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Destruction of the Material Universe.
UNDER this head we shall notice several expressions which occur in the New Testament, and which by many readers are supposed to imply the dissolution of the elements of nature; or to use a more common phrase, the destruction of the material universe. This subject, of itself, may not be of the first importance; for it matters little to us, as individuals, whether the present system of nature be dissolved at some far distant period, or whether it shall continue in operation without end. Yet the subject derives a certain degree of importance from the fact, that some of the expressions to which we allude, occur in connexion with the phrase 'day of judgment,' or with some other phrase, importing that the virtuous shall be rewarded and the vicious punished. Hence in attempting to prove the doctrine of a judgment and punishment after death, many have contended that the passages which we are about to notice, and others of like nature, imply a literal destruction of the material world; and therefore the judgment, and the punishment, mentioned in connexion with such destruction, must of necessity take place in the future existence.
In this view of the case, it is certainly important to ascertain, if we can, whether these expressions are used by the sacred pennen in a literal, or in a figurative sense. If they are used in a literal sense, then, to say the least, the argument we have mentioned, has much plausibility. If they are used in a figurative sense, then that argument may be considered unfounded and inconclusive.
It will not be expected, nor is it necessary, that we should notice every passage in which these questionable expressions are found; it will be sufficient to consider two or three which are the most frequently quoted, and on which disputants have apparently relied with the most undoubting confidence. These may serve for a specimen of the whole class.
I. And as he sat upon the Mount of Olives, the disciples came unto him privately, saying, Tell us, when shall these
things be? and what shall be the sign of thy coming, and of the end of the world?'1
We have introduced this passage, not because any reputable critic understands it to imply a destruction of the material universe; but partly, because many well meaning but uninformed readers do so understand it, and partly because it may assist us more easily to understand the import of other passages, wherein a similar phraseology occurs.
It may be observed that the word here translated world is aiv, which has reference to duration rather than substance, and which is probably never used in the Scriptures to denote the material world. 2
But there are expressions in the context, which, if understood literally, would seem to imply the destruction of the visible heavens and earth. In reply to the question of his disciples, Jesus enumerated several signs and wonders and tribulations which should precede the end of the world.' Having done this, he continued:-'Immediately after the tribulation of those days shall the sun be darkened, and the moon shall not give her light, and the stars shall fall from heaven, and the powers of the heavens shall be shaken. And then shall appear the sign of the Son of man in heaven; and then shall all the tribes the earth mourn, and they shall see the Son of man coming in the clouds of heaven, with power and great glory. And he shall send his angels with a great sound of a trumpet; and they shall gather together his elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other.'3
This is strong language; perhaps as strong as any which is supposed to import the destruction of the visible heaven and earth. Yet this passage is understood by all commentators, orthodox as well as heterodox, to be descriptive, not of a universal destruction hereafter to occur, but of the overthrow and total dissolution of the Jewish state. Nothing can be more certain than that the events here mentioned have long since been fully accomplished; for Jesus distinctly affirmed that some who then lived should witness their full accomplishment, saying, Now learn a parable of the fig-tree: When his branch is yet tender, and putteth forth leaves, ye know that summer is nigh; so likewise ye, when ye shall see all these things,
2 Univ. Expositor, vol. i. p. 98, note.
1 Matt. xxiv. 3. xxiv. 29-31.
know that it is near, even at the doors. Verily, I say unto you, this generation shall not pass till all these things be fulfilled." In the language of Bishop Pearce, That all which is said in this (29th) verse, and in the following ones, relates for certain to the destruction of the Jewish state, appears from what is said in ver. 34, viz., that that generation was not to pass till all these things were fulfilled: and they were to happen immediately after the tribulation, ver. 29, and in those days, according to Mark xiii. 24.' 2
It should also be observed, that in connexion with the strong figurative language under consideration, Jesus mentions a judgment which should terminate in the reward of the virtuous and the punishment of the wicked. The 24th and 25th chapters. of Matthew's gospel, appear to embrace one continued discourse with reference to a single important subject. We are the more fully persuaded on this point, from the consideration that orthodox commentators, after admitting the commencement of the 24th chapter to have exclusive reference to the destruction of Jerusalem and the Jewish state, have never been able to agree in what place the subject of discourse is changed, although they seem perfectly confident that the latter part of the 25th chapter has exclusive reference to what they term the last judgment, and its consequences.
1 Matt. xxiv. 32-34.
2 Comment. on Matt. xxiv. 29.
3 The difficulties which expositors have encountered in their attempts to determine the place where Jesus ceases to speak of the destruction of Jerusalem, and begins to speak of the general judgment,' are well described in the following passage; it is found in a work entitled, The Plenary Inspiration of the Scriptures asserted,' &c. by Rev. S. Noble. We quote from the Boston edition, 1828.
'It is related, in the first verse, that Jesus went out, and departed from the temple and his disciples came to him to show him the buildings of the temple;' and it is added, in the second verse, that Jesus said unto them, See ye not all these things? verily I say unto you, There shall not be left here one stone upon another which shall not be thrown down.' First, then, let it be admitted that these words apply, in their immediate reference, to the temple at Jerusalem and its destruction, which, as is known from the history of Josephus, was as total as is here implied. Let, also, the detailed prediction that follows, through the whole of this and the next chapters, be understood of the events connected with the destruction of Jerusalem and its temple, as far as they can possibly be adapted to those Occurrences. It is allowed, however, on all hands,* that the whole cannot be so adapted: let then the place be pointed out where the new subject commences. But let this be done in such a manner, as to be consistent with the fact, that a space of not much less than two thousand years at the least, was to intervene, between the accomplishment of the latter part of
*That is, by orthodox commentators.
If it be true that both these chapters have relation to the same subject, then the passage we have quoted may very properly be compared with others, in which similar language is used respecting a destruction of heaven or earth, and a judgment following it; because the signification of this being clearly defined by Jesus, may assist in determining the signification of others.
the prophecy and that of the former: for the first part of it is considered to have been fully accomplished about A. D. 70; and the remainder not to be accomplished yet: it is also to be recollected, that no events belonging to this intervening period are supposed to be treated of in the prophecy, but that, in whatever place the transition is made, it skips at once from the destruction of Jerusalem to the end of the world. Of course, with these premises assumed, every reader will expect to perceive some well defined mark of so great an hintus. How wil this expectation be answered? So far from discovering any thing like it, no person can read the two chapters, and draw his inference from their contents alone, without concluding, that the events announced are to follow each other in succession, unbroken by any wide interruption whatever. Accordingly, though commentators are now generally agreed that the hiatus must exist, they are by no means unanimous in fixing its situation.
As before observed, the circumstances foretold as far as the twenty-eighth verse of the twenty-fourth chapter, may, by having recourse, here and there, to figure, be applied to the calamities which befel the Jewish nation: what follows, respecting the coming of the Son of man in the clouds of heaven, and his sending his angels with a great sound of a trumpet to gather together his elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other, does not, with equal convenience, admit this application: wherefore many eminent writers consider the prophecies relating to the Jews to terminate with the twenty-eighth verse, and all that follows to belong to the greater events commonly designated as the second coming of the Lord, and the general judgment on the world. Unfortunately, however, let both parts of the chapter denote what they may, they are connected together by the binding word immediately: Immediately after the tribulation of those days, shall the sun be darkened,' &c.-' and then shall appear the sign of the Son of man in heaven.' Extreme violence, therefore, is done to the words, by those who thrust in, between the tribulation previously described, and this immediate appearing of the Son of man, an interval of two thousand years! On this account, other eminent writers understand the appearing of the Son of man, and all the rest of the chapter, to be merely added in amplification of the previous subject; affirming, how ever, that Jesus Christ intended that his disciples should consider the judgment he was going to inflict on the Jewish nation, as a forerunner and emblem of that universal judgment he is to exercise at the last day; wherefore, they add, he gives in the twenty-fifth chapter a description of the last judgment:'* for which reasons, they place the grand hiatus between the two chapters. But, unhappily, a particle, the nature of which is to draw things into such close connexion as admits of nothing being interposed between them, here also occurs. The divine Prophet concludes the twenty-fourth chapter with describing the reward which the faithful servant, and the punishment which the unfaithful, shall receive at his coming; and he commences the twenty-fifth chapter thus: 'Then shall
* Beausobre and L'Enfant's Note on Matt. xxv. 1.
We repeat what we before observed; that we have introduced this passage, not because any reputable critic maintains that a literal destruction of the material universe is indicated by the language of Jesus; but partly because it may be of service in the following investigation, and partly because we apprehend that some, who have never considered carefully the
the kingdom of heaven be likened unto ten virgins.' Who cannot see that the parable of the ten virgins, five of whom were wise, and five were foolish,' is a continuation and further illustration of the subject introduced by the parable of the faithful and wicked servant ;-that both relate to the same series of events, and leave no room for supposing an interval of two thousand years between the one and the other? And even if the subjects were not so obviously connected, what propriety would there be in passing from one event to another so distant, by such a copulative as then,—a word that always denotes either identity of time, or immediate succession?
A third modification of the same general plan of interpretation has therefore been proposed by Dr. Doddridge. He adheres to the system of the hiatus, but he seems to have felt more strongly than some, the difficulties with which it is attended: wherefore, in hopes to avoid them, he steers a middle course between the two theories already noticed. Let us see, then, what degree of probability he has been able to give to the scheme.
He paraphrases the twenty-ninth and thirtieth verses thus: Immediately after the affliction of those days which I have now been describing, the sun shall as it were be darkened, and the moon shall not seem to give her usual light; and the stars shall fall from heaven, and the powers of the hearens, all the mighty machines and strong movements above, shall be shaken and broken to pieces; that is, according to the sublimity of that prophetic language to which you have been accustomed, the whole civil and ecclesiastical constitution of the nation shall not only be shocked, but totally dissolved. And then shall there evidently appear such a remarkable hand of providence in avenging my quarrel upon this sinful people, that it shall be like the sign of the Son of man in heaven at the last day; and all the tribes of the land shall then mourn, and they shall see the Son of man coming as it were in the clouds of heaven with power and great glory; for that celestial army which shall appear in the air marshalled round the city, shall be a sure token to them that the angels of God, and the great Lord of those heavenly hosts, are set as it were in array against them.' Upon this paraphrase I shall only observe, that if the fiery appearances in the sky mentioned by Josephus, and which seem to have been similar to those observed during the civil wars in England, and at various other places and times, are really alluded to in the prophecy, it must be in the former part of it. Where Matthew merely says,that there should be famines and pestilences, and earthquakes, in divers places;'* Luke amplifies thus: And great earthquakes shall be in divers places, and famines, and pestilences; and fearful sights and great wonders shall there be from heaven.' This will agree with Josephus: for that historian describes the celestial phænomena as having been seen before the siege and capture of Jerusalem, and as portending those events; wherefore it is violating the facts to represent these as being what are foretold as the appearing of the Son of man and his coming in the clouds of heaven, after the tribulation of those days:' beside, being a mean application of a most majestic prediction. However, we have only introduced this popular writer's paraphrase, for the sake of his note upon it. On the words, Immediately after the tribulation of those days, he
* Ch. xxiv. 7.
† Ch. xxi. 11.
Jewish War, B. vi. ch. v. § 3.