Reading the Pictures of the Apocalypse
Kristiania, May 9, 1909
We have often said that Theosophy should not be regarded as something new. Other, external approaches of knowledge often want to see something new. But Theosophy wants to be, and should be, an expression of the striving for wisdom appropriate for our time, a manifestation of the striving that has existed through all time. Theosophy sees in all the temporal manifestations the various forms of a primal wisdom that has been flowing through all ages.
The Apocalypse, which belongs among the oldest ancient documents of Christianity, has been explained in the most various ways during every age of Christianity. These explanations always carry a subjective imprint of the understanding characteristic of different epochs.
On the whole, if we quickly survey the centuries of Christian development, we see, even in the earlier ages, a dawning materialistic interpretation brought to bear on this book. We find the mistake soon made of seeing in the pictures of the Apocalypse certain events in the evolution of the earth and humanity, for example, the descent of the Messiah who had been proclaimed, or even the establishment of a heavenly kingdom in the physical sense in this world. When the subsequent ages neither fulfilled nor revealed any of this, people in the various regions of the Occident believed that a mistake had been made in calculation; the date for the fulfillment of these prophesies was pushed more and more into the future. Around the twelfth and thirteenth centuries the Apocalypse began to be interpreted in a more inner way. At that time people began to see the kingdom of the Antichrist in the externalization of Christianity. For many, the Roman church itself became the expression of this kingdom of the Antichrist; the Roman church, on the other hand, saw the same thing in Protestantism.
In more recent times, times entirely permeated with a materialistic attitude, it has been said that, of course, the writer of the Apocalypse could not have known anything about the future; he was describing events that lie in the past. It was thought, for example, that he saw in the beast with two horns an opponent of Christianity as great as Nero. When the descriptions then went on to include earthquakes, swarms of locusts, and so forth, it was not hard to prove that such events did occur in those regions at that time. That is what is called “objective research”; nevertheless, it is wholly prejudiced by subjective understanding.
Theosophy should become an instrument for us to spiritually comprehend the Apocalypse again and thereby penetrate its meaning. One could also think that the explanation given by Theosophy is as subjectively colored as all the other explanations. In a certain sense it is, but there is a difference between it and the other explanations. Those who describe history externally want to be objective, but they can only be subjective. We, however, want to explain subjectively in the sense that we are aware, in all modesty, that the wisdom of the world is always in harmony with advancing evolution, with the advance of time. When we do what is right for our time it is a force that works into all of the future. Theosophy must not become a dogmatism. What we teach today as Theosophy will not change in its essence but in its form. When the souls of the present age are born again in future times, they will be mature enough to take up other, higher, future forms of the spiritual life. Our explanation of the Apocalypse will age; future ages will go beyond it. But the Apocalypse itself will not, therefore, age. It is much greater than our explanations and will find even higher, even loftier explanations.
Let us place before our souls the first lines of the Apocalypse as they are read in truth. We are told that the mystery of Jesus Christ is given to us in signs, that these signs are to be interpreted and that the writer is attempting to explain — to the best of his ability — as much of the signs as possible. The Apocalypse was written with a different intention than John's Gospel. We are dealing with a personal experience when the writer tells us that he is describing the revelation of Jesus Christ, the appearance of Christ. It is something similar to Paul's experience on the way to Damascus, similar to the mystery of Paul.
Paul is the one who did the most to proclaim and spread Christianity despite his not being one of the disciples who experienced the events in Palestine with Jesus. Neither did he experience the tragic ending of those events: the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. Through the descriptions in the Gospels we know how all of this entered into the hearts of humankind at that time. Paul had heard about all that is described in the Gospels. Paul knew exactly what had happened in Palestine; nevertheless, he simply could not imagine that the one who had ended up on the cross was the promised Messiah, the redeemer. The Messiah, Paul said to himself, could not end up like a common criminal. Paul is not well understood unless we look deeply into his soul, unless we look at what lived in him as the knowledge of a Jewish initiate. He knew that the savior, the Messiah, had proclaimed himself ahead of time in the burning bush, in the fire of Mount Sinai. Christ points to this when he says, “But if you do not believe his [Moses'] writings, how will you believe my words?” (John 5:47) With these words Christ is saying that he had announced himself earlier through external means, through the power of the elements, and that he then, however, went on to reveal himself through life, suffering and dwelling in a human body — that he had descended, so to speak, from the fire of Sinai. Certainly the Jewish initiate, Paul, knew of the Christ who had been previously announced; for behind the mystery of Moses lay the following.
During the time of the Old Testament and in ancient Jewish occult teaching there were, as in all ages, mysteries and initiates. Let us bear in mind the fundamental principle, that initiation must adapt to the conditions prevailing during any given age. If we consider initiation according to that principle, then we must begin by thinking of the human being as the human being presented by Theosophy or spiritual science. We must think of the human as a four-fold being, a being with four members — as endowed with a physical body in common with the mineral world; an etheric body in common with the plant kingdom; an astral body in common with the animal kingdom; and finally with an I or I-bearer. Standing before us, the human being consists of these four members. During the day they are bound together with one another but at night the I and the astral body are in the spiritual world. During the night the present-day human being perceives nothing. When human beings develop to a higher spiritual vision, they must apply certain methods of inner development to themselves. Anyone wishing to ascend to higher worlds must allow meditations and concentration to work on their soul. They must immerse their souls in certain things; one example among hundreds is the Rose Cross.
When human beings of the present day are asleep what they experience during the day does not make a strong enough impression on their astral body for it to continue working at night. When a normal person of the present day falls asleep in the evening, day life is as if extinguished. With students of initiation it is different, even if they do not notice the transformation of their astral body for a long time. In a meditant who has begun and practices the exercises prescribed in occult schools, a clairvoyant sees entirely different streams, other forms and organs than those unorganized and chaotic forms seen in ordinary people. This shows itself as the results of the exercises even if the students themselves have not noticed any results for a long time. The astral body changes, it becomes a different being even if the meditation is very short. The astral body was chaotic before and everything the human being did was drowned out by the impressions of the day. Only the prescriptions from the occult school provide something that drowns out the impressions from everyday life. Therefore, this transformation of the soul is called purification or catharsis. The student is purified while the astral body continues to be chaotic and unordered in an ordinary person.
Now, the teacher must also make the student aware of the nature of the surrounding spiritual world. For what happens in the astral body to carry over into the etheric body, the following steps were undertaken with the student in earlier times. When the students were ready, at the peak of their initiation, so to speak, they had to spend some time, usually three and a half days, lying down, during which time the initiator brought them to a state of complete lethargy or torpor. The etheric body was then lifted out of the physical body and the astral body impressed into the etheric body all that had been prepared in the astral through occult exercises. Otherwise the physical body is a hindrance to bringing to consciousness what the person experiences in the spiritual world. In this moment, when the initiator led the etheric body out of the physical body, enlightenment occurred and the enlightened one experienced the spiritual world; after three and a half days the student was an initiate who could tell others about the spiritual world.
We can find the same process in the mysteries of various ancient peoples. But initiation was different with the initiates of the Old Testament, for they experienced yet again what Moses had experienced at Sinai. In this way they were able to tell the people that the Messiah would appear, that the Messiah would come forth from the nation itself, that he would incarnate the principles of development for all human evolution in a body of flesh. That was the supreme moment of the initiation — when the enlightened Hebrew was allowed to experience that the Christ would arise in the future. Paul, as a Jewish initiate, knew all of this; nevertheless, before the Damascus event he could never have believed that the one who died on the cross was the same one as the Messiah.
Paul said of himself that he was a “premature birth,” that is, an initiate through grace. He stresses that he did not receive initiation through a training that required a sequence of steps. But he stood closer to the spiritual world than those people who had descended deeper into matter. He was able to experience the “crown of life,” the last act in Old Testament initiation. This was the crowning through the appearance of Christ. What the Old Testament initiates always experienced appeared to them in a glorious light. What they had experienced as a future event, he now saw as a vision that told him this being was the same one who had lived and died in the body of Jesus of Nazareth. Now he knew that the Messiah, the Christ, is already here.
The greatest element of the old initiation had been the knowledge that the Messiah was to come, that he had died and yet still lived, now united with earthly existence — and continues to work in the evolution of humankind — this we see from all the letters Paul wrote. He saw this event as something that had already become present.
Let us put ourselves in the place of all the other initiates who were not ancient Hebrews and not Christian. They knew that in the ancient Atlantean times we come to a form of the human being entirely different from that of the present. The etheric body creates and forms the physical body, of course, and through initiation they could always see the etheric body that formed the basis for the physical body. In the spiritual world they had to do without a picture of the physical human body; they saw only the etheric body of the human being.
But the ancient Hebrew initiates always saw the physical human being spiritualized and placed in the spiritual world as its crowning, and such people understood the Christ to be the first real human form that could be seen in the spiritual world from the point of view provided by the physical world. In this way those receiving the Hebrew initiation saw how, in the distant future, the “Son of Man,” the Christ, would heal and purify the physical form. For this reason Paul knew that what appeared to him before Damascus in human form could be none other than the Christ.
The writer of the Apocalypse describes the same thing to us when he speaks of the “Son of Man.” He calls the seven communities the “seven stars,” and he saw the “Son of Man” as the spiritualized, purified form of the physical body, not only the etheric body, but the spiritual-physical form of “Man,” the human being, now purified and sanctified.
In this way he places before us the same being that Paul beheld outside Damascus. Then he details what the impulse behind this Christ event should mean for all humanity. He speaks to us of the seven communities in seven letters to the communities. They are messages concerning the tasks of the seven post-Atlantean cultures. In the seven seals, he portrays the seven cultures following our fifth main epoch. [This fifth main epoch is called the post-Atlantean. It consists of seven cultures of which we are now in the fifth with two more to pass before the start of the next main epoch.] And in the seven trumpets, he portrays the seven cultures of the seventh great main epoch.
What takes place in our present-day culture we can see in the physical world. But what will take place in the sixth great main epoch can be seen ahead of time in the pictures of the astral world. The seventh great main epoch, on the other hand, can be experienced in the sounds heard in the harmony of the spheres, in the devachanic world. They are experienced as a result of an impulse given by Christ.
In this way, the Apocalypse is a portrayal of what the Christian initiate experienced. It is a description of Christian initiation, a picture of the experiences of a man initiated in the Christian sense who has understood what has come into the world through Christ.