SOME EVILS OF PRE-MILLENNIALISM.
TRUTH is very precious. In our quest for it we should spare no pains. All truth is so interdependent that indifference to any part of it may make impossible the fullest understanding of it all. A false view of what may be thought a subordinate truth, may distort a whole system of belief. Considerations like these are sufficient to justify the labor given to the preparation of this treatise. There are, however, as the author believes, more specific and practical reasons as well. There inhere in the pre-millennial system not a few tendencies which are most unfortunate— tendencies which not only affect thought, but also the life of individuals and the general activities of churches in a way that is not good. In this concluding chapter it is proposed to refer to these tendencies as they come to light in the course of this discussion, and give them a separate and fuller consideration. The reader is asked to excuse any repetition which this makes necessary.
Underlying the whole pre-millennial system is the ultra-literal interpretation of the Old Testament Scriptures, which commits Pre-millennialists to many conclusions in contradiction to what seems to be the plainest teachings of the New. The kingdom of God or of heaven as described in Old Testament prophecy, literally taken, is to be one of material splendor upon the earth. Therefore they hold it is not yet established, in defiance of the teaching of the New Testament. Or, seeing that both our Lord and John the Baptist declare the immediate establishment of the kingdom, in terms too plain to be gainsaid, they assume that their expectation was defeated because the Jews refused to accept our Lord as Messianic King, and the inauguration of the kingdom had to be deferred to His second coming. But this compels them to accept these unspeakable conclusions: Our Lord did not understand Old Testament prophecy respecting His first coming. He was ignorant of the treatment He should receive from the Jews, and it came upon Him as a surprise. His expectation was defeated, and He actually had to change His plan. He at first shared in the false expectation of His followers that He was to mount an earthly throne rather than go to the Cross. Had the Jews received Him, He would not have died and made an atonement for sin. Had the Jews received Him, therefore, salvation would have been without atonement, or an atonement would have been made in some other way.
This same ultra-literal interpretation also forces them to believe, not only in the restoration of the Jews to their own land, but also that they are to constitute the dominant factor in this kingdom, as our Lord from His capital, Jerusalem, sways His sceptre in exceeding majesty over a subject world, although Paul knows of no such distinction for them in the chapters, Rom. 9-11, in which he traces their future history.
Some Pre-millennialists shrink back from other conclusions which just as surely follow from this literal interpretation. Others, more logically consistent, feel they can do nothing else but accept them, while they cling to this system of interpretation. They therefore hold, not only that the Jews are to constitute the chief factor in this future kingdom, but that the Gentiles are to be subject to the Jews. Those who are opposed to the Jews are to be smitten as were the Canaanites of old. The Jewish rites and ceremonies are to be restored, and priests and Levites are again to tread the courts of a temple of transcendent glory, and offer sacrifices and observe the feasts and new moons. While perhaps none would be prepared to believe that this perfected Judaism, with all the world proselytes to the Jews or subject to them, is to be the final condition in the millennium, yet this is the last vision of its glory which prophets see, and they have no right to stop short of the full conclusion to which this ultra-literal interpretation leads. If it is used to support a theory, it must also be accepted, when it leads to conclusions which subvert all our conceptions of the wisdom of the divine plan, by making the climax of the religious progress of the ages a retrogression to the Judaism with which it well-nigh began.
It is also to be noticed that this scheme of interpretation makes it necessary for its advocates to separate the spheres covered by Old Testament prophecy and New Testament teachings. So evidently do the prophecies of the Old Testament, interpreted in the literal way which alone can give support to the pre-millennial theory, refer to altogether different conditions than those contemplated by New Testament writers, that leading Pre-millennialists can only escape the difficulty by asserting that the Old Testament prophets had no visions of the Church and of the gospel dispensation. From our Lord’s first coming, with His life, death and resurrection, until His second coming, there is a hiatus in prophecy, Pre-millennialists themselves being judges. There is no hint of the condition of things the prophets picture, if what they declare is to be taken literally, in the teaching and outlook of the whole New Testament, with the exception of Rev. 20:1-6, and perhaps an allusion or two in Peter. The thought of New Testament writers was of the continuance of the conditions and agencies then existing in connection with the Church, until the end. Beyond this church condition they saw nothing, expected nothing. Jews and Gentiles were to be equal, and the highest boon for both was to be saved through Christ, as men were being then saved. If, as these brethren admit, Old Testament prophecy, literally taken, was altogether inconsistent with New Testament conditions as declared by its apostles and inspired men, so that these prophecies must refer to another period, almost in contrast, is it not strange the New Testament writers give no hint of being aware of any such Old Testament prediction, or of anticipating any such period? Now, if the literal is the true interpretation of these prophecies, must not the New Testament writers, especially with their inspired insight, have reached similar conclusions! How comes it, then, that they are silent about it all ? Nay, how comes it that Paul, with his heart yearning to comfort his people, in the very chapters, Rom. 9-11, in which he traced their future, does not hint at any such pre-eminence as the literal interpretation of the Old Testament gives to them, but makes their conversion the supreme blessing they are to expect? Why is it that their view of the future of the history of redemption ends with the close of the dispensation in which they lived, and the coming of Christ? We are sure this tendency, fostered by the hyper-literal interpretation, to make Old and New Testament teaching irreconcilable, except upon impossible assumptions, is most unwholesome and unsafe.
This ultra-literal interpretation was once more associated with outbreaks of fanaticism than it is now. It was also once used to secure scriptural justification for persecutions. To it, to-day, we are indebted for several false beliefs which are being pressed with great vigor. It is chiefly responsible for the materialistic annihilation theory in all its forms Life and death mean just natural and physical, or literal life and death. When this natural death takes place, consciousness ceases, etc. As all spiritual facts must be expressed in terms of the physical, the extreme form of belief based upon the literal interpretation is a bald materialism. So also of Seventh Day Adventism. The Sabbath must be the same literal day the Jews celebrated. If there is departure from the seventh day, all the curses against Sabbath-breaking found in the Old Testament are upon us. Although Pre-millennialists are not by any means all annihilationists and Sabbatarians, all annihilationists and Sabbatarians are Pre-millennialists, showing that these beliefs are all kindred to each other, in some respects, and share in a common source, which we believe to be the literal interpretation we have been discussing, which makes it more easy for Premillennialists to be led away by these and other false doctrines.
Space will not permit us to pursue this part of our discussion further.
The pre-millennial view of the purpose of the preaching of the Gospel adds to the mystery of God’s moral government. It is never to do more than gather out from the great hosts of mankind an elect few. As the ages go by, and as long as the gospel dispensation continues, it is wickedness which is to become more and more dominant and triumphant, and not righteousness. Instead of the Gospel having greater and greater power, and a larger and larger proportion of mankind being saved as a result of its proclamation, it is to have an ever-diminishing influence over those to whom it is proclaimed, and the proportion of saved men, in evangelized lands, shall never be so small as when Christ is to appear to end the present dispensation. The preaching of the Gospel, then, is not to bring the nations to the feet of Jesus, finally, for salvation and sanctification: it is proclaimed for a witness. This is its chief purpose; the gathering out of an elect few is but a subordinate result. But what does the preaching for a witness, as distinct from preaching for salvation, really mean? If its chief purpose is not for salvation, not even for the subduing of wickedness, this must be as a witness against men, to place them under deeper condemnation.
This is the view held by the Pre-millennialists who express themselves on the question of the preaching for a witness. Some would hold it to be to lay a just ground for condemnation. But stated in this form, it implies that the unevangelized are not already under righteous condemnation. It can only be, practically at least, to add to condemnation, if it be not for salvation.
But this is not all. One wing of Pre millennialists, convinced by the overwhelming teaching of the New Testament that there is no salvation for any after Christ comes, declare He is to appear to destroy the wicked. The world is to grow worse and worse and be brought under an ever-deepening condemnation through the preaching of the Gospel, until the end of the age, and then our Lord, when sin is at its carnival and men’s guilt and condemnation are the most dread, is to come and blot the wicked out of the world by His consuming judgments. This view is, at least, self-consistent. It holds that God’s dealings through the ages, and at the end, are in harmony.
But most Pre-millennialists hold that at the end of this age, when wickedness is at its worst, and all men have been placed under this deeper condemnation through having heard the Gospel, and when the guilt and opposition to Christ are most strong and direful, just then our Lord is to appear, and by the use of a power which must be greater than that in connection with the Gospel, for it succeeds when men are most hardened, when the Gospel failed when they were less depraved, He is to save all the world. Hitherto, throughout unnumbered ages, those who have rejected the gospel message have perished. Nothing further of power, nothing further of special provision, is vouchsafed them. In this last generation of this age, however, God abandons His course up to this time. Now, to those who have not only refused the gospel call, but to those who are the most hardened against Christ and deep-dyed in sin of all the generations, He comes with some new and inscrutable might, or in some grander exercise of a power He has already used, and breaks down this greater opposition, after, for ages, having refused to break down the lesser, and sweeps them all into His kingdom. Whatever mysteries there are in God’s moral government, according to any belief—and who that thinks does not acknowledge them?—this view adds to them indefinitely, and makes them well-nigh insoluble. If this dispensation is never to succeed, if it is foredoomed to end in gloom and failure, if, especially, in addition to failure it is to cast an ever-widening shadow of deeper condemnation over men, to follow them with its greater curse in the grand and solemn future—why allow this foredoomed failure to bring its greater curse upon men for the eternities during unknown centuries, with their more densely thronging myriads? We can see but two reasons for its introduction: the first is that it was finally, in the progress of the ages, to bring the mass of mankind to Jesus’ feet, which Pre-millennialists deny; the second, that men had to be hardened and made worse, and brought under greater condemnation, before they could be saved by the transcendent power to be revealed in a succeeding dispensation. But who would venture to assume this last?
The whole teaching about the world growing worse and the preaching of the Gospel as a witness, meaning a witness against all men, is irresistibly toward a view of God most repugnant to all our conceptions of Him, and utterly inconsistent with the statement that “God sent not his Son into the world to judge the world: but that the world should be saved through him ” (John 3:17).
This pessimistic view of the purpose and outcome of the gospel dispensation removes one of the chief inspirations to all but one form of Christian effort. Here is an authoritative statement of the view, as given by Canon Ryle, and published in the Introduction of the “Pre-millennial Essays” of the great Prophetic Conference of 1879: “I believe, finally, that it is for the safety, happiness and comfort of all true Christians to expect as little as possible from churches, or governments, under the present dispensation, to hold themselves ready for tremendous conversions and changes of all things established, and to expect their good things only from Christ’s Second Advent.”
We are “to expect as little as possible from churches.” We are to be in despair of any great result from church work, “under the present dispensation.” The only hope is in the Second Advent and what it introduces. All the energies of Christians, therefore, should be thrown into the work of hastening His coming. As He is to come “when the gospel has been preached for a witness in all the world,” this is the only work which should call forth their best efforts. This is the only work in which they can have the inspiration of assurance of success.
Now, what is the result of such a view as this upon Christian effort It will stimulate the kind of work which is thought to be meant by “preaching the gospel for a witness.” This is interpreted by Premillennialists generally to mean, giving men an offer of the Gospel. The supreme consideration will then be to reach all men, as soon as possible, with an offer of the Gospel. This is what Post-millennialists and Pre-millennialists alike believe should be done. But when it comes to the reasons why we are to strive to do this, they part company. Pre-millennialists, to be consistent with this statement of their view by Canon Ryle, do not seek to reach all men with the Gospel, in order that they may be saved through it. They are “to expect as little as possible from churches,” and that which the churches are doing. They are not, then, to expect “to make disciples of all the nations.” The Gospel is preached with the great aim of fulfilling the condition of Christ’s coming, which is thought to be that all the nations have at least one offer of the Gospel, not that they are generally to be saved through the Gospel.
Now, what will be the natural results of these two conceptions of the aim and outcome of the Gospel upon the methods adopted? Post-millennialists, believing that the purpose of the Gospel is to save men, and that it is to make steady progress until the glad time is reached when men generally shall be in this blessed state, will organize their work, and settle down for the long and conquering campaign of the ages. While they will wish to reach all men with the Gospel, they will also study to occupy the ground as they go on to the ends of the earth, and entrench themselves for the long, hand-to-hand struggle. Expecting triumph through present agencies, they will make the most of them, trusting to God to fill them with His own effectual power.
Pre-millennialists, however, expecting little from the preaching of the Gospel, and placing all their dependence in the coming of the Lord, will rather seek to cover the world than plan to possess and hold it. If the Gospel can but be proclaimed so that all may have the opportunity of hearing it, then Christ will come and do all the rest. The work will be planned on a more superficial basis. The ability of the missionaries and their equipment for their work will be of small moment. Their chief work is to reach as many as possible with the offer of the Gospel, and almost anyone can help do that. They are not to settle down and grapple with heathenism very seriously; for only comparatively few of them are ever to be saved by the Gospel, and the Lord will see that the elect few will be brought in, in subordination to the great purpose of hastening His coming. Some men of larger calibre will be needed to direct; but, for the most part, inferior men and women, with poor training at that, will do. So, also, the need of organizing the work on the foreign field will be chiefly to continue the preaching of the Gospel for a witness, where it is thought this is necessary. If it is thought, especially, that the rest of the ground which has not had the Gospel as a witness, can be covered without any further organization of the work in the rear, it will naturally not be attempted, as it would divert energies from the work which is supreme.
The natural tendencies of the pre-millennial view, as outlined above, have shaped, very largely, the character of the methods and work of all missions under its auspices. While other mission societies have thought that the strongest and best equipped men were needed to grapple with heathenism on the foreign field, those under pre-millennial control send out men whose mental ability and training are not sufficient to qualify them to be pastors of our churches at home, which make least demands. All too little attention is also given to the organization of the work on the foreign field. As the Gospel is preached to a larger proportion of mankind, and it is thought that the Lord’s coming is drawing nearer, the tendency will be to neglect this more and more. The different policies which are the natural outcome of the two views, lift the issue between them above one of mere academic interest, and make it of very vital importance.
But this pessimistic view of the purpose and outcome of the gospel dispensation, when it is intelligently held, has a tremendous bearing upon the inspirations for Christian work. The soldiers who know they are fighting a losing battle, cannot struggle so manfully as those who know they are gradually pressing back the foe to final and irretrievable defeat. Men who feel the conflict the Church of God is waging with sin, is to accomplish but little, and that sin is to grow stronger and more triumphant during all her long struggle, can scarcely have the best heart for the supremest effort. It is true, they may feel that it is the will of their Lord that they should thus fight this losing battle, and this ought to afford the highest inspiration: but how much greater would it be, were they to know that their Lord both wished them to struggle, and also gave them assurance of final triumph!
Not supposing God intends to do much through the preaching of the Gospel and its associated agencies in this dispensation, they cannot have faith to ask great things from God; expecting less to be accomplished, they are more readily satisfied with small results. If wickedness grow greater and more aggressive, even if their work be losing ground, this may be accepted as an evidence of the correctness of their view instead of stimulating to greater endeavor to resist and drive back the tide of evil which is flooding their community or country. Expecting the world to grow worse, they are tempted to make the most of every unfavorable symptom, and the least of what might be fitted to give courage.
On the home field, where all have had an offer of the Gospel, and the preaching for a witness, as they suppose, has been accomplished, the chief work of the Church having been done, the natural result would be to cease the most earnest effort, especially as it might be thought that sufficient had also been done to be God’s means for gathering in the elect few. Apart from the sending forth of missionaries, the work of the Church might be thought well-nigh done in the most of the communities in a Christian land like this. Mrs. Guinness, that lady of great mind and heart, saw the natural outcome of her pre-millennial views. In a Conference in England she told the assembled ministers that the Gospel had been preached for a witness already in their favored land. The one thing the Christians of England had to do was to hasten the Lord’s coming for the salvation of the nations, by going to the unevangelized portions of the earth to give the people there the offer of the Gospel, and thus complete the condition of His appearing.
While we may be glad that all our pre-millennial brethren are not so logically consistent with their views as was she, this is nevertheless its logical outcome, so far as the writer can see, and it is one which may well convince us that more is involved also in this difference between Pre-millennialists and Postmillennialists than a rather unimportant question of interpretation.
Chief reliance for motive power upon a belief in the perpetual imminence of our Lord’s coming which Pre-millennialism encourages, is another unfortunate feature of this view. Reference has already been made to the difficulty of reconciling this doctrine of the perpetual imminence of Christ’s coming with the divine veracity. The teaching of the New Testament is thought to be carefully adapted to give to each generation the impression that Christ’s coming may be just at hand. This expectation, which our heavenly Father knew was to be a false one for all the generations except the last, He nevertheless inspired the scripture writers to give: so that all generations might have the inspiration of the thought that the Lord might appear at any moment. Now, the motive power of the thought of His coming, on pre-millennial principles, must be in proportion as this transcendent event is thought, really, to be at hand. God has therefore arranged it, that, for all but one generation, men shall be moved to be faithful to Him in proportion as they can cherish an illusive and false expectation. Can such a view be intelligently held, and not encourage the most unworthy thought of God? Can a view which seems to reflect so darkly upon the veracity of God be true? Can such a thought of God be encouraged and the robust truth and sincerity of Christian character not be greatly weakened?
If there is any solid ground for the higher motive power of the imminence of His coming, over and above its certainty, it must be because it assures to those who are alive when He appears some transcendent blessing which those who die before this time are not to have. But why should God so discriminate in favor of one generation, without apparent reason ? For all others He holds this out as an illusive expectation which will lead to disappointment as keen as the expectation was great. To one generation alone is there to be the fruition of the blessed hope which has but tantalized all the others. Are God’s ways thus unequal?
But what can be the special advantage as a motive power of the expectation that Christ may come any day, over the assurance that He is certainly to appear, and that His coming will bring the same blessing whether in the body or out of the body? It is all staked upon His coming before death; for, when once we die, it makes little difference whether He come the next day or a thousand years after the spirit leaves the body. We shall be satisfied in the glory of His presence. Neither can it be held that the saints who have died before His advent shall not share as fully as those who are alive, in all that His appearing is to be and to bring. The one advantage to those who are alive then, is the deliverance from physical death. Is this so wondrous a salvation as to make it worthy to be exalted as the chief motive power, even though this could only be done by encouraging a delusive expectation, in so many generations? Emphasis is given to this question when we consider all there is in death to alarm the saint who would welcome the personal appearing of the Lord. To him there can be no dread but only joy in the thought of meeting Christ, whether in the body or in spirit. There remains nothing in death, then, for him to dread, but death itself. The rational basis, therefore, of the blessed hope of Christ’s coming which is built upon its nearness rather than its certainty, is reduced to the mere deliverance from the pains of dying. But Christians are not such cravens as to make this the great hope which is to give them chief inspiration to faithfulness. Can we suppose the view is scriptural or wholesome which would make God attach such tremendous importance to so small a thing?
Notice, also, that there is a conflict in motives in the pre-millennial view. The motive to Christian work—especially in that of foreign missions—is to hasten the coming of the Lord by fulfilling the condition of preaching the Gospel for a witness in all nations. The motive to this can only be operative as it is thought this condition is not fulfilled, and His coming is not imminent. On the other hand, it is taught only as His coming is thought to be at hand, that there can be the highest motive to general faithfulness. If it is believed there are countries in which the Gospel has not yet been preached for a witness, then the necessary condition of His coming is not yet fulfilled, and His coming cannot be thought at hand. If, on the other hand, it is thought His coming may occur before night, it can only be upon the assumption that the Gospel has been preached in all the world for a witness, and this work is ended. If inspiration of the highest kind is received from the one, it is at the expense of the inspiration from the other. No reasonable man can both be quickened to general fidelity by the thought that Christ is immediately to appear, and also be led to strain every energy to offer the Gospel to some unevangelized tribe or nation because this must be done before He can appear. Can our Lord intend us to be moved, at the same moment, by both the motives, that His coming is at hand and is not at hand? There seems no escape from the dilemma. Either hold His coming not to be at hand, and be inspired to faithfulness in the work of hastening His advent, or hold His coming to be at hand, and abandon the motive that the Gospel must be sent to some unevangelized country before He can come. The view which involves this irreconcilable conflict of motives, must be wrong in one or other of its positions, if not in both.
In any case, chief dependence for motive upon what is so vague and uncertain as the time of the Lord’s coming, rather than upon its certainty, and upon what it will be equally to all saints, whether in the body or disembodied, cannot but be unwholesome The motive power must be as uncertain and unsteady as that which is relied upon to furnish it. It encourages the sensuous to the disregard, in some measure, at least, of the spiritual. Christ’s coming in material and visible splendor and might is exalted above our going to be with Him in the spiritual fellowship of the spirit state.
Finally, the disproportionate importance given to the pre-millennial view by so many of those holding it, is leading to practical difficulties, and may threaten graver dangers. They feel compelled, because of their conviction of its great consequence, to press it with great vigor, whenever opportunity offers. At the same time, they are very impatient if anything is said in opposition to their special opinion on this subject. To a large proportion of them, the preaching which does not contain it, or which even does not give it chief emphasis, is deemed very unsatisfactory. In churches containing a large element of this class, it naturally happens, if a pastor is to be called, only one who is prepared to lay stress upon this view can receive their hearty support. If one who holds an opposite view is chosen, there is dissatisfaction, and often trouble, if he preaches freely what he and the great majority of the church believe. Many of them will often absent themselves from services of their own churches, to seek elsewhere the preaching which gives emphasis to the view which has so large a place in their esteem. In missionary operations, they are in heartiest sympathy with missions under pre-millennial auspices, and a large part of their beneficence will be diverted from the work of their own body into these treasuries. In proportion as their special view is magnified, will they be disposed to seek their closest fellowship with those sharing it with them, and the bands binding them to their denomination, through kindred views in other respects, will be weakened. In some cases it is becoming very difficult for those who do not hold pre-millennial views, to work harmoniously with the more extreme Pre-millennialists, in the same church, unless by yielding to them more than they ought to be expected to do. While there are many who do not magnify this view out of all proportion to its comparative importance, and who throw their best energies in all loyalty into the work of the churches and the denominations to which they belong, there are also many of the more extreme Pre-millennialists whose sympathies, contributions and efforts are diverted elsewhere. The various denominations may well regard the drift of many of their members into that form of Pre-millennialism with much concern.
My work is done. If even unconsciously I have wrested any Scripture from its most natural interpretation, or, if I have not maintained the true spirit of Christian gentleness and the humility of one who is seeking after truth rather than to support a theory, I ask pardon of God and also of my brethren. This little treatise, in all its imperfection, is sent forth in the hope that it may be of some service to the cause of truth.