“O tempora, o mores!”
Marcus Tullius Cicero growled these famous words to the Roman senate in the first century BC to decry the deterioration of civilized society. “Oh the times!” he lamented. “Oh the standards!”
Today, over two thousand years later, the world is still going to hell in a handbasket.
The evidence is all around us. There are wars and insurgencies everywhere. Every day political corruption is exposed in one place or another, and disgraced politicians scuttle off to exile, prison, or death. Traditional marriage is breaking down. The divorce rate is soaring. And what’s the matter with kids today?
When things really are falling apart
Of course, if you listen to what the politicians were saying at the time, all of these things have been happening ever since the dawn of recorded history.
However, sometimes civilized society really is falling apart.
Cicero had good reason to beat his breast about the times and the standards. He was living in the final decades of the Roman Republic, as it descended into civil war and dictatorship. In due time, Cicero himself was hunted down and executed during the power struggles that consolidated Julius Caesar’s position as dictator of the Roman Empire.
Are we living today in the modern equivalent of the fall of the Roman Republic? Are we headed for societal breakdown and destruction as the doomsayers shout in our ears via newspapers, radio, television, and the Internet?
Or are we in the end times predicted in the Prophets, the Gospels, and the Book of Revelation? Is Jesus Christ about to return to the earth Rambo-style to annihilate all the unbelievers and set up an eternal kingdom for the Elect on a brand new Earth version 2.0?
After all, we are living in a time of massive upheaval. The dizzying pace of scientific, technological, social, political, and spiritual change would make our cities and our society almost unrecognizable to someone who lived only a century or two ago. That’s especially amazing considering that in earlier times various human cultures commonly went for a thousand or more years with little change in their simple, agrarian way of life.
What’s going on here? Should we brace for impact?
Nebuchadnezzar’s dream of a statue
Back in the sixth century BC, the prophet Daniel was also living in a time of massive upheaval for his culture and civilization. As a young man he was taken captive to Babylon when the Babylonians conquered the kingdom of Judah and decapitated Jewish society by carrying off all of its educated upper classes and resettling them in Babylon.
Daniel’s own world had been destroyed. So it’s not at all surprising that many of his visions, stories, dream interpretations, and prophecies have an apocalyptic tone.
The first of these is the story of King Nebuchadnezzar’s dream of a statue, and Daniel’s interpretation of the dream, in Daniel 2.
In this story, told with great dramatic flair, Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon, has a dream of an enormous, dazzling statue with a head made of gold, chest and arms of silver, belly and thighs of bronze, legs of iron, and feet partly of iron and partly of baked clay. As Nebuchadnezzer watches, a rock is cut out, but not by human hands, and the rock smashes the statue’s feet, causing the whole statue to break into tiny pieces that are blown away by the wind. The rock then becomes a huge mountain that fills the whole earth.
Daniel interprets the dream as a prophecy of four kingdoms, one after another. Daniel, ever the smooth politician, says to King Nebuchadnezzar, “Your Majesty, you are the king of kings . . . . You are that head of gold” (Daniel 2:37, 38). The succeeding kingdoms, however, would be of lesser and lesser quality, until the last one became unstable and broke apart. Then, Daniel said, the God of heaven would set up a kingdom that would last forever—symbolized by the rock that smashed the statue and then became a mountain that filled the whole earth.
There have been various attempts to link the kingdoms foretold in Daniel 2 with succeeding empires and kingdoms of the ancient world. The one that stubbornly resists any political, material-world interpretation, though, is thet last one: the one that filled the whole earth, and would never be destroyed. So far, every nation, kingdom, and empire in the history of the world has had its beginning, its middle, and its end. And no kingdom has ever filled the entire world—even the entire ancient world. The Roman Empire came close. But even the Roman Empire had its borders, and there were other nations and empires outside those borders.
However, if we consider, instead, that Daniel’s prophecies, as part of the Word of God, are really about spiritual events rather than worldly and political events, we can find far greater meaning in Nebuchadnezzar’s dream of a statue.
The Ages of Humanity
Daniel was not the only ancient writer to picture succeeding kingdoms, or ages, as progressing from gold to silver to bronze to iron.
In his didactic poem Works and Days, the Greek poet Hesiod, who probably lived about a century before Daniel, pictured human history as divided into five ages:
- The Golden Age
- The Silver Age
- The Bronze Age
- The Heroic Age
- The Iron Age
As in Daniel’s interpretation of Neduchadnezzar’s dream, these ages represent a long, slow decline of humanity.
Many centuries later, at about the time of Jesus Christ, the Roman poet Ovid, in his work Metamorphoses, similarly divided human history into four mythical ages:
- The Golden Age
- The Silver Age
- The Bronze Age
- The Iron Age
Once again, these ages start with a Golden Age of justice and peace and then successively decline to end in an Iron Age of impiety, immorality, rampant greed, and warfare.
In each case, the poets saw themselves as living in the final, corrupt Iron Age.
The sweep of the Bible story
If the four ages represented by the four metals in Daniel 2 and in ancient Greek and Roman mythology represent successive ages of humankind, how does this relate to the sweep of human history as portrayed in the Bible?
As it turns out, the ages of humankind, and especially the version found in Daniel, makes perfect sense if we think of it as offering a vast, panoramic view of human spiritual history as narrated in the Bible story.
The Golden Age is a reference to the earliest times of humanity. In Biblical terms, it started when humans first became spiritual beings. This early time is represented by the Creation story and the Garden of Eden in the first chapters of Genesis, when humans were close to God and lived innocently in the garden where God placed them.
When that early innocence was lost in the mythical story of Eve and Adam eating from the tree of knowledge of good and evil, humanity went downhill fast. The corrupted remnants of that Golden Age came to a spectacular end in the Great Flood of Genesis 6–9.
At that point, a new Silver Age began among Noah and his descendants. Gone was the innocent, loving closeness to God. It was replaced by the development of agriculture, cities, civilization, written language, and all the other fruits of human intellectual development. It is from this time period that the seeds of the ancient mythical stories come to us.
The end of the Silver Age is not as clear in the Bible story as the end of the other ages. It seems to come in Genesis 11 as the early, mythical stories of the Bible give way to stories about people such as Abraham who were likely real individuals rather than figures representing whole cultures as in the earlier stories.
The early times of the Hebrew people, stretching from Abraham’s immediate ancestors to the end of Genesis and the period of slavery in Egypt, is the Bronze Age of human spiritual history. This was a time of simple farmers, shepherds, and nomads following the basic rules of God as they understood them.
With the Exodus from Egypt and the giving of the Law from Mount Sinai begins the Iron Age of human spiritual history in its Biblical version. This was an age of strict adherence to unbending laws, enforced through severe punishments for anyone who disobeyed them. The rest of the Old Testament story covers this low and brutal Iron Age of our spiritual history. And like Nebuchadnezzar’s statue, it ended in a time of division and breakup represented by the feet made partly of iron and partly of baked clay.
Now we can easily see the meaning of the rock cut out with human hands, which smashed the statue and then grew into a mountain that filled the whole earth. In the Bible story, the kingdom that would never end is none other than the spiritual kingdom set up by Jesus Christ. The four Gospels, the Acts, and the Epistles tell the story of the founding of that kingdom and its early beginnings.
The end of Christianity as we know it
Unfortunately, though the reign of Jesus Christ was never to end, the earthly version of that kingdom—namely, the Christian Church organized and institutionalized in the centuries after the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ—shared the same fate as the four previous spiritual ages on earth. It, too, began with great love, enthusiasm, and promise, only to decline over the centuries into an institution bent on worldly power and wealth, and riven by internal controversies. Institutional Christianity split into warring factions, becoming its own version of the feet of Nebuchadnezzar’s statute made of iron mixed with baked clay.
In that descent into spiritual division and destruction, the love and light of Jesus Christ largely perished from the Christian world.
The spiritual cataclysms that would bring the reign of that church to an end are described symbolically in the final book of the Bible: the book of Revelation. We don’t need to dwell on the details. Suffice it to say that beginning with the Age of Enlightenment in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the near total control that the Christian Church had held over the minds and societies of Western world for nearly fifteen hundred years started to crumble.
In the new intellectual freedom of that time, people began to question old doctrines and dogmas. We took a fresh, more rational, and more scientific look at the world around us, and began to reshape human society based on the emerging new understanding of material reality.
And those of us who are aficionados of the spiritual writings of Emanuel Swedenborg (1688–1772) believe that the new understanding of spiritual reality he offered played a key part in the breakdown of the power and influence of the old Christianity, and the beginning of a new spiritual era and a new form of Christianity.
The New Jerusalem
That new form of Christanity is pictured in the Bible story by the descent of the holy city, the New Jerusalem, described in the final two chapters of the book of Revelation.
In the vision that John saw with his spiritual eyes, the old heaven and the old earth are swept away, and a new heaven and new earth take their place.
John was not talking about the literal, physical sky and land any more than Nebuchadnezzar’s dream of the statue was really talking about earthly kingdoms. Instead, John’s vision is about a time in history when Christianity as we have known it up to that time will come to an end, and human society, both civil and spiritual, will be transformed into something brand new—something that has never before existed on the earth.
The times that John predicted in the last two chapters of the last book of the Bible are the times we are living in right now.
What other explanation could there be for the sweeping scientific, technological, political, and social changes of the last few centuries?
Throughout much of the world, absolute monarchy—which had previously dominated the earth for thousands of years—has given way inexorably to new forms of popularly elected and installed governments.
Meanwhile, in the past two centuries, science and technology have developed at an accelerating pace such that we now take for granted automobiles, airplanes, computers, cell phones, and many other technological wonders that make it possible for us to do things undreamed of in earlier eras of humanity.
And socially . . . well, isn’t that where the world is going to hell in a handbasket? Aren’t morality, traditional marriage, and all the values we hold dear breaking down and being replaced by chaos and uncertainty?
Chaos comes before a new order
All the social chaos and uncertainty we are now experiencing is simply the death throes of old prejudicial, unjust, and ultimately inhuman ways of thinking, feeling, and living in community with our fellow human beings.
Yes, it’s going to take a while for the dust to settle. But what’s happening now is not the destruction of society. Rather, it is the airing of ancient evils that have been with us all along, but that we were never ready to face and overcome.
Every new evil, every new war, every new disturbance or injustice that hits the news is an opportunity for us to look old evils in the face and finally, gradually, painfully put an end to them. Only when we have faced and overcome those old evils with the power of the new light now given to us by God can we bring in a more loving, more just, more humane, and more spiritual society.
No, the world is not going to hell in a handbasket. The world is going to heaven in a horseless carriage. We’re just hitting a few potholes along the way.
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