This article was written in the late 1800s by OT scholar J. A. Alexander. It deals with the problem of that day, which problem continues in our day: Are we witnessing the approaching end of church history? Ironically, for almost 200 years the Brethren (dispensationalists) have expected the end in their life times! Let’s see how Alexander deals with the problem. This article has been slightly edited by Ken Gentry.
The End is Not Yet
The prophetical discourse of which Matthew 24:6 forms a part has been the subject of conflicting explanation ever since it was originally uttered. The verse reads:
“And ye shall hear of wars and rumors of wars: see that ye be not troubled: for all these things must come to pass, but the end is not yet.”
Approaches to our Text
The grand difficulty lies in the appropriateness of its terms to two distinct and distant events: the end of the world and the destruction of Jerusalem. Some interpreters hold that the one catastrophe was meant to typify the other. Others that the discourse may be mechanically divided by assuming a transition, at a certain point, from one of these great subjects to the other. Still others, that it describes a sequence of events to be repeated more than once, a prediction to be verified, not once for all, nor yet by a continuous progressive series of events, but in stages and at intervals, like repeated flashes of lightning.
But on either of these various suppositions it is still true that the primary fulfilment of the prophecy was in the downfall of the Jewish state, with the previous or accompanying change of dispensations; and yet that it was so framed as to leave it doubtful, until the event, whether a still more terrible catastrophe was not intended. However clear the contrary may now seem to us, there was nothing absurd in the opinion which so many entertained that the end of the world and of the old economy might be coincident. This ambiguity is not accidental, but designed, as in many other prophecies of Scripture.
Another striking feature in the form of this discourse is the precision with which several stages or degrees of the fulfilment are distinguished from each other, each affording the occasion and the premonition of the next, until the close of the whole series. Of these successive periods or scenes of the great drama, each might, considered in itself have seemed to be the last. And no doubt each as it occurred was so regarded even by some who had been forewarned by Christ himself. To correct this error and prepare the minds of true believers for the whole that was to come upon them, he says at the close of the first scene, “See that ye be not troubled, for all these things must come to pass, but the end is not yet;” or, as Luke expresses it, “the end is not by-and-by”—that is, immediately.
Contemporary Relevance of Our Text
The need of this caution has not ceased. Men have ever since been and are still too much disposed to precipitate the fulfilment of God’s purposes and to confound “the beginning of sorrow” with “the end.” They are slow to learn the lesson that “the believer will not make haste,” that an important element of faith in the divine engagements is a disposition to leave time and every other circumstance to God himself; a disposition perfectly consistent with intense desire and urgent importunity.
There is something curious in the difference of men’s feelings and opinions with respect to the life of individuals, and to that of the race or the continued existence of this present world. The great majority of men live as if they were to live for ever. The effect of this upon their character and lives affords a constant theme to moralists and preachers of the gospel. In all this there is only a misapplication or undue restriction of a principle inherent in our very constitution. Man is immortal, and was made for immortality. He cannot, if he would, look only at the present and the past. He must feel and act for the future also. And that not only for a definite or proximate futurity, but also for one more remote and undefined, the boundless field of what is yet to be. The practical error lies in confounding endless existence with an endless prolongation of the present life. The more profoundly men reflect the more they are brought off from this illusion. But so long as they are heedless and controlled by natural feeling, they expect to live for ever.
But the most surprising fact of all is, that these views may co-exist with a strong disposition to expect a speedy termination of the whole system under which we live. The certainty of this fact is clear from the effect of those fanatical predictions which at different times have agitated Christendom. In all such cases the panic has had reference to the end of the world. Let this be quelled, and all fear is extinguished. It does not occur to the alarmist that however probable the near approach of the event may be made by calculation or by reasoning, it never can be rendered half so certain as his own death in the course of nature at no distant period. Nay, the probability of this inevitable change occurring even speedily must always transcend that of a speedy occurrence of the final consummation. Yet the oldest and the least prepared to die remain unmoved by this appalling certainty, although they would be terrified by any intimation that the world was to continue but a twelvemonth longer. It matters not that they may die to-morrow or to-day, if they can only be assured that the end of the world is not immediately at hand.
In some cases it is easy to refer these very different effects to one and the same cause. The self-love which forbids some men to look upon themselves as mortal, makes them equally unwilling, when this truth is forced upon them, to allow a longer term to others. If they must die, let humanity die with them. Something of this selfish feeling no doubt enters into the strong disposition of some good men in all ages, to regard their own times as the last, and to fix the winding up of the great drama as near as may be to their own disappearance from the stage. As Herod the Great is said to have ordered a large number of distinguished persons to be massacred as soon as he was dead, in order that his death might not be wholly unaccompanied by mourning, so the class in question seem to look upon the end of the world as a necessary part of their own obsequies. The impression of approaching change and dissolution, which is perfectly appropriate to their own case, is transferred by a natural association to the scene which they are leaving, as if it were out of the question that the world can get along without them.
This pardonable vanity, if such it may be called, seeks, of course, to justify itself by the authority of Scripture. Hence the prophecies are tortured into confirmation of the fact assumed, and every art of calculation and construction is employed to bring the end of the world as near as may be into coincidence with that of the interpreter. Nor have these been barren and inoperative speculations. Their effect has been immense and sometimes long continued, both on individuals and whole communities. The most remarkable exemplification of the general statement, is afforded by the memorable panic which diffused itself through Christendom at the approach of the year 1000. The belief had been gradually gaining ground that the close of this millennium, or first period of a thousand years, was to be the final close of human history. As the fatal term drew near, the superstitious dread associated with it grew continually more intense and powerful in its effects.