While I was growing up, I heard it often stated by pastors, friends and teachers that Jesus could return at any time, any hour, or any day, and that we had to be "ready" if He appeared at any given moment. Of course, as a boy I assumed this was true, and I never asked any questions. However, when I began to study the Scriptures on this point, I discovered that this oft repeated claim is absolutely not true, and sadly many Christians today believe it to be true because they have not studied the Scriptures for themselves, having just accepted what they have heard asserted for so long.
Today, this idea is presented as "the New Testament Doctrine of Imminence"... but unfortunately, as strong as the name sounds, its Scriptural basis is entirely indefensible. For this reason you will not find "the New Testament Doctrine of Imminence" in any theology or commentary books prior to the 1830's; for up until the 19th century no such idea existed in the history of the Church. The belief in the imminent return of Christ is a new and widespread teaching today; its success due to its enormous media propagation and emotional appeal.
God's Word commands us to "prove all things" (1 Thessalonians 5:21), and in the spirit of the Bereans, the deciding question is not, "How many men believe it?" but, "What saith the Scriptures?"
THREE ASSUMED SCRIPTURAL GROUNDS
There are three types of verses used to justify the belief in an "any moment" coming:
A) verses with a general expectancy of Christ's return
B) verses comparing Christ's return to that of a thief
C) verses stating the uncertainty of the date
After examining these claims more carefully, we shall see that none give credibility to the idea of imminency, but rather, on the contrary, disprove their own assumed grounds.
A. General Expectancy
It is thought that because the early Church believers were looking for the coming of the Lord (as many Scriptures exhorted them to do so), therefore they believed that Christ could come at any given moment. Verses such as Philippians 3:20, "...from whence also we look for the Savior" and 1 Corinthians 1:7, "...waiting for the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ", pretribulationists point to as supporting texts for an early Church expectation of imminency. However, this attempt to use verses of general expectancy from the days of the early Church to prove that they expected an imminent return of Christ is unwarranted: all it proves is simply that the early Christians were indeed watching and waiting for the return of their Lord! WHEN and HOW they thought He would come is not described in such general exhortations. That the Church has always been expecting and looking for Jesus' return is not in question, but the details surrounding this hope cannot be deduced from these basic exhortations, as the pretribulationists try to force.
A posttribulationist can read the same passages and agree that the early Christians were waiting for the coming of the Lord. How this is to be understood will be different, which requires looking at other Scriptures on the matter. As Samuel P. Tregelles said, a Greek scholar from the 19th century, regarding the manner of the Church's expectation: "The Church is called to "patience of hope", and not to mere excitement of speculative expectancy." The Bible is not silent on how we are to wait, but in fact gives us clear instruction as to the promise of His coming. We shall look more into this below.
B. Christ as a Thief
Several New Testament passages correlate the return of Christ to that of a thief. It was Jesus who first used the allegory in Matthew 24:43 when He said, "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." Paul also borrows this comparison in reference to the coming of the Lord in 1 Thessalonians 5:2-3, "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." Notice that in both cases the warning is to those who are unready: that if you are caught off guard you will be plundered and destroyed. The thief comes to steal, kill and destroy.
What is most interesting is that the next verse in 1 Thessalonians 5:4 states: "But ye, brethren, are not in darkness, that that day should overtake you as a thief." For the Christian who IS watching, Jesus Christ will NOT come like a thief. "Therefore let us not sleep, as do others; but let us watch and be sober." (5:6) Only upon those who are not watching will Jesus come as a thief; but to those who ARE watching He will come as the Deliverer! This is the lesson in both Matthew 24 and 1 Thessalonians 5. Pretribulationists have misunderstood this parable to mean that Christ will come upon everyone like a thief to 'snatch' away the Church, and that no one will be able to ascertain His coming. This is absolutely not the case.
Our Lord Jesus dedicated a whole discourse with His disciples to give us definite signs to watch for that we may know when He is coming and NOT be caught unawares. "So likewise ye, when ye shall see all these things, know that it is near, even at the doors." (Matthew 24:33) In this way His people will be prepared and not caught off guard like the rest of the world. If we are not watching in the way which Christ prescribed, then we are in serious danger of having our house plundered. "Let us not sleep...but let us watch..." Paul wrote this to the Christians at Thessalonica but it must again be heard today. Millions of Christians are not watching! Many people think there is nothing to watch for since they believe Jesus must come like a thief upon all men without distinction... but the point of the exhortation was for us to watch so that He would NOT come upon us in that way!
In Revelation 16:12-16, the apostle John sees the armies of the antichrist gathered together for the final battle of the great day of the Lord, which is at Armageddon. The setting is the very end of the three and a half year tribulation, on the threshold of when Christ shall immediately appear in flaming fire and great glory to be manifested before the entire world. But right in the midst of this scenario, in verse 15, we read: "Behold, I come as a thief. Blessed is he that watcheth, and keepeth his garments, lest he walk naked, and they see his shame." If pretribulationism is true, what is this statement doing here? The warning of coming as a thief is directly connected with the Second Coming of Jesus Christ at the end of the age. For those who are watching, they will 'keep their garments' and will be able to anticipate that He is right at the door... but for those who are not watching, Christ shall come upon them with the destructive character of a thief, and they will be consumed. Therefore watch!
C. The Uncertain Date
The last argument that is put forward to support imminency is the uncertainty of the date, for Christ Himself said, "But of that day and that hour knoweth no man, no, not the angels which are in heaven, neither the Son, but the Father." (Mark 13:32) Since no man knows the day nor the hour, the pretribulationists conclude that Christ could come at any time.
The problem with this reasoning is that it utterly ignores the fact that Jesus gave the Church clear instruction that we are to watch for the signs of His coming so that we may anticipate the uncertain date of His coming (He foretold these signs in the very same breath!). The date may be uncertain, but the signs are certain. One may not know the day when Christ will come, but one DOES know the signs which Christ gave in order to watch for His coming. The only way this argument would work for the pretribulationists is if Jesus had not given us any signs to watch for and had just departed with the promise of His 'uncertain day' return. Only then would their argument work, for it is impossible to "watch" for an 'any moment' coming! But Jesus did not do that, and therefore this argument has no strength. We ARE in fact able to watch for His return, even though we do not know the day, for Christ gave us signs, and many of them have already come to pass.
Consider this: the Bible likens the return of Christ to the giving birth of a child (Matthew 24:8, John 16:21, Romans 8:22, 1 Thessalonians 5:3). The general duration of a woman's pregnancy is approximately nine months, and so the mother knows roughly how long she must carry the child before it is born. Though she does not know the exact day or the hour that the baby will be born, it would be absurd for her to think that she could give birth at any given time! As the baby grows and the mother's body with it, she can watch the definite signs of progression until she knows the time is drawing incredibly close. At that point, she still does not know the exact hour the water will break, but you can be sure she will take every precaution to have things ready for when it does, because she knows the signs. Because she has been watching, she will not be unprepared when it is time to go into labor. This is a perfect picture of the return of Christ.
Not knowing the day does not mean 'any day'. We do not know the day nor the hour, but we do know the signs which enable us to watch and be ready. For example, a child may not know the day nor the hour when the ice-cream man will come, but the child DOES know that the ice-cream man said that he would not be coming until after the winter was past and the spring had fully come. Therefore, since it is still snowing outside the child knows that the ice-cream man will not be coming today. It would be equally absurd to say that Jesus could come back any time when the circumstances on earth are not as Christ Himself prophesied them to be. The apostle Paul also gave us clear instructions on how to discern His coming: "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 worshiped; so that he as God sitteth in the temple of God, showing 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) Watching for the signs was important to Paul and it was important to Jesus. Definite things must take place before the Lord can return. There is a difference between being "ready" to be whisked away on a cloud at any given moment, and being ready to face the ultimate pressures of Satan's final persecution at the end of the age. Both Jesus and the apostles gave us clear and strong warnings to ensure that we would be prepared. Have we taken them seriously?
THE NATURE OF OUR WAITING
It might be surprising to some people that these three arguments are the only defense pretribulationists can give for their fundamental belief in imminency. As said before, the "doctrine of imminency" is only as old as the 1830's and became widespread through repetitious assertion and emotional appeal. It is not a clear New Testament doctrine but must be exposed as an erroneous teaching that draws people away from true Biblical watching. The Scripture repeatedly exhorts us to watch and to wait patiently for the coming of our Lord and Savior, Who shall at the very last separate out of the earth the wheat from the tares, when He shall "send his angels with a great sound of a trumpet, and they shall gather together his elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other." (Matthew 24:31) This is the blessed hope which the Church for 2000 years has been looking for!
The early Church was watching for Christ's coming. The Medieval Church was watching for Christ's coming. The Church in the Reformation was watching for Christ's coming. Perhaps in our generation we shall see the parousia of our Lord? No one knows the day, but we do know the signs, and we shall continue watching and waiting in the way that God has prescribed.
"Surely I come quickly. Amen. Even so, come, Lord Jesus." (Revelation 22:20)