The End Is Coming
There’s an old R. E. M. song that says, “It’s the end of the world, and we know it, and I feel fine . . .” I don’t care to engage in the exegesis and worldview of this particular song but rather use this line as an apt description of the understanding of the end of the world according to the Westminster Standards.
Many people likely read the concluding chapters of the Westminster Standards and note is subdued tones, its careful statements, and its rather generic conclusions about the end of the world. In a word, Jesus returns, evil is subdued, and Christ collects his bride to dwell with him for eternity. But what we might not realize is that numerous theologians of the period, even many who contributed to the creation of the Standards believed that the end of the world was soon upon them.
As theologically sober as many of these great theologians were, there are a number of them who sat in the assembly who believed that, according to their careful exegesis, the world would end within the next generation.
On the one hand, such a belief isn’t all that unusual. I think every generation as always believed that it was the terminal generation, the last group of people who would witness the end of the world and the return of Christ. But the theologians of Westminster were dead serious about this belief. One of them, Thomas Goodwin, had exegetically calculated that the end of the world would occur in 1666, or there about. He believed this was the case because the number of the beast is 666 (Rev. 13:18), but that the Jews often reported numbers without the first digit. Hence, 666 = 1,666. For this, and other reasons, Goodwin was convinced in 1644 as he sat in the hallowed assembly, that the world would end a mere 18 years later.
Appropriately Vague and Calm
At first, we might blush at such a conclusion and poke fun at Goodwin’s exegesis. We now, of course, have a much sober exegesis of the Scriptures. But there are two important points from which we have a great deal to learn, even if we demure from Goodwin’s exegetical conclusions.
They were not induced to sloth but to zealous labor to purify the bride of Christ.
First, notice that the Westminster Confession and Catechisms say nothing about the specific timing of the end of the world. They simply rest upon the most basic and fundamental scriptural truths about the end of all things. As tempting as it might have been to declare the end of the world was upon them, the theologians at Westminster were careful not to go beyond Scripture.
Second, if you were absolutely convinced that the world would end within the next twenty years? What would you do? Build a mountaintop fortress? Stockpile canned food (Beenie-weenies always fill the void), and seclude yourself from the world to ride out the impending chaos? Ensure you have enough ammo to ride out the apocalypse? Or would you seek to reform and maintain the truth of the gospel within the church?
I think that few of us would have the spiritual calm and peace knowing that the end of the world was soon upon us and set about to write a confession of faith and catechisms so that people living within the last twenty years could better know who Christ is and how to live their lives.
For whatever exegetical foibles some of the theologians of Westminster might have had, they certainly had their pastoral priorities straight. They were sober in their corporate claims about the end of the world, and they sought to edify the church in preparation for Christ’s return. They were not induced to sloth but to zealous labor to purify the bride of Christ.
In a word, it was the end of the world as they knew it, and they felt fine because they sought to be faithful to Christ in their efforts to serve him, his gospel, and his church.