On Date Setting and the Return of Christ, Part Two

One believer convinced about the soon return of the Lord described the signs of the times in terms of “the daily records of desolating earthquakes, sweeping fires, distressing poverty, natural perplexity, political profligacy, private bankruptcy, and wide-spread immorality, which abound in these last days”.

Yes it sounds just like today alright. But it was in fact written in 1843 by a devout Millerite! He followed the teachings of one William Miller, an American Baptist who became the forerunner of the Seventh-day Adventists. He had predicted that the world would come to an end in 1843.

Date-setters for the end of the world are a dime-a-dozen. They come in both Christian and non-Christian versions. In Part One of this article I listed a number of such false predictions that have been made over the centuries. There are plenty more such examples that could be mentioned.

And of course just as numerous predictions of the end of the world were made just prior to the year 1000, so too the same for the year 2000, including all the hoopla over the Y2K bug. It seems that the turn of a millennium is an especially popular period for end of the world scenarios to be perpetrated.

Not surprisingly many cults have become quite adept at setting dates, being proved wrong, then setting them again – and again. Charles Taze Russell, who founded the Jehovah’s Witnesses, confidently assured us that an invisible return of Christ would occur in 1874.

He then said that the rapture would occur in 1910 and that 1914 would be the beginning of the War of Armageddon. The JWs have since set many other dates: 1918, 1920, 1925, 1941, 1975, and 1994. Other sects, cults and loony toons groups have also made heaps of such predictions.

For the last 2000 years all sorts of Christians have made all sorts of predictions about the return of Christ and the end of the world. Many dozens of characters have been identified as the Antichrist over the centuries, and countless claims of this being the last days have been uttered.

But the truth is, the last days were ushered in at Christ’s first coming. So in that sense the past 2 millennia have been the last days. The old age was broken into at Christ’s first coming, and we now live between the ages. The new age was inaugurated at his first coming, but will not be finally and fully realised till his second coming.

I have written elsewhere about how the New Testament teaches that we are living between the ages: billmuehlenberg.com/2008/01/28/living-between-the-ages/
billmuehlenberg.com/2010/05/07/v-e-day-and-the-end-of-the-world/

These sorts of truths need to be taken into account when we speak about living in the last days. So are we getting close to the end? I can’t really tell you the answer to that. I am not sure anyone can with real certainty. People have always thought Christ’s return was near; people have always set dates; and people have always gotten things wrong. And all this despite the fact that Jesus warned us about doing this very thing.

As he said in Matthew 24:36: “No one knows about that day or hour, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father”. And consider Acts 1:6,7: “So when they met together, they asked him, ‘Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?’ He said to them: ‘It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority’.”

Indeed, there are a number of passages which in fact seem to suggest that the return of the Lord is in some sense contingent upon us and what we do. While I do not want to put too much weight on these passages, they are quite suggestive, and may well indicate that if some of this is indeed up to us, we may well have a long time to wait yet.

Consider for example 2 Peter 3 in which Peter discusses the return of Christ. After listing some of the cataclysmic events preceding the advent, he says in verses 11 and 12, “considering that all this is to happen, what sort of people ought you to be?” He says our three responses should be: holiness of life, worship of God and service to man. This, he says, will “hasten on” the Lord’s return. This seems to imply that we can also impede or slow up his return.  The timing of the second coming, then, may be somewhat dependent on us.

Jesus implied a similar thing in Matthew 24:14 when he said that the gospel must first be preached to all creatures, then the end will come. The end times, in other words, are partly determined by how faithful we are to do the work of world evangelisation. (See also Mark 13:10.)

Moreover, what did Jesus mean when he asked us to pray for his Kingdom to come? In Matthew 6:9,10 we read: “This, then, is how you should pray: ‘Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name, your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven’” (see also Luke 11:2). Do our prayers have some impact on when Christ returns?

And what did Peter mean by these words?: “Repent, then, and turn to God, so that your sins may be wiped out, that times of refreshing may come from the Lord, and that he may send the Christ, who has been appointed for you – even Jesus. He must remain in heaven until the time comes for God to restore everything, as he promised long ago through his holy prophets” (Acts 3:19-21). The implication seems to be that repentance and obedience are also elements that will determine when Christ returns.

These sorts of passages must be grappled with as we look at the entirety of God’s Word and what it has to say about Christ’s return. And we certainly need to be cautious in pulling a text out of context to confirm some date-setting we are trying to promote. Proper biblical hermeneutics will go a long way in helping us avoid some obvious mistakes here.

And the truth is, there is just a lot we don’t know real clearly about end times’ issues. Books like Daniel and Revelation are examples of apocalyptic literature laden with metaphorical language, symbolism, visions, strange images, figures of speech, and so on.

It is a notoriously difficult genre of literature to accurately interpret, and wise believers have always approached such books with caution, humility and reverence. Those who claim to have the entire book of Revelation for example entirely figured out should be questioned at best, and avoided at worst.

With so many differing opinions on how to interpret these books – and the rest of eschatological scripture – we need to proceed with caution. There are plenty of areas of disagreement here, and showing a bit of grace to brothers who differ with us on the fine points of prophecy is a wise move.

But there are some key areas of agreement. Hopefully all biblical Christians can find at least these three points to be something they can concur with:

One, Jesus is coming again. Scripture makes it clear that here will be a bodily return of Christ to earth.
John 14:3: And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am.
Acts 1:11: “Men of Galilee,” they said, “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.”
Heb 9:28: so Christ was sacrificed once to take away the sins of many people; and he will appear a second time, not to bear sin, but to bring salvation to those who are waiting for him.

Two, his coming will be sudden and unexpected. We do not know when it will be.
Mat 24:44: So you also must be ready, because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him.
Mark 13:33: Be on guard! Be alert! You do not know when that time will come.
1 Thess 5:2: for you know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night.

Three, we should all look forward to his return.
Phil 3:20: But our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ,
Titus 2:13: while we wait for the blessed hope–the glorious appearing of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ,
Rev 22:20: He who testifies to these things says, “Yes, I am coming soon.” Amen. Come, Lord Jesus.

Of course from there on it’s all downhill – then the many disagreements and debates begin. But if we can agree on the basics while showing some Christian charity in those areas which are less clear, that would make for a whole lot more peace in the churches.

Conclusion

We have to be careful that we do not get carried away with predictive prophecy, date setting, and discerning the signs of the times. We have a world to win. We are to occupy till He comes. We are not to get all bent out of shape about picking dates and the like, but be busy doing the work of the Kingdom.

It is just far too easy to get into wild goose chases and foolish speculation. For example, one prophetic newsletter claims the building blocks for the end-time Jewish temple have all been cut and numbered and are being stored in Kmarts across America, awaiting their shipment to Jerusalem. Another prophecy freak says the white horse of Rev. 6:2 is America because its flag has white on it (what about the red and blue?).

All these date setters are doing is smearing the name of Christ and making the church look like a pack of fools. It is time to call a halt to this foolishness. Indeed, much of this is simply deception and false prophecy. Jesus warned us continuously about these sorts of false teachers and false prophets.

Why don’t we take him at his word, instead of going off half-cocked time and time again with these useless predictions and senseless date-settings? Bear in mind that predictive prophecy makes up only a minority of prophetic material in the Old Testament. The great bulk of what the OT prophets did was forth-telling God’s will, not fore-telling specific future events.

And of course much of the predictive prophecy has been fulfilled already. Also we must realise that the real point of biblical eschatology is not speculation about future events or date setting but holy living. This is how Peter tied the two together:

“Since everything will be destroyed in this way, what kind of people ought you to be? You ought to live holy and godly lives as you look forward to the day of God and speed its coming. That day will bring about the destruction of the heavens by fire, and the elements will melt in the heat. But in keeping with his promise we are looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth, the home of righteousness. So then, dear friends, since you are looking forward to this, make every effort to be found spotless, blameless and at peace with him.” (2 Peter 3:11-14)

That is what the study of biblical prophecy and eschatology should be producing in us: holy living, not wild and reckless date-setting. With all this in mind, I look forward to seeing all of you on May 22, and perhaps a long time after that as well.

[1965 words]

10 Replies to “On Date Setting and the Return of Christ, Part Two”

  1. Yet in the last 60 years we have seen the regathering of Jews to the land they now call Israel, something some of our greatest Christian forebears could not even envisage as they saw the Jews scattered throughout the world. As a result they transferred many of the specific OT promises to the children of Israel to the church, despite the teaching of Romans 11.
    Luke 23:24-31 seem to remind us to keep our eye on Jerusalem, and to “Look at the fig tree and its branches.” We cannot of course predict the Day from this, but:
    “Ëven so as, when you see these things happening, you know the Kingdom is near.” v31 NIV.
    Stephen White

  2. Thanks Stephen

    Yes quite so, although there is of course great debate on the significance and role of modern Israel, as I try to discuss here: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2010/06/03/christians-and-israel/

    And many, like Hal Lindsay, were quite certain (writing back in 1971) that the return of the Jews meant for sure that Christ would return within that generation (from 1948). Even allowing for a very long generation, it has not happened yet. I do not discount the importance of 1948, and the importance of Israel, but how it all fits into God’s overall program is still rather unclear, despite what some prophecy teachers maintain.

    And of course many believe what Luke 23 and similar passages are referring to is what took place in the first century. That too is a debatable proposition, as are all the various eschatological schemes and concepts. But it can get very complicated and detailed indeed, and all the various sides have their arguments and counter-arguments. So this may be an area where believers will have to agree to disagree.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  3. Excellent article Bill.
    I too agree that 1948 is relevant. But if God says that no one will know the day, then no one will.
    Russell Boden

  4. Hi Bill, I am so glad that the world won’t end on May 21st 2011, as the next day May 22nd is my birthday, lol. Crazy people making date judgements, Jesus said “only the Father knows” its not our role or position in Christ to know. So what is our role? The answer is simple! “To be ready” and that means every day, every hour, every year until and when it happens folks, end of story and Happy May 22nd for me.
    Stephen Wade

  5. Stephen White, it’s very easy to take a chapter of the Bible out of context and completely misinterpret it. A whole range of warped theology has come from picking and choosing from Romans 9-11. Indeed many (including myself) believe the chapter numbers have done great damage. Romans 11 was never meant to be considered as a passage on its own, but rather as part of a whole, a letter. It needs to be understood by examining the context in which it is in.

    It is important to have sound knowledge of end time prophecy. The prophecy is there for a reason. It tells us what we need to know. Whilst it can be difficult to interpret, we can understand the key points. One man’s understanding of the book of Revelation is simply two words “God wins”. Whilst there’s more to Revelation than that, it’s one of the unmistakable messages of the book.

    Matt Vinay

  6. Good balance Bill. Although we will not know the hour or the day of Christ’s coming. Perhaps we will know the season. (we are not in darkness that that day should overtake us like a thief in the night 1Thess 5:4). But we should still occupy until he comes.
    Greg Cadman

  7. “Occupy until he comes”. That says it all really. It means that if we are sitting around doing nothing but setting dates and looking at the sky, we are off the track, and it also means that if we’re sitting around doing nothing at all we’re also off the track. “Occupy” doesn’t mean just take up space. There’s a very important active ingredient. Let’s be at work “occupying”!
    John Symons

  8. Thanks Bill

    Fantastic timing on this one for me. I wonder if any of these guy’s feel like Thomas Edison, you know like on the 100th guess they get it right? But seriously this article is music to my ears.

    Daniel Kempton

  9. Thanks Bill, I really appreciate this two-part piece.

    I have been thinking about this lately a bit. In a certain sense, the Second Coming ought to become more of a reality for myself and some others as some of us practice an alternative sort of ‘date setting’, living as if it will definitely not happen in the next 50 years or so. But also I’ve noticed we can potentially become so excited about the second coming that we forget that we are not called to wait for it but rather be excited by it eventually happening, that we busy ourselves with the things mentioned in your article.

    God bless

    Servaas Hofmeyr, South Africa

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