David Brown: The Blessed Hope 3

November 10, 2011

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Below is the third article in the series on The Blessed Hope, by David Brown, in which he considers statements by the apostles which seem to be inconsistent with popular ideas about the millennium.

THE BLESSED HOPE.—III.

BY REV. DAVID BROWN, D.D.

The Christian, 24 Nov. 1870.

I Proposed to specify some events attending the Second Advent which preclude any mortal state thereafter, and consequently any millennial reign after the Second Advent over mortal men here below. In my last paper I dwelt at some length on one of these, but one which, if made good, is, I believe, decisive of the whole question—’the simultaneous resurrection and eternal judgment of the righteous and the wicked at the coming of Christ.’ I now proceed to a second—

2. The all-involving, all-dissolving conflagration which is to signalize “that day,” and the new heavens and new earthby which it is to be followed.

Three passages will suffice on this point.

“But the heavens and the earth which are now, by the same word [1] are kept in store, reserved unto fire against the day of judgment and perdition of ungodly men. But, beloved, be not ignorant of this one thing, that one day is with the Lord as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day. The Lord is not slack concerning His promise as some men count slackness, but is long-suffering to youward. [2] not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance. But the day of the Lord will come as a thief;  [3] in the which the heavens shall pass away with a rushing noise, and the elements burning with fire shall be dissolved, the earth also and the works that are therein shall be burned up. Seeing then that all these things shall be dissolved, what manner of persons ought ye to be in all holy conversation and godliness, looking for and hasting unto the coming [4] of the day of God, by reason [or ‘by virtue’] of which [5] the heavens being on fire shall be dissolved, and the elements burning with fire shall melt? But according to His promise we look for new heavens and a new earth, wherein dwelleth righteousness” (2 Pet. iii. 7, 10—13).

“And I saw a great white throne and Him that sat thereon, from whose face the earth and the heaven fled away, and there was found no place for them. And I saw a new heaven and a new earth: for the first heaven and the first earth were passed away, and there was no more sea” (Rev. xx. 11; xxi. 1).

I cannot conceive anything in Scripture more decisive against the possibility of a millennial reign over a race of mortal men after Christ’s Second Coming than the first of these passages. Let me entreat that it may be looked at with an impartial eye. Three ways have been suggested for getting rid of what would seem its obvious sense.

(1.) So to reduce the conflagration here announced as to leave the earth after it very much as it was before it. This is done by representing the scene of its action as limited to what is termed the prophetic “earth,” or Papal Christendom. [6] But what impartial reader does not at once see the violence which this does to the plainest language? The apostle meant to rebuke that spirit of scepticism which even then was creeping in among professed Christians—a scepticism now too well known, whose language was: ‘You are always talking to us of a fiery judgment which at the coming of Christ is to sweep away the world of the ungodly: but where is the promise of His coming? for since the fathers fell asleep all things continue as they were from the beginning of the creation. Will not tomorrow, then, be as this day, and more abundant?’ It is not true (replies the apostle) that all things continue as they were from the beginning of the creation. Ye ought to know, on the contrary (but of this ye are wilfully ignorant) that by a special provision in the earth’s constitution “the world that then was (***) being overflowed with water perished,” and with it “the world of the ungodly” (2 Pet. ii. 5). Even so “the heavens and the earth which are now are by the same word (that provided for the perdition of ungodly men by water) kept in store, reserved unto fire against the day of judgment,” etc. The universality of both catastrophes is thus expressed as emphatically as it could be; and least of all is there any hint here of the Papal or Roman earth being alone intended, or in place at all. Observe, next, the nature and extent of this conflagration. ‘It is long of coming’ (said the sceptics). ‘So it is (replies the apostle); but Heaven’s arithmetic is not like ours. With the Lord millenniums are as days and days as millenniums. His “slackness” is not impotence, but mercy—that none may perish, but all come to repentance. But the day of the Lord will come, and come as a thief. And then, as the world before the flood found it vain to fly to the tops of the highest mountains—for they also were submerged— so shall there not be a spot on the globe where the ungodly shall be safe, nor the thickest covering which the devouring element shall not pierce through. For then, the (sublunary and visible) heavens shall pass away with a rushing noise, and the elements, penetrated through and through by fire, shall be dissolved, the earth also and the works that are therein shall be burned up.’ Whatever is here meant by “the elements,” it must be something the “dissolution” of which will incapacitate human beings as at present constituted, from subsisting for a moment; and much more will this be physically impossible, if the “heavens,” the “elements,” the “earth,” and its “works” are all “burned up.” But hear further: “Seeing then that all these things shall be dissolved, what manner of persons ought ye to be?” etc. Is this the Roman, the Papal earth? Is not the very question strange?” Looking for and hasting unto the coming of the day of God (Is not that the one “great and dreadful day” for all?) by reason of which the heavens being on fire shall be dissolved (he had said that before, but he repeats it), and the elements, burning with fire, shall melt.” I leave these expressions to speak for themselves. If they do not to the reader express such a total destruction as would make it physically impossible for mortals to abide and survive it, I am sure that no other language would express it. So that supposing the apostle meant to convey that, he could not have succeeded, since all the language available for that purpose is held not to express it.

A few words now on the other two passages: “And I saw a great white throne, and Him that sat on it, from whose face the earth and the heaven fled away, and there teas found no place for them…. And I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth were passed away, and there was no more sea.” That this is the same “dissolution” of “the heavens and the earth that are now” as that of Peter, is beyond all reasonable doubt, since in both cases the sequel is the same—”the new heavens and the new earth.” So all-involving and all-dissolving is the conflagration, as described by Peter, that the great majority of the Lutheran divines of the seventeenth century, and with them some able critics since, and even premillennialists (as Mr. Tyso), take it to mean a total annihilation of substance as well as form; while the Reformed divines of the Continent, and such Scottish divines as had occasion to touch on the subject, [7] contended, and with great force of argument, that so far from the annihilation of our physical system, in its primary character, being here expressed, the reverse is rather conveyed—the dissolution merely of its present physical constitution, and its reconstitution under new and higher laws. And, so far as Scripture throws any light upon the subject, I think these last are in the right. But with this my present papers have nothing to do.

Well, it is after such a conflagration that the Millennial kingdom is to be set up on the earth, if it is to be after the Second Advent. Let us, then, see what that will oblige us to believe. First, it supposes that a whole world-ful of mortal men are to be kept alive while “the earth and the works that are therein” are burned; that while “the heavens are dissolving and passing away with a rushing noiee, and the elements are melting with fervent heat (everything whereon the feet may stand disappearing, and the very air which is the breath of man’s life, as should seem, exhausted), still a whole race of mortals, living through it all, and surviving it, is thereafter to people the earth. To reconcile us to this, we are reminded of Noah and his family preserved in the ark during the flood, and of the three Hebrew youths unhurt in Nebuchadnezzar’s burning fiery furnace, and then asked if God could not preserve a whole world as well as three, unhurt in the fire. No doubt He could. But the question is not what God could do. The question is, Where is it said, or even hinted, that He is to do it? Even if there were nothing else against the applicability of the cases alleged to that of the conflagration, this surely ought to suffice —that the preservation of Noah is expressly ascribed to the fact that “he only was found righteous in that generation;” while the preservation of the three Hebrew youths was in reward of their noble fidelity, and in answer to their believing prayers: whereas, according to the premillennial view, the faithful who shall be found alive at Christ’s coming, are to be caught up in the clouds before He comes, to meet the Lord in the air and come with Him, while of the rest, the unbelieving Jews are to be converted by the sight of Him in the clouds; and the vast world of Gentiles, then total strangers to Christ, are to be brought gradually to faith in Him, and willing subjection to Him. To tell us of the possibility of all this is hardly enough. Surely it is not too much to demand some evidence that it it to be. And where is it? Will such passages as Isa. xxiv. and xxxiv. be appealed to? He who sees in such pictures of extensive convulsion and devastation anything to warrant the expectation that a whole race of mortals are to live in the midst of a blazing world, and come out of it unhurt to people the earth thereafter—is not likely to be influenced by anything that I, at least, can say.

But when this is credited, something harder yet has to be digested. For though we have seen that at the coming of Christ the earth and the works that are therein are to be burned up, lo! we find that during the millennial reign the earth has undergone no physical change whatever. All its geographical and topographical features remain precisely as they were. In Palestine, for example, Mount Zion is there as before, and “Jerusalem is builded on her own heap, even in Jerusalem.” The seas are there too, as heretofore (the Mediterranean and the Salt Sea), Assyria and Egypt, Elam and Shinar, Pathros and Cush, Hamath, and the islands of the sea, Engedi and Eneglaim, and “the way of Hethlon as men go to Zedad,” and Gilead and Jordan, and the waters of strife at Kadesh (Ezek. xlvii.); in fact, every place just where and as it was. Nay, the meteorological features of the countries remain precisely the same. For the nations that come not up to Jerusalem to worship, upon them is to be no rain; but whereas, “the family of Egypt have no rain” (their land being watered by the bounteous Nile), they are to be visited with a plague of their own (Zech. xiv.). Now, what are we to make of this? It will not do, I submit, to say, ‘This is just one of the difficulties which the events themselves must be left to solve.’ For the difficulty of believing that a thing is to be and not to be at one and the same time —that “all these things shall be dissolved” (2 Pet. iii. 11), and that none of these things shall be dissolved, but everything remain just where, what, and as it was—when, let me ask, will this “difficulty” be solved?

So hard are these things to digest that two other suggestions for obviating the difficulty have been proposed—

(2.) Admitting that the conflagration is to be as universal and all-dissolving as. Peter makes it, and consequently that there can be no millennium after it,
it has been thought that by placing the conflagration at the end of the thousand years, instead of the beginning, it would still be brought within the limits of “the day of the Lord,” with whom “one day is as a thousand years.”  [8]

Surely the weakness of this suggestion is too obvious to need any reply. One thing, however, should not be overlooked by those who may be disposed to lean towards it—that in the only place where the definite period of a thousand years is mentioned at all (Rev. xx.), we find the end to be outside the thousand years’ period altogether, and at the close of the “little season ” which is to succeed it (which, relatively to a thousand years, may very well be supposed to extend to a century or two). Thus, even according to their own showing, the conflagration if deferred to the end of the millennium, cannot, with any propriety of language, be said to take place “in,” or “at the day of the Lord.” [9]

One more suggestion for obviating the difficulty remains to be mentioned—

(3.) By breaking up the conflagration into two or more partial combustions—no one of them greatly disturbing the existing state of things, but as a whole accomplishing the change predicted in Peter—it has been thought that the difficulty might be got rid of. One suggests that there may be a partial fire at the beginning of the millennial day, and another at the end. [10] Another suggests that there may be a gradual eruption of volcanic matter, which, like the paring and burning process in agriculture, may only render the new earth more fruitful; and the rather, as we know that triturated lava makes excellent soil. [11] I will not waste precious space on such suggestions. If they do not refute themselves, I am not likely to succeed in doing it.

I have thus given reasons for thinking that the premillennial theory cannot possibly live in presence of the three passages I have quoted, in their plain and obvious sense. I have tried all the ways of explaining the Conflagration announced in Peter, which have been proposed for obviating the difficulty which it creates to those who believe that there will be a millennial reign over mortal men on thia earth after the Second Advent; and whether they have stood the test of that examination I leave my readers to judge—only trusting that I have said nothing justly offensive to those who differ from me.

Notes & References

1. I retain here the reading of our Authorized Version (with Lachmann and Tischendorf, in his eighth edition), in preference to that adopted by Tregelles—”by His word” (that is, ***, of the received text).

2. This is plainly the true reading here; and so read all critical editors.

3.The words, “in the night,” wanting in the oldest MSS., seem to have crept in here from 1 Thess. v. 2, and are omitted by all critical editors.

4. These words may also be rendered “hastening on” (and so Scholefield, Green, Alford, and others). Bat it seems to me that the idea intended is that of our Authorized Verson, though that ‘mental anticipation and eager stretching out of the neck towards an expected and desired event’ naturally suggests the idea of hastening on the event itself.

5.  ***. (But, as Winer says, “the ground or motive, end the means, are in themselves very nearly akin.”—Gramm. of N. T. Greek, Ed. Moulton, 1870, p. 498.)

6. So Mr. Elliott, Mr. Birks, Mr. Andrew Bonar.

7. As Durham “on the Revelation,” and Brown (of Wamphray) “on the Romans.”

8. So Mr. Burgh, etc.

9. Strange, too, that those who say that no fixed period of a thousand years can take place before the Second Advent without destroying all the uncertainty which is designed to hang around that event, that is to come as a thief in the night, should themselves place a fixed period of a thousand years before that conflagration, which is to prove “the perdition of ungodly men.”

10. So Mr. Bickersteth.

11. So Mr. Brooks.

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