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Predictions Respecting the Second Advent of Jesus
"The first attempt to assign all to the destruction of Jerusalem until we reach Matt. xxv. 31, is utterly untenable and indeed absurd. No words can be plainer than those of Matt. xxiv. 29, 30, 31. If they do not denote the visible coming of the Son of man in heaven to exercise judgment over all the tribes of earth, no words whatever suffice to enunciate this doctrine. Nothing but the extreme stress of the difficulty, extreme reluctance to admit the ignominious failure of prophecy, could ever drive a sensible man to pretend that these three verses mean nothing but the overthrow of one city—the dissolution of one nation."
PREDICTIONS RESPECTING THE SECOND ADVENT OF JESUS.
It might be a rash thing to assert that, because Jesus did not predict either the mode or the particulars of his death or his resurrection, therefore he said nothing of his return to judge the world at the time of the consummation of all things. It is quite possible that a Messiah who anticipated no deadly opposition from earthly rulers, and who looked forward to a quiet acceptance of his claims from the great body of the people, might still declare that to him was committed the office of judging the world when the day of the great assize was come. In exact proportion to the weakening of the old notions which (as in the philosophy of the three friends of Job) imagined that all wickedness had its retribution in this present life, the conviction would be strengthened that when the fields were ready to the harvest, the great Lord of the universe would send forth his angels, who should gather the wheat into his barn and cast the chaff into the unquenchable fire. Over this mighty work who could so worthily preside as the chosen Messiah, who had once appeared in lowly form to preach to the poor and meek in spirit the acceptable year of the Lord 1
Hence, before we can say whether these predictions were or were not made by Jesus, we have to submit them to a critical analysis.
These predictions form the subject of the great discourse which fills Matthew xxiv., xxv., and which is given in a shortened form in Mark xiii., and in a more fragmentary shape in Luke xvii. and xxi.
According to Matthew, as Jesus went out from the temple for the last time, his disciples call his attention to the magnificence of its structure, and receive for answer the announcement that the days should come when this temple should be razed to its foundations, and not one stone be left upon another. To their second demand for the time of these events, and the signs of their fulfilment, Jesus replies by warning them against false Christs, and against thinking that the wars, famines, pestilences, and earthquakes, which should precede the great catastrophe, were the immediate tokens of the final consummation. These are but the beginnings of sorrows (xxiv. 8). They were, however, to be sure that the destruction predicted was about to fall on the temple, when they should see the abomination of desolation stand in the holy place (15), or, as the third Gospel puts it (xxi. 20), when they see Jerusalem encompassed about with armies. Then it would be time for all who wished to escape the great ruin to flee from the city, and well would it be for those who were not then with child, or mothers of young infants, or if this wretched time came not during the winter. In those days the false Christs would again appear (Matt. xxiv. 24), but they should produce no effect on all who remembered that the coming of the Son of Man would be sudden and abrupt as the flash of lightning which gleams across the heaven (27). Following immediately on this fearful tribulation (29) the sun and moon should be darkened, and the stars should fall and the sign of the Son of Man should be seen in the heaven, and all mankind should be summoned to stand before his great tribunal. On seeing these things they might be as sure that the end was come as they know that summer may be looked for when the fig-tree puts out its leaves. As to the time, thus much was determined, that the generation then living should not pass away until all had been fulfilled (34). Thus much was surer than the established order of the universe (35): all that was left uncertain was the exact day and hour (36), which was unknown even to the angels of heaven or to the Messiah himself. Hence, although all should be accomplished within the space of some thirty years, yet the uncertainty as to the precise period would leave room for all the worldliness, sensuality, and carelessness which marked the generation of Noah, and thus the advent of the Messiah would come upon them as unexpectedly as if they had been told that it might take place at any time within a thousand years. Hence the paramount need of incessant watchfulness for all who would win their Lord's approval at his coming.
This discourse, as given in Matthew and Mark, is to all appearance eminently coherent; but if so, it asserts positively, not only that the temple and city should be destroyed within a few years, but that the existing order of the world should be brought to an end, and the final judgment of all mankind be completed within the life-time of the then present generation. But, although the destruction of Jerusalem was accomplished very closely in the manner described (so closely as to make the predictions read like a history of past events), yet after the lapse of 1800 years the world continues much as it was in the days of Themistocles or Nebuchadnezzar. Hence it follows that, in so thinking, Jesus was mistaken ; and, therefore, we are brought to this dilemma. Either he announced the destruction of Jerusalem and the end of the world as events which would come to pass within thirty years, and in this case his words have been falsified, or he did not make this announcement, and in this case these discourses are a fabrication after the destruction of the city but before the time when the idea of an immediate advent was seen to be a mistake.
In a strictly historical analysis like the present all consideration of the effects which our conclusions may have on our conceptions of Jesus in his moral and spiritual character must be rigidly set aside. All that we have to determine is, did he, as a matter of fact, deliver the discourse in Matt. xxiv., xxv., or did he not. Yet we may be pardoned for saying that, even if we decide in the negative, no harm is thereby inflicted on Christianity unless we assume that Christianity is an indivisible phenomenon, the same in the days of Hildebrand and Innocent and Pio Nono as it was in the first century after the ministry of Jesus. These predictions have nothing to do with those " primal and indefeasible truths " which alone shall never pass away, and of which, to adopt Dean Milman's words ('Latin Christianity,' Book iv. ch. x.) " men may attain to a clearer, more full, comprehensive, and balanced sense then has as yet been generally received in the Christian world." If any will have it that their Christianity is imperilled by the laying bare of historical contradictions, the fault must be with them and not with the unchanging law of Him who is the same yesterday and to-day and for ever.
To those who seek to reconcile the phenomena of the Gospel with the popular ideas respecting the Messiahship of Jesus, the inconsistency of these discourses with the subsequent history of the world presents the gravest difficulty. Efforts have accordingly been made to prove either that Jesus spoke wholly of events now still future or of events all of which are past, or that in different parts of his discourse he referred to the destruction of Jerusalem, and to the final judgment of all mankind. Of the first two pleas we need take no notice, because neither opinion finds acceptance with any religious bodies or schools in this country: of the third, which is received by all self-styled orthodox persons, it is enough to say that the theory stands or falls with the presence or absence of definite notes of time assigning the several parts of the discourse to the two different events of which it treats.
These marks of time are not to be found ; and the commentators move at random, parcelling out the various portions of the discourse to one or other event much at their own convenience. The first attempt to assign all to the destruction of Jerusalem until we reach Matt. xxv. 31, is utterly untenable and indeed absurd. No words can be plainer than those of Matt. xxiv. 29, 30, 31. If they do not denote the visible coming of the Son of man in heaven to exercise judgment over all the tribes of earth, no words whatever suffice to enunciate this doctrine. Nothing but the extreme stress of the difficulty, extreme reluctance to admit the ignominious failure of prophecy, could ever drive a sensible man to pretend that these three verses mean nothing but the overthrow of one city—the dissolution of one nation.
This attempt having failed, the next effort is to throw back the point of transition, and it has thus been maintained that the destruction of the city and temple is spoken of only to the end of the 28th verse of ch. xxiv., the remainder referring altogether to the yet future judgment at the end of the world. The answer is that even in the first Gospel the final consummation is announced as coming "immediately after" the former tribulation ; and to avoid this difficulty it is stated that the word translated immediately implied not chronological sequence, but the abrupt or unexpected occurrence of an event indefinitely distant. Thus Matthew is taken to mean, " When the tribulation of the days in which Jerusalem shall be destroyed shall have passed away, then after some indefinite interval, which may amount to myriads of years, all of a sudden the great consummation will fall like a thunderbolt upon mankind." To this the reply is (1) that the interpretation is ungrammatical, and that if this be the meaning of the words translated immediately (tu6tue &t), any words may be made to mean anything; (2) that the parallel passage in Mark (xiii. 24) states distinctly that the signs of the final consummation shall be seen in the very days which follow the former tribulation ; and (3) that Jesus himself is described as saying that everything should be accomplished within the limits of the existing generation.
Driven to bay, yet not altogether despairing, such writers have sought to show that the word generation (ytv'ta) does not mean that which is popularly denoted by it, but either a " nation," or a " dispensation." Some try to interpret it of the Jewish nation. The answer is that Jesus, speaking to those who had asked him for the signs which should precede the destruction of the city and the second coming of Messiah, tells them (after speaking of the darkening of the sun and moon and the sending forth of the angels, 29-31), " Likewise ye, when ye see all these things, know that it is near, even at the doors (33)" ; and then follows the solemn assurance that that
gneration should not pass away till all be fulfilled. / referring to another passage (Matt. xvi. 28) not only do we find that the great consummation would come during that period, but that some standing before Jesus should " not taste of death till they see the Son of Man coming in his Kingdom."
It follows that in these discourses Jesus is described as placing in the closest connexion the fall of Jerusalem, the destruction of the temple, and the end of the world; and that this connexion has been falsified by subsequent history. The efforts made to resolve the signs of the last judgment into a series of figures and metaphors, referring to the general education of mankind, are not worth noticing. It may be enough to say that the words could not possibly have been understood in this sense by any who heard them ; and that if they had suspected this to be their meaning they would have turned away with the painful conviction that they had been cheated and cajoled. The idea that Jesus could thus in one and the same discourse pass without sign or notice from one subject to another, using throughout ambiguous and equivocal phrases, while he knew that they would not be understood, would go far towards exhibiting him as an impostor. We need only add that this ignominy would be put upon him solely and wholly by orthodox theologians.
On these grounds we might be compelled to say that Jesus in thus coupling the final judgment chronologically with the destruction of Jerusalem, expressed his own sincere conviction, and that this conviction was a delusion. But the fact that we have not the slightest warrant for affirming that Jesus predicted either his sufferings, his death, or his resurrection, at once brings the historical character of these discourses into the gravest suspicion : and to those who believe the fourth Gospel to be the work of the apostle John, this suspicion ought to be
heightened by the combination of certain phenomena. For in the second Gospel (xiii. 3) these discourses are delivered, not before the general body of the disciples, but privately to Peter, James, John, and Andrew : hence John was the only Evangelist who heard them, and he is the only Evangelist who takes not the slightest notice of them. Is it then possible to believe that these discourses were ever uttered at all ? The desperate exigencies of the case have indeed driven some to say that John was purposely silent on the subject, because he wished to give no encouragement to a Gnostic or Docetic philosophy; but as we have already seen (Chapter iv. p. 215) the fourth Gospel relates the most Docetic of all these miracles, the walking on the sea ; and the Evangelist would have poured disgrace on his calling and office if he had suppressed what he must have felt to be vital truth merely because he feared that the consequences might be not quite what he should wish them to be. Hence, if the writer of the fourth Gospel was the apostle John, that is, was the only Evangelist who heard the question and reply about the fall of the temple, no reasonable ground remains for believing that Jesus spoke the discourse about that event and the second advent which the Synoptics put into his mouth.
For the origin of these discourses we are in no way bound to account. It is enough to have shown that they are utterly unhistorical. Yet it may be worth while to note the singular exactness with which every particular relating to the destruction of the city and temple was realized in the overthrow of the city by Titus. Thus one portion of the prophecy has been as signally verified as the other has been contradicted by later history. This exact correspondence between one prophecy and its fulfilment, coupled with the complete failure in the further predictions, makes it a matter of certainty that the utterances respecting the fall of Jerusalem are pictures drawn after the events which they are said to foretell, and that the predictions respecting the final judgment belong to that period during which the conviction of the immediate return of the Messiah was present with an overpowering force to the little society of Christians. Thus we see that these discourses were composed while the incidents of the destruction of Jerusalem were fresh in the minds of the writers, and before the anticipations of an immediate general judgment had been shaken by the lapse of time. May we not infer that these discourses were drawn up before the writer of 2 Thessalonians ii. 2 found it needful to inform his disciples that they were not necessarily to expect the return of Jesus as the judge within their own lifetime, and before the writer of 2 Peter iii. 8, was constrained to affirm that with God one day might be a thousand years ?
For those who are not hampered by the traditional notions respecting the authorship of the fourth Gospel it is easy to account for its silence on this vital topic. It was written not by an apostle, nor in the circle of those who in the early ages of Christianity looked for an immediate visible return of Jesus; but after the scoffers had arisen who said that in spite of all prophecies to the contrary everything continued as it had been long ago. In short it was the expression of a later mode of thought, which for visible and palpable signs had substituted a spiritual presence. In this Gospel also there is a judgment, but it is in no way connected with the fall of the Jewish polity; nor is the judgment heralded by portentous phenomena on the earth or in the heavens.
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