Return of Christ: The Consummating Event at the End of the Age
The event of Christ's return, variously termed in the Bible the "revelation," the "appearing," or the "coming" of Christ, is, the great centerpiece of biblical expectation for the future. All of the lines of history converge in the event of Christ's triumphant return from heaven to conclude His mediatorial reign (1 Corinthians 15:28) and demonstrate His kingly rule over all things for the sake of the church.
Unfortunately, though there are few Christian believers who would dispute this claim, there is little unity among believers or churches regarding the circumstances that will precede, accompany or follow Christ's return. Perhaps no area of biblical teaching is as much disputed as that which pertains to the future and the return of Christ at the end of the age. To anticipate a topic that we will have to consider in our journey through the Bible's teaching regarding the future, there are a diversity of views of the so-called millennium or thousand-year reign of Christ mentioned in Revelation 20. These views often represent profoundly different perspectives on the return of Christ, the meaning of the present period in the history of redemption, and the course of future events.
Two areas of dispute that we cannot avoid, even at the outset of our treatment of the Bible's teaching about the future, relate directly to the expectation of Christ's return. The first of these has to do with the question whether the event of Christ's return is a consummating event, an event that marks the close of the present age, concludes Christ's work of redemption, and inaugurates the state of God's eternal kingdom. Will Christ's return mark the decisive conclusion of the present age, immediately accompanied by the resurrection of the dead, the just and the unjust, and the judgment of all people (compare John 5:28-29)? Or will Christ's return be an event that only inaugurates a new phase in the history of redemption, possibly a millennial period of 1000 years in which Christ will reign on earth?
The second of these areas of dispute has to do with the time of Christ's return. If the return of Christ is an event that is at the center of biblical expectation for the future, can we know anything of its imminence, even to the point of knowing perhaps when it will occur? Throughout the history of the Christian church, there have been repeated attempts to date the precise time of Christ's return. The question is whether such attempts are misguided and illegitimate, or are they warranted by the teaching of Scripture.
In this article we will take up the first of these questions, whether the event of Christ's return is an event that draws history to a close.
A Comment on the Alternative
Before articulating the biblical case for the return of Christ as an event that closes the present age, I would like to elaborate a bit on the alternative to this view. Why and how do some Christians maintain that the return of Christ is not a consummating event at the end of the age? Since many features of the Bible's teaching about the future, including the subject of the "signs of the times," only make sense on the assumption that Christ's return is the event that will conclude the present age, it will be helpful to address this question at the beginning of our consideration of general eschatology.
Now, admittedly, for many of my readers this question may not be pressing. Those who are familiar with the Apostles' Creed know that it speaks of Jesus Christ being presently seated at the right hand of the Father, "whence he shall come to judge the living and the dead." The simple, straightforward understanding of this article regarding Christ's return is that it will come at the end of the age and mark the close of the history of redemption. When Christ comes, He will immediately judge the living and the dead, and the eternal state of God's kingdom will commence. Christ's return is, accordingly, commonly taken to be a consummating event, an event that closes the present age.
However, this is strongly disputed by those who favor what are commonly known as pre-millennialist and dispensationalist views of the history of redemption. These views share the conviction that Christ's return will occur in history, sometime in the near or more distant future, but it will not conclude present history. Rather, Christ's return will only inaugurate a new phase in the history of redemption, the period of the millennial kingdom, only after which will the present age be closed. Both of these views are pre-millennialist in the specific sense that they regard Christ's return as an event that will precede a historical millennium on earth. Only at the end of the millennium, one thousand years after Christ's return, will the consummation of history occur, the judgment of all human beings take place, and the final state commence.
In dispensationalism this premillennial conception of Christ's return has often included the view that Christ will first come secretly for believers at His "coming for the saints," and only subsequently after the period of tribulation will Christ be publicly revealed at His coming with the saints. In this view Christ's return will be a distinctly two-phased event, and even at the second phase of Christ's return, present history will not be concluded but commence a new and millennial phase. Though there are other aspects of these views — including the insistence within dispensationalism that the millennium will mark a period in history in which God's special purpose for the Jews will resume and be fulfilled — this common feature, the notion that Christ's return will not be to judge the living and the dead at the end of history, is what we are concerned to address.1
A Consummating Event
In my judgment both of these views are clearly at odds with the teaching of the Bible. The conviction that the return of Christ to judge the living and the dead marks the close of the present age, not only enjoys favor among most Christians but also remains the best understanding of what the Bible teaches about Christ's return.
What biblical evidence supports the view that Christ's return will be a consummating event? There are several strands of biblical evidence which, when woven together, constitute a compelling case for viewing this event as an end-time event in the strict sense.
- First, in the New Testament gospels, Christ's coming or revelation is viewed as an open, public event, at which time the future kingdom of God and the salvation of the people of God will be realized.
When Christ instructs His disciples about the subject of His return in Matthew 24:27 and Luke 17:24, He warns them against deceivers who will come proclaiming to be Christ or declaring that He is "here or there." The disciples should not be deceived when this occurs because, as Christ teaches them, His coming will be as public and visible as the lightning striking across the sky from one end of the heaven to another. Furthermore, the gospels use the terms of Christ's "coming" and His "revelation" as synonyms for the same event (Matthew 24:37-40; Luke 17:30). There is no hint that these terms might describe different aspects of Christ's return, aspects that are distinguishable in time so as to allow for an intervening period of tribulation or even a literal, earthly reign of Christ for a period of one thousand years. It is also instructive to notice how Christ's teaching about His return in the gospels includes the promise that it will signal the inauguration of God's eternal kingdom and the full redemption of all His people (Matthew 24:33; Luke 21:27-28,31).
- Second, at the coming of Christ, there will be an immediate and simultaneous judgment of both the just and the unjust.
In 2 Thessalonians 1:6-10, we find one of the more vivid accounts in the Scriptures of the return or "revelation" of Christ and its consequences for believer and unbeliever alike. In these verses the apostle Paul promises the beleaguered believers of Thessalonica that they will be granted "relief" or "rest" at the revelation of Christ from heaven. However, for the unbeliever, Christ's revelation with the "angels of His power in blazing fire" promises only a fearful prospect of judgment and punishment. When Christ is revealed, He will "deal out retribution to those who do not know God and to those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus." At Christ's return the unbelieving will "pay the penalty of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of His power, when He comes to be glorified in His saints on that day, and to be marveled at among all who have believed..." The different consequences of Christ's revelation for the believing and unbelieving make it quite evident that the event of Christ's return will close the present age and introduce the final state.2
- Third, the return of Christ is described in the New Testament as the termination or ultimate end point of the believer's hope for the future.
Frequently, when the final hope of Christian believers is described in the New Testament, the event referred to is the event of Christ's return. There is no suggestion that, when Christ returns, this will only mark the commencement of a somewhat different phase in the course of redemptive history, at the end of which still lies another consummating event on the horizon. In 1 Corinthians 1:7-8, for example, the apostle Paul holds out as the object of the believer's hope for the future, the certainty of Christ's revelation. He describes the believers in Corinth as those who are "awaiting eagerly the revelation of our Lord Jesus Christ, who shall also confirm you to the end, blameless in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ."
In several other passages which use a diversity of expressions to refer to Christ's return, the believer's reward and anticipated salvation are directly linked to the return of Christ. Whether it be called "the day of Christ Jesus" (Philippians 1:6, 10), the "coming" of Christ (1 John 2:28), "that day" (1 Timothy 4:8), or "His appearing and kingdom" (2 Tim. 4:1), there is no other future event in the believer's line of vision than that of Christ's return. To suggest that Christ's return only initiates a new phase of His ongoing work in history, would be to belie all that these passages promise about the coming again of Christ.
- Fourth, at the coming of Christ, there will be a "rapture" of the living and the dead leading to the resurrection transformation of all believers.
In one of the more controversial passages relating to the return of Christ, 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18, which speaks of a "rapture" or of believers being "caught up" with Christ in the air at His coming from heaven, the return of Christ brings for all believers an everlasting communion with the Lord. Though this passage is one that we will consider again in connection with a consideration of dispensationalism, here it is only necessary to note that Christ's return is described as the final, consummating event so far as the future of all believers is concerned. When Christ comes from heaven, He will come with those saints who died or "fell asleep" before His coming. These departed saints who will come with Christ, together with all saints who are alive at His coming, "will meet the Lord in the air." "Thus," says the apostle Paul by way of conclusion, "we shall always be with the Lord." The natural reading of this text confirms that Christ's return from heaven will consummate the present course of history, inaugurating the final state for all believers, those who have fallen asleep before Christ's coming as well as those who are still alive.
- And fifth, the return of Christ will bring a number of accompaniments, not the least of which is God's creation of a new heavens and a earth.
In addition to the preceding lines of biblical evidence, it is noteworthy that several biblical descriptions of Christ's coming indicate that it will introduce the final state of the new heavens and new earth. In 2 Peter 3:3-13, a familiar passage which speaks of God's patience in delaying the return of Christ so as to provide occasion for many to repent and come to a knowledge of the truth, the coming of Christ is directly linked with a fiery purification of the earth, a judgment that will befall all people, and the consequent creation of a new heavens and a new earth. According to this passage, the Lord's coming will be sudden and unexpected — like the arrival of a thief in the night for the wicked. This coming will bring about the passing away of the present heavens and the production of a "new earth wherein righteousness dwells."
Likewise, in Romans 8:17-25, the apostle Paul describes believers (and even the creation itself) as awaiting the time when there will be a full deliverance from sin and its effects. Believers are described in this passage as those who are awaiting "the freedom of the glory of the children of God" (v. 21), when the curse is lifted from the creation and all the miseries and frustrations arising from the presence of sin will be removed. The fulfillment of this expectation is joined directly with expressions like: the believer's being "glorified with Christ" (v. 17), the "glory about to be revealed unto them" (v. 18), "the revelation of the sons of God" (v. 19), "the freedom of the glory of the children of God" (v. 21), and "the adoption, the redemption of the body" (v. 23). All of these expressions show that the fulfillment of the believer's — and even of the whole creation's — hope will occur simultaneously, at the time of that great event that concludes the history of redemption, the return of Christ.3
There is every biblical reason, therefore, for believers to continue to hold to the simplest understanding of the article in the Apostles' Creed, "whence He shall come to judge the living and the dead." This article links Christ's coming with the judgment of all human beings at the close of the present age. In doing so it echoes the biblical lines we have been considering.
When believers today expectantly look to the future, anticipating the return of Christ, they should do so as those who are convinced this will mark the end of the present period of history and inaugurate the final state. All that believers hope for in respect to the future finds its focus in this consummating event, this event that will fulfill all those promises of God which have their "yes" and "amen" in Christ.