December 2009 - Vol. 35
.What If This Present Were the World's Last Night?
by C.S. 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. This seems to some
people intolerably frustrating. So many things would be
interrupted. Perhaps you were going to get married next
month, perhaps you were going to get a raise next week:
you may be on the verge of a great scientific discovery;
you may be maturing great social and political reforms.
Surely no good and wise God would be so very
unreasonable as to cut all this short? Not now, of all
But we, never seeing the play from outside, never
meeting any characters except the tiny minority who are
"on" in the same scenes as ourselves, wholly ignorant of
the future and very imperfectly informed about the past,
cannot tell at what moment the end ought to come. That
it will come when it ought, we may be sure; but we waste
our time in guessing when that will be. That it has a
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.
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....
We have all encountered judgments or verdicts on
ourselves in this life. Every now and then we discover
what our fellow creatures really think of us. I don't of
course mean what they tell us to our faces: that we
usually have to discount. I am thinking of what we
sometimes overhear by accident or of the opinions about
us which our neighbours or employees or subordinates
unknowingly reveal in their actions: and of the
terrible, or lovely, judgments artlessly betrayed by
children or even animals.
Such discoveries can be the bitterest or sweetest
experiences we have. But of course both the bitter and
the sweet are limited by our doubt as to the wisdom of
those who judge. We always hope that those who so
clearly think us cowards or bullies are ignorant and
malicious; we always fear that those who trust us or
admire us are misled by partiality. I suppose the
experience of the Final Judgment (which may break in
upon us at any moment) will be like these little
experiences, but magnified to the Nth.
[This excerpt is from The World's
Last Night, by C.S. Lewis, first published
as "The Christian Hope – Its Meaning for Today" in Religion
in Life (Winter 1952), (c) C.S. Lewis
PTE Limited; later
published under the present title in The
World's Last Night and Other Essays
(1960) by Harcourt, Inc. London]