Dispensationalism is the latest of the evangelical eschatological options, having been created in 1830 by J. N. Darby. Today dispensationalism dominates the evangelical marketplace, embarrassing the broader evangelical community with trivia, superficiality, and recurring calls for the rapture.
From its very inception dispensationalism has frustrated evangelical scholars. In the late 1800s Reformed postmillennial scholar, J. A. Alexander, had to deal with it as an error confusing Christians in his day. This is the third part in a four part series on Alexander’s interpretation of Matthew 24:6, which states: “the end is not yet.” In his analysis he shows how dispensational goes astray. This article has been slightly edited by Ken Gentry.
When the End?
This impression made by the very structure of the Scriptures is confirmed by their peculiar phraseology—the constant use of language pointing not to sudden, instantaneous revolutions, but to long-continued dilatory processes of change, decay, and restoration, dissolution and relapse, which have as yet but had their beginning, and the full course of which can only be completed in a cycle of ages. And besides these general considerations, founded on the structure of the dialect of Scripture, we can specify particular changes which have scarcely yet become perceptible, but of which the Bible leads us to anticipate the end and the completion before “the end cometh.”
One of these is the universal spread of the gospel. Without insisting on particular predictions of this great event, we may appeal to the general impression made upon all readers of the Bible, that it must and will take place before the end of the existing dispensation. Closely allied to this, as one of its conspicuous effects, is the regeneration of the race, the reconstruction of society—the realization of those glowing pictures of the earth and its inhabitants which can neither be explained as day-dreams of an imaginary golden age, nor as poetical anticipations of the joys of heaven. Nor do the Scriptures lead us to expect a mere restoration, but a continued exhibition of the race and of society in its normal state, contrasted with its previous corruptions and distortions.
The sum of these considerations, negative and positive, appears to be, that there is no conclusive indication of a speedy end; that, on the contrary, there are strong reasons for believing that it is remote; but that even these are insufficient to decide the question absolutely; so that, after all, it is a doubtful point. Regarding it as such, we may naturally hesitate between two courses. Shall we, on the one hand, follow the preponderating evidence in favour of a distant consummation? or shall we, on the other, take what seems to be the safer course of looking for that soon which may be still far distant, but which may be already at the very door? In other words, considering the case as doubtful, is it better to proceed upon the supposition that the end is near, or upon the supposition that the end is not yet?
This is a question both of principle and practice, and the way in which it is decided may exert no feeble influence upon the character and life. The expectation of a speedy end seems naturally suited to enervate, nay, to paralyze exertion, while the opposite belief invigorates it. The other doctrine would seen to be safer as respects the zeal of Christian enterprise. The only practical advantage of the same kind which can well be claimed for the opposite opinion is, that it leads men to be always ready, as our Lord requires. This is, in fact, the grand recommendation of the theory, and that to which it owes its currency among some truly devout Christians. Yet it rests upon a fallacy, for it confounds the life of individuals with the existence of the race on earth. The readiness which Christ requires of us, is a personal readiness to leave the world and meet our God. This has existed in the case of thousands who had no such expectation as the one in question. The necessity of this individual preparation cannot justify the sacrifice of higher interests, or dispense with the discharge of duties which we owe, not only to ourselves, but to our successors, to the Church, to society, to human kind.
This preparation, too, for personal departure is not secured by a belief in the approach of the great final catastrophe. No such belief has ever wrought it. Where it really exists, it is preceded by a due sense of the shortness and uncertainty of life, and the importance of the interests suspended on it, without any reference whatever to the subsequent continuation or destruction of the world. The strongest possible persuasion, that this world is yet to last for ages, may exist, because it has existed, in connection with the deepest sense of men’s mortality and need of constant preparation for the great change which awaits them all without exception. But if the two convictions are thus perfectly compatible, we cannot, of course, argue from the requisition of the one to the exclusion of the other. The duty of constant preparation for the end of our career may be truly and successfully performed by those who honestly believe that the existing state of things is to continue perhaps ages after they are themselves forgotten.
It may still be urged, however, that this state of mind exposes those who entertain it to be taken by surprise. What, it is sometimes said, if, after all, the great event should be at hand, how fearful the surprise of those who fancy it to be still distant! Here, again, we may see traces of that same confusion of ideas which has been already mentioned. However great or sudden the surprise, it cannot be to them a fearful one. And if divested of this attribute, surprise is not an evil. Joy involves surprise as well as horror. Some of the most exquisite sensations of delight which have ever been experienced have taken those who felt them by surprise. Nay, exclude all thought of danger, doubt, or fear from your conception of surprise, and most men would deliberately choose it, in preference even to the fullest opportunity of calculation, measurement, and deliberate foresight. But whether this be so or not, we know that the catastrophe in question will take most men by surprise at last, and not only the unthinking and the reckless, but the sober, the considerate, the wise.
If it be true, then, that the supposition of a distant end diverts the thoughts of men from this great change, it is only by transferring them to one still more momentous, because more closely connected with the loss or gain of personal salvation, because perfectly inevitable in reference to every individual of every generation but the last, and because, according to the most indulgent computation, “not far from every one of us.” Whether we look, then, at the absence of all certain indications that the end of the world is at hand, or at the existence of some striking proof that it is still far distant, or at the practical effect of both opinions, we may safely rest in the conclusion, that so far as we can judge at all, the end is not yet, and that so far as we are in doubt, it is better for ourselves and others to suppose that the end is not yet than to suppose the contrary.
(To be continued)