THE AGES OF THE WORLD
History is cyclic, and mankind has passed through several world ages. These are also known as dispensations of the church. Mankind is in constant need for progressive revelation, and such revelations are given at the end of each age and the beginning of a new one. Emanuel Swedenborg, who received visions from heaven while in a sort of trance, a wakeful state, explained that the end of this world age will be fulfilled by the Second Coming - the reappearance of Divine Truth to humanity. It is at the end of the age where a Last Judgement takes place - not here in the material world, but among the dead in the spiritual world, in a spiritual region known as Middle Earth, between Heaven and Hell. And when that happens, a change of consciousness occurs among those born on earth, and a new spiritual community is born. A new age begins with a new revelation. Swedenborg stated:
"Most men believe that when the Last Judgment comes, all things in the visible world will be destroyed; that the earth will be consumed by fire; the sun and the moon dissipated; that the stars will vanish away; and that a new heaven and a new earth will afterwards arise. They have conceived this opinion from the prophetic revelations in which such things are mentioned. ...the Last Judgment is nothing else than the end of the church with one nation, and its beginning with another, which end and beginning occur when there is no longer any acknowledgment of the Lord, or what is the same, when there is no faith. There is no acknowledgment, or no faith, when there is no charity; for faith is impossible except with those who are in charity. That at such a time there is an end of the church, and a transference of it to others, is plainly evident from all the things the Lord Himself taught and foretold in the Evangelists concerning that last day, or consummation of the age (Matt. 24, Mark 13, and Luke 21)." (Heavenly Arcana, n. 3353)Here is a summary of the different phases of this world age as foretold by Jesus in the book of Matthew as revealed to Swedenborg - one will see that it can apply to progressive states for an individual as well as our current world age. In particular, it can apply to those who have lost faith, have left their religion, or who have recognized that the religion they have been taught is false. It also describes the states of those who are made blind by false religious doctrines. For the truths revealed here are universal.
THE INITIAL PHASE: A PERFECT REVELATION
Then Jesus went out and departed from the temple, and His disciples came up to show Him the buildings of the temple. And Jesus said to them, "Do you not see all these things? Assuredly, I say to you, not one stone shall be left here upon another, that shall not be thrown down." (Matt. 24:1-2)
A beautiful strong building represents the initial stage of revelation: it is perfect in form uncorrupted. A rock represents a solid truth that one can stand on: one lives by it. The walls are doctrines which defend against what is false. The temple is our body: it begins as a new born babe, we reach our prime: but then there is a decline as it approaches death, after which there is a spiritual rebirth. As it is with an individual, so it is with an organization, even that of a world age: it begins with a new revelation, but then enters into a period of gradual decline.
THE FIRST STATE OF DECLINE: THE LOSS OF KNOWLEDGE, LEADING TO DOUBT AND DIVISION
"The disciples came unto Him privately, saying, Tell us, when shall these things be? And what shall be the sign of Thy coming, and of the consummation of the age? And Jesus answered and said unto them, See that no man lead you astray. For many shall come in My name, saying, I am the Christ; and shall lead many astray."
"Christ" simply means the Divine Truth, for Jesus is the Divine truth incarnate, which is also known as the Word. As knowledge of the original revelation is lost, people who think they know the truth start to proclaim their own false ideas. This then leads to debates and arguments about what is truth and false, leading to confusion:
"And ye shall hear of wars and rumors of wars; see that ye be not troubled; for these things must needs come to pass; but the end is not yet. For nation shall be stirred up against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; and there shall be famines, and pestilences, and earthquakes in diverse places. But all these things are the beginning of sorrows." (Matt. 24:3-7)
Wars and rumors of wars are spiritual wars: they are debates and fights concerning spiritual matters. When a false idea is proclaimed, if there is not enough knowledge to oppose it, another false idea is proposed to fight against it. The nations and kingdoms refer to different divisions within the church (or a group of people) that hold onto selfish purposes or false ideas which influence their opinions. This leads to a "famine" of knowledge among the people. As it takes a single fly to ruin a glass of good wine, truth is wasted away by what is false and becomes worthless: this is a spiritual "plague" or "pestilence". This leads to a change of state: this change is represented by "diverse earthquakes".
THE SECOND STATE OF DECLINE: REJECTION AND CONTEMPT OF WHAT IS GOOD AND TRUE
"Then shall they deliver you into tribulation, and shall kill you; and ye shall be hated of all nations for my name's sake. And then shall many be offended, and shall deliver up one another, and shall hate one another. And many false prophets shall arise, and shall lead many astray. And because iniquity shall be multiplied, the charity of many shall wax cold. But he that endureth to the end, the same shall be saved. And this gospel of the kingdom shall be preached in the whole inhabited earth, for a testimony unto all nations; and then shall the end come." (Matt. 24:8-14)
The second state is reached when debates end: and a false idea is accepted as true. This becomes "Orthodox", and anything opposed to this idea is declared a "heresy". But it is simply a false construct of the mind that has nothing to do with the original revelation. In this state, there is no debate: people simply reference the opinion approved by the majority and declare other ideas "heresy". This leads to "tribulation" or consternation to those who hold onto the truth. To "kill" someone spiritually means to utterly reject and deny them, to "hate" is to hold in aversion. "False prophets" who lead many astray are simply those who teach what is false: this refers to the religious leaders. "Iniquity multiplied" means falsities of faith shall grow, until "charity waxes cold" - the spiritual love perishes.
So what to do when confronted by something that is obviously false? Announce it. Make it known. Falsity can only thrive where there is ignorance. A "gospel" is simply an announcement. To preach is to explain, "in the whole inhabited earth" means to everyone in the spiritual community. This is a "testimony", as it can dispel ignorance which protects what is false. For those who believe what is false are in a state of ignorance, and truth acts as a light to expose it: "then the end shall come", which is the third state.
THE THIRD STATE OF DECLINE: THE COMPLETE IGNORANCE OF GOOD AND TRUTH
"When therefore you see the abomination of desolation, spoken of by the prophet Daniel, standing in the holy place - let him who is reading this take note - then let those who are in Judea flee into the mountains. Let him who is on the roof of the house not go down to take anything out of his house; and let him who is in the field not turn back to get his clothing." (Matt. 24:15-18)
In the first state, there is debate about what is true or false, in the second state, false doctrines are accepted as true and is used as a standard for all thinking: good and truth are held in aversion. Ignorance is the enemy: expose false ideas for what they are. The third state is reached when there is complete ignorance and non acknowledgement of the truth itself. What is explained here is advice to those who have seen that true spirituality is completely absent: this is the "abomination of desolation standing in the holy place". This occurs when people perform "lip service" or appear outwardly religious for the sake of appearance, nothing more.
Those who are "in Judea" who "flee to the mountains" refer to those who are in love towards God, and in charity towards others. A "mountain" represents one who is in a higher spiritual state, and the highest is that of love. Thus when the perversion of religion is recognized, one should flee from this and remain totally focused on one's love towards God.
"Let him who is on the roof of the house not go down to take anything out of his house", means, those who live a life of charity should not resort to religious doctrines of faith. "The roof of the house" is one's higher spiritual state, that of love, a lower state is one of truth. What this means is that one should not revert to exploring matters of truth, after one has learned to act upon them from one's heart.
"And let him who is in the field not turn back to get his clothing" means that those who are in good from truth should not forsake such good and resort to doctrine concerning truth. "Clothing" always refers to truth, truth if the clothing is white, falsity if the clothing is black. The danger here is that while the church is in a perverted state, the false doctrines can corrupt the internal state of love, or worship, within one's heart. Always look forward to a life of usefulness and love, the future, never look back and start to question what your heart already knows.
THE THREE UNIVERSAL STATES OF WORSHIP
According to Swedenborg, there are three primary states of worship. The highest are those who are in the love towards God, these are represented by those in Judea who flee to the mountains. The second highest are those who are primarily in love towards their neighbor, these are represented by those who are on the roof of their house. The lowest state are those who are affected by truth, these are represented by those in the field.
In other words, if one is simply just interested in spiritual matters, and nothing more, you are in the initial state. Once you then take that further and become interested in loving others for the truth they live by, you reach the second state of progression. And once you go further than that: you love others for the sake of God, because we are his children: you have reached the highest state of happiness.
THE FOURTH STATE OF DECLINE: PROFANING THAT WHICH IS HOLY AND SACRED
"But woe unto them that are with child, and to them that give suck in those days! And pray ye that your flight be not in the winter, neither on the Sabbath; for then shall be great affliction, such as was not since the beginning of the world even until now, neither shall be. And except those days should be shortened there should no flesh be preserved; but for the elect's sake those days shall be shortened" (Matt. 24:19-22).
Here the fourth and final state of perversion of religion is described: profaning that which is holy and sacred. To profane means to comingle what is evil with good, or falsity with the truth. This can only happen by those within the church, those who have knowledge of the revelation given, when they start to live according to evil, and they know what they are doing is wrong. Those "with child" refers to those who are imbued with good, and those who nurse babes refers those imbued with innocence. Love is conceived by truth. "Woe to them" means there is the threat of eternal damnation, for all are judged by what they know, and it will be our own conscience which will torment us with guilt. That the "flight should not be in winter" means do not depart from your love into coldness and indifference. That the flight should not be on the Sabbath, means do not resort to external forms of worship, as an excuse to yourself that you are good, when you know in your heart your selfish desires.
To profane that which is sacred and holy is to be avoided at all costs. That which is good must be kept separate from evil. That the "days would be shortened" for the elect, means this state of being tends to not last so long. All that is spiritual eventually turns into some form of external worship, so that those who are good can still be preserved. Such is what happened with Judaism, until all that was spiritual was gone and there was only an external form of worship.
THE FIFTH STATE OF DECLINE: A FALSE RELIGION
"Then if any man shall say unto you, Lo here is the Christ, or there, believe it not. For there shall arise false Christs and false prophets, and shall give great signs and wonders, to lead astray if possible even the elect. Behold I have told you before. If therefore they shall say unto you, Behold He is in the desert, go not out; Behold He is in the inner chambers, believe it not."
After a state of profanation, there will be a tendency for the mind to be more focused on external forms of worship, without thought of interal spiritual matters. This leads to a false religion of those who appear outwardly religious, but who internally desire to use religion for personal gain or wealth. "False Christs" refer to false truths, and "false prophets" are those who teach them: one is warned to beware of them, and shun them. The "signs and wonders" refer to the logical fallacies of their arguments which they use to try to persuade. The elect refer to God's chosen, who live a life of good according to the truth that they know - those who are confirmed in their inner spiritual life are not led astray by those who try to appear religious to others. A "desert" is symbolic of a lack of truth (as water represents spiritual truth). The "inner chambers" represents joining a false religion to become more familiar with its internal doctrines. The "desert" refers to the religious leaders who seek to abrogate the original revelation - scripture - making it worthless, and instead encourage people to follow their own tradition instead.
"For as the lightning cometh forth out of the east and appeareth even unto the west, so shall also the coming of the Son of man be. For wheresoever the carcass is, there will the eagles be gathered together" (Matt. 24:23-28).
The above passage is one among many which makes absolutely no sense if read in a literal manner. Jesus spoke in parables, and scripture uses a lot of symbolism - in order that only a select inner circle of disciples could receive the truth, which would be hidden from the masses. This was done because the masses were not ready to receive these teachings, and if understood they would start to profane the sacred knowledge.
"Lightning" here refers to heavenly light, which flashes from the east, but is dissipated in the west: this means heavenly teachings concerning good and truth instantly disappear among these false religious people. The east where the sun rises symbolizes the Divine Love of God, the west where the sun sets symbolizes the loss of the knowledge of this love. The Son of Man is the Coming of the Divine Truth - and when it is revealed, it will be completely ignored. Thus it is stated, When the Son of Man comes, will he find any faith on earth? This means the Second Coming will take place towards the end of the age, when religion has become so falsified and corrupt, but those within their false religion will be too blind to recognize it.
The "carcass" here refers to the church itself, now dead, and all that remains are their endless false reasonings: these are the vultures that gather around the carcass. In the spiritual world, reasoning and rationality is symbolized by birds. Vultures refer to false reasonings, which makes a life of love and charity of no account. A church is "dead" when nothing of love or charity remains in it.
THE SECOND COMING AND THE LAST JUDGMENT
"But immediately after the affliction of those days the sun shall be darkened, and the moon shall not give her light, and the stars shall fall from heaven, and the powers of the heavens shall be shaken. And then shall appear the sign of the Son of man in heaven, and then shall all the tribes of the earth wail; and they shall see the Son of man coming in the clouds of heaven with power and great glory. And He shall send forth His angels with a trumpet and a great voice, and they shall gather together His elect from the four winds, from the end of the heavens even to the end thereof" (Matt. 24:29-31).
The sun, moon and stars here do not refer to the physical sky above us, but to the spiritual realms of heaven connected with the church. There are three heavens above the material plane: the highest is represented by the sun, the middle is represented by the moon, and the lowest heaven is represented by the stars of heaven. Fixed stars refer to the different societies of angels, wandering stars refer to evil spirits.
The "sun darkened" means all of love towards God shall be then extinguished, the "moon not giving its light" means there will be no spiritual faith, the "stars falling from heaven" means knowledges of good and truth will disappear. It also refers to the Last Judgment, in which many spiritual beings were judged, and cast out of the lowest heaven. This took place so that a further revelation could be made from heaven - the "sign of the Son of man coming in the clouds of heaven". The layer of clouds refers to the lowest part of heaven that is closest to our material earth - this symbolically refers to the literal sense of scripture. Thus the vision of Swedenborg was opened to direct communication with the spiritual world, and the Divine Truth that was hidden in the Bible became revealed in his writings. It is this internal spiritual knowledge, of the symbolic meaning of scripture, which is the true Second Coming. The First Coming of the Divine Truth came in human form, but the Second Coming is the revelation of the Divine Truth in the Bible itself. For the Word that composed this scripture is the very Word which became incarnate in Jesus Christ. Every word of scripture is explained, in a highly spiritual manner.
The Old Christian Church has come to an end, and a New Church founded on Divine Truth direct from God has come to take its place. This is taking place in a hidden manner, among God's chosen - those who live a life of loving God and others, based on the doctrines of the new revelation. This is represented by the angels or messengers who gather the elect from the four winds of heaven.