The Return of Christ: An Event Whose Time No One Knows
That this is not simply an academic question has recently been confirmed through the publication of two books by Harold Camping, president of Family Radio and a well-known commentator and Bible teacher. These books, bearing the revealing titles, 1994? and Are You Ready?, are openly committed to the thesis that we may (even must) determine the date of Christ's return. By the time this article is printed in The Outlook, the date of Christ's return in Camping's reckoning, the month of September, 1994, will already have passed. (Of course, if Camping were proven correct, this article will never see the light of day!) Though it is not my purpose to review again Camping's argument, the fact that he would attempt to date the return of Christ illustrates how the temptation to do so continues to overwhelm many believers.1
I mention this impulse and recent attempts to date Christ's return in order to show how important this question is. We cannot avoid dealing with the question whether the Bible gives us information about or any clues concerning the when of Christ's return. What constitutes a biblical position on the question of the date or the timing of Christ's second coming? Despite the curiosity about the date of Christ's return on the part of many people, we may not excuse their attempts to predict this date, not if the Bible warns us against this practice.
The "Delay" of Christ's Coming
Before taking up directly the biblical passages which speak about the impropriety of dating Christ's return, I would like to begin with a closely related matter. That matter has to do with the question whether there is any evidence in the Bible for a delay of Christ's coming.
Many liberal interpreters of the Bible have argued, for example, that there is evidence for such a delay within the New Testament itself. Indeed, these interpreters sometimes argue that there are contradictions within the New Testament; some passages, they allege, teach that Christ's return would occur within the lifetime of the first generation of believers, and other passages teach that Christ's return has been postponed. It has even been suggested that Jesus Himself taught that He would return within the lifetime of His disciples, only to be proven wrong by the subsequent course of events. The apostle Paul similarly is said to have changed his view on the time of Christ's return. Though the apostle Paul's earlier epistles taught Christ's return within his lifetime, some of his later epistles express a different point of view.
To see whether there is any validity to this suggestion of a delay of Christ's return, I would like to consider several passages in the gospels and in the epistles of the apostle Paul that speak of the time of Christ's return. In this way, the claim that there is such a contradiction within the writings of the New Testament can be tested.
In the gospels there are, roughly, three types of passages that speak of the time of Christ's return. Some passages speak of Christ's return as an event that is imminent or very soon, possibly within the lifetime of those to whom Christ originally spoke. Other passages speak of Christ's return as an event that will only occur at some future time, after certain events which must precede it have occurred. Still other passages speak of Christ's return at an unknown or unknowable time in the future. Since the third group of passages will be addressed in our next section, I will only consider the first two kinds of passages at this time.
Christ's Coming Is Imminent
Among passages of the first type, those that speak of the imminence of Christ's return, three are especially important — Mark 9:1 (parallels in Luke 9:27 and Matthew 16:28), Mark 13:30 (parallel in Matthew 24:34), and Matthew 10:23.
In the first of these passages, Mark 9:1, we read that Jesus said to His disciples, "[t]ruly, I say to you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the kingdom of God come with power." Similar and parallel statements are found in Luke 9:27, where Jesus is reported to have said that some would not taste death "before they see the kingdom of God," and in Matthew 16:28, where Jesus speaks of "the Son of Man coming in His kingdom."
Those who speak of a "delay" of Christ's coming typically argue that in this text and its parallels Christ is teaching that He will return within the lifetime of many to whom He first spoke these words. When Christ speaks in this instance of His "coming with power," He is speaking of the great event of His return at the end of the age. Since Christ did not return within the lifetime of those to whom He first spoke these words, He was mistaken about the imminence of His coming.
Though this understanding of the text has a kind of superficial attraction, it would be better to understand this text and its parallels as a reference to the events of Christ's resurrection, ascension and outpouring of His Spirit at Pentecost. In each of these events, there was a dramatic demonstration of the power of Christ and His kingdom, and in each of them Christ's powerful and living presence with His people was realized. Since these passages speak particularly of the coming of the kingdom of God within the lifetime of those to whom Jesus' words were spoken, it is best to understand them as references to these events in which the power of Christ was disclosed (compare Romans 1:4).
Of course, this does not exclude the possibility that the "coming" of God's kingdom referred to in this text also includes the great event of Christ's second coming when the kingdom of God will be fully realized. After all, the events of Christ's resurrection, ascension and Pentecost, all of which occurred within the lifetime of those to whom this promise was first made, are events which form one complex with the great event of Christ's return at the end of the age. The resurrection is, for example, in the strictest sense an "end time" event; it represents the "first fruits" of the resurrection harvest which is yet to come (1 Corinthians 15).2
The second passage where the imminence or "soon-ness" of Christ's return seems to be taught in the gospels is Mark 13:30: "[t]ruly, I say to you, this generation will not pass away before all these things take place" (emphasis mine). This passage also has parallels in Matthew 24:34 which speaks of "this evil generation" and Mark 8:38 which speaks of "this adulterous generation." This kind of passage is said to show clearly that Jesus believed that His coming again would occur within the lifetime of the generation to whom He spoke these words.
However, against this reading of the text, some Reformed interpreters have pointed out two important features of Christ's words in their context. First, the language, "this generation," might legitimately be translated as "this kind of generation." Because Jesus qualifies this generation as an "evil" or "adulterous" generation, he is saying that His coming will not take place until the evil generation of his day as well as ours has passed away and all things have been fulfilled. The reference to "this generation" may include all generations who share the quality of being "evil" or "adulterous," including the generation living today. Second, when Jesus speaks of "all of these things" taking place, he is referring to all the events that must occur before the event of His second coming. Because "all of these things" include such things as the preaching of the gospel to all the nations, it does not seem likely that Jesus would have meant His words to be restricted to the generation alive when these words were first spoken.
Admittedly, the interpretation of this passage is difficult. However, if either of these features of the text is duly noted, then it is no longer obvious that Christ believed His second coming would occur within the lifetime of the generation to whom He first spoke these words.3
The third text in which the imminence of Christ's return seems to be taught is Matthew 10:23. In this passage, a passage which describes Christ's commission of the twelve disciples to preach the gospel of the kingdom to the lost sheep of the house of Israel, Christ promises them, "Truly, I say to you, you will not have gone through all the towns of Israel, before the Son of Man comes." Here again, those who propose an unanticipated "delay" in the return of Christ insist that Christ is teaching that He would return within the time-span of the disciple's preaching throughout all the towns in Israel. This passage confirms, therefore, that Jesus believed He would return soon after His resurrection and ascension to heaven.
It should be noted, however, that in the context of Jesus' instruction to His disciples in Matthew 10, there are sayings which clearly refer to future activities that will take place after Christ's ascension into heaven (compare vv. 16-22). Some of these activities include circumstances that would be appropriate to the Christian church throughout history (compare vv. 24-25, 26-39). Furthermore, the reference in this passage to the "coming" of Christ need be no more limited to the second coming of Christ than in the first text, Mark 9:1, discussed a moment ago. It is conceivable that in this passage Jesus links together circumstances that would precede His coming in power at His resurrection and His final coming at His return from heaven at the end of the age. Whether the coming of the Son of Man refers to Christ's resurrection or second coming, it is clear that His disciples will not have gone through all the towns of Israel before this event occurs.
Christ's Coming Only after Certain Events Occur
In addition to these passages that seem to speak of the imminence of Christ's return, there are other passages that speak of a kind of delay or extension of the period of time before Christ's return. These passages indicate that there are some events which must occur before Christ's coming, events whose fulfillment cannot take place without a considerable period of time elapsing.
For example, in Matthew 24:14 (a text in a passage to which appeal is also made for the idea that Christ's coming will be soon), Christ teaches that "this gospel of the kingdom will be preached throughout the whole world, as a testimony to the nations; and then the end will come." The preaching of the gospel to the nations is called in this passage one of the "signs of the times," one of those signals of Christ's present work in the world pointing to His coming again. This sign has to be fulfilled, accordingly, before Christ comes again, a fulfillment that strongly suggests something of a "delay" or extension of the time needed for it to occur.
Another similar passage is found in Mark 14:9 in which Jesus, describing the woman who anointed Him with costly perfume, declared that "wherever the gospel is preached in the whole world, what she has done will be told in memory of her." In this passage the presumption is that the gospel will be preached in the whole world, not only among the villages of Israel, before Christ returns.
There are also, in many of Jesus' parables of the kingdom, indications of a period of time elapsing before the end will come. These parables speak of the growth of the kingdom being one which requires an intervening period of maturing and ripening. The parable of the pounds in Luke 19:11, for example, speaks of those "who supposed that the kingdom of God was to appear immediately," but whose belief Jesus corrected in part by means of the parable. Similarly, in the well-known parable of the talents, Jesus uses language, "after a long time," that assumes a considerable period of time has gone by before the day of judgment arrives (Matthew 25:19). The same kind of suggestion of a period of delay or maturation is found in the parables of the ten virgins (Matthew 25:5, "as the bridegroom was delayed"), the servants (Luke 12:41-8, "my master is delayed in coming"), the tares, mustard seed, and the leaven (Matthew 13).
A balanced and complete reading of the gospels, therefore, reveals a kind of double emphasis. Some passages emphasize the "soon-ness" or imminence of Christ's coming; other passages suggest something of a delay or a considerable period of time intervening. The best understanding of these passages, therefore, is one which acknowledges the certainty and "soon-ness" of Christ's return (in the perspective of the history of redemption, it is "soon," since it is the only event remaining on the horizon that marks the conclusion of God's saving work), but which does not draw the improper conclusion that little or no time remains before it will occur. Within the framework of a clear and lively expectation of Christ's coming again, the believer learns that there is a great deal being accomplished, indeed which must be accomplished, before all things are fulfilled and the great day of Christ's return arrives.
A similar conclusion can be drawn from the writings of the apostle Paul. Though it is true that in some passages the apostle emphasizes the "soon-ness" of Christ's return, there are also passages which emphasize the events which must precede His coming. Something of the same twofold emphasis found in the gospels is also found in these epistles. There are passages which speak of Christ's return as though it were immediately "at hand": in Romans 13:11-12 we read that "the night is far gone; the day is at hand"; in 1 Corinthians 7:29 the apostle declares that "the appointed time has grown very short"; and in Philippians. 4:5, it is said that "the Lord is at hand." In two passages the apostle Paul speaks of "we" in a way that suggests he might still be alive at the time of Christ's coming (1 Thessalonians 4:15, 1 Corinthians. 15:51-52). However, none of these passages actually teaches that Christ's return will occur within the apostle's lifetime. At the most they suggest this as a possibility. There are other passages in the epistles that clearly indicate that there will be something of a delay and period intervening before Christ comes again (compare 1 Thessalonians 5:9-10; 2 Thessalonians 2:1-12).
There is no evidence within the New Testament, then, for the existence of any real contradictions on the subject of a delay of Christ's return. Some passages emphasize its imminence. Other passages emphasize the events which will precede and delay its occurrence. Each kind of passage is understandable within the perspective of the history of redemption. Because Christ has already come, His coming in glory at the end of the age is "at hand." Because Christ has already come, the gospel must be preached to all the nations and all things be made ready for His triumphant return.
Whose Time No One Knows
The more obvious and familiar form of the question concerning the when of Christ's return is the question of its precise timing or date. If the return of Christ has the significance and meaning that we have suggested, it is not surprising that many have found the temptation all but irresistible to determine how near or far we are from this event's occurrence. Even in the record of Christ's teaching in the New Testament, it is apparent, as we shall see in a moment, that Jesus' disciples were anxious to know the "day" and the "hour" of Christ's coming again.
The biblical answer to this question can be found already expressed in the sixteenth and seventeenth century confessions of the Reformed churches. In the Belgic Confession, Article 37, for example, when the certain event of Christ's return and the final judgment is described, it is almost noted in passing that "the time appointed by the Lord ... is unknown to all creatures." Similarly, the Westminster Confession of Faith, Chapter XXXIII.iii, speaks of the day of Christ's return and the final judgment as one which Christ Himself will have "unknown" to all men. The biblical wisdom and truth of these two confessions becomes readily evident from the following biblical considerations.
There are several instances in the New Testament in which we are told that no one knows the day or the hour of Christ's return. When Jesus instructs His disciples in Mark 13 concerning the signs that would precede and alert them to His return, He clearly declares that "of that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father" (v. 32). This remarkable saying has often raised questions among believers who wonder how it is possible that even the Son of God does not know the time of His coming again. For our purpose, we do not need to answer this difficult question. We need only note that Jesus could not make the unknowability of the time of His return more clear or emphatic — no one knows, not even the Son Himself, the day or the hour!
This is not an isolated passage either. Similar words are found in Matthew 25:13, where Jesus, warning His disciples, says, "[w]atch, therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour." In Luke 12:39-40, we read that "the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect." And, if these texts were not enough, we find in Acts that Jesus answered His disciples' question whether He was about to restore the kingdom to Israel by saying, "It is not for you to know times or epochs which the Father has fixed by His own authority."
There is no way to escape the clear implication of these texts. Camping, in his attempt to date the return of Christ in his book, 1994?, seeks a way of escape by arguing that Jesus only forbade the knowing of the day and hour of His return, not the month and the year. He also suggests that what was deliberately withheld from the early church is now being revealed, through hidden truths long concealed within the biblical texts, to believers today. But these claims contradict the obvious meaning of these texts. If Camping's (or anyone else's) attempt to escape the simple meaning of these texts is permissible, then our confession that the Bible's meaning is ordinarily clear and accessible has been abandoned. In the approach of Camping and others like him who attempt to date the time of Christ's return, only those who read the biblical texts with the key to unlock their secrets can profit from them.
However, in addition to these texts that explicitly speak of the unknowability of the time of Christ's return, there are also several which speak of it as an event that will come unexpectedly (Luke 12:39-49), even like the coming of a "thief" in the night. Though these passages have to be carefully considered and their differences acknowledged, they commonly teach that there is an essential unpredictability about the return of Christ.
For example, in Matthew 24:43-44, Jesus compares the head of a household's need to be alert in view of the possible coming of a thief in the night with His disciples' need to be alert in the face of His own certain, but unknown time of coming. In Revelation 16:15 Christ announces His coming with the solemn words, "[B]ehold, I am coming like a thief. Blessed is the one who stays awake and keeps his garments, lest he walk about naked and men see his shame." In this passage, not only is Christ's coming like that of a thief in terms of its unknowability, it is also like that of a thief in that it will mean judgment for the unwashed and unclothed.
This is a feature of another text that speaks of Christ's coming as being like that of a thief. In 1 Thessalonians 5:2 the apostle Paul, speaking of "the day of the Lord," notes that the believers in Thessalonica "know full well that the day of the Lord will come just like a thief in the night." The day of the Lord will be like the coming of a thief to the unbelieving and wicked, because it will bring destruction when they least expect it. However, the apostle Paul goes on to contrast this with the circumstance of believers who, as he describes them, "are not in darkness, that the day should overtake you like a thief." Here the point is not that believers will know the exact time of Christ's coming, but that this coming will not overtake them as those who are unprepared or who need fear the prospect of Christ's return.4
It should be apparent, then, from all of these biblical considerations that no one knows or may legitimately seek to know the exact time of Christ's return. There are biblical passages that remind us of the certainty, even the "soon-ness" within the perspective of the timeline of the history of redemption, of Christ's coming. But there are also passages that remind us of those events that must take place before Christ's return, which permit us to speak of God's "patience" in this present period in calling the nations to repentance (2 Peter 3:3-4). Furthermore, there are several passages that clearly forbid any attempt to know the day or the hour of Christ's second coming.
In the light of these biblical considerations, Christian believers are duty bound to be cautious and circumspect about the time of Christ's return. We must live expectantly, knowing the time is short and Christ's return is certain. But we must also live responsibly, carrying on with the work demanded of us in the interim period between Christ's ascension and coming again. Such responsible living demands that we resist the temptation to predict the time of Christ's return. Those who attempt to set a timetable for the return of Christ not only disobey the teaching of God's Word. They also risk bringing the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ into disrepute, should their allegedly "biblical" predictions fail to come to pass.
Our duty is the same as that given by the apostle Paul to the church in Thessalonica. When considering the "day of the Lord," he gave them this charge:
"But since we are of the day, let us be sober, having put on the breastplate of faith and love, and as a helmet, the hope of salvation. For God has not destined us for wrath, but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ."
1 Thessalonians 5:8-9