Let us pause here for a moment. Questions force themselves upon us at this point which have often been answered and still are again and again put. It is clear that John the Baptist proclaimed the sovereignty of God and his holy moral law. It is also clear that he proclaimed to his fellow-countrymen that it was by the moral law that they were to measure, and that on this alone everything was to turn. He told them that what they were to care about most was to be in a right state within and to do good deeds. It is clear, lastly, that there is nothing over- refined or artificial in his notion of what was good; he means ordinary morality. It is here that the questions arise.
Firstly: if it was only so simple a matter as the eternal claims of what is right and holy, why all this apparatus about the coming of the day of judgment, about the axe being laid to the root of the trees, about the unquenchable fire, and so on?
Secondly: is not this baptism in the wilderness and this proclamation that the day of judgment was at hand simply the reflection or the product of the political and social state of the nation at the time?
Thirdly: what is there that is really new in this proclamation and had not been already expressed in Judaism?
These three questions are very intimately connected with one another.
Firstly, then, as to the whole dramatic eschatological apparatus about the coming of the kingdom of God, the end being at hand, and so on. Well, every time that a man earnestly, and out of the depths of his own personal experience, points others to God and to what is good and holy, whether it be deliverance or judgment that he preaches, it has always, so far as history tells us, taken the form of announcing that the end is at hand. How is that to be explained? The answer is not difficult. Not only is religion a life in and with God; but, just because it is that, it is also the revelation of the meaning and responsibility of life. Every one who has awakened to a sense of religion perceives that, without it, the search for such meaning is in vain, and that the individual, as well as the multitude, wanders aimlessly and falls: “they go astray; every one turns to his own way.” But the prophet who has become conscious of God is filled with terror and agony as he recognises that all mankind is sunk in error and indifference. He feels like a traveller who sees his companions blindly rushing to the edge of a precipice. He wants to call them back at all costs. The time is running out; he can still warn them; he can still adjure them to turn back; in a single hour, perhaps, all will be lost. The time is running out, it is the last moment—this is the cry in which, then, in all nations and at all times, any energetic call to conversion has been voiced whenever a fresh prophet has been granted them. The prophet’s gaze penetrates the course of history; he sees the irrevocable end; and he is filled with boundless astonishment that the godlessness and blindness, the frivolity and indolence, have not long since brought everything to utter ruin and destruction. That there is still a brief moment left in which conversion is possible seems to him the greatest marvel of all, and to be ascribed only to God’s forbearance. But certain it is that the end cannot be very far off. This is the way in which with every great cry for repentance the idea of the approaching end always arises. The individual forms in which it shapes itself depend upon contemporary circumstances and are of subordinate importance. It is only the religion which has been built up into an intellectual system that does not make this emphasising of the end all-important; without such emphasis no actual religion is conceivable, whether it springs up anew like a sudden flame or glows in the soul like a secret fire.