testimony of the Sacred Scriptures regarding
"The kingdom of God cometh not with outward show." (Luke 17: 20)
"The Son of man shall come in the glory of His Father, with His angels; and then He shall reward every man according to his works." (Matthew xvi. 27, 28)
We have now gained two positions from which to view the testimony of the Sacred Scriptures with regard to the important subject we are considering. We have examined their testimony concerning the "First Coming" from these two points of view, and we have found that the events, as recorded in the same Scriptures with the prophecies which foretell them, do not correspond in natural fact to their prophetic announcement, except in some small and apparently unimportant particulars. Indeed, the discrepancies between the prophecy and the fulfillment are so great that the very people who were expecting the Messiah did not recognize Him, and have continued for [twenty] centuries to reject His claim to be the person "promised to their fathers," who was to "deliver them from the hand of their enemies."
But when the promise and the fulfillment are regarded from a spiritual point of view, they are to be in exact agreement in every particular, not only with regard to the few natural events designated by the prophets, but to the accomplishment of the grand and final purposes of the Lord in the creation and redemption of people. These results ought to give us confidence that the many insuperable difficulties which have been met in understanding the predictions concerning the Second Coming, when literally interpreted, may be avoided, and that rational and satisfactory conclusions may be gained concerning the manner and the effects of it.
We propose, therefore, to take the main predictions concerning the Second Coming, as stated by our Lord Himself, and taught by the disciples after His departure, and to regard them from both points of view, the natural and the spiritual, that by a comparison of the results, we may learn which method is in accordance with the nature and purpose of Revelation. If we find the same difficulties when we follow "the letter" that we found in interpreting the prophecies relating to the First Advent, and if we reach the same clear and satisfactory results, when we regard them as spiritual facts clothed in such natural language as is best fitted to convey the Divine truth to the human race, we shall have good grounds for confidence that we have gained the true position to watch for the Lord's coming, and the right method to understand it.…
The fullest and most particular description of the Lord's Second Coming is found in the 24th chapter of Matthew. He first gives the sign of it, and then says: "Immediately after the tribulation of those days shall the sun be darkened, and the moon shall not give her light, and the stars shall fall from heaven, and the powers of the heavens shall be shaken: and then shall appear the sign of the Son of man in heaven: and then shall all the tribes of the earth mourn, and they shall see the Son of man coming in the clouds of heaven with power and great glory. And He shall send His angels with a great sound of a trumpet, and they shall gather together His elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other. Now learn a parable of the fig-tree; When his branch is yet tender, and putteth forth leaves, ye know that summer is nigh: so likewise ye, when ye shall see all these things, know that it is near, even at the doors. Verily I say unto you, This generation shall not pass, till all these things be fulfilled. Heaven and earth shall pass away, but my words shall not pass away."
The same account, substantially, is given in the Gospels by Mark and Luke. In other places in His Word our Lord promises to come again. In Matthew xvi. 27, 28, He says: "For the Son of man shall come in the glory of His Father with His angels; and then He shall reward every man according to his works. Verily I say unto you, There be some standing here, which shall not taste of death, till they see the Son of man coming in His kingdom." In the closing words of the Revelation it is written: " He which testifieth these things saith, Surely I come quickly. Amen. Even so, come, Lord Jesus."
The apostles also give abundant testimony that they expected the Lord to come again, and they use it as one of the most powerful motives to holy living. Paul exhorts the Corinthians of that day to be "waiting for the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ." They called it "the day of the Lord Jesus;" "the day of redemption." Paul says, " Our conversation is in heaven, from whence also we look for the Saviour, the Lord." " I pray God your whole spirit, and soul, and body be preserved blameless unto the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ." He speaks of the " Lord Jesus Christ being revealed from heaven with His mighty angels," prays that "the Lord will keep their hearts in patient waiting for Christ." The most remarkable statement, however, is made by Paul in his first letter to the Thessalonians (chapter iv.) "For this we say unto you by the Word of the Lord, that we who are alive and remain unto the coming of the Lord shall not prevent them who are asleep. For the Lord Himself shall descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trump of God: and the dead in Christ shall rise first: then we which are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air: and so shall we ever be with the Lord."
These passages contain complete and explicit declarations upon the subject. Let us now examine them, and learn what they plainly and naturally teach.
1. There can be no doubt that they do explicitly teach a Second Coming of the Lord. This has been the belief of the Church in all ages. With regard to the fact of His coming there can be no doubt. In this respect His teachings are as clear as they were concerning His first coming.
2. It is equally evident that He does not tell us when He will come. He expressly declares that the day and hour is known to no person, nor angel. He says He will come suddenly, as a thief at night, and He exhorts His followers to watch. He compares His coming to the flood, the destruction of Sodom, and the lightning that cometh out of the east and shineth even unto the west.
But while the day and the hour are unknown, He seems to teach, or, I should say, He does teach in the letter, that He would come in the time of the apostles, and that, without any doubt, was their opinion. He declared that this generation should not pass until all these things were fulfilled. But more especially still, He declared, "There be some standing here who shall not taste of death till they see the Son of man coming in His kingdom." He also says, at the conclusion of the parable of the fig-tree, "So likewise ye, when ye shall see all these things, know that it is near, even at hand." He says, also, that He will come quickly. Paul says, We who are alive at His coming shall be caught up in the air to meet Him - evidently implying that he expected to be alive, and to be among those who would be caught up into the air to meet the Lord.
The apostles also thought they saw the signs of the Lord's Second Advent, which He Himself had given. There were false prophets, and they deceived many; iniquity abounded, and the love of many waxed cold. When the apostles saw these things they were confident that the end was nigh. They were in the constant expectation that the Lord would come. But we know He did not come in the personal form they expected Him. [Twenty] centuries have passed away and He has not come in person, as the Church has generally looked for Him. Some mistake must have been made, therefore, in the doctrines and conceptions of theologians about the nature and manner of His coming, for we cannot suppose, or admit for a moment, that the Lord has made a promise which He will not keep. If we do not understand His promises it is not His fault. It is evident that the Lord has not taught us when He will come, even in those passages which seem to imply it. The declaration that that generation should not pass away until all those things were fulfilled - that there were some standing there who should not taste death until they saw the Son of man coming in His kingdom - cannot be true in the natural meaning of generation, and death.
Let us now examine His description of this grand event, and see what He has said about the manner of His coming.
In Matthew 24: 29, 30, it is said: "Immediately after the tribulation of those days shall the sun be darkened, and the moon shall not give her light, and the stars shall fall from heaven, and the powers of the heavens shall be shaken: and then shall appear the sign of the Son of man in heaven; and then shall all the tribes of the earth mourn, and they shall see the bon of man coming in the clouds of heaven with power and great glory."
Now, if these statements are naturally true in one particular, they must be in every particular and in all their connections and relations. It will not do to make one part of a statement material fact and another symbol. It must be all symbol or all fact. But if we admit the passages which predict our Lord's Second Advent to be literal statements of the manner of His coming, we shall plunge into insuperable difficulties and irreconcilable contradictions, as we shall see if we examine them with care.
Let us admit, for example, that the tremendous cosmic changes described in the passages I have quoted have taken place. The sun and moon would be crushed as mere atoms in the rushing and concentration of all the worlds in the material universe to one point. There would be no material heavens, nothing but an enormous and chaotic mass of ruins. The earth would be buried, millions of millions of miles beneath these superincumbent worlds. But, according to the account, after this destruction of the material universe, "the sign of the Son of man will appear in heaven: and all the tribes of the earth shall mourn, and they shall see the Son of man coming in the clouds of heaven." How could there be any tribes of the earth to mourn? How could there be any clouds in heaven? Clouds are formed by vapors rising from the earth. How could they exist when the earth is covered millions of miles deep with the debris of a ruined universe? How could the tribes of the earth see the Son of man coming, when every human being must have been crushed to atoms by the falling worlds? How could the angels gather the elect from the four winds? What is meant by the four winds? and from one end of heaven to the other? There would be no north, no south, no material heavens; for, according to the context, they have been destroyed. The nature of the case justifies us in the conclusion that such events, in the order they are mentioned, would be impossible.
If we take into view some other passages in other parts of the Word which are generally supposed to relate to this event, the impossibility of a natural interpretation will be still more evident. If the heavens are to be destroyed by fire, in whose fervent heat the elements will melt, there could be no clouds and no human beings remaining. Every vestige of humanity would be consumed. To be in the air would be no protection. If the whole material universe is to be destroyed, as some suppose, there would be no escape from the fury of the fire.
If we look a little farther along in the chapter, we shall find another statement which renders it impossible that the account can be naturally true. It is said, "Then shall two be in the field: the one shall be taken and the other left. Two women shall be grinding at the mill; the one shall be taken, the other left." How could the inhabitants of the world be engaged in their usual avocations after such commotion and general ruin? According to the context., all the tribes of the earth are mourning on account of the tremendous catastrophe which attends the Second Coming, and yet people are still in the fields at their usual work. Women are doing what no women in the civilized world have done for many generations. The stars have fallen, and yet people are not disturbed by it. Surely this cannot be a statement of natural events which will take place at the Second Coming. It is simply impossible that they all should occur.
But let us consider another point. The Lord is to come in the clouds of heaven, and every eye is. to see Him. That also would be an impossibility, unless the laws of vision were changed. An object no higher than the clouds is visible for a few miles only on the face of the earth. Not even the sun or stars can be seen over more than half the globe at the same time. How, then, is the Lord's coming to be suddenly manifested to every eye? It would require a suspension of the laws of sight and the working of a constant miracle.
Human learning and ingenuity have been exhausted to overcome these difficulties and reconcile these contradictions. Some of the events have been selected to the exclusion of others. Some have been supposed to relate to the destruction of Jerusalem, and some to the final Judgment; and many ingenious attempts have been made so to distribute the facts between the two events as to make the account consistent with itself and the events so far as they are known to men, or supposed to be known. Others, wearied with the effort to get a clear and rational result, have fallen back upon the Divine Omnipotence, and have rested in the belief that the Lord can do the most contradictory things, if He pleases.
In the meantime the difficulties remain, and the great fact that these terrible events may be ushered in upon us at any moment, stands as a wonder and a terror to people. There is no hope of a natural solution. The literal method of interpreting the Scriptures does not give us the means of solving the problem. If there were no other reasons than those we have adduced, there would be sufficient grounds for discarding a method which leads to such difficulties, and for rejecting the conclusions to which theologians have generally come by the use of it. But there are other important considerations bearing directly upon the subject. The grand scenic effects which it is said will attend the Second Coming are used to describe other events that never were naturally fulfilled. Concerning the destruction of Babylon it is said: "Behold, the day of the Lord cometh, cruel both with wrath and fierce anger, to lay the land desolate: and He shall destroy the sinners thereof out of it. For the stars of heaven and the constellations thereof shall not give their light: the sun shall be darkened in his going forth, and the moon shall not cause her light to shine" (Isaiah xiii. 9, 10). The same imagery is used in regard to Egypt: "And when I shall extinguish thee, I will cover the heaven, and make the stars thereof dark; I will cover the sun with a cloud, and the moon shall not give her light. All the bright lights of heaven will I make dark over thee, and set darkness upon thy land, saith the Lord" (Ezekiel xxxii. 7, 8).
But the most remarkable passage is found in the prophet Joel ii. 28-31: "And it shall come to pass afterward, that I will pour out my spirit upon all flesh; and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, your young men shall see visions: and also upon the servants and upon the handmaids in those days will I pour out my spirit. And I will show wonders in the heavens and in the earth, blood, and fire, and pillars of smoke. The sun shall be turned into darkness, and the moon into blood, before the great and terrible day of the Lord come."
Now, it is a remarkable fact, and one which ought to have great weight with the most rigid literalist in interpreting all the passages of Scripture which relate to the Second Coming, that Peter quotes this prophecy, and says it was fulfilled at the day of Pentecost. Yet there were no such commotions as are here predicted. The sun continued to shine, the moon retained her rocky substance; there were no unusual wonders in the heavens, and no blood, no fire, no pillars of smoke in the earth.
Here is an instance directly to the point, in which an apostle, whom theologians regard as inspired, and whose authority they accept, interprets these grand physical changes and commotions to mean the outpouring of the Spirit. With this example before them, we do not see how they can insist upon a natural interpretation of these remarkable phenomena. They are employed to designate the rise and fall of kingdoms, and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. In no case have they been literally fulfilled. Why, then, should they insist upon their natural occurrence at the Second Coming, especially when it involves them in insuperable difficulties? How can any rational mind ask for more conclusive evidence that the signs of the Second Coming must be spiritually interpreted?
We might rest the case here so far as regards the natural interpretation of the Scriptures which relate to this great event, though many more passages could be adduced which no one attempts to interpret naturally. As, for example, in Joel iii. 15, 16, it is said, " The sun and the moon shall be darkened, and the stars shall withdraw their shining. The Lord shall roar out of Zion, and utter His voice out of Jerusalem." " The mountains quake at Him and the hills melt, and the earth is burned at His presence, yea, the world, and all that dwell therein" (Nahum i. 5). These, however, must suffice for this part of the subject. But it may be useful to examine it from some other points of view, that we may see it in various aspects and get all the light possible upon it.
All things are so connected and related that one change necessitates another, one condition implies another. Our physical nature is so nicely adjusted to the forms and forces of the material world that very slight changes in either would disturb, if they did not destroy, all the relations between us and the outward world which are essential to our life in it. At His First Advent, the Lord conformed to the conditions and laws of His own providence in nature. He caused no disturbance in material forces and harmonies. He adapted Himself to them. He came as a person among other people, having a physical nature adjusted to physical substances., He took upon Himself our nature, engaged in human employments, conformed to social and civil customs,. and was accessible to men and women in the lowest walks of life. He became so much like a merely human being, in outward appearance, that He could not be distinguished from the men of His time.
The letter of the Word represents Him as coming again in a material body to dwell among men. According to the natural statement, He will be invested with more grandeur, power, and glory; but still He is to live in a material world, to be cognizable by the natural senses, and to conform to physical laws. This implies that He is invested with a material body now, and that He has been clothed with one ever since His ascension. If this is so, He must be in a material world. He certainly could not be in heaven visible to the angels and hold conscious interaction with them. Those who have cast off the material body and have become pure spirits could not be with Him and rejoice in His presence; for there can be no natural, conscious, and orderly interaction between pure spirits and beings clothed with a material body. Spiritual beings cannot live in a material world, and beings clothed with a material body cannot live in a spiritual world. That is impossible in the nature of things. But we cannot admit that the Lord has been living in some material world, remote from this, and separated from the hosts of heaven by the same walls of flesh that we are. That would be contrary to all His promises, and to the whole tenor of Revelation.
But, if He has been in heaven since His ascension, the center of the angelic hosts, and the glorious object of adoration and love to all the redeemed, He must be dwelling in a glorified form which cannot be seen by the natural eye. In a form of such a nature, He could not dwell among people as one human being with another. He could not come in the clouds. There would be no adjustment of His Divine nature to people in His material conditions by which conscious association could be effected.
The same difficulties exist in regard to the coming of the angels. If the Lord were surrounded by a magnificent retinue of angels, they could not be seen by the natural eye. Nor could a spiritual being blow a material trumpet; and a spiritual trumpet could not be heard by living ears, much less by the ears of those who were dead, and whose material organism had turned to dust. This grand scenic display, which has been dwelt upon with so much eloquence and delight, is, therefore, impossible in the nature of things; and if it were not it would be lost upon people from their inability to perceive it. When regarded in the light of reason, also, the whole scene is unworthy of the simplicity and dignity of the Divine character, and wholly incongruous with all known methods of the Lord's operation. How irrational and absurd the idea that the Lord will return to the world, as Paul says, "with a shout," surrounded with a vast army of angels filling the earth with the braying of trumpets! Such a scene partakes too much of self-glorification, and resembles too closely the triumphant return of vain and ambitious conquerors from their victories.
But, for the purpose of presenting the subject in as clear a light as possible, let us grant that all the difficulties in the literal interpretation of those passages of Scripture which predict the Second Coming are successfully overcome; let us admit that the Lord will come, tomorrow, or at any future time, exactly according to the description in the gospel of Matthew. Suppose He were to come in the flaming splendors and awful majesty of His glorified humanity, with a grand retinue of angels, call around Him all the Christians in the world, and raise from the dead - as many think He will - all who have believed on Him in past ages, and set up His throne at Jerusalem, or London, or New York, would that be the accomplishment of purposes worthy of infinite wisdom? Would it be for the happiness of Christians themselves, the very persons for whose benefit it is supposed this grand demonstration has been made? Would Christians feel at ease and be at home in the presence of so much glory and majesty? Could they be happy in intimate association and communion with infinite purity? The laws of human nature must be radically changed before such familiar interaction would be possible.
The Lord is to be their King. Is He not now? Would they submit joyfully to His government? Then, why not now? He could teach them no other doctrine than He has already taught in His Word. He will "not come to destroy the law or the prophets, but to fulfill." The Decalogue would stand. The Sermon on the Mount would remain in force. He would insist upon self-denial, upon purity of motive as well as act, upon keeping the
Commandments, upon devotion to others. What would the members of the Church - Catholic and Protestant - say to such requisitions? Would they find it an easy matter to follow the Lord and live with Him on these conditions? Would they find perfect peace and happiness in such a life? There are no grounds in the nature of man, there are no
attributes in the Divine character, and no revelations in the Word, for believing that such familiar interaction with the awful majesty of Divinity would be possible, much less conduce to the happiness, even of the best of Christians. When the apostle John saw the Son of man, as He appeared in the midst of the seven golden candlesticks, he "fell at His feet as dead." How, then, could we bear His Divine presence and live in familiar interaction with Him?
If we examine any other of the common theories concerning the Second Coming, we shall find that, when carried to its legitimate and logical conclusions, it is not in accordance with the general scope and spirit of Scripture, with enlightened reason, and the methods and purposes of the Divine wisdom, so far as we have any knowledge of them. On the contrary, they would defeat the purposes of the Divine love in the creation of humankind, and, consequently, they would not conduce to human happiness or to the glory of the Lord.
The doctrines which have been taught upon this subject in the Catholic and Protestant Churches have been based upon a few passages of Scripture, taken by themselves and interpreted according to their natural meaning, while there are many other passages which teach a different doctrine, and, when regarded from a natural point of view, there is no possibility of harmonizing them. Hence the variety of conflicting opinions upon this subject. The advocate of each theory appeals to Scripture, brings forward those passages which testify in its favor, and makes the most of them, while it keeps in abeyance or attempts to parry the force of the testimony which tends to disprove it. In this respect theologians are like lawyers in their legal pleading. Their main object is to win the suit. For this purpose they make the most of the evidence in their favor, and do all in their power to discredit the testimony adverse to their case.
But the truth can never be gained in this way. We must rather proceed in a true scientific spirit. We must admit all the facts, and then try to understand them. No theory can be true which does not admit all the facts relating to it and account for them. This is an axiom in the pursuit of natural and spiritual knowledge. A scientist who should reject or attempt to discredit the testimony of undoubted facts because they were opposed to his theory, would lose the confidence of all scientific men. The same principle must apply to spiritual knowledge. The Sacred Scriptures are a vast storehouse of spiritual facts presented in natural forms. No theory or doctrine can be true which the whole of Scripture does not teach. But we cannot understand what the facts mean until we regard them from a true point of view.
This is as essential in natural as in spiritual knowledge. Facts cannot be judged from their appearances. There never has been, and there cannot be, any true and rational knowledge of the material world gained by the testimony of the senses. So long as people accepted the report of the senses as genuine truth, a true knowledge of the motion, size, and mutual relation of the stars was impossible.
So it is with regard to spiritual facts. "Judge not according to the appearance, but judge righteous judgment," is a fundamental principle in interpreting the Scriptures. Given to teach spiritual truth, they must be interpreted from a spiritual point of view. Only from that point of view can they be correctly understood, and all their apparent contradictions reconciled.
But it is not sufficient to ignore their natural meaning, and then form such theories as best suit our fancy or our own creed. That must be taken into the account; and not only that, but a sufficient reason must be given for the presentation of spiritual truth in such a garb. The specific form and natural appearance of every fact must be accounted for. If it is not true that the great cosmic changes in the material universe, predicted in the Word, are to take place, why are these grand spiritual movements presented in this manner? Why is it said that the sun will be darkened, that the moon will be turned into blood, that there will be earthquakes, that the stars will fall from their places, and that the Son of man will come in the clouds of heaven? These are questions which must be satisfactorily answered. To do this will be one of the principal purposes of the succeeding lectures.