The Bible nowhere tells us, directly or indirectly, when Jesus Christ will return. When Jesus returns is not as important as whether we are ready when he does. Yet people for nearly 2,000 years have constructed elaborate prophetic outlines that can distract people away from the gospel and crush believers’ faith.
The early Christians’ view
The earliest Christians apparently expected Jesus to return almost immediately. Just before his ascension to heaven, his disciples asked, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” (Acts 1:6). They grossly underestimated how much time would pass before Jesus’ return. As the disciples stood looking upward, two angels asked: “Men of Galilee…why do you stand here looking into the sky? This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven” (verse 11).
Jesus’ return was sure. The disciples didn’t need to worry about when it would occur. God wanted them to stop gazing into the sky and get on with preaching the gospel.
The disciples’ early epistles show the belief most of them had: that Jesus’ return would be soon. For instance, Paul wrote of how “we who are still alive” would be caught up together with the resurrected saints at Jesus’ coming (1 Thessalonians 4:15-17). Paul later softened this view and corrected Christians who, thinking time was short, had become idle busybodies (2 Thessalonians 2:1-2; 3:11).
The book of Revelation laid out a grand drama stretching till the end of time. This book included the thought that Jesus’ return might be more remote than previously thought. The saints were to live and rule with Christ for 1,000 years (Revelation 20:4). Grasping the Bible’s statement that a day is as 1,000 years (2 Peter 3:8), some saw an analogy between history and the seven days of creation. They concluded that the present age would run 6,000 years before a 1,000-year rest under Christ.
Prompted as well by Zoroastrian (Mandean) cosmology and the emphasis on the Psalmist’s thousand-year days in 2 Peter 3:8, Christian theologians of the 2nd century A.D. transformed world history into a world week, and the seventh day thereof into the world sabbath, a jubilee of sweetness, peace, and earthly delight after six thousand-year days of human labor. (Hillel Schwartz, Century’s End [New York: Doubleday, 1990], page 10)
Looking for a kingdom
For some time, Christians, including Justin Martyr (circa 100-165) and Irenaeus (circa 115-200), continued to look for Christ to set up a literal kingdom of God on earth. In the third century, Origen (185-254) asserted that the kingdom existed not in time or space but in believers’ souls. “For a collective, millenarian eschatology Origen substituted an eschatology of the individual soul” (Norman Cohn, The Pursuit of the Millennium [New York: Oxford University Press, 1970], page 29).
By the fifth century, Christianity was the Roman Empire’s official religion, and the church could no longer be seen as a “little flock” at odds with the world. Now Augustine (354-430) wrote The City of God, treating the book of Revelation as a spiritual allegory and saying the millennium was realized in the church. But believers went on embracing ideas like the “last days,” the Antichrist and the warrior Christ who would physically return to conquer the world.
Warrior Christ vs. Antichrist
Believers fearfully watched for the evil Antichrist, with whom the returning Christ would war.
People were always on the watch for the “signs” which, according to the prophetic tradition, were to herald and accompany the final “time of troubles”; and since the “signs” included bad rulers, civil discord, war, drought, famine, plague, comets, sudden deaths of prominent persons and an increase in general sinfulness, there was never any difficulty about finding them. Invasion or the threat of invasion by Huns, Magyars, Mongols, Saracens or Turks always stirred memories of those hordes of Antichrist…. Above all, any ruler who could be regarded as a tyrant was apt to take on the features of Antichrist. (Cohn, page 35)
Popes were often associated with the Antichrist. So were the Muslims, who controlled the Holy Land and upon whom Europe’s Crusaders descended in the 11th, 12th and 13th centuries. So were the Jews.
As the year 1000 approached, various teachers predicted that the world was about to end and that Jesus Christ would appear. An army of pilgrims sold their belongings and trekked to Jerusalem to await Christ. Terror filled them at every storm, comet and other event of nature. They fell to their knees at every crack of thunder, expecting the earth to open and give up its dead. Every meteor over Jerusalem brought Christians into the streets to cry and pray.
Dates that failed
More concerned with the date of Jesus’ return than with how Jesus commanded his followers to live, prognosticators went on misreading prophecy:
- During the great plague of Europe (1348-1352), prophets said the end was at hand and that Christ would appear within 10 years.
- The Roman Catholic Church has often figured in end-time scenarios. For example, John Wycliffe, a 14th-century reformer, said the Catholic mass was Daniel’s abomination of desolation.
- Martin Luther (1483-1546) believed the church’s final conflict with evil would pit it against the Turks and the pope.
- John Knox, in 1547, saw the pope in Daniel 7:24-25.
- In 1806, at Leeds, a hen laid eggs bearing the words, “Christ is coming.” Many visited the spot and “got religion.” Then someone discovered that the ink-inscribed eggs had been forced up into the chicken’s body.
- John Wesley said the end would come in 1836. Others suggested 1830 and 1847.
- Based on the text of Daniel 8:14, a New England farmer named William Miller expected the world to end in 1843 or 1844. His followers pinpointed Oct. 22, 1844. Unwilling to accept the Great Disappointment that resulted when Oct. 22 passed without Christ’s return, some explained that Christ began to cleanse the “heavenly sanctuary” on that date. They gave birth to the Adventist movement.
- Charles Taze Russell, whose Bible studies formed the foundation of the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society, said Christ had returned to earth in 1874 and would begin his visible reign in 1914. Jehovah’s Witness literature later spoke of “the Creator’s promise of a peaceful and secure new world before the generation that saw the events of 1914 passes away.”
- More recent failed speculations include those of Edgar C. Whisenant, who in 1988 listed 88 Reasons Why the Rapture Will Be in 1988 (when Christ failed to return, he predicted the rapture for 1989); a book produced in Georgia that placed the rapture on Oct. 8, 1992; and a Korean prophet’s assertion that the rapture was set for midnight, Oct. 20 or 28, 1992. (In South Korea, 20,000 Christians left school or quit jobs to await the end.)
Differing views of the Millennium
For nearly two centuries, many fundamentalist and evangelical Christians have embraced a school of prophetic interpretation known as dispensationalism. Adherents teach that Bible prophecy pinpoints the route world events will take toward the return of Christ. His return will inaugurate his millennial rule on earth. Believers mine the apocalyptic significance of Daniel, Revelation and other Bible prophecies.
Early Christians were premillennialists. But by the time of Augustine (354-430), the church concluded that the millennial period (which may or may not equal exactly 1,000 years) was not totally in the future. Jesus had already bound Satan, said the new orthodoxy, and the church already existed in an age of grace. Most Christians held this view, known as amillennialism, until after the Reformation. It is still the most common view.
During the 17th century, the Puritans asserted that the New Testament church fulfilled the Old Testament prophecies about Israel. The promises of Israelite (church) prosperity were realized in the Reformation. They looked for a worldwide revival of faith before Jesus returned. Many Protestants held to this postmillennialism for two more centuries.
Around the turn of the 19th century, some Christians saw the political and social chaos of the period as a signal that Christ would return soon. The Old Testament prophecies, many decided, referred to Israel and not the church. Thus some began to expect the Jews to return to Judea before Jesus’ second coming.
Onto the scene stepped one of the most important propagators of dispensationalism: John Nelson Darby. He was born in London in 1800. Darby, an Anglican clergyman, became disturbed with apathy among Christians. Scholarship had begun to question the Bible and Christian beliefs. By 1828, Darby came to believe that the whole church was apostate. He believed that God has dealt with humanity through a series of different dispensations, or ages. He read Revelation as a prediction of events to occur at the end time.
Rejecting the optimism of both amillennialism and postmillennialism, he taught that the final cycle of prophetic events would begin with a secret, pretribulation rapture of believers. After this, the world would experience the Great Tribulation for seven years, culminating in the return of Christ.
Darby rejected the day-for-a-year idea. He taught that when the Bible said a day, it meant a day. So when Daniel wrote of the beast’s 1,260-day rule, he meant three and a half years. Only after Christ’s return would the Millennium unfold. Satan’s final rebellion, the resurrection of the dead and the final judgment would follow.
William Miller’s work sank because he set dates and belabored one or two scriptures to the exclusion of others. Darby avoided these traps. Instead, he appealed to “the signs of the times” to insist that the end was near, without setting dates. He incorporated all the Bible prophecies into a large, complex system, reinforced with numerous proof-texts. Then he promoted his teachings through preaching and writing. Darby’s teachings attracted thousands of British and U.S. Bible students who feared theological “liberalism” and who took special interest in Bible prophecy, particularly end-time scenarios.
The 20th century’s towering figure in premillennialism was Cyrus Scofield. Convinced of Darby’s dispensational scheme, Scofield published his Scofield Reference Bible in 1909. It combined the biblical text with detailed notes that set forth the dispensational view. Printing the notes on the same page with the biblical text made the notes seem to take on the same authority as the biblical text.
Scofield’s teachings included a “gap” between Genesis 1:1 and 1:2, the identification of the “Gog” of Ezekiel 38 with Russia, predictions about the Jews’ return to Judea and the teaching that true Christians would vanish at the rapture while deceived, “professed Christians” would follow the Antichrist into the Great Tribulation.
Scofield’s Bible was revised in 1917, just when the British mandate over Jerusalem fueled the premillennialist belief that the Jews would return to their promised land. The Scofield Reference Bible went on to sell millions of copies throughout the world. Dispensationalism, with its emphasis on “literal” Bible interpretation and detailed end-time prophetic scenarios, remains the focus of millions of Christian evangelicals to this day.
Primary point of prophecy
Today’s chaotic world almost begs us to look for cosmic significance in its developments. We yearn for Jesus to come and straighten out the mess. But prophetic speculation is still ill-advised in any year.
Prophetic misfires destroy faith. Timothy P. Weber wrote:
Many loyalists will be bothered to see how many times their teachers’ minds have changed and how easily they have substituted one sure fulfillment for another… Many of the popular Bible teachers have missed the mark on numerous predictions, especially on the date for Christ’s return. Yet they rarely explain or apologize; they just move along with newer, updated editions or different projections. (“If the Rapture Occurs, This Magazine Will Be Blank,” Christianity Today, Jan. 11, 1993, pages 60ff.)
“The Lord is at hand”
If Christians of the first generation assumed that theirs was the generation that would witness the second coming, those of later generations have learned to be more cautious…. Each Christian generation…should live as though it might be the last one, while bearing in mind that Christians in the remote future may look back on the first 2000 years AD as the early period of church history. The second coming of Christ remains the hope of his people, as it is also the hope of the world (without the world’s necessarily being aware of this); but its timing is not of the essence of the hope.
If one asks what, in that case, is to be made of the [New Testament] assurance that the Lord is at hand, an answer may be found in a sermon entitled “Waiting for Christ” by the 19th-century English preacher John Henry Newman. He pointed out that, before Christ’s first coming, the course of time ran straight toward that event, but that since then the course of time runs alongside his second coming, on its brink. If it ran straight toward it, it would immediately run into it; but as it is, the great event is always at hand throughout the present era. The course of time will one day merge in the presence or parousia of Christ. If reckoned in terms of the succession of years, final salvation is nearer now than when Christians first believed; but personally, Christ is not nearer now than he was in NT times, and he is as near now as he will be when he returns.
There are times when the partition between his presence now and his coming parousia becomes paper thin; one day it will disappear completely and this mortal life will be swallowed up in the eternal order…. For each believer the partition disappears in the moment of death; at the last advent it will disappear on a universal scale. (“Second Coming of Christ,” Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible).
- Millennialism. The belief in a period of the rule of Christ on earth. The most literal view understands this time as being 1,000 years.
- Amillennialism. The belief that Christ is already ruling on the earth.
- Premillennialism. The belief that Christ will return before his earthly reign.
- Postmillennialism. The belief that Christ will return after an earthly reign that does not require his physical presence.