The Return of Christ
Christ will suddenly, physically return and be visible to all, and as believers, we should eagerly await His return. When He does so, He will judge all.
With respect to the time of Christ's return, we see that no-one may know the day of the hour, yet there is much debate as to whether certain signs must be fulfilled before He can return and therefore a question of whether He could in fact return imminently.
The Bible is clear on many issues, and those who respect the authority of the Bible will be undivided on these. The timing of the return of Christ, however, will legitimately divide Bible believers, due to the mass of information which can be legitimately interpreted in various ways.
While it is clear that no one may know the "day or the hour", some argue that the presence of events that must occur first indicates that until these have been completed, Christ cannot come. Others look to the past or present and see the events in question having been or currently being fulfilled and therefore believing that Christ could literally return at any second. Again, this issue is one which should be viewed as one of second-importance, as there appears to be no conclusive argument for any particular point of view above another.
The Biblical Teaching
What is Known (top)
Christ will suddenly, physically return and be visible to all (top)
- "You also must be ready, because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him." (Luke 12:40)
- "...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." (Acts 1:11)
- "For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God..." (1 Thess. 4:16)
- See also Dan. 7:13, Matt. 24:44, 1 Tim. 6:14, Heb. 9:28, James 5:8, 2 Pet. 3:10, 1 John 3:2, Jude 14, Rev. 22:20 et al.)
When Christ returns, He will judge all (top)
- "In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who will judge the living and the dead, and in view of his appearing and his kingdom, I give you this charge..." (2 Tim. 4:1).
- "See, the Lord is coming with thousands upon thousands of his holy ones to judge everyone, and to convict all the ungodly of all the ungodly acts they have done in the ungodly way, and of all the harsh words ungodly sinners have spoken against him." (Jude 14-15)
- Jesus said, "Behold, I am coming soon! My reward is with me, and I will give to everyone according to what he has done." (Rev. 22:12)
- See also the study: The Final Judgement
We should eagerly await Christ's return (top)
At the end of Revelation, John cried "Come Lord Jesus" (Rev. 22:20) in response to Jesus' promise to return. Similarly, the return of Christ should bring hope and delight to the hearts of all believers, as with His return Christ will be rightly glorified by all and all things will be set to God's liking. Grudem rightly points out that an indication of the maturity of a believer is the amount of their desire for the return of Christ, as the more a believer is enjoying the things of this world and neglecting their relationship with God, the less they would desire the full coming of the Kingdom; and conversely, the less attached to things of this world and the more in-tune with their relationship with God, the more likely a believer is to be desperate for the return of Christ (Grudem pp.1092-3).
- "...our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ, who, by the power that enables him to bring everything under his control, will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body." (Phil 3:20-21)
- "For the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men. It teaches us to say "No" to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age, while we wait for the blessed hope - the glorious appearing of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ." (Tit. 2:11-13)
The Time of Christ's Return (top)
The fact that Christ will return "suddenly" (see above, Christ will suddenly, physically return and be visible to all) indicates that no-one will legitimately expect Him. However, there is much debate of whether Christ, according to the Scriptures, could return now ("imminently"). This debate arises from events or signs described in the Bible which appear to be a "prerequisite" to Christ's coming. Below, verses are listed that indicate the possibility of the imminent return of Christ, followed by a list of each of the "prerequisite signs", then a discussion of the possible interpretations.
Verses that indicate the possibility of imminent return (top)
- "Be patient, then, brothers, until the Lord's coming. See how the farmer waits for the land to yield its valuable crop and how patient he is for the autumn and spring rains. You too, be patient and stand firm, because the Lord's coming is near. Don't grumble against each other, brothers, or you will be judged. The Judge is standing at the door!" (James 5:7-9)
- "He who testifies to these things says, 'Yes, I am coming soon.' Amen. Come, Lord Jesus." (Rev. 22:20)
- See also (Matt. 24:42-49, 24:50, 25:13; Mark 13:32-33, 13:34-37; Luke 12:40; 1 Thess. 5:2; Heb. 10:25; 1 Pet. 4:7; 2 Pet. 3:10; Rev. 1:3
Events or signs that appear to precede Christ's return (top)
The "man of lawlessness"
The "man of lawlessness" (who is probably also the "antichrist") must appear, then Christ will destroy him at His second coming.
- "Concerning the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ... that day will not come until the rebellion occurs and the man of lawlessness is revealed, the man doomed to destruction. He will oppose and will exalt himself over everything that is called God or is worshiped, so that he sets himself up in God's temple, proclaiming himself to be God...And now you know what is holding him back, so that he may be revealed at the proper time. For the secret power of lawlessness is already at work; but the one who now holds it back will continue to do so till he is taken out of the way. And then the lawless one will be revealed, whom the Lord Jesus will overthrow with the breath of his mouth and destroy by the splendor of his coming. The coming of the lawless one will be in accordance with the work of Satan displayed in all kinds of counterfeit miracles, signs and wonders, and in every sort of evil that deceives those who are perishing." (2 Thess. 2:1-10)
- "Dear children, this is the last hour; and as you have heard that the antichrist is coming, even now many antichrists have come. This is how we know it is the last hour." (1 John 2:18)
- The antichrist is also sometimes associated with the beast in Rev. 13.
The Gospel preached to all nations
- "And the gospel must first be preached to all nations." (Mark 13:10).
A time of great tribulation
That is, a time of severe upheaval or trial.
- "When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed. Such things must happen, but the end is still to come. Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be earthquakes in various places, and famines. These are the beginning of birth pains." (Mark 13:7-8 cf. Matt. 24:15-22; Luke 21:20-24)
- "Pray that this will not take place in winter, because those will be days of distress unequaled from the beginning, when God created the world, until now - and never to be equaled again. If the Lord had not cut short those days, no one would survive. But for the sake of the elect, whom he has chosen, he has shortened them." (Mark 13:18-20)
The coming of false prophets showing signs and wonders
False prophets will work great signs and wonders hoping to lead people away from God; and it will only be by the (quite real) power of demons working in the world that they can do so.
- "For false Christs and false prophets will appear and perform signs and miracles to deceive the elect - if that were possible." (Mark 13:22 cf. Matt. 24:23-24).
Great wonders in the heavens
- "But in those days, following that distress, "`the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light; the stars will fall from the sky, and the heavenly bodies will be shaken.'" (Mark 13:24-25 cf. Matt 24:19-30; Luke 21:25-27)
It is also important to note here, that "great wonders in the heavens", unlike other signs, could occur in a relatively short time-frame, and as such impacts less on our discussion of the 'timeframe' for Christ's return.
The salvation of Israel
In his letter to the Romans, Paul discusses the salvation of the Jews and indicates that they (or at least a large number of them) would be saved at some point in the future.
- "I do not want you to be ignorant of this mystery, brothers, so that you may not be conceited: Israel has experienced a hardening in part until the full number of the Gentiles has come in. And so all Israel will be saved, as it is written..." (Rom. 11:25-26 cf Rom. 11:12)
The "Millennium" issue (top)
The "Millennium" is a term applied to the time period implied by the multiple references to a/the "thousand years" in Revelation 20:1-7:
"And I saw an angel coming down out of heaven, having the key to the Abyss and holding in his hand a great chain. He seized the dragon, that ancient serpent, who is the devil, or Satan, and bound him for a thousand years. He threw him into the Abyss, and locked and sealed it over him, to keep him from deceiving the nations anymore until the thousand years were ended. After that, he must be set free for a short time."
"I saw thrones on which were seated those who had been given authority to judge. And I saw the souls of those who had been beheaded because of their testimony for Jesus and because of the word of God. They had not worshiped the beast or his image and had not received his mark on their foreheads or their hands. They came to life and reigned with Christ a thousand years. (The rest of the dead did not come to life until the thousand years were ended.) This is the first resurrection. Blessed and holy are those who have part in the first resurrection. The second death has no power over them, but they will be priests of God and of Christ and will reign with him for a thousand years."
"When the thousand years are over, Satan will be released from his prison..." (Rev 20:1-7, emphasis added)
The "millennium issue" impacts upon our study of the time of the return of Christ, as we are not exactly certain when the millennium will occur, has occurred, is occurring, or if it is even something specific about which to be concerned. However, the return of Christ is often said to be at either the beginning or the end of "the millennium" and it is therefore important to consider "the Millennium" in brief.
There are three main interpretations on the issue of the millennium: Amillennialism, Premillennialism and Postmillennialism.
According to this view, the thousand years refers to the church age in which we are now living. The "thousand years" merely implies a long time period (of indefinite length) where Satan's power has been diminished to the point where the gospel can spread to all nations of the world, and those who 'reign with Christ' are those who have already died in Him. Obviously the reign is a spiritual reign along the lines of Matthew 28:18 when Jesus said: "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me." Following the "thousand years", Christ will return to earth: believers will be glorified and non-believers will be judged.
This view is called "Amillennialism" as it holds that there is no future millennium yet to come.
According to this view the current church age will develop into a physical Kingdom of God, where His will is more truly done, as the world is transformed more and more by the gospel. Following the "thousand years" (meaning an unspecific long time) Christ will return, believers and non-believers will be raised, judgement will occur and there will be a new heaven and a new earth followed by eternity.
This view is called "Postmillennialism" as the prefix "post" means "after", and the view teaches that Christ will return after "the Millennium".
There are two main version of premillennialism: "Classic" and "Pretribulational". These views are called "Premillennialism" as they teach that Christ will return previous to the period known as "the Millennium".
According to the Classic (or historic) view, the present church age will continue until a time of great tribulation occurs. Following this time of suffering on the earth, Christ will return. At the time of His coming, believers who have died will have their bodies restored to their souls and will reign with Him on earth for the duration of the Millennium (some hold this to be a literal thousand years). At the end of the thousand years, Satan will be loosed, will gather an army of followers and will try to attack Christ, but will be decisively defeated. Following this, the bodies of all unbelievers who have died throughout history will be raised and judged; and believers will enter into the eternal state.
This view is very similar to the classic view above, except that Christ is expected to return "secretly" before the "Great Tribulation", collect believers and take them with Him to heaven for a period of seven years. During this seven year period, the time of tribulation will occur as will many other of the signs (especially also the conversion of many Jews). Following the seven year period, Christ will return with believers to reign for the duration of the millennium as above (in the classic view); and following the millennium, the bodies of all unbelievers who have died throughout history will be raised and judged; and believers will enter into the eternal state.
Remarks concerning "the Millennium issue"
The above listings are meant only as a summary of various interpretations of "the Millennium issue". Arguments for and against each of these views are beyond the scope of this page, however, I will note that problems exist in all views listed above, and reconciling scriptural passages on this topic inevitably results in the reader deciding which of two (or more) interpretations of a passage seems most correct or least incorrect based on the limited existing knowledge - that is, the Bible is not clear on this issue and as such it should not divide Christians in any sort of meaningful way.
For the record, Wayne Grudem (in his Systematic Theology) came down on the side of the classic premillennialist view; and Louis Berkhof (in his Systematic Theology) didn't explicitly state his view, but rather came to the conclusion that both premillennialism and postmillennialism fail to align with the Bible, and indicated that he finds no fault with an Amillennialism that pays little attention to a formal millennial period.
However, as regards the time of the return of Christ the views do little to impact our study, as 1) Amillennialism and Classic Premillennialsim teach that Christ may return at any time and then institute "the Millennium"; 2) Postmillennialism holds a somewhat different view of the millennium than does the other views as it sees it as arising gradually from the current church period, being a time of Christ's reign from heaven and therefore Christ could still return at any time; and finally 3) Pretribulational Premillennialism simply holds that the events and signs listed above will occur following Christ's initial return, again allowing Him to come at any time. Therefore, we must see that "the Millennium issue" has little impact in the discussion of the timing of the return of Christ.
For further reading on the issue of the Millennium, I recommend Berkhof's Systematic Theology, pp.708-719, and Grudem's Systematic Theology, pp.1109-1139.
Conclusion to time issue (top)
It seems clear that these events (excluding the "Millennium") seemingly have to occur before Christ can return (otherwise the Bible would be untrue). The question then becomes: "have these events happened already, or can they happen in such a way that Christ may literally come at any moment?"
Four prominent views are offered to this question:
The view that Christ cannot come at any moment as these signs have clearly not all occurred
The first is a view supported by many biblical scholars (including Berkhof), and believes that at least one of these signs or events has clearly not occurred and therefore Christ cannot yet come. Difficulties with this view arise when Jesus' warnings about His future coming are taken into consideration - He told His hearers to 'watch and be ready, for He would come at an unexpected hour' - but it is a rather pointless warning if his hearers know that he cannot return for at least several years.
Grudem also points out that when Jesus told of these signs, He did so to increase the urgency of anticipation of His hearers - not to allow them to attempt to gauge the time of His return. He said "There will be signs in the sun, moon and stars. On the earth, nations will be in anguish and perplexity at the roaring and tossing of the sea. Men will faint from terror, apprehensive of what is coming on the world, for the heavenly bodies will be shaken. At that time they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory. When these things begin to take place, stand up and lift up your heads, because your redemption is drawing near." (Lk. 21:28)
The view that Christ could come at any moment as the signs will occur between this and another coming of Christ
The second is a much more recent view (first proposed by John Darby in the 1800s), where Christ could come at any moment, collect those faithful to Him, allow the signs (especially the 'Great Tribulation') to occur on the earth while none of the faithful are there, then return after seven years with the faithful to reign over the earth (this view is also known as "pretribulational premillennialism", discussed above).
The view that Christ could come at any moment as these signs have already occurred
It is not too hard to see the fulfillment of these signs in some way in church history - even in events found solely in the 1st Century. For example, the Great Tribulation may have been the time of persecution under Roman Emperors, and the "man of lawlessness" may have been the Emperor Nero. Similarly, the gospel was certainly 'preached to all the nations' in a metaphorical way, and there were false prophets to one extent or another.
Whether these are the actual signs represented in Scripture is unknown - however, it seems that often the Scriptural account seems to indicate much more cataclysmic or obvious events than those suggested above or others from history.
The view that Christ could come at any moment as these signs may have already occurred
This view seems to be the most sensible. Recognising that we do not know for sure one way or the other whether the signs have occurred already, the stipulation that the signs may have been fulfilled in past events allows the scope needed when dealing with such uncertainties, while also allowing for the possibility that Christ could return at any time, and for the future fulfilment of these signs in the event that they have not yet been fulfilled; all the while encouraging us (as the passages intend) to look forward to, and prepare for, the return of Christ without allowing us to think that it impossible that He would return today.
While studying this topic, many are led astray into attempting to predict the time of the coming of our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ. However, the richest statements in the Bible concerning His return warn that no-one knows the day or the hour, and instead lead discerning readers to wait expectantly for Christ, who will come "like a thief in the night" (See for example, Mark 13:34-37).
The purpose of this is to surely focus the believer on serving Christ faithfully, with the constant encouragement of knowing that He will return, every knee will bow to Him, and God's will will be done. Let us then live with our eyes "on the Kingdom": focussed on God's will and His purposes, and praying for the fulfillment of His will here on earth.