slow decay from within, we reckon with sudden interruption from without at any moment. (‘What if this present were the world’s last night?’).
He mentions in closing that the word ‘judgment’ may not just be about things like punishment. It can also mean a ‘verdict.’ He writes: “Some day (and ‘What if this present were the world’s last night?’) an absolutely correct verdict – if you like, a perfect critique – will be passed on what each of us is.”
One final final paragraph will serve as my final one:
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.