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Summary and Conclusion, Including:
JS RUSSELL'S "GOSPEL UNIVERSALISM"
"Surely, it was not in vain that Jesus said, ‘I am the Light of the World.’ ‘God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through him might be saved.’ ‘I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all men unto myself.’" (emphasis in original)
"It does not fall within the scope of this discussion to argue on philosophical grounds the natural probability of a reign of truth and righteousness on the earth; we are happy to be assured of the consummation on higher and safer grounds, even the promises of Him who has taught us to pray, ‘Thy will be done in earth, as it is done in heaven.’ For every God-taught prayer contains a prophecy, and conveys a promise. This world belongs no more to the devil, but to God. Christ has redeemed it, and will recover it, and draw all men unto Him."
We have now reached a point in our investigation where it is possible to take a complete and connected survey of the whole field which we have traversed, and to observe the unity and consistency of the prophetic system developed in the New Testament.
1. We find that the Gospel dispensation does not come upon us as an independent and isolated scheme,—a new beginning in the divine government of the world,—but that it implies and assumes the relation of God to Israel in past ages. The whole philosophy of Jewish history is condensed into a single phrase, ‘the kingdom of God;’ and it is this kingdom which, first John the Baptist, as the herald of the coming king, and next the King Himself, the Lord Jesus Christ, proclaimed as being ‘at hand.’
2. We find that John the Baptist adopts the warnings of Old Testament prophecy, especially of the last of the prophets, Malachi, and predicts that the coming of the kingdom would be the coming of wrath upon Israel. He declares that ‘the axe is already laid to the root of the tree;’ his cry is, ‘Flee from the coming wrath,’ plainly intimating that a time of judgment was fast approaching.
3. Our Lord affirms the same speedy coming of judgment upon the land and people of Israel; and He further connects this judgment with His own coming in glory,—the Parousia. This event stands forth most prominently in the New Testament; to this every eye is directed, to this every inspired messenger points. It is represented as the nucleus and centre of a cluster of great events; the end of the age, or close of the Jewish economy; the destruction of the city and temple of Jerusalem; the judgment of the guilty nation; the resurrection of the dead; the reward of the faithful; the consummation of the kingdom of God. All these transactions are declared to be coincident with the Parousia.
4. It is demonstrable by the express testimony of our Lord, the uniform and concurrent teaching of His apostles, and the universal expectation of the church of the apostolic age, that the Parousia and its accompanying events were represented as nigh at hand; and not only so, but as about to happen within the limits of a given period ; that is to say, in the time of the apostles and their contemporaries; so that many or most of them might expect to witness the great consummation. This is the main point of the whole question, and must be decided by the authority of the Scriptures themselves. While the proof ought to be rigorously demanded, and the evidence thoroughly sifted, it ought also to be dispassionately considered, without resorting to non natural interpretation, uncritical and unfair evasion, or violent wresting of the plain sense of words.
5. Without going over the ground already traversed it may suffice here to appeal to three distinct and decisive declarations of our Lord respecting the time of His coming, each of them accompanied with a solemn affirmation:—
The plain grammatical meaning of these statements has been fully discussed in these pages. No violence can extort from them any other sense than the obvious and unambiguous one, viz. that our Lord’s second coming would take place within the limits of the existing generation.
6. The doctrine of the apostles with regard to the coming of the Lord is in perfect harmony with this. Nothing can be more evident than that they all believed and taught the speedy return of the Lord. From the first speech of St. Peter on the day of Pentecost to the last utterance of St. John in the Apocalypse, this conviction is clearly and constantly expressed. To say that the apostles were themselves ignorant of the time of their Lord’s return, and therefore could have no belief on the subject,—could not teach what they did not know,—is to contradict their own express and reiterated assertions. True, they did not know, and did not teach, ‘that day and that hour;’ they did not say that He would come in a particular month of a particular year, but they assuredly did give the churches to understand that He was coming quickly; that they might soon expect to see Him; and they never ceased to exhort them to maintain the attitude of constant watchfulness and preparation.
It is not necessary to do more than advert to some of the leading testimonies borne by the apostles to the speedy coming of the Lord:—
(1) St. Paul gives great prominence in his epistles to this cherished hope of the Christian church.
(2) St. James represents the coming of the Lord as just at hand. ‘The last days’ are come. Suffering Christians are exhorted to ‘be patient unto the coming of the Lord.’ They are assured that ‘it is drawing nigh;’ that the Judge standeth before the door.’
(3) St. Peter, like St. Paul, gives great prominence to the Parousia and its related events.
(4) The Epistle to the Hebrews speaks of ‘the last days’ as now present; it is ‘the end of the age;’ the day is seen to be ‘approaching;’ ‘Yet a little, little while, and he that is coming will come, and will not tarry.’
(5) St. John confirms and completes the testimony of his fellow-apostles; it is ‘the last time;’ ‘antichrist has come;’ ‘he is already in the world.’ Christians are exhorted so to live that they may not be ashamed before Christ at His coming.
Finally, the Apocalypse is full of the Parousia: ‘Behold, he cometh with clouds;’ ‘The time is at hand;’ ‘Behold, I come quickly.’
Such is a rapid sketch of the apostolic testimony to the speedy coming of the Lord. It would have been strange if, with such assurances and such exhortations, the apostolic churches had not lived in constant and eager expectation of the Parousia. That they did so we have the clearest evidence in the New Testament, and we can conceive the mighty influence which this faith and hope must have had upon Christian life and character.
But, admitting, what cannot well be denied, that the apostles and early Christians did cherish these expectations, and that their belief was founded on the teaching of our Lord, the question arises, Were they not mistaken in their expectation? This is practically to ask, Were the apostles permitted to fall into error themselves, and to lead others into a like delusion, with respect to a matter of fact which they had abundant opportunities of knowing; which must frequently have been the subject of conversation and conference among themselves; which they never failed to keep before the attention of the churches, and about which they were all agreed?
There are critics who do not scruple to affirm that the apostles were mistaken, and that time has proved the fallacy of their anticipations. They tell us that either they misunderstood the teaching of their Master, or that He too was under an erroneous impression. This is of course to set aside the claims of the apostles to speak authoritatively as the inspired messengers of Christ, and to undermine the very foundations of the Christian faith.
There are others, more reverential in their treatment of Scripture, who acknowledge that the apostles were indeed mistaken, but that this mistake was, for wise reasons, permitted,—that, in fact, the error was highly beneficial in its results: it stimulated hope, it fortified courage, it inspired devotion.” *
(* ‘For ages the world’s hope has been the second advent. The early church expected it in their own day,—”We which are alive and remain unto the coming of the Lord.” The Saviour Himself had said, “This generation shall not pass till all these things be fulfilled.” Yet the Son of man has never come. In the first centuries the early Christians believed that the millennial advent was close; they heard the warning of the apostle, brief and sharp, “The time is short.” Now, suppose that instead of this they had seen all the dreary page of church history unrolled; suppose that they had known that after two thousand years the world would have scarcely spelled out three letters of the meaning of Christianity, where would have been those gigantic efforts, that life spent as on the very brink of eternity, which characterize the days of the early church?—F. W. Robertson, Sermon on the Illusiveness of Life.)
‘If the Christians of the first centuries,’ says Hengstenberg, ‘had foreseen that the second coming of Christ would not take place for eighteen hundred years, how much weaker an impression would this doctrine have made upon them than when they were expecting Him every hour, and were told to watch because He would come like a thief in the night, at an hour when they looked not for Him!’ (Hengstenberg, Christology, vol. iv. p. 443.)
But neither can this explanation be accepted as satisfactory. Unquestionably the first Christians did receive an immense impulse to their courage and zeal from their firm belief in the speedy advent of the Lord; but was this a hope that after all made them ashamed? Must we conclude that the indomitable courage and devotion of a Paul rested mainly on a delusion? Were the martyrs and confessors of the primitive age only mistaken enthusiasts? We confess that such a conclusion is revolting to all our conceptions of Christianity as a revelation of divine truth by the instrumentality of inspired men. If the apostles misunderstood or misrepresented the teaching of Christ in regard to a matter of fact, respecting which they had the most ample opportunities of information, what dependence can be placed upon their testimony as to matters of faith, where the liability to error is so much greater? Such explanations are fitted to unsettle the foundations of confidence in apostolic teaching; and it is not easy to see how they are compatible with any practical belief in inspiration.
There is another theory, however, by which many suppose that the credit of the apostles is saved, and yet room left for avoiding the acceptance of their apparent teaching on the subject of the coming of Christ. This is, by the hypothesis of a primary and partial fulfillment of their predictions in their own time, to be followed and completed by an ultimate and plenary fulfillment at the end of human history. According to this view, the anticipations of the apostles were not wholly erroneous. Something really did take place that might be called ‘a coming of the Lord,’ ‘a judgment day.’ Their predictions received a quasi fulfillment in the destruction of Jerusalem and in the judgment of the guilty nation. That consummation at the close of the Jewish age was a type of another and infinitely greater catastrophe, when the whole human race will be brought before the judgment seat of Christ and the earth consumed by a general conflagration. This is probably the view which is most commonly accepted by the majority of expositors and readers of the New Testament at the present day. The first objection to this hypothesis is, that it has no foundation in the teaching of the Scriptures. There is not a scintilla of evidence that the apostles and primitive Christians had any suspicion of a twofold reference in the predictions of Jesus concerning the end. No hint is anywhere dropped that a primary and partial fulfillment of His sayings was to take place in that generation, but that the complete and exhaustive fulfillment was reserved for a future and far distant period. The very contrary is the fact. What can be more comprehensive and conclusive than our Lord’s words, ‘Verily I say unto you, This generation shall not pass, till ALL these things be fulfilled’? What critical torture has been applied to these words to extort from them some other meaning than their obvious and natural one! How has yeveŕ been hunted through all its lineage and genealogy to discover that it may not mean the persons then living on the earth! But all such efforts are wholly futile. While the words remain in the text their plain and obvious sense will prevail over all the glosses and perversions of ingenious criticism. The hypothesis of a twofold fulfillment receives no countenance from the Scriptures. We have only to read the language in which the apostles speak of the approaching consummation, to be convinced that they had one, and only one, great event in view, and that they thought and spoke of it as just at hand.
This brings us to another objection to the hypothesis of a double, or even manifold, fulfillment of the predictions in the New Testament, viz. that it proceeds from a fundamentally erroneous conception of the real significance and grandeur or that great crisis in the divine government of the world which is marked by the Parousia. There are not a few who seem to think that if our Lord’s prophecy on the Mount of Olives, and the predictions of the apostles of the coming of Christ in glory, meant no more than the destruction of Jerusalem, and were fulfilled in that event, then all their announcements and expectations ended in a mere fiasco, and the historical reality answers very feebly and inadequately to the magnificent prophecy. There is reason to believe that the true significance and grandeur of that great event are very little appreciated by many. The destruction of Jerusalem was not a mere thrilling incident in the drama of history, like the siege of Troy or the downfall of Carthage, closing a chapter in the annals of a state or a people. It was an event which has no parallel in history. It was the outward and visible sign of a great epoch in the divine government of the world. It was the close of one dispensation and the commencement of another. It marked the inauguration of a new order of things. The Mosaic economy,—which had been ushered in by the miracles of Egypt, the lightnings and thunderings of Sinai, and the glorious manifestations of Jehovah to Israel,—after subsisting for more than fifteen centuries, was now abolished. The peculiar relation between the Most High and the covenant nation was dissolved. The Messianic kingdom, that is, the administration of the divine government by the Mediator, so far, at least, as Israel was concerned, reached its culminating point. The kingdom so long predicted, hoped for, prayed for, was now fully come. The final act of the King was to sit upon the throne of His glory and judge His people. He could then ‘deliver up the kingdom to God, even the Father.’ This is the significance of the destruction of Jerusalem according to the showing of the Word of God. It was not an isolated fact, a solitary catastrophe,—it was the centre of a group of related and coincident events, not only in the material, but in the spiritual world; not only on earth, but in heaven and in hell; some of them being cognisable by the senses and capable of historical confirmation, and others not.
Perhaps it may be said that such an explanation of the predictions of the New Testament, instead of relieving the difficulty, embarrasses and perplexes us more than ever. It is possible to believe in the fulfillment of predictions which take effect in the visible and outward order of things, because we have historical evidence of that fulfillment; but how can we be expected to believe in fulfillments which are said to have taken place in the region of the spiritual and invisible when we have no witnesses to depose to the facts? We can implicitly believe in the accomplishment of all that was predicted respecting the horrors of the siege of Jerusalem, the burning of the temple, and the demolition of the city, because we have the testimony of Josephus to the facts; but how can we believe in a coming of the Son of man, in a resurrection of the dead, in an act of judgment, when we have nothing but the word of prophecy to rely upon, and no Josephus to vouch for the historical accuracy of the facts?
To this it can only be said in reply, that the demand for human testimony to events in the region of the unseen is not altogether reasonable. If we receive them at all, it must be on the word of Him Who declared that all these things would assuredly take place before that generation passed away. But, after all, is the demand upon our faith in this matter so very excessive? A large portion of these predictions we know to have been literally and punctually fulfilled; we recognize in that accomplishment a remarkable proof of the truth of the Word of God and the superhuman prescience that foresaw and foretold the future. Could anything have been less probable at the time when our Lord delivered His prophetic discourse than the total destruction of the temple, the razing of the city, and the ruin of the nation in the lifetime of the existing generation? What can be more minute and particular than the signs of the end enumerated by our Lord? What can be more precise and literal than the fulfillment of them?
But the part which confessedly has been fulfilled, and which is vouched for by uninspired history, is inseparably bound up with another portion which is not so vouched for. Nothing but a violent disruption can detach the one part of this prophecy from the other. It is one from beginning to end—a complete whole. The finest instrument cannot draw a line separating one portion which relates to that generation from another portion which relates to a different and distant period. Every part of it rests on the same foundation, and the whole is so linked and concatenated that all must stand or fall together. We are justified, therefore, in holding that the exact accomplishment of so much of the prophecy as comes within the cognisance of the senses, and is capable of being vouched for by human testimony, is a presumption and guarantee in favour of the exact fulfillment of that portion which lies within the region of the invisible and spiritual, and which cannot, in the nature of things, be attested by human evidence. This is not credulity, but reasonable faith, such as men fearlessly exercise in all their worldly transactions.
We conclude, therefore, that all the parts of our Lord’s prediction refer to the same period and the same event; that the whole prophecy is one and indivisible, resting upon the same foundation of divine authority. Further, that all that was cognisable by the human senses is proved to have been fulfilled, and, therefore, we are not only warranted, but bound to assume the fulfillment of the remainder as not only credible, but certain.
As the result of the investigation we are landed in this dilemma: either the whole group of predictions, comprehending the destruction of Jerusalem, the coming of the Lord, the resurrection of the dead, and the rewarding of the faithful, did take place before the passing away of that generation, as predicted by Christ, taught by the apostles, and expected by the whole church; or, else, the hope of the church was a delusion, the teaching of the apostles an error, the predictions of Jesus a dream.
There is no other alternative consistent with the fair grammatical interpretation of the words of Scripture. We may not tear the prophecy of Christ asunder, and arbitrarily decide, this is past, and that is future; this is fulfilled, and that unfulfilled. There is no pretext for such a division in the record of that discourse; like the seamless robe worn by Him who uttered it, it is all of one piece, ‘woven from the top throughout.’ The grammatical structure and the historical occasion alike imply the unity of the whole prophecy. Neither is there any ‘verifying faculty’ by which it is possible to distinguish between one part and another as belonging to different periods and epochs. Every attempt to draw such lines of distinction has proved a complete failure. The prophecy refuses to be so manipulated, and asserts its unity and homogeneity in spite of critical artifice or violence. We are compelled, therefore, by all these considerations, and chiefly by regard for the authority of Him whose word cannot be broken, to conclude that the Parousia, or second coming of Christ, with its connected and concomitant events, did take place, according to the Saviour’s own prediction, at the period when Jerusalem was destroyed, and before the passing away of ‘that generation.’
Here we might pause, for Scripture prophecy guides us no further. But the close of the ćon is not the end of the world, and the fate of Israel teaches us nothing respecting the destiny of the human race. Whether we will or no, we cannot help speculating about the future, and forecasting the ultimate fortunes of a world which has been the scene of such stupendous displays of divine judgment and mercy. It will probably be felt by some to be an unwelcome conclusion that the Apocalypse is not that syllabus of civil and ecclesiastical history which a mistaken theory of interpretation supposed it to be. It will seem to them that the extinction of those false lights, which they took for guiding stars, leaves them in total darkness about the future; and they will ask in perplexity, Whither are we tending? What is to be the end and consummation of human history? Is this earth, with its precious freight of immortal and eternal interests, advancing towards light and truth, or hurrying into regions of darkness and distance from God?
Where nothing has been revealed it would be the height of presumption to prognosticate the future. ‘It is not for us to know the times and the seasons which the Father hath put in his own power.’ It has been said that ‘the uninspired prophet is a fool,’ and many instances approve the saying. Yet thus much it may be permitted us to conclude: there is no reason to despair about the future. There are some who tell us that as Judaism was a failure, so Christianity will be a failure also. We are not persuaded of this; we regard it rather as an impeachment of the divine wisdom and goodness. Judaism was never constituted to be a universal religion; it was essentially limited and national in its operation; but Christianity is made for man, and has proved its adaptation to every variety of the human family. It is indeed too true that the progress of Christianity in the world has been lamentably slow; and that, after eighteen centuries, it has not succeeded in banishing evil from the world, nor even from the regions where its influence has been most powerfully felt. Yet, after every allowance for its shortcomings, it still remains the mightiest moral force ever called into operation for purifying and ennobling the character of men. It is Christianity that differentiates the new world from the old; the modern from the ancient civilisation. This is the new factor in human society and history which may claim the largest share in the beneficent reformations of the past and to which we may look for still greater results in the future. The philosophic historian recognizes in Christianity a new power, which ‘from its very origin, and still more in its progress, entirely renovated the face of the world.’ * (Schlegel, Philosophy of History, Lect. x.)
Nor is there any symptom of decrepitude or exhaustion in the religion of Jesus after all the ages and conflicts, and revolutions of opinion through which it has come. It has stood the brunt of the most malignant persecution, and come off victorious. It has endured the ordeal of the most searching and hostile criticism, and come out of the fire unscathed. It has survived the more perilous patronage of pretended friends who have corrupted it into a superstition, perverted it into a policy, or degraded it into a trade. While the enemies of the Gospel predict its speedy extinction, it enters on a new career of conflict and victory. There is a perpetual tendency in Christianity to renew her youth, to regain the ideal of her pristine purity, and defecate herself from the impurities and accretions which are foreign to her nature. Never since the apostolic age were there greater vitality and vigour in the religion of the Cross than today. This is the age of Christian missions; and while all the other religions of the world have ceased to proselytise, and therefore to grow, Christianity goes forth to every land and nation, with the Bible in her hand and the proclamation of the glad tidings in her mouth, ‘Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and thou shalt be saved.’
The true interpretation of New Testament prophecy, instead of leaving us in darkness, encourages hope. It relieves the gloom which hung over a world which was believed to be destined to perish. There is no reason to infer that because Jerusalem was destroyed the world must burn; or, because the apostate nation was condemned, the human race must be consigned to perdition. All this sinister anticipation rests upon an erroneous interpretation of Scripture; and, the fallacies being cleared away, the prospect brightens with a glorious hope. We may trust the God of Love. He has not forsaken the earth, and He governs the world on a plan which He has not indeed disclosed to us, but which we may be well assured will finally evolve the highest good of the creature and the brightest glory of the Creator.
It may, indeed, seem strange and unaccountable that we should now be left without any of those divine manifestations and revelations which in other ages God was pleased to vouchsafe to men. We seem in some respects farther off from heaven than those ages were when voices and visions reminded men of the nearness of the Unseen. We may say, with the Jews of the captivity, ‘We see not our signs: there is no more any prophet: neither is there among us any that knoweth how long ‘ Ps. 74:9).
Eighteen hundred years have rolled away since a voice was heard upon earth saying, ‘Thus saith the Lord.’ It is as if a door had been shut in heaven, and the direct intercourse of God with man were cut off; and we seem at a disadvantage as compared with those who were favoured with ‘visions and revelations of the Lord.’ Yet, even in this we may not judge correctly. Doubtless it is better as it is. The presence of the Holy Spirit with the disciples was declared by our Lord to be more than a compensation for His own absence. That Spirit dwells with us, and in us, and it is His office ‘to take of Christ’s, and to shew it unto us.’ We have also the written Word of God, and in this we enjoy an incalculable superiority over the former days. Better the written Word than the living prophet. But should it be needful for the welfare and guidance of mankind that God should again manifest Himself, there is no presumption against further revelations. Why should it be thought that God has spoken His last word to men? But it is for Him to choose, and not for us to dictate. It may well be that even now, in ways unsuspected by us, He is speaking to man. ‘God fulfils himself in many ways, and human history is as full of God today as in the ages of miracle and prophecy. Far from us be that incredulity which despairs of Christianity and of man. Surely, it was not in vain that Jesus said, ‘I am the Light of the World.’ ‘God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through him might be saved.’ ‘I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all men unto myself.’
That favoured apostle who more than any other seems to have comprehended ‘the breadth, and length, and depth, and height of the love of Christ,’ suggests to us ideas of the extent and efficiency of the great redemption which our latent incredulity can scarcely receive. He does not hesitate to affirm that the restorative work of Christ will ultimately more than repair the ruin wrought by sin. ‘As by one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the obedience of One shall the many be made righteous.’ There would be no point in this comparison if ‘the many’ on the one side of the equation bore no proportion to ‘the many’ on the other side. But this is not all: the redemptive work of Christ does more than redress the balance: it outweighs, and that immeasurably, the counterpoise of evil. ‘Where sin abounded, grace did beyond measure abound: that as sin reigned in death, even so might grace reign in righteousness unto eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord’ (Rom. 5:19-21).
It does not fall within the scope of this discussion to argue on philosophical grounds the natural probability of a reign of truth and righteousness on the earth; we are happy to be assured of the consummation on higher and safer grounds, even the promises of Him who has taught us to pray, ‘Thy will be done in earth, as it is done in heaven.’ For every God-taught prayer contains a prophecy, and conveys a promise. This world belongs no more to the devil, but to God. Christ has redeemed it, and will recover it, and draw all men unto Him. Otherwise it is inconceivable that God would have taught His people in all ages to utter in faith and hope that sublime prophetic prayer:—
Date: 24 May 2007
[John, actually this is not the universalism like those who claim that faith is unnecessary, but a different kinds which sees "a reign of truth and righteousness on the earth" in which "all men" are saved. Accordingly, a new category has been given to this view in the Universalist page called "Gospel Universalism". I am going to start tracking this trend in contemporary full preterism, as I recall hearing people talk about expecting a glorified earth in the future. This is significant, as it would have an impact on whether or not one truly believes that "all prophecy" was fulfilled in AD70, if one is expecting something in the future such as a "reign on the earth."]
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