Is the Return of Christ Imminent?
Other articles that may be of interest to you:
Summary of the Biblical evidence for Posttribulationalism
Practical Preparation for the End Times
Many Christians today have accepted a "pretribulational" view of the second coming of Christ, not on the basis of careful independent Bible study, but on the basis of the perception that some of their favorite Bible teachers have accepted that viewpoint. Perhaps it would give us pause, if we realized that, through the ages, some of the most outstanding Bible students in the history of the church have been posttribulational. The list includes men like John Calvin, John Knox, Herschell Hobbs, Martin Luther, G. Campbell Morgan, George Mueller, Sir Isaac Newton, John Newton, Francis Schaffer, and Charles Spurgeon.
Ultimately what matters is not what popular teachers of our day may teach--or even what the giants of old believed. What matters is "What does God say about the subject in His Holy Word!" Sola Scriptura!
As I have discussed the details of the end-times with other Christians who hold to the belief in a pretribulational rapture, it seems that one of the greatest difficulties for them (besides just the natural aversion to the idea of having to endure the tribulation!) has to do with confusion about the imminence of Christ’s coming.
Of course, the idea behind imminence is the belief that the Bible teaches that we must be prepared for the return of Christ at any moment. The belief in imminence says that there are NO prophecies yet to be fulfilled before our Lord returns. Therefore, the thinking goes, we are not to watch for any signs EXCEPT His imminent return.
I do not believe that the idea of our Lord’s imminent return is Biblical. Let’s look at some passages that may help clear up the confusion.
The Early Church Knew that the Lord’s Return was NOT Imminent
There is significant Biblical evidence that the early church had good reasons not to expect His imminent return. Of course, they had the same words of Jesus that we have! So anything He said that we might think refer to His imminent return could not have meant His imminent return to them! Since we know that Jesus meant what He said to them as well as to us, perhaps we should come to the same conclusion that they did!
Here are some examples.
Peter Knew that He Would Die before Jesus Returned
Verily, verily, I say unto thee, When thou wast young, thou girdedst thyself, and walkedst whither thou wouldest: but when thou shalt be old, thou shalt stretch forth thy hands, and another shall gird thee, and carry thee whither thou wouldest not. This spake he, signifying by what death he should glorify God. And when he had spoken this, he saith unto him, Follow me. (John 21:18-19)
Knowing that shortly I must put off this my tabernacle, even as our Lord Jesus Christ hath shewed me. (2 Peter 1:14)
Imagine that we had the opportunity to talk with the Apostle Peter after Jesus had died, arisen from the dead, and ascended into heaven. Remember, Peter had been very close to Jesus. He was obviously very familiar with what Jesus said in chapters 24 and 25 of the Gospel of Matthew. But, in spite of those words of Jesus, if you had asked Peter, “Peter, do you think Jesus might return today?” Peter would have replied, “No. Not today. Because He showed me by what kind of death I should glorify him, when I am old. He will not return in my lifetime.” (Then, I suspect, Peter would have given us the explanation of the passages that may seem to teach imminency that you will read in this paper!)
Paul Knew that He Would Go to Rome before Jesus Returned
And he said unto me, Depart: for I will send thee far hence unto the Gentiles. (Acts 22:21)
And the night following the Lord stood by him, and said, Be of good cheer, Paul: for as thou hast testified of me in Jerusalem, so must thou bear witness also at Rome. (Acts 23:11)
If we had asked Paul before he went to Rome if he thought Jesus would return today, Paul would have said, “No. Not today. He has showed me that I must first go to Rome to bear witness of Him.”
The Early Church Knew that They Must Take the Gospel to the World before Jesus Returned
But ye shall receive power, after that the Holy Ghost is come upon you: and ye shall be witnesses unto me both in Jerusalem, and in all Judaea, and in Samaria, and unto the uttermost part of the earth (Acts 1:8)
If you had asked a Christian shortly after Jesus ascended into heaven if he or she was familiar with what Jesus had said that is recorded for us in Matthew chapters 24 and 25, they would almost certainly have said, “Of course!” If you had followed that up by saying, “Then you believe that Jesus could return today, right?” They would have said, “No. Not today. He told us that we must take the gospel to the uttermost part of the earth first!”
Jesus Taught His Disciples Not to Expect His Imminent Return
And as they heard these things, he added and spake a parable, because he was nigh to Jerusalem, and because they thought that the kingdom of God should immediately appear. He said therefore, A certain nobleman went into a far country to receive for himself a kingdom, and to return. And he called his ten servants, and delivered them ten pounds, and said unto them, Occupy till I come. But his citizens hated him, and sent a message after him, saying, We will not have this man to reign over us. And it came to pass, that when he was returned, having received the kingdom, then he commanded these servants to be called unto him, to whom he had given the money, that he might know how much every man had gained by trading. (Luke 19:11-15)
While the bridegroom tarried, they all slumbered and slept... After a long time the lord of those servants cometh, and reckoneth with them. (Matthew 25:5, 19)
These disciples believed (and hoped) that Jesus was soon going to set up His kingdom on the earth. In Luke 19, Jesus corrects them. He compares Himself to a nobleman that went into a “far country” and gave instructions to “occupy” until he returned. He proceeds to remind them that they will have responsibilities to fulfill in terms of stewardship before He returns. In fact, inspired by the Holy Spirit, Luke tells us that the very reason Jesus taught this parable was because some people “thought that the kingdom of God should immediately appear.”
And even in Matthew 25 Jesus compares His coming to that of a bridegroom who “tarries” and who returns “after a long time.” He did not intend for them (or us) to expect an imminent return, but instead to plan on an extended time of serving Him on earth before His return.
Christians in Thessalonica Erred in Assuming the Return of Christ was Imminent
Now we beseech you, brethren, by the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, and by our gathering together unto him, That ye be not soon shaken in mind, or be troubled, neither by spirit, nor by word, nor by letter as from us, as that the day of Christ is at hand. Let no man deceive you by any means: for that day shall not come, except there come a falling away first, and that man of sin be revealed, the son of perdition; Who opposeth and exalteth himself above all that is called God, or that is worshipped; so that he as God sitteth in the temple of God, shewing himself that he is God. Remember ye not, that, when I was yet with you, I told you these things? (2 Thessalonians 2:1-5)
Some of the Thessalonian Christians had evidently become focused on the possibility that they were already far into the tribulation and that Jesus could return soon. It is reasonable for a suffering church to think that perhaps they are going through the last great tribulation. And certainly the Thessalonians were a suffering church (1 Thessalonians 2:14; 3:4; 2 Thessalonians 1:4-6). But Paul, inspired by the Holy Spirit, knew that they were being premature. He wanted them to learn to “stand fast” (2 Thessalonians 2:15) and to be “established in good words and works” (2 Thessalonians 2:17). He knew that they had work to do before the Lord returned. So he reminded them that there were some things that would occur before the Lord returned (viz., the revelation of the Antichrist and the great apostasy).
If the return of Christ were considered to be imminent, Paul would surely have reminded them that they and he would be raptured before the events described in these verses occurred.
What about References to His Coming as a “Thief in the Night?”
But know this, that if the goodman of the house had known in what watch the thief would come, he would have watched, and would not have suffered his house to be broken up. (Matthew 24:43)
Behold, I come as a thief. Blessed is he that watcheth, and keepeth his garments, lest he walk naked, and they see his shame. (Revelation 16:15)
For yourselves know perfectly that the day of the Lord so cometh as a thief in the night. For when they shall say, Peace and safety; then sudden destruction cometh upon them, as travail upon a woman with child; and they shall not escape. But ye, brethren, are not in darkness, that that day should overtake you as a thief. (1 Thessalonians 5:2-4)
But the day of the Lord will come as a thief in the night; in the which the heavens shall pass away with a great noise, and the elements shall melt with fervent heat, the earth also and the works that are therein shall be burned up. (2 Peter 3:10)
Pretribulationalists usually assume that the idea of Jesus coming as a “thief” necessarily means that His coming is imminent. This is not the case. Let’s consider these passages one at a time.
The verse from Matthew 24 must be taken in context. In fact, in Matthew 24 Jesus is teaching against the idea of imminency. He is reminding His disciples that before He returns, there will be the time of the great tribulation. Only one return is mentioned in Matthew 24—a posttribulational return. In verse 21, Jesus warns, “For then shall be great tribulation, such as was not since the beginning of the world to this time, no, nor ever shall be.” Then, in verse 29 He proceeds to relate what will happen “Immediately after the tribulation of those days.” And in verse 30 He says, “And then shall appear the sign of the Son of man in heaven: and then shall all the tribes of the earth mourn, and they shall see the Son of man coming in the clouds of heaven with power and great glory.” This is obviously a posttribulational return. And there is no mention of any return or rapture before the tribulation given in Matthew 24. (Which is interesting in and of itself, since this is the longest discussion given by Jesus of the end times.)When Jesus warns that the church should watch for His coming “as a thief” it is in the context of being aware of the fact that His coming is near, after the events of the great tribulation! (Verse 33: So likewise ye, when ye shall see all these things, know that it is near, even at the doors.)
A close reading of Matthew 24 makes it clear that we are first to watch for the signs associated with the time of great tribulation, then expect an imminent return.
The all important Bible interpretation principle of “context” applies to Revelation 16:15 as well. As you read the book of Revelation from beginning to end, you find a description (with powerful symbolic imagery) of the great tribulation, followed by the signs in the sun, moon, and stars, followed by the time of God’s wrath. God’s wrath is described in the sounding of the trumpets, followed by a description in terms of the bowls of His wrath. Near the very end of all these things, just before the last bowl of wrath is described, He warns us that He is coming as a “thief.”
Clearly, the warning is parallel to the warning of Matthew 24. Christians are to watch for the signs accompanied by the great tribulation, then be on the alert for our Lord’s appearing.
1 Thessalonians 5:2-4
This passage contains an interesting comment in verse four. “But ye, brethren, are not in darkness, that that day should overtake you as a thief.” It fits perfectly with what we have seen in Matthew 24 and Revelation 16. The day of the Lord will come as a thief in the night. But Christians who understand the signs the Lord has given us (related to the time of the great tribulation) can be prepared, so that they are not overtaken as a thief.
It is also important to consider very carefully the meaning of the phrase, “The Day of the Lord.” The Day of the Lord is a very specific Biblical prophetic phrase with a definite meaning. The “Day of the Lord” does not begin until the after great tribulation has passed. You can study the Biblical details of that issue in my general paper on posttribulationalism. The point, of course, is that Christians who take the Lord’s prophecies about the end times seriously will not be surprised when the Day of the Lord comes. He has left us signs so that it is not necessary “that that day should overtake you as a thief.”
2 Peter 3:10
This passage also references “The Day of the Lord.” See the comments above.
It should also be clear that if even one passage that refers to Jesus “coming as a thief” does not demand an assumption of imminency, that none of the others would necessarily demand that assumption.
Does Our Lord’s Command to “Watch” Require that We Accept Imminency?
Verily I say unto you, This generation shall not pass, till all these things be fulfilled. Heaven and earth shall pass away, but my words shall not pass away. But of that day and hour knoweth no man, no, not the angels of heaven, but my Father only... Watch therefore: for ye know not what hour your Lord doth come. But know this, that if the goodman of the house had known in what watch the thief would come, he would have watched, and would not have suffered his house to be broken up. Therefore be ye also ready: for in such an hour as ye think not the Son of man cometh. (Matthew 24:34-36, 42-44)
The same comments that explain the Matthew 24:43 reference to the “thief” (see above) relate to these comments.
Our Lord gave us many signs to indicate the general time of His return. He delineates these in Matthew 24 and other passages. However, He warns us that the specific time (“day and hour,” “watch of the night,”) of His coming cannot be known.
In effect, the Lord says, “Be alert. Watch for these things to happen. When you see them happen you can know that the My return is getting close. But you will not know the exact time of My return. So when you see these things begin to happen, be ready!”
Shouldn’t We Teach the Imminent Return of Christ to Motivate Others to Live for Him?
No. If we look closely at the words God Himself uses in His Scriptures we will find other very powerful motivations to live for Him, but not the idea of imminency.
But first of all, just because I may believe that there are prophecies to be fulfilled before the Lord returns does not mean that I do not realize that this could be my last day on earth!
Let me quote from my comments on Practical Preparation for the End Times.
All of us should realize that there is no doubt that we could die at any moment. Certainly every Christian should live in such a way that he or she is prepared, at any moment, to meet God. Even if our personal view of the end times is that there are still prophecies to be fulfilled before Jesus returns, we all should be keenly aware that people die suddenly and unexpectedly every day from automobile accidents, heart attacks, etc.
It is very foolish for any believer to refuse to believe that he or she could enter eternity this very day!
However, we should also be keenly aware that the Lord Jesus Christ is already with us wherever we go and whatever we do. So we should learn to live our lives in constant awareness of His presence. Ultimately, it should make no difference in our decisions to do right or wrong—in our ethical and moral decisions—whether we leave behind our physical bodies today or many years from now. Those who are apparently motivated to live right only by the belief that Jesus could return today, have a seriously defective view of God. The truth is, we are just as genuinely in His presence now as we would be if we had just died or if Jesus had just returned.
If We Do Not Accept Imminency, Does that Mean We are Not Really Looking for Jesus to Return, but for Tribulation Instead?
No! Here's a really great analogy that my wife, Vickie, shared with me that may help.
A young couple discover that the wife is pregnant! It's exciting! They are eagerly expecting the arrival of their new baby. They call a midwife. They ask, "Could our baby come at any time?" The midwife would chuckle and say, "Well, actually you have to wait approximately nine months." They say, "Oh, will it be an easy nine months?" And the midwife will say, "Well, it will be an exciting nine months. But you have lots of preparation to do. And it will not necessarily all be easy. In fact, just before your baby arrives, you will go through some pretty intense time of labor, and you need to be prepared for that."
Now, do you think that couple quits looking forward to the birth of their baby because they are so focused on the preparation time or the time of intense labor? Are they so focused on the labor that they don't get excited about the "blessed hope" of the baby to come? Of course not! They are excited! Their baby is coming! Sure, there may be some tough times between now and then, but the awareness of difficult times to come in no way diminishes their sense of anticipation of the coming of their baby!
Here is another analogy that Bud Spriggs shared with me that may help.
Suppose a young married couple are living in a country at a time of war. The husband is called into the military service of his country. He must leave his wife. She knows he may be gone for a long while. Does that mean that she is not looking for his return? Of course not! She may know that he will not return today, but she still longs for and looks for his return! She may realize that she is in a time of war. She may realize that she needs to be prepared for some difficult times first. But she still looks forward to the return of her husband.
In the same way, we Christians look forward to the return of our Lord. We may realize that we have some spiritual wars to fight first. We may realize that we have some preparations to make for difficult times. But we not only “hope for” His return, we know He will return! And we look forward to His glorious appearing with great expectancy!
Other articles that may be of interest to you:
Summary of the Biblical evidence for Posttribulationalism
Practical Preparation for the End Times
Go to Abounding Joy Home Page
Send us email!