Several passages in the Bible seem to indicate that, relatively soon after Jesus Christ ascended to heaven, following His death and resurrection, He would return to set up His kingdom on earth (i.e., His millennial reign). And, some biblical passages appear to suggest that even Jesus believed that this event was imminent. Yet, almost two thousand years have passed since then, and Christ has not yet returned.
So, when will Jesus Christ return? We will consider two primary issues in this regard:
- Was there a mistaken belief that Christ would return to earth relatively soon after He ascended to heaven?
- Will there be sure signs that Christ’s return is imminent?
Was There a Mistaken Belief that Christ Would Return to Earth Relatively Soon after He Ascended to Heaven?
In addressing this matter, let’s look first at some scripture passages that suggest both Paul and Peter expected Jesus Christ to return to Earth within a relatively short time. [Note: When we quote Scripture in this article, we use the wording in the New King James Version of the Bible.]
We shall not all sleep [i.e., die], but we shall all be changed – in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed. (1 Corinthians 15:51-52)
The Lord is at hand. (Philippians 4:5)
For this we say to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive and remain until the coming of the Lord will by no means precede those who are asleep. For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of an archangel, and with the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. (1 Thessalonians 4:15-16)
And, Peter asserts, “[T]he end of all things is at hand. . . .” (1 Peter 4:7)
John W. Haley, M.A., indicates on page 134 of his book entitled Alleged Discrepancies of the Bible that the 1 Corinthians 15:51-52 passage and the 1 Thessalonians 4:15-16 passage refer to the Christians who will be living at the time when Jesus Christ returns to Earth (i.e., the passages were not intended to be applicable to the Christians who were living at the time of Paul and Peter).
Allen Bowman, Ph.D., provides a different viewpoint. On page 139 of his book entitled Is the Bible True?, he states,
[Readers of the Bible] have jumped to the conclusion that Paul and Peter are mistakenly prophesying the return of Christ in their own generation.
The consistent exhortation of the Bible is that believers in every generation should live in daily anticipation of Christ’s return. No one knows the day or the hour of that event; hence we are to be ready at all times. . . . “At hand,” does not mean that the event will inevitably take place this week or this year or even in this century – it means that it may happen at any time.
What about scripture passages that seem to indicate Jesus Christ believed He would return to Earth within a generation of when He died? In Matthew 24:34, after His earlier discourse about all that would happen before His return, Jesus says, “Assuredly, I say to you, this generation will by no means pass away till all these thing are fulfilled.” And, a similar statement by Jesus when He was delivering a comparable (or perhaps the same) sermon is recorded in Mark 13:30.
In these passages, either Jesus Christ was mistaken about when He would return to Earth or He was not referring to the generation of the people living at that time. Since all of the events that Jesus had mentioned previously during His discourse have not yet occurred, Jesus must have been alluding to a future generation of people. Given the more than ample evidence that He was God incarnate, there is no reason to believe that Jesus was mistaken about when He would return to Earth, because God does not make mistakes. [For a discussion of who Jesus was, click on “Was Jesus Christ More Than a Prophet?”]
Gleason L. Archer, on pages 338-339 of his book entitled Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties, offers the following perspectives regarding Matthew 24:34:
There are two possible explanations. One is that genea (“generation”) was used as a synonym of genos (“race,” “stock,” “nation,” “people”). This would then amount to a prediction that the Jewish race would not pass out of existence before the Second Advent. Whatever other races would die out before that event – and most of the races contemporaneous with Jesus of Nazareth have in fact died out already – the Jewish race, however persecuted and driven from one country to another, would survive until our Lord’s return.
The other possibility is that genea does indeed mean “generation” in the usual sense of the word, but refers to the generation of observers who witness the beginning of the signs and persecutions with which the Tribulation will begin. Many of these will live to see the Lord Jesus come back to earth, as Conqueror and Judge, with great power and glory. This interpretation has the merit of preserving the more common and usual meaning of the word. But it suffers from the disadvantage of predicting what would normally be expected to happen anyway. Whether the Tribulation will last for seven years or for a mere three and a half years, it would not be so unusual for most people to survive that long.
With regard to the first explanation mentioned by Archer, Norman Geisler, Ph.D., and Thomas Howe, M.A., express essentially the same view as Archer about Matthew 24:34, but they add one significant insight with regard to the possibility that “generation” means “race.” On page 358 of their book entitledWhen Critics Ask, they speculate, “Since there were many promises to Israel, including the eternal inheritance of the land of Palestine (Gen. 12; 14-15; 17) . . ., then Jesus could be referring to God’s preservation of the nation of Israel in order to fulfill His promises to them.”
As for the second possibility presented by Archer, it seems to assume that the apostles to whom Christ was speaking were already aware of how long the Tribulation would last. However, if they were not already aware of how long the Tribulation would last, Christ may have been informing them that the Tribulation would not last for a period so long that no person living when it began could survive (i.e., that the duration of the Tribulation would be less than the lifetime of the generation of people who are living when it begins).
Will There Be Sure Signs that Christ’s Return Is Imminent?
We believe there will be two sure signs indicating that Jesus Christ will return to the earth relatively soon after these signs occur: (1) People from every culture of the world will have heard the gospel message regarding how to have eternal salvation; and (2) The Jewish temple in Jerusalem will have been rebuilt.
The first of these two signs is addressed in Matthew 24:14. In this passage, Jesus states that one of the signs of the end times will be that “this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in all the world as a witness to all the nations, and then the end will come.”
Also, in regard to this sign, the writer of Revelation 7:9-10 says,
I looked, and behold, a great multitude which no one could number, of all nations, tribes, peoples, and tongues, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed with white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, saying, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!”
Note that in this scripture passage, the people standing before Jesus Christ are from every culture in the world who have been saved, as evidenced by their white robes, which indicate that they are regarded as righteous. And, based upon other scripture passages, we know that most of these people are deemed righteous because, after having heard the gospel message preached, they trusted in Jesus Christ for eternal salvation, although there will also be exceptions, such as Old Testament people whose faith in God qualifies them to be included among the righteous (see Hebrews 11).
With regard to when this sign will come to pass, we think it is important to note that various Christian organizations — most notably, The Jesus Film ministry — have been making considerable progress in spreading the gospel message to cultures that previously had not heard this message. And, there seems to be adequate reason to believe that in less than ten years, the gospel message will have been spread to virtually every culture in the world.
Now, let’s consider the second sure sign that Jesus Christ will be returning to the earth relatively soon after the sign occurs. In Matthew 24:15, Jesus declares, “Therefore when you see the ‘abomination of desolation,’ spoken of by Daniel the prophet, standing in the holy place (whoever reads, let him understand). . . .”
The reference in this scripture passage to the “abomination of desolation” mentioned in the Book of Daniel alludes to a previous pagan invader’s desecration of the Jewish temple in Jerusalem, which was subsequently destroyed by the Romans during the first century A.D. Since the temple has not been rebuilt, it is obvious that it will need to be reconstructed before it is possible to fulfill Jesus’ prophesy that, before He returns, the new temple will likewise be desecrated. [Note: Most Bible scholars believe that the man referred to elsewhere in the Bible as the Antichrist will be the one who will commit this abomination. For more information about the Antichrist, click on “What Do We Know about the Antichrist?”]
Regardless of what otherwise may be concluded as a result of the foregoing discussion, no one other than God the Father knows precisely when Jesus Christ will return to Earth. Jesus declared in Matthew 24:36, “But of that day and hour no one knows, no, not even the angels of heaven, but My Father only.” However, if Jesus Christ is truly God, as the Bible teaches, why would He not know the time of His own return to Earth?
On page 374 of their book, Geisler and Howe explain, “We must distinguish between what Jesus knew as God (everything) and what He knew as man. As God, Jesus was omniscient (all knowing), but as man He was limited in His knowledge.” To understand this, it is necessary to keep in mind that, when Jesus Christ took the form of man, He also willingly limited His ability to be omniscient, as is inferred by Matthew 24:36. This explains why even Jesus, when He was in His human form, did not know when He would return to Earth.
In any case, we believe there will be two sure signs indicating that the return of Jesus Christ to earth is imminent. There may be other signs also, but we think the two that we have discussed will be the most conclusive.