How can it be said we remove the motive and incentive to Christian watchfulness, by denying the kind of Advent they hold? How can they say these injunctions given to the New Testament church to watch for the Lord’s coming mean that they should expect the Second Advent every day, when the Master himself shows that it is death which is referred to?”
SERIES: SUBJECTIVE COMING OF THE LORD
RELEVANT EXCERPT BELOW
Premillenialism a Delusion
By W. M. White
PART IV. DIFFICULTIES EXAMINED.
In the preceding parts, proof of various kinds has been led to arrive at a proper verdict upon the claims of the Premillennial Advent. We have found that it is unsolid and unscriptural. Having confined our aim very much to one point, the incidental matters and explanations are necessarily treated briefly, and in one or two instances, perhaps, somewhat obscurely. Our present purpose is not either to lengthen these or to amplify the details. The main idea has been prominently enough held before the reader’s mind; and whatever come of any other matter, a decision on that is what is sought. We hasten now to notice the principal difficulties with which the view we have defended is said to be beset. These are partly dogmatic and partly textual. The textual difficulties have been mostly disposed of, when explanation was given of the leading passages produced by our friends in support of their system. And there remain but three particulars to be taken up in this part:—
1. We are often pressed with the following question: If a time of millennial peace is certainly to precede the Second Advent, and if the length of that period be so distinctly marked as that at least it will continue for a thousand years, how are we to explain the fact that we are constantly called upon to watch for the Lord’s coming, to expect that it will be sudden, and that it may be at any moment, and that we must be in a state of daily preparation for it? In regard to this matter we change ground with our premillenarian friends, and shall bring their own charge to bear irresistibly against their own system. And to make the case somewhat clearer and none the less strong, let it be observed that wherever the Lord speaks of his Second Advent, he uses a verb in the present tense. When it is referred to by creatures, as in Acts i. 11, 2 Peter iii. 10, the verb is not in the present; but whensoever the Lord speaks of it himself, it is so, as in the seven epistles to the churches of Lesser Asia. No words could be used to bring us closer to that great event than we find there. When reading them, we feel as if heaven were to open in a moment, and the glorious One to burst upon our view. We have not met with a satisfactory explanation of this. We are obliged to our friends for keeping attention so much fixed upon it. We are not sure that they have been satisfactorily met upon this point. We will make the attempt. May the gracious Spirit give light!
They say to us: if you are to throw the Lord’s second coming indefinitely forward, you interfere with all those injunctions given in the Word, and lead men to carelessness and sloth. And they remind us of the parable of that wicked and slothful servant who said in his heart that his Lord was delaying his coming, and therefore began to act disorderly. They tell us of the proneness of men to grow careless and remiss, and that every doctrine should be held prominently before their view which is calculated to counteract such natural and dangerous declension. And then we are assured that the doctrine of the premillennial advent is fitted to rouse men from this sleep, yea, that from its suitableness to disturb careless ones, it exhibits an internal evidence of its being scriptural. The history of the church is appealed to as proving that the prominency given to this doctrine constitutes an index to the spiritual life and activity of professing Christians. And many other such things are we told. In reply to all this, we too affirm these things—these very things, and yet throw back this very accusation against premillennialism, every way assured we can make it good. We have no wish to rake in the dust-heaps to bring to light the delusions, and worse, in whose company this theory has not seldom been found. We have no wish to call church history to give the testimony it is well competent to do, not only to show what sort of company this theory has kept, but to show that it occupies the place in many of the delusions which not a few criminals have assigned to Sabbath breaking in their career. But we call not history to prove whether it be as they say. We agree with our friends as to the place the Second Advent, and the doctrines which are entwined around it, should occupy, and has occupied, in the spiritual life of the church; only, we fear it is a grave error to postulate this of their peculiar views of that advent. We too affirm, that no doctrine is more likely to arouse men than that of the Lord’s second coming: only, we maintain they have missed the true solution of the difficulty which attaches to the declarations of its suddenness, when they explain them on the theory which they have adopted. Already many of their positions have fallen to the ground, and the present is as likely to do so as the others.
If our system militate so much against the watchfulness of Christians, if this principle cannot well be kept alive in the soul save upon their scheme of interpretation, then observe the consequences. Paul either knew that the Second Advent was not to take place for many hundred years after the time he lived, or he did not know it. If he did not know, then why those anxious exhortations to the Thessalonian church to attend to their business, and not to suppose that the last day (for this is it) was at hand? They seem to have acted as some modern parties have done—left their work to stand gazing up for the sign of the Son of Man in heaven. The whole fabric of society seems to have been loosened, and a general terror and amazement to have seized hold of them. This ceased, however, as soon as they received the apostle’s second epistle, and every thing went on properly as before. Nor do we find that any of the churches were troubled about the matter afterwards. These two epistles, if not the first, were the second which the apostle wrote. We know from 2 Peter iii. 16 that the Pauline epistles were spread over all the churches before the year 66, with the exception of the second to Timothy, which was only written that year. These two to the Thessalonians were therefore in many hands. If the first was mistaken by a church which stands at the head of all the others, how much more so by others; and yet no necessity appears to have been felt for obviating similar mistakes in the other epistles. It is true, we have not every thing so clearly and so minutely stated as we might wish. But for any thing we know, the Thessalonians were satisfied that the day of the Lord was not at hand. Indeed, we know they were. Tertullian tells the persecuting authorities in his apology, that the Christians by no means could be accounted traitors to the empire. So far from this, so far from desiring the downfall of the state, he tells them they had the greatest reason to pray for its peace and establishment. For not only were they commanded to seek the good of the country where they dwelt, but especially so of the Roman empire, seeing it was the great obstacle in the way of the apostasy rising in the church. And where did he find this? In the second epistle to the Thessalonian church. True, that epistle says nothing of the Roman state and its overthrow, in so many words. It would have been unsafe for the church had it done so. But we cannot explain the effect of that epistle, and the way in which Tertullian refers to it, on any other idea than that the apostle had told them, when present with them (see 2 Epis. ii. 5,15), many things which they had forgotten under the mistaken views they took of some expressions in the first epistle, or that, by the messenger who carried the second epistle, a distinct explanation of the second chapter was verbally conveyed. And from them spread abroad, or perhaps from Paul’s personal conversations spread abroad, the general persuasion of the church that the Roman empire would fall; but that for a length of time it would be preserved, to stand in the way of the Papal apostasy rising up in the church. That empire was then the world. In the ordinary course of events, it could not be got out of the way, so as to allow the apostasy to work into existence, for many years. Paul knew this. He taught this to the anxious church. And yet it is he who writes these words, ” The day of the Lord so cometh as a thief in the night.” And to him, as well as to the church of his time and to us, was this warning voice, ” What I say unto you, I say unto all, watch.” Truly, Paul was not ignorant that the Second Advent was far in the future. He knew it both from revelation and from his accurate perception of the philosophical question of development,— a question which implies that the principles of the apostasy could not assume a body save as they rolled into existence through a long course of ages. And when speaking of the Lord’s coming, he has this before his mind, and says, “That day shall not come until there be a falling away first.” We need not stop to show how exactly history has confirmed his words.
We are aware, too, that John the apostle (who had all the writings of Old and New Testaments in his hand) knew how distant the Second Advent was. Whether he could understand the number of the beast himself or no, whether he had the key to his apocalyptic years or not, one thing is certain—he knew they extended into a vast future. Apart altogether from the numbers of years mentioned; the incidents which were to occur, the nations and kings which were to arise, the principles which were to develop themselves, and the extension of the apocalyptic vision, all gave to his mind a clear and firm persuasion that the Lord’s coming was far distant, at the very time that he felt how desirable it was, and urged believers to be watching for it, and to be hasting to it with prayers and mighty deeds. And he opens up his own longings in those words, “Even so, come quickly, Lord Jesus. Amen.”
And whatever we may suppose the conviction in the minds of apostles and of the church to have been— though the mistaken view which continued to be taken by many in the church, of those words which the Lord said to Peter concerning John (John xx. 22), speaks volumes as to the general belief of the futurity which that coming implied—the Holy Ghost knew how distant from those times was the advent; and in the very book—the vade-mecum of Christ’s church—in which he urges to a steady watchfulness, we are supplied with periods and years which he intended we should search into and understand; periods which make manifest to Paul, or John, or Polycarp, that they would sleep with their fathers long before the Second Advent should be an event in the church’s history.
Now, we reason thus. It is not fair to urge an opposite system with a difficulty which weighs more heavily upon the party’s own, or to make use of it without attempting aught else than the most limited application, when its very terms are of the most general kind. This command to watch for our Lord’s coming, was as obligatory on the primitive church as on us. “What I say unto you, I say unto all, watch.” Yet this church gathered from the inspired record (even Tertullian, who held the views of our friends, tells us so) that the event referred to would not take place in then time. Was the doctrine of the Lord’s coming a useless one to them? Was the church of the first century on that account an unwatchful church? We can prove that Paul, and John, and the brethren of those days, were holy and watchful. We can prove that this watchfulness was in connection with this doctrine, though not in the way our friends explain it. How could they, on their principles, explain the fact that John, James, Peter, Paul, gave heed to the warning voice, and watched for the coming of their Lord, as we see from their writings, and yet that they knew the advent was far in the future?
We are confining our argument to the first century, because we know distinctly what the state of the church was then, and what were the opinions held by its ministers, and, with the exception of a few Judaizing sects, by all its members. We might take the whole of the past history of Christianity, we might take the first eighteen centuries, and without any reference to the opinions which have been held by some, may reason in this way. The Divine Spirit cannot place a fallacious motive before the church of Christ; he places before it, as a reason for watchfulness, such passages as these, “Watch, for you know not what hour your Lord doth come;” but he knew that, from the year in which these words were uttered until the year 1851, the Lord would not be in the world in the way our friends explain these passages: therefore, the meaning they give them is not the true one—therefore they have missed the mind of the Spirit in them. It is in this way we are to view the question. We grant that Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Tertullian, and many more, held what our friends call “the personal reign,” and that they placed this in the thousand years of the first resurrection. We grant that this was a very common belief in the second century. But what of that? Will it prove that it is the mind of the Spirit, any more than the fact that many good men in 1851 believe it, will show it to be that Spirit’s mind? But more than that, we can show that, though Justin Martyr, and some others, held many of the peculiar views of premillennialism, they did not hold this one, that it might take place in their days. Perhaps our friends may call it one of the many contradictions which are to be found in the writings of the most of the fathers, that they held premillennialism and yet did not expect it to commence in their days. It may be so. But still it is the case that Tertullian and others have written such things as to show they did not expect the advent for many, many years after their time. But we need not pursue this. It is enough for our present argument to take the first century, and to say—in order that we may no more hear of this sad charge, which has been too unceremoniously thrown upon our system—that if the daily expectation of this advent be the only meaning of that motive presented to the church to stir it up, it was not placed before the primitive church; and, therefore, if these injunctions be a difficulty to our system now, it was so much more to the premillenarian system then.
But more than that. If our friends be correct in their explanation of these verses, and if the principal motive for watchfulness and activity be contained in them (and we shall presently show that this is the case), then, instead of the result which our friends desiderate, the very reverse will follow. It was not a healthy condition that the Thessalonian church was in after the time they received their first epistle till the second reached them; but if the idea of our friends had possessed them after that second arrived, and they understood how far distant the advent was from their time, they would have fallen into a more unhealthy state still. The fact is, this theory succeeds most thoroughly in making the primitive church believe that they have nothing to do with the command which the Lord addressed to ” all.” But this injunction to watch daily for the Lord’s coming is equally to them as to us, is equally to us as to them: it is to the church of all the New Testament dispensation; and, therefore, to premillennialism belongs of right this heavy accusation, that it tends to make people like the slothful and wicked servant. Leave out of view the opinions which were erroneously cherished by some of the eminent men of the early church—we say erroneously, we are now entitled to do so—and take the Christian body while the Roman empire is still standing and entire. On it rests this injunction of the Master equally as on the church of these days. But the believers know well that the second advent will not take place till long after their days; for, in the nature of things, principles are long in evolving the system to which they belong; and the apostasy was not then formed. Have they then no reason for watchfulness? If they have, and that from these very verses on which our friends love to dwell; and, if that reason be not the premillennial one, then to what does the charge come which we are examining?
We shall now show the meaning of the injunctions of which we have been speaking, and illustrate their principles. It might be done by showing that one very essential idea attaching to the church is that of personality. It is viewed in its unity very much as an individual is, and is very often spoken to in that capacity. We could construct a satisfactory enough argument upon that premise. It would leave us with some difficulties, and require us to show how the fitting-in of many details could be effected. But we have another design before our mind; we desire to show how this matter may be brought to bear on each individual’s conscience, as there can be no doubt the Lord intended it should. And now to our task.
Many an injunction is laid on the church of the Old Testament to prepare for death. So much is this the case, as that “all their lifetime they were subject to bondage through fear of death.” Death bears the most dreary aspect to them. It is painted in the most sombre colours. Its whole aspect is exhibited as terrible and forbidding; and this though many could look upon it as a bed (Isa. lvii. 2), and lie down upon it in peace, expecting by faith a happy resurrection. The motive presented to the Old Testament church, to effect the result we have been speaking of in the last few pages, was founded on the doctrine of the sudden, the unexpected, the sure approach of death. They are called to be watching for it, and to be ready to go every day. We have no sympathy with the figment of a Limbus Patrum, or the equally improper conjectures of many a rationalistic Protestant; we know that the godly entered into “Abraham’s bosom” as soon as they died, and that Abraham’s bosom was separate from hades (Luke xvi. 23), and was just the Jewish phrase for the state of glory. Still, from the nature of that dispensation under which they lived, we would have concluded that their minds would, in this way, be directed to death, as the incentive to a holy activity and watchfulness. The more one thinks of death, and the matters which must necessarily be viewed in connection with it, the more does he discover how solemn and important a place it should occupy in the thoughts of men. And in that book which professes to treat of the highest interests of men, we expect to find a prominent place assigned to this subject. And in the Old Testament we know that it is so.
But how is it that all this ceases when the New Testament church appears? How is it that we are not once directly commanded to prepare for death in all the New Testament? We know death is spoken of incidentally. It would have been strange had it not. We know the Lord uses, in his own case, and for a general example, the words, “The night cometh when no man can work: I must work while it is day.” We know also that death is referred to (e.g. Rev. ii. 10) in such a way as implies that Christians should “be up and doing.” But any one who pleases to investigate the matter will find that the motive placed before the New Testament church to urge it to be watchful, is very different from that which had previously been presented to the church of God. Compare the preacher’s message in Ecclesiastes and in 1 Thessalonians, or the epistles to the seven churches. And we can understand the reason of it. Even as one would conclude that death would be the terminating object presented to the mind of the Jew to incite him to a life of watchful energy and piety, when we remember the nature of his dispensation, and the fact that the Lord’s First Advent had not taken place; so would we, in the same a priori manner, perceive that Life, in some view of it, would be the object held before the Christian’s mind to lead to the same result, when we recollect that his Lord “hath brought life and immortality to light by the gospel.”
One requires but slight knowledge of things to perceive how the commands to prepare for the Lord’s coming—to bear in mind that the Judge standeth at the door—to watch for the Bridegroom—and other like expressions, could have no special reference to the Second Advent, in such a way as that the apostles and brethren—as that Luther and Calvin—as that Owen and Baxter—were to expect the visible descent of the Lord before they died; for the Holy Ghost presents no fallacious motive. We do not suppose any one will dispute this from Matt. xvi. 28; for it has already been shown that John, Peter, Paul, knew this was not the case; and yet the motive to watchfulness is a real one, and one given in the most solemn way. Compare Matt, xvi. 26, 27. How are we to explain this? Not surely in the way the Jews account for the non-appearance of their expected Messiah?
The church of God in all ages is one, though with a dissimilarity of dispensation. All it is required to believe will, therefore, be one too, with just the corresponding dissimilarity. The same motives urging to diligence in business, fervency of spirit, and the service of the Lord, will be presented to the whole church, and will contain these two elements, that an account has to be rendered, and that life is very short. We find death held up for this purpose to the view of one part; will it not be so to the other, only with the particular dissimilarity? That it will, our Lord’s words already quoted, and Heb. ix. 27, show clearly and indisputably. And we think a good rule of biblical interpretation is this: when a special result is desired, and when every element is alike in both the cases where it is wished, except the aspect of the motive presented to induce it, that motive is not two but one, although it may be presented in two different aspects. At least we have the reason of congruity and scriptural unity for believing so. We hear the Lord referring to death as the end of all labour in his own case, and looking upon it as a motive for increased activity. He speaks of it in such a way as to imply the generic nature of the rule; are we not, therefore, to conclude that the same thing is, in some way or other, indicated in the many injunctions given elsewhere to watch—to be diligent—to be holy—to be weaned from the world?
To be more precise. We point attention to the fact that the New Testament does not urge us to prepare for death in the same way that the Old does; but that it directs us to be ready for the Lord’s coming, and to have our loins girt and our lamps burning, not knowing when the Bridegroom may come, and the cry be heard, “Go ye out to meet him.” Indeed, it would be more correct to say of all its commands, that they urge us to prepare for life rather than for death. And yet the words, “The night cometh when no man can work,” show that both relate to one and the same event; only in different aspects. And, whether we may be able to give a satisfactory explanation of the reason of this, we maintain it forms no difficulty to our system, but does very much so to that of the premillenarians. It will not do to run away with an idea, and cast a one sided statement in the face of an opponent. Our friends are bound to look this matter directly in the face. They have met our system with it again and again. Well, can they explain it themselves? Can they face the difficulty which has now been started? They must know that the Lord places death before the minds of men as a close to all their activity, that the Old Testament does so too; and yet that our minds are called to a very different matter seemingly, throughout all the Christian volume, when it throws men upon thoughts of the future, and warns them of the possibility of a meeting with their Lord ere many days or hours have fled. We cannot see that it is very kind to shackle us with this matter till an intelligent account be given,—on their principles,—of this interesting and solemn but difficult subject. How can it be said we remove the motive and incentive to Christian watchfulness, by denying the kind of Advent they hold, when Paul and the primitive church had no such incentive held out to them ? [TD: And how much more for those following the first generation to which full preterists lay total fulfillment of the prophecy!] How can they say these injunctions given to the New Testament church to watch for the Lord’s coming mean that they should expect the Second Advent every day, when the Master himself shows that it is death which is referred to—referred to, indeed, in a different way from what it was before, but still referred to? And, if not, then is there no command to prepare for death in this new dispensation; and that event described in the Old Testament as so terrible, is made nothing of in the New; not only is its sting taken away, but all thought of it is lifted away; it is not even mentioned in such a way as to stir men up: and those who knew that the Advent was far off from them are thus left without any motive for watchfulness and activity!
We are now prepared to show (at least to make the attempt, for we move with diffidence into the field that is stretching before us), that the hour of death is referred to in those passages of which our friends have made so much use; and still farther to prove that it is they who remove the motives to Christian watchfulness, and give room and reason to the foolish virgins to fall asleep, by explaining all these peculiar texts according to their ideas of the Second Advent. This is a grave charge. When directed against the system we defend, we have felt it was a serious charge. We should not like to sit at ease in any system that lay open to such a heavy accusation. We think our friends will not— friends in the real meaning of the word,—for we love some of them much, and are persuaded they do the same of us. We know they are earnest men. It is their deliverance from an error we aim at.
There are two ways in which we would explain the fact, that when Christians are called upon to be ready for death, the command is expressed in such words as these, “The coming of the Lord draweth nigh,” “The Judge standeth at the door,” “Watch, for you know not what hour your Lord doth come.” So far as we can characterize one phase of the difference between the old and the new dispensations, we would do it thus:— The Jew was told that his system was to fade into that which was more perfect, so as to become old and vanish away when the new covenant was established. His religion is to die into a brighter and a better. His religious life is to contemplate an end. So far as he is a believer, he has the bright hopes that we cherish; but so far as he is under a system, he is—to compare Job, chapter xiv., with the words used by Paul in Hebrews viii. 13—like an old man ready every day to vanish from the land of the living. Death is the terminating object to him ; eternity to us: he passes onward to death; we to eternity. The motive urging him to diligence is that he has to die; that which incites us to the same is that we have to live—to live eternally. He must watch for death; we for eternity. No one will mistake us, as if we assumed the views of those who imagine the Jew knew nothing of a resurrection. He did know of it. Job knew of it. And, if it had suited the design of Old Testament revelation, we should have been made better acquainted with the secret experience which the believers undoubtedly had in this particular. What we view at present is the genius of the two dispensations, in the exhibition of which lies one of the many internal evidences of the divinity of the Scriptures: the Old Testament speaking much of death and little of resurrection, the New speaking little of death and very much of the resurrection and the Second Advent; and with our view on that, we affirm that when the New enjoins us to wait and watch for the Lord’s coming, it means the same thing as the Old does when urging us to remember the days of darkness which shall be many, and to seek the Lord in our youth, as there shall be no knowledge nor device in the grave. To the church as a body, the Second Advent occupies the same position as the first did to the Jewish church: it is its consummation, it should keep its eye fixed steadfastly upon it. But to individuals, as such, the motive for diligence in the one case is, that they may die at any moment; and in the other, that at any moment they may look upon their Lord.
There is a unity and precision in Holy Scripture— a unity of idea, and a precision in keeping that idea before the mind of the church. The idea of the Scriptures before the time of Christ is, that men have to die, and therefore that they should be watchful and well prepared. That which obtains in the Gospels and Epistles is, that when they close their eyes on this world, they open them on the unseen and the eternal, and therefore that they should be as men making ready to meet the King. And seeing they are not now in bondage to death, but the servants of Jesus Christ, they should remember their Lord hath the keys of hell and of death; that he hath taken the sting out of it, and therefore that gloomy death should not be the terminating object on which their minds may rest, but Him who hath power over it—who is its governor—who prevents it from touching them till he who hath the key in his hand come and open. This is a truth; it is a truth which the New Testament is intended to teach. And with a precision, beautiful because divine, it says little about death—that would terrify—that would be the language of bondage again; but it speaks of the coming of Him who hath the key of death,—and that is new covenant language—it encourages—it keeps us in peace.
Now, if it can be proved that the apostolic church knew the Second Advent was far distant, and if it can be proved that in point of fact the church of the first eighteen centuries has had nothing to do with it as a fact of history—and both of these can be demonstrated; and if it can be proved that the wakeful language under discussion was directly and personally addressed to these, then the expression must mean something else than the Advent, as we are accustomed to use the word. And if this be not its meaning, then we are obliged to search about for something else that will suit; and if reason has not been given to show that the day of our death is meant thereby, we should despair of reaching the truth on any disputed point. Wherefore, since the Lord hath the key of death, and Christians have now to do with him, and not with it,—when the inspired Word urges them, like the Jewish church, to prepare for death, it rightly does so by telling them to watch for the Lord’s coming. It is no longer legal but gospel language that is used—it is no longer the words of bondage, but of hope, and joy, and life that are spoken; it is the language of the new covenant, for the old has vanished away. And with a correct view of all things connected with the covenant of grace, one could, a priori, say, what in fact is the case, that we would nowhere in the New Testament be told to prepare for death, but for the coming of the Lord.
One expression, “The Judge standeth at the door,” leads us to the second mode of explanation. It certainly implies that when the Lord comes to a man, the man is then and there at the bar of judgment. He passes from this world to the judgment-seat, there being no interval of time between death and judgment. This is the ground we take up, and trust to explain in a clear and distinct manner. We have no patience with the explanations given by Bengel and others to the command, “Watch, for you know not the day nor the hour;” as if it were a mere play upon the word you, or as if this were the case before the Lord’s death and resurrection, but not so afterwards. We take the words in their widest and most literal sense, and believe it can be shown that the most satisfactory meaning they can bear is the one indicated above. Surely they lead us to realize the judgment as very near to us. If we were sure that the day of judgment were to be next week, what an effect it would have upon the church! But surely the same stirring effects should follow our realizing the fact opened up in these words, “The Judge standeth at the door.” There must be something real, something solemn, something awful in them. We cannot see that they mean any thing less than this, that any living man may have the consciousness of standing at the tribunal ere many hours may pass away. It is the realizing of this that shall lead us to “paint for eternity”*—”to walk honestly as in the day”—”to perfect holiness in the fear of the Lord”—” not to sleep as do others, but to watch and be sober.” We shall attempt the explanation of this.
When the Lord comes to a man as the Judge and passes sentence upon him, it is a person, a living agent that is at the bar. Judgment cannot pass upon a thing that is dead. Death itself, even when personified, is not said to he judged, but only cast into the lake of fire. And therefore a dead body cannot be judged; it must first be raised up, and in a reunion with its soul be viewed in the person who lived, and spake, and acted. This person with an identity of the most exact kind, is to appear before the Judge and give an account of the things transacted by means of the body, and “while in the body.” But at death this person is separated into the two parts of his nature, and we can see the dead bodies in our world for thousands of years. And seeing this to be the case, how can we say that the coming of the Lord takes place at death, and that when he comes it is as the Judge,—how can we say there is no interval of time between death and judgment? For that judgment is one of persons, and not of parts. Even the special sentence that is passed upon the soul at death does not seem either to exhaust the meaning of this or to reach it. For the soul of a man is not the person of a man, any more than his body. The way in which this difficulty has commonly been got over is by saying that “as the tree falls so it must lie ; as death leaves, judgment will overtake us;”—as much as to say that He who comes to us at death is the Judge, though the act of judgment may not be entered upon immediately. And hence, when we are watching and preparing for our departure from the world, we may do so, and should, with our eye resting on the judgment-seat. Now, all this is quite true; but we think there is a way of bringing men nearer to the Judge and the eternal sentence than this, which may be made intelligible without going very deeply into pneumatology.
Unless we are led away with the error of those who think the soul falls asleep at death, and remains so till the resurrection, we must believe that judgment is passed upon it at the instant of death. If it exist and have the consciousness of existing (and reason and consciousness are inseparable from souls), it must have the consciousness of existing in some condition. But such a consciousness implies a virtual or real act of judicial appointment, or of recognition, which indeed ultimately comes to the same thing, implying, as it does, an act of divine volition. At death, therefore, if the soul pass into glory or into hell, it does so by reason of a sentence. Wherefore to it, the coming of the Lord at death is the coming of the Judge. There cannot be any interval of time between temporal death and the judgment of the soul; for that would be an interval spent by it in no recognised state, which is entirely opposite to both Scripture and reason. Now, if there be no interval between death and the sentence which assigns the soul in its consciousness to a particular condition, there is none between death and eternal judgment; for a sentence which cannot in nature admit of repeal, does not in nature admit of reiteration. It may be made public to others, and that publication may be thousands of years after; but this does not constitute a reiteration of sentence to the consciousness of the subject: that consciousness is necessarily an everlasting one from the moment in which it is first excited. We at once grant that the general judgment means something else than this; that it is visible, that it has visible subjects, and a universe of them as its objects. But we maintain that there must be this special act of judgment on each at his death, assigning his soul to its proper doom, unless we are prepared to accept the dreams of those who speak of the sleep of the soul, or mayhap the still grosser views of Priestley; and therefore that when the Lord comes at death, it is as the Judge he comes,—so far, at least, as the soul is concerned.
Thereafter we do not suppose there is any succession of time with it. Whatever be its state, and whatever be the extent of beatific vision and blessedness it enjoys—and it is much higher than we can now conceive— the believer’s soul ceases to be subjected to time. It may be that all it learned while in the body by experience or by faith is now a realized enjoyment; it may be its state consists in an enlarged comprehension of all it knew before, and the delighted rapture in, or absorption into, the united objects of its faith; whatever it be we may hardly be able to tell, but this we know, that a soul has no consciousness of time or of succession save when it is in union with a body. It is one of the fundamental axioms of metaphysics that a soul has no respect to space or time, and cannot be subjected to the consciousness of time’s succession save in union with that which has respect both to space and to time, even the body. There is then no past and future with it any longer; it abides in a constant present, feeding in blissful intuition upon God and upon Christ, according to the extent of the knowledge and faith it arrived at when under the means of grace, until that, in union with the body again, the redeemed person shall go on in a growth of knowledge and of blessedness to which there is no limit. It is an incident attaching to our state here, that we have the past and the future in our ideas; but when the immortal spirit quits this sublunary sphere, it has them no longer—till the resurrection. This is a great truth craved after and approached by such writers as Emerson, but one which is not to be had here. It may be predicated of the spirits of just men made perfect, and it may be approached in endless glory, but assuredly we know but little of it now. We know something, however. We know so much as to confirm its truth. Even now the soul exhibits this its nature, as if it would tear asunder the bands which tie it to a succession, by embracing the mighty past and the glorious future,—the one objectified by memory, and the other by faith,—and absorbing them into its own delighted (or sorrowful) present intuitions: a daily, a perennial consciousness. But it is in part.
Wherefore, when we view the soul of Abraham as now in glory, we cannot say that it is an older soul than when it quitted his body, for such a language is unknown in eternity (and pneumatology), and Abraham’s soul is in eternity. To us, to the consciousness of humanity, many centuries have elapsed since Abraham died; but he has no consciousness of that. So that if we take the idea of a judgment passed upon a person at his death, it is right to say, so far as his soul is concerned, that there is, and that the Lord’s coming is the coming of the Judge. But this is not the person that meets the Lord the Judge, but only his soul; and therefore is this true in the case of the body? Unless the body pass from existence to the judgment-seat, without being conscious of any interval of time, it would not be solid language to affirm of that statement, “The Judge standeth at the door,” that it is addressed to men as persons, so to be found true in their personal experience or consciousness. But the mere statement of this proviso is quite enough to obtain the conclusion we desire. Every one will perceive at once that a dead body has no consciousness, for it has not even sensation; and therefore that there is no consciousness of time’s elapse with it—that is, there is no elapse of time to it. We—living men—are conscious that years pass away between the time we commit a loved one to the tomb, and the Lord’s descent to judgment. But our ideas are no rule in the case. We arrive at the true idea in this matter according to the consciousness of the dead one, and that extends no farther than death, till it be resumed again in resurrection; and it is resumed without any perception of an interruption. If Adam’s soul is no older now than it was when he died, no more is his body. When we see him in the resurrection, he will be exactly nine hundred and thirty years old.
But when we disjoin soul and body to arrive the more easily at the desired result of an investigation, we must not forget that it is only for the sake of furthering the inquiry. It is a person that is the proper subject of judgment and of sentence. To the person dying, He who hath the key of death comes, and it is as the Judge he comes. And whatever may be the difficulty of reconciling the fact of the conscious existence of the soul during the disembodied state (and it does so exist) with the fact that there is no interval between death and judgment to any man, we hold it as none the less true, that immediately when a man dies, he has the consciousness of standing before the tribunal of Christ with the assembled humanity. We, thinking or speaking about the dead, take for granted such interval, because there is such to us; but it is of the nature of Bacon’s idola, and should cease from guiding our inquiries into absolute truth. There is no such interval to the dead; there is none to the soul, there is none to the body, there is none to the person—his consciousness flows on unbroken to his own perception, though it seems broken to ours. We think we could even pass securely through an explanation of the difficulty which may be supposed to arise from the disembodied existence and consciousness of souls. But it would lead too much away from the design of this essay and too deeply into abstract reasoning. We seek merely to obtain the fact. And the fact, all paradoxical as it may appear, has been obtained. Will any one disprove it? Will any one maintain the intervening of a space of time between death and judgment, between death and resurrection, in the consciousness of the departed? Then we are prepared to show the legitimate consequences of such a position. And we think they are such as no sound Protestant theologian would like to homologate.
But we do not suppose such a thing will be undertaken. We hardly imagine more will even be thought necessary to prove our position. But if more be required, then here it is. It is manifest that there is, abstractly speaking, no real difference between extension into space and extension into time. The eternal existence of Jehovah is the infinite extension of Him who is life in one aspect of it, even as the infinitude of Him who is life is extension in the other aspect of it; so as that immensity embraces both eternal existence and infinite pervasion. On this principle we can view all men standing before the Lord when the covenant was made with Adam, only extending from the first parent backwards into a distance in space, instead of downwards into a distance in time; which distance of space entirely vanishes if we were to view it in a more metaphysical way, and speak of the one humanity. But in order to get hold of the idea of individuals, let us admit the idea of succession, distance, extension. We are standing, suppose, upon some height, on what the Babbins would call the Kotet fimeth, the precision or pinnacle of truth, and we see the congregated human race extending away into the background beneath us. We see the whole: Adam and his race. Into the midst of them as fallen, He who is Saviour, King, and Judge comes. The gospel cry is raised. Many believe; many reject. To many the sound reaches not at all. Meanwhile, amidst the activity of the various mechanisms which mould and develop humanity, the time approaches when all must pay the debt of a broken covenant, and when He who is in the midst of them as Judge will ” take account of his servants.” They must die. The Judge lifts his arm, and the sword of justice, doom, death, flashes before the startled gaze of that universe of beings. The stroke is given. It begins in Adam’s house and sweeps over all his race. We see it in its fatal progress till its work be accomplished. The Lord comes to each in particular, and he comes to all. He who is infinite embraces all that extension in one fell stroke. Leave out the element of succession, view them all as dying at once, and each one is so old, and no more. No one is older when standing at judgment than when he died. The humanity dies, the humanity looks on the Judge, the humanity is in eternity. To that multitude the Lord comes; all of it, and each one in particular, is urged to prepare for the Lord’s coming, “for the Judge standeth at the door.”
But we must leave this. We do not think many who give thought to the matter will see very much difficulty in understanding how a soul that has in it the consciousness of judicial sentence, during what appears to living men thousands of years previously, may stand before the public tribunal of the Lord as part of that person who is then and there to give account for the things done in the body, without implying a reiteration of judgment and sentence. Every one who knows the nature of conscience, and who knows that the sentence of the soul at death is one in conscience, will have no difficulty in the matter. Wherefore, when the New Testament urges us to prepare for the coming of the Lord, it means the coming of Him who is the Judge, the first steps of eternal judgment being the stroke of death. The instant we close our eyes on time we open them upon eternity; for, personally, we are not conscious of any interval, the consciousness of the soul terminating on something else than either time or space. The moment we cease to have before our eyes the dear relations who weep around our dying bed, we open them (so far as our consciousness is concerned—forgive the repetition) upon our Judge, seated on the great white throne, and see them standing there with us. Yea, each individual arises in the resurrection morn with the consciousness of the last word of his lips and thought of his mind present to him, in the very same way as we perceive we have spoken the moment after we have done so. We have heard of men being struck dead with the oath of profanity half-uttered in their lips; they will awake, feeling that it is just going forth into an utterance, and their eyes shall behold their Judge. There was a city once, so runs the tale, which was instantaneously turned into a petrifaction. Men with their mouths in the act of uttering words were sealed up in that position. The very drop from the cistern did not reach the ground. Every thing stood motionless and still. But the reviving wand was waved, the drop reached the trough, and the words flowed from the lips of the speakers, who were all unconscious of any interruption. Men have been turned into that grave where ” there is no work, nor device, nor knowledge, nor wisdom,” where “the dead know not any thing,” with words on their lips. When the trumpet sounds, it will seem to the resuscitated dead as if the words were just proceeding from their mouths. Myriads would give the world then to awake with the consciousness of uttering such words as Stephen, and such breathings as those of Dr Owen or Dr David Welsh. But it is too late. The Lord is come!
This is the view indicated in our Westminster Confession: “As Christ would have us to be certainly persuaded that there shall be a day of judgment, both to deter all men from sin, and for the greater consolation of the godly in their adversity; so will he have that day unknown to men, that they may shake off all carnal security, and be always watchful, because they know not at what hour the Lord will come, and may be even prepared to say, Come, Lord Jesus, come quickly. Amen.”
We may hence see another reason why the Jew was told to prepare for death. To him the Lord had not yet come as the Redeemer, and he could not have understood such injunctions as are given to prepare for him as the Judge. The fact is a true one, that he had to prepare for this Judge; but because he could not have understood it, because he would naturally have applied such statements to the coming of the Messiah, he is told to do with his might whatever his hand might find to do, for he would soon be in the grave. Then, indeed, to him, as well as to us, the judgment opened. Thus, every thing in the distinctive nature of the two dispensations, and an accurate analysis of things as they really are, lead us to explain these injunctions of the New Testament as similar to those of the Old—in both to be ready for death—in both to be waiting for the coming of the Lord.
We should like to ask now, whether the system we oppose or the one we defend be the more calculated to make the people prepare for eternity, or, which is the same thing, to be ready and waiting for the Lord’s coming 1 In the one, a false meaning is put upon certain passages, and a doctrine preached from them, which could exercise no influence whatever on the minds of those who knew that the Second Advent was far future from the time in which they lived; yea, indeed, there could be no salutary influence exerted by these passages (with our friends’ meaning of them) upon the church of the first eighteen centuries, unless we imagine the Holy Ghost countenancing a fable, for to them this meaning of it has been a fable. But in the common system, which has obtained all over the church, the true meaning of these texts being discovered will be owned by the Spirit of the Father and the Son—as in Apostolic, Reformation, Puritan times—to produce no sentimental fancy, but a solid and holy awe upon the spirits of men; for whereas the one leaves us to look away into the future for our Judge, the other brings him near, even to the door. I cannot but feel that I may step to the tribunal with this pen in the act of describing these very words. The Lord may come upon us this very night. We cannot tell. We must watch. Oh, that men understood this! An earnest, believing knowledge of this would lead to a ministry of fire. We could not lose ourselves in vague dreams and controversies if we were living thus near to our Judge. Accustom the people’s minds to this. They may find it difficult for a little to understand such modes of thinking and hermeneutik, but why? Only because they are kept conversant with certain words, and phrases, and ideas; stereotyped well-nigh over the ministry of the church. But why should this continue? What is the use of our Hebrew and Greek, our Logic and Philosophy? Is it not to reach the mind of the Holy Ghost, and to guide the mind of the age? We tremble when we think that a false view of these passages, or a dead stereotyped way of explaining them, by men who are otherwise in earnest and holy, is depriving the church of one of the most powerful incentives to self-denial and holiness.
But we must pass from this inviting subject, merely remarking that if the Bible have reference to the whole church, then to draw the doctrine of the Second Advent (as our friends use the words) from passages intended to guide the whole church into diligence and watchfulness, would have been at once opposed by the apostles—is opposed to the mind of the Lord’s Spirit. There will, indeed, be the Second Advent, when every eye shall see the Lord; and, no doubt, these passages contain an intimation thereof, for there is a pregnancy of meaning in them, as shall be explained presently. But if one volume tells us that this will not take place till many ages pass away, and yet urges us to be in daily expectation of meeting our Lord, we are forced to conclude that two aspects of it are presented. And we believe it has been made tolerably clear that our premillenarian friends have missed the meaning of these their favourite passages; and instead of their charge against our system being true,—the charge, namely, of making people act like the foolish virgins,—it tells altogether and fatally against their own.