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 the earth (i.e., His Second Advent) and establish a kingdom over which He would reign for 1,000-years (see Revelation 20:4). Furthermore, the Bible seems to indicate that even Jesus believed that this event was imminent. However, almost two thousand years have passed since Jesus ascended to heaven and He has not yet returned to the earth.
[Note: The return of Jesus Christ to the earth should not be confused with His return to rapture Christians from the earth. The former will occur after a seven-year period generally referred to as the Great Tribulation, whereas the latter is expected by most Christian scholars to occur either before the Tribulation begins or sometime around the middle of the Tribulation.]
So, when will Jesus Christ return? We will consider two primary issues in this regard:
- Was there a mistaken belief that Jesus Christ would return to the earth relatively not long after He ascended to heaven?
- Will there be any signs that Jesus Christ’s return is imminent?
Was There a Mistaken Belief that Jesus Christ Would Return to the Earth Not Long after He Ascended to Heaven?
In addressing this matter, we will first consider a couple of scriptures that seem to suggest that both Paul and Peter expected Jesus Christ to return to the earth within a relatively short time after they wrote that His return was imminent. [Note: When we quote Scripture in this article, we use the wording in the New King James Version of the Bible.]
Paul declares in Philippians 4:5, “The Lord is at hand.”
Similarly, in 1 Peter 4:7, Peter asserts, “[T]he end of all things is at hand. . . .”
In this regard, Allen Bowman, Ph.D., in his book entitled Is the Bible True?, 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 the scripture passages that seem to indicate Jesus Christ believed He would return to the Earth within a generation of when He died? For example, in Matthew 24:34, after elaborating about all that would occur before His return to the earth, Jesus says, “Assuredly, I say to you, this generation will by no means pass away till all these things are fulfilled.” And, Luke 21:32 has similar wording.
Either Jesus Christ was mistaken about when He would return to the earth or He was not referring to the generation of the people to whom He was speaking. Since all the events that Jesus mentions during this discourse have not yet occurred, He must have been alluding to a future generation of people. Therefore, Jesus was not mistaken about when He would return to the earth. [For a discussion of reasons to believe that Jesus is God incarnate, click on “Was Jesus Christ More Than a Prophet?”]
Gleason L. Archer, in his book entitled Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties, regards this point of view as one of two possible explanations. With regard to Matthew 24:34, he offers the following perspectives:
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.
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.
Norman Geisler and Thomas Howe, in their book entitled When Critics Ask, express essentially the same view as Archer about Matthew 24:34. Furthermore, they add the following consideration with regard to the possibility that the term generation in this scripture alludes to the Jewish race:
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.
Will There Be Any Definite Signs that Jesus Christ’s Return Is Imminent?
We believe that there may be at least three signs indicating that Jesus Christ will return to the earth within a relatively few years after these signs occur.
One of these 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.”
In regard to this first sign, the Apostle John, who wrote the Book of Revelation, states in Revelation 7:9-10,
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. . . .”
In this scripture, the multitude of people standing before Jesus Christ are from every culture in the world and they are wearing white robes, which indicates that they are regarded as righteous. It seems certain that most, if not all, of these people are those who have genuinely trusted in Jesus Christ for eternal salvation. It is possible, however, that this multitude may also include a number of people who never had an opportunity to become Christians, but like certain people mentioned in the Bible who lived during Old Testament times, they demonstrated during their lifetime that they had a genuine faith in God that qualifies them to be included among the righteous (see James 2:21-25).
With regard to when this sign of the imminent return of Jesus Christ to the earth will occur, we think it is important to note that various Christian organizations – most notably, the Jesus Film ministry of Campus Crusade for Christ – have been making considerable progress in spreading the gospel message to numerous cultures that previously had not heard this message. As a result, there seems to be adequate reason to believe that sometime during the next several years, the gospel message will be spread to virtually every culture in the world. However, it is uncertain as to how accurately it can be determined when the gospel has been preached in “all the world.”
A second sign that Jesus Christ will be returning to the earth relatively soon is found in Matthew 24:15-16. In response to a question asked by His Disciples regarding what will be the sign of His return to Earth, Jesus declares,
“Therefore when you see the ‘abomination of desolation,’ spoken of by Daniel the prophet, standing in the holy place . . . then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains.”
The reference in this scripture to the “abomination of desolation” that is 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. (see Daniel 9:25-27 and 11:31).
In light of the fact that 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 the new temple will likewise be desecrated just a few years before He returns to the earth. [Note: Most Christian Bible scholars believe that the man who is referred to elsewhere in the Bible as the Antichrist will be the one who will commit this desecration. For more information about the Antichrist, click on “What Do We Know about the Antichrist?”]
The inception of the Great Tribulation may be a third sign that Jesus Christ’s return is imminent, since the Bible indicates that the Tribulation will have a duration of approximately seven years, after which Jesus will return to the earth. However, because it is uncertain how this period of Tribulation will differ from the many types of tribulation that have occurred and continue to occur throughout human history, it seems unlikely that there will be a clear indication as to when the Great Tribulation actually begins and, therefore, when to start counting its seven-year duration.
Summary and Conclusion
The Bible reveals that there may be at least three signs indicating that Jesus Christ will return to the earth relatively soon after these signs occur. One of these signs is that people from every culture of the world will have heard the gospel message regarding how to have eternal salvation. A second sign is that the Jewish temple in Jerusalem will have been rebuilt, after which it will be desecrated by the Antichrist. And, a third possible sign is that when the Great Tribulation begins, there will be approximately seven years before Jesus returns to the earth.
Regardless of what may be concluded as a result of the foregoing discussion, Jesus Christ indicated that no one other than God the Father knows precisely when He (i.e., Jesus) will return to the earth (see Matthew 24:36 and Mark 13:32).