OUR LORD'S RETURN: STATEMENT/RESPONSE TO THE TEACHING OF CHARLES TAZE RUSSELL

Robert Hill, ThB.   

 

 Charles Taze Russell promulgated the doctrine of an invisible return of the Lord in 1874. Many of today's Bible Students still believe that the Lord returned in that year. Note what the Fort Worth Bible Students say regarding this issue:

    "'The times of restitution of all things' began at the time our Lord returned in the fall of 1874 and will continue for the thousand years of Christ's second presence" (from "Statement of Purpose," The Divine Plan Journal, each issue).

    Our Lord's Return will be the first in a series entitled Statement and Response. Please check often for further information and updates.  Thank you and God bless,

All references to Studies in the Scriptures  (SS) by C. T. Russell are taken from the reprinted editions by Divine Plan that is based on post-1914 editions unless otherwise indicated.

 

1. STATEMENT: "Christians generally, until they investigate the subject, have such ideas of literal manifestations of fire, trumpets, voices, etc., and of seeing the Lord descending through the air, a shining body of flesh, that when they hear of his invisible presence, without taking time to investigate a subject upon which they feel so sure, busied with worldly plans, and intoxicated with the spirit of the world, they will dismiss the matter quickly as unworthy of investigation." (SS2, Charles Taze Russell, The Time is at Hand, Studies in the Scriptures, series 2, 1916 edition: Reprint, Edison: Divine Plan, 1977.  p.167)

RESPONSE: Let us take the challenge made some 100 years ago by C.T. Russell and investigate this very important doctrine for it is very worthy to examine the blessed hope for which we wait (Titus 2:13).

 

2. STATEMENT: "Our King will thus reveal himself gradually: some will discern the new Ruler sooner than others, but ultimately 'every eye shall see [horao-discern] him.' (Rev. 1:7)" (SS 2, page 138).  And from another Bible Student publication, "In Revelation 1:7 we are informed that Jesus returns in clouds, and that every eye shall see him.  As Christ is a divine being, the express image of God himself, humans can see him only through the incidents and events which accompany his return" (OLR, Our Lord’s Return, Dawn, p.10).

RESPONSE: Contradicting Jesus' own clear teaching of a visible second Advent (cf. Mt. 24:27, 30), Russell must redefine or gloss over such stated truths in order to maintain an invisible presence of the Lord. This Second Advent, according to Russell’s thinking, occurred in the year 1874.  Is this what the Holy Bible teaches?  From Luke 17:24 Jesus states that His return will be like lightning flashing in the sky. It appears in one part yet shines across the entire sky. For those who have seen lighting flash, it visually appears in one part of the sky yet its brilliance can be seen covering the entire area. This indicates the type of return Jesus is to have, emphasizing a sudden brilliant return. It will be a spectacular event, not just an event in ones’ understanding, not secret by any means.   Revelation 1:7 contains this same recurring theme of a visible return with everyone glancing upward to view this amazing glorious spectacle.  Nothing can be gleaned of a gradual return with some seeing (discerning) while others not able to see as Russell’s teaching would have us believe.  The first statement from Russell defines horao as to discern and not so by actual visual sight as the verse so indicates "and every eye will see Him . . ." In each verse that contains information on our Lord’s return in relation to the Greek word horao there is no break in the chronology. Even Rev. 1:7 has Him coming with the clouds at the time he is seen!  Matthew 24: 26 and 27 is very revealing as to the type of coming the Lord will have. Verse 26 warns us not to believe someone who says He is here or there because we will know when He returns, just as we know when lightning flashes in the sky. It is not secretive.

 

3. STATEMENT: "Revelation 1:7 cannot be taken literally since those who literally pierced Jesus have long since died.  If they also which pierced him is symbolic of the living Jewish people, then the clouds and every eye seeing him must also be symbolic" (IWCA, I will Come Again, Bible Students of New Brunswick, p.50).

RESPONSE: The twists and turns of Charles Taze Russell's analysis of Scripture are clearly seen in what amounts to a complete interjection of new meaning into Scripture.  It is a theology desperately seeking a means by which to make valid its theological idiosyncrasies.  Why can’t this be taken literally? It is possible for those who pierced Him to see this event, and not necessarily those Jewish people who are living at the time, even though they too will see His return. It is also possible that the ‘clouds’ are not symbolic, as it was not symbolic when Jesus ascended into the clouds (cf. Acts 1:9-11). Russell sets up a straw man argument using his conclusion as a premise.

 

4. STATEMENT: " . . . Ezekiel explains that the clouds are the anti-God forces which finally will threaten the destruction of the returned Israelites. -Ezek. 38:16. It will be a time of 'shaking,’ the prophet explains. But the promise is that the Lord will deliver his ancient people, and that through this deliverance the 'eyes' of the nations will discern the presence and power of the new King of earth who, as the agent and right hand of Jehovah, will be directing the issue. (Ps. 110:5) Thus will all eyes discern the presence of Jesus in clouds (Rev. 1:7) . . ." (OLR, Dawn p.12).

RESPONSE: The clouds of Ezekiel and the clouds of Revelation as noted in this statement do not bear out the interpretation of the Bible Students.  For instance, in Ezekiel the clouds are not the anti-God forces per se, but rather the clouds are the manner in which these forces will swarm the land, as clouds cover the land. Also, it is not eyes of discernment here, but eyes of actual sight perception.  The Lord will make Himself known on that day.  The fallacy arrives at the conclusion.  In order to make their theology of an invisible presence work they must have Jesus invisibly in the clouds, of which according to them are the clouds of God in the Ezekiel passage, and the eyes of discernment are the only type of eyes that see the invisible Lord.  To conclude Revelation 1:7 from Ezekiel 38:16 is a far stretch indeed.


5. STATEMENT: "Seeing with the natural eye and hearing with the natural ear are not all there is of seeing and hearing. 'No man hath seen God at any time' thus, yet all God's children have seen him, and known him, and held communion with him. (John 1:18; 5:37; 14:7)  We hear God's call, our 'high calling,' we hear the voice of our Shepherd...not by natural sight and hearing, but by our understanding" (SS2, Russell, p.122).

RESPONSE: Certainly Scripture bears out that Moses saw God (cf. Ex 33:18-22).  Also, the passages noted by Russell are referents to God.  Jesus was the only One who could reveal the Father.  Remember Jesus is the exact representation of God and the fullness of Deity dwells in His form. In other words even though those who saw Jesus thought they did not see the Father literally, did see Him through Jesus' life.  Likewise, throughout time those who read the Gospel accounts of our Lord can see God through the life and works of our Savior.

 

6. STATEMENT: "Our Lord's presence will be manifested to the world by exhibitions of 'power and great glory,' not, however, merely to the natural sight, but to the eyes of their understanding,..." (SS2, Russell p.137).

RESPONSE: Like others who set dates for the return of Christ, notably William Miller, Russell concluded that the prophecy must be right for the return of Christ in 1874 and therefore, being that Christ could not visibly be seen at that time, Russell deducted He must be invisibly present.  He never could bring himself to the conclusion that perhaps he and those who preceded him regarding the return of Christ might be wrong.  Take for example William Miller (1782-1849), who was involved with the Adventist movement. Miller, “concluded that Christ would return to this earth to cleanse with fire the sanctuary mentioned in Daniel 8:14; that this return would be in 1843” (The Wycliffe Biographyical Dictionary of the Church, Elgin S. Moyer, Chicago: Moody Bible Inst: 1982, p. 275). One offshoot of this movement was the Seventh Day Adventist denomination. One important figure in this movement was Ellen G. White. She claimed that Christ’s return did not involve an earthly sanctuary but rather a heavenly one and that, “Christ did come in 1843 to cleanse this sanctuary” (Wycliffe, p. 275). 

 

7. STATEMENT: "Having established Scripturally that the second advent of Christ begins with a secret invisible presence which is discernible only to the church by the eye of faith, the question logically arises, will the future revealment to all mankind involve mental perception or literal sight?" Harmony must be sought between two sets of scriptures relative to this matter.  Matthew 24:30-31 and Revelation, if taken literally, could be interpreted to mean that all mankind will see the returned Christ with their literal eyes.  On the other hand, the following four scriptures state, with clarity, that after Christ ascended into heaven, mankind would not and could not see him with the literal eye. . . John 14:19. Here is a plain statement by Jesus just prior to this death and resurrection that the world would never again see him. Then he adds that 'ye, the apostles and all the church would see him again.'  Why?  Because 'ye shall live also.' Just as Christ was resurrected, so his faithful followers will be raised at his second advent. 'The world seeth me no more.' When Christ returns, the world will not see him with the literal eye, but his followers will literally see him when they are caught up together with him in their resurrection bodies. 1 John 3:2" (IWCA, BSNB p.44-5)

RESPONSE: Jesus told us in His word "Then if any man shall say unto you, Lo, here is Christ, or there; believe it not.  For there shall arise false Christs, and false prophets, and shall shew great signs and wonders; insomuch that, if it were possible, they shall deceive the very elect" (Mt 24:23,24 KJV).   Russell and his followers presuppose an invisible presence, while admitting that a literal rendering of Mt 24:30-31 would indeed support a visible return of our Lord in great glory!  John 14:19 is given by the Bible Students as sure proof of an invisible return of our Lord aided with the support of 1 John 3:2.  However, John 14:19 refers to the death and resurrection of Jesus and His ultimate ascension into heaven, there is not any invisible presence in the context of this passage. 

  

8. STATEMENT: "Hebrews 1:1-3 tells us that the glorified Christ is the express image of the Father's person. Colossians 1:15 speaks of Christ, 'who is the image of the invisible God.' These scriptures show that when Christ ascended into the presence of God, he was the exact image of the Father.  From 1 Timothy 6:16 we learn that Christ is 'dwelling in the light which no man can approach unto; whom no man hath seen, nor can see.' If no man can see Christ after his ascension, because he is the exact glorious image of the Heavenly Father, then no man can see the returned Christ of glory" (IWCA BNSN p.45).

RESPONSE: Notice the passage used from Hebrews 1:1-3 does not speak of Jesus as being invisible, anymore than when Scripture states that we were made in the image of God and in His likeness are we invisible (cf. Gen 1:26-27).  Jesus is exactly like God in glory, in nature, and in power.  Likewise, the glorified Christ is seen in 1 Tim 6:16 and Col 1:16. Remember Jesus also told Phillip, "he that hath seen me hath seen the Father; and how sayest thou then, Shew us the Father?" (Jn 14:9 KJV). Remember too that even after His resurrection Jesus is fully man, which is why Scripture teaches. “For there is one God, and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus” (1 Tim 2:5 NAS). We therefore have biblical proof that Jesus is man (1 Tim. 2:5) and God (1 Tim. 6:16).  Note the context of the latter verse, for if these refer to the glorified Jesus then it lends strong support for His deity: 1. In verse 14 it is Jesus who is to appear; 2. verse 15 has Jesus as “only Sovereign, the King of kings and Lords of lords; 3. In verse 16 it is the glorified Jesus “who alone possesses immortality and dwells in unapproachable light.”  This is not a reference to Michael the archangel whom Russell would have us believe for only God can possess unending existence.

 

9. STATEMENT: "Acts 22:6-8 and 11-14 reveal that a mere glimpse of the glorified Christ completely blinded Saul of Tarsus.  It required the power of God through Ananias to even partially restore Saul's sight" (IWCA BSNB p.45).

RESPONSE: Another Scripture Bible Students use to support this doctrine of the invisible return is found in Acts 22:6-8 and 11-14. The passage is the Damascus Road event of Paul encountering the glorified Christ. The key to understanding this is found in Acts 22:11 "But since I could not see because of the brightness of that light. . ." (NASB).  This does not necessarily mean that Christ was invisible. Only that the light was too bright to see Him.  

 

10. STATEMENT: "Luke 17:20 reveals King Jesus will return unobserved.  The 17th chapter of Luke is speaking of the second presence of Christ, when he returns to set up his kingdom. Verse 20 states, 'The Kingdom of God cometh not with observation.' If Christ's return was visible to man, then the Kingdom of God would come visibly"  (IWCA BSNB  p. 45).

RESPONSE: Does Luke 17 portray an invisible presence of Christ? Perhaps part of the answer to this chapter can be gleaned from Luke 11:29. In verse 29 Christ mentions how the generation of His time sought after signs, but Jesus remarks that no sign except the sign of Jonah will be given.  In the same chapter, verse 20, where the power of darkness has been over powered, Jesus tells the Pharisees that if the demons are cast out by God then the kingdom of God is present. It is interesting to note that the sign of Jonah could be the very short life of our Savior and His deliberate message of repentance for the forgiveness of sin, and that the sign is Jesus Himself, with a much greater message yet akin to Jonah (cf. The Expositor's Bible Commentary, Frank E. Gaebelein ed. Luke, Walter L. Liefeld, p. 953,1984.)  To imply, as some Bible Students do, that because the kingdom of God comes without signs (cf. statement 10) it must mean that it comes invisibly is pure conjecture, for it is not implied within the context. Luke 17:24 clearly portrays a visible occurrence of the returning Christ in glory.  In addition, in verse 25 Jesus remarks that He will be rejected by the very generation which indeed rejected Him.  As the Pharisees wanted signs to point to, there were none but the word of Jesus, His proclamation for repentance of the nation.  There would be no visible signs to them, those of His time. The kingdom of God was already in their midst as Christ proclaimed to the Pharisees (Lk. 17:21). A study of the occurrences of the kingdom of God yields three differing definitions.  G. E. Ladd sees various usages of this particular kingdom: (1) As God’s reign, (2) a realm which one may now enter into, and (3) a future realm at our Lord’s parousia (cf. G.E. Ladd's The Presence of the Future, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, for in-depth analysis).  It would seem that even Russell himself confused and confounded the various kingdom's into a problematic theology.  Even Matt 12:28 indicates with a casual reading that the kingdom of God had broken into time with the arrival of Jesus in the first century.  Here, after performing signs, in this case the casting out of demons, Jesus states that the kingdom of God has come. Therefore, the kingdom of God, which Christ will establish at His return, will be a visible kingdom ushered in with the visible appearance of our Lord!

 

11. STATEMENT: "The Scriptures teach that when Jesus was raised from the dead he was no longer a human, but a powerful divine being, 'the image of the invisible God.' (Col. 1:15; II Cor. 5:16; I Pet. 3:18) This means that by nature Jesus is now invisible to the human eye, even as God is invisible.  It is this divine Christ who returns to earth; hence the fact of his return will need to be recognized otherwise than by seeing him with the natural eye" (OLR Dawn p. 2).

  RESPONSE: These passages do not mean that Jesus is an invisible Spirit being, as the Bible Students maintain, anymore than Genesis 1:26,27 concludes that Adam was created an invisible divine being when God made him “in Our image . . . And God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him . . .” (NASB). Furthermore, applying the Dawn’s method of interpretation for Col. 1:15 to Gen 1:26,27, the same argument could be made that even as God is invisible, Adam being made in His image was also invisible.  Of course this just isn’t so, in either case. Not one Scripture asserts an invisible Second Advent of our Lord.  Indeed, when He returns all eyes of sight will see Him coming, according to Scripture.  Notice that Col. 1:15ff. is a portrait of the Deity of Christ in all His glory. There is no indication in this chapter that Jesus was raised something other than having a real human body.  Reading Col. 2:8,9, "See to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deception, according to the tradition of men, according to the elementary principles of the world, rather than according to Christ.  For in Him all the fulness of Deity dwells in bodily form, and in Him you have been made complete, and He is the head over all rule and authority” (NASB).  The question for the Bible Students is that if in Jesus (Him) the fulness of Deity dwells in bodily form, of which we are reconciled to God the Father, then how is it that some say He is "no longer a human, but a powerful divine being"? Especially since the support of Scripture as just indicated, speaks of Christ as having bodily form.  Also compare 1 Tim 2:5 "For there is one God, and one mediator also between God and men, the man Christ Jesus” (NASB).  Notice the words "man Christ Jesus" certainly Scripture does not support a non-human Jesus as the Dawn and other Russellites would have us believe.  Added to this is the citation 2 Cor. 5:16 which also does not give evidence to a non-human, invisible divine being.  With the resurrection of Christ came a new humanly situation.  The kingdom of God has indeed come upon mankind, not in the fullest sense for that is reserved for the eschaton, yet those born anew have put away the old self, which Paul in this passage considers to be the part of the old things which have now passed away.  Finally, the Dawn and others appeal to 1 Pet 3:18 as supportive of the teaching of an invisible Christ who comes invisibly but yet is seen by those who have eyes of faith. What does the passage in Peter say about this?  Reading Scripture on its own merits, and taking verse 19 into consideration, illustrates that Jesus being made alive in the spirit comes after his death (v. 18) and before he went to preach to the spirits in prison.  In other words, this event does not negate the fact that He was resurrected with a physical body.  Flesh here could be understood as a referent to His humanity prior to death while “spirit” is a referent to His resurrected glorified body after death. No indication is given of something unseen. Another understanding of this verse is rendered in the NIV translation where they translate “in the spirit” to “by the Spirit” using the word “in” instrumentally via through or by the Holy Spirit. There are numerous scriptural supports for the physical bodily resurrection of our Lord. One proof is found in Matthew 28:7 "And go quickly and tell His disciples that He has risen from the dead and behold, he is going before you into Galilee, there you will see Him" ( NASB).   Likewise, Luke 24:3, "but when they entered, they did not find the body of the Lord Jesus” and “He has risen; He is not here;” (Mark 16:6 NASB). The empty tomb passages found in John 20 which clearly indicates the body of the Lord as gone from the tomb "They have taken away the Lord out of the tomb (v.2 NASB) and stooping and looking in he saw the linen wrappings lying there" (v. 5 NASB).  Note well John 20:27-8 while in this section. Therefore, Scripture supports the fact that Jesus' dead body was placed in the tomb.  Furthermore, Scripture indicates that on the first day of the week following the crucifixion of our Lord, the tomb was empty.  His body was not there for he had risen in bodily form, it was not an invisible resurrection.

 

 

TO BE CONTINUED

 

Robert C. Hill

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