There are many Bible passages that predict the sudden and unexpected return of Christ, but there are also several passages that refer to events which will happen before He returns. As a result some Christians conclude that Christ could return at any time and others conclude that He cannot return for a while because those events must occur first. Guided by”Part 7: The Doctrine of the Future” of Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 1994), I’ll cite some of each of the two kinds of passages and present some solutions which have been proposed to reconcile them. All passages are quoted from the ESV.
Some Passages Predicting the Sudden and Unexpected Return of Christ
– “Therefore, stay awake, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming…. Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect.” (Matthew 24:42,44)
– “Watch therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.” (Matthew 25:13)
– “Therefore stay awake–for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or when the rooster crows, or in the morning–lest he come suddenly and find you asleep. And what I say to you I say to all: Stay awake.” (Mark 13:35-37)
– “You also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect.” (Luke 12:40)
– “For you yourselves are fully aware that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night.” (1 Thessalonians 5:2; the context shows that here “the day of the Lord” refers to Christ’s second coming.)
– “Be patient, therefore, brothers, until the coming of the Lord…. Establish your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is at hand…. [B]ehold, the Judge is standing at the door.” (James 5:7-9)
– “The end of all things is at hand.” (1 Peter 4:7)
– “But the day of the Lord will come like a thief.” (2 Peter 3:10)
– “[T]he time is near.” (Revelation 1:3)
– “And behold, I am coming soon.” (Revelation 22:7; see also verses 12 and 20.)
Some Events Which Will Happen Before Christ Returns
1. The preaching of the Gospel to all nations. “And the gospel must first be proclaimed to all nations.” (Mark 13:10; also Matthew 24:14)
2. The great tribulation. “For in those days there will be such tribulation as has not been from the beginning of the creation that God created until now, and never will be. And if the Lord had not cut short the days, no human being would be saved. But for the sake of the elect, whom he chose, he shortened the days.” (Mark 13:19-20; also Matthew 24:21-22)
3. False prophets working miracles. “For false christs and false prophets will arise and perform signs and wonders, to lead astray, if possible, the elect.” (Mark 13:22; also Matthew 24:24)
4. Fearful signs in the heavens. “But in those days, after that tribulation, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.” (Mark 13:24-25; also Matthew 24:29 and Luke 21:25-26)
5. The revelation of the antichrist. “Now concerning the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ … that day will not come, unless the rebellion comes first, and the man of lawlessness is revealed, the son of destruction, who opposes and exalts himself against every so-called god or object of worship, so that he takes his seat in the temple of God, proclaiming himself to be God.” (2 Thessalonians 2:1-4)
6. The salvation of Israel. “Lest you be wise in your own sight, I want you to understand this mystery, brothers: a partial hardening has come upon Israel, until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in. And in this way all Israel will be saved.” (Romans 11:25-26)
From the Bible passages that predict the sudden and unexpected return of Christ, some Christians conclude that Christ could return at any time. From the passages that refer to events which will happen before He returns, other Christians conclude that He cannot return for a while because those events must occur first. Several solutions have been proposed for resolving the apparent disagreement between the two sets of passages.
Some Possible Solutions
One possible solution is to say that Christ cannot come at any time. Louis Berkhof takes this position, saying, “According to Scripture several important events must occur before the return of the Lord, and therefore it cannot be called imminent” (Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology, Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1939, page 696). However this view seems to nullify the force of the Bible passages quoted above which predict the sudden and unexpected return of Christ.
Another possible solution is to say that all the events which must occur before Christ returns have taken place and so Christ could return at any time. Proponents of this position generally claim that the events took place in some sense in the first century. However opponents of it argue that the descriptions of the events seem to point to much larger events than those which occurred in the first century.
And another possible solution is to say that it is unlikely but possible that the events which must occur before Christ returns have taken place and so we cannot be certain at any point in history whether or not all of them have taken place. This is the solution favoured by Grudem, his concluding:
Except for the spectacular signs in the heavens, it is unlikely but possible that these signs have already been fulfilled. Moreover, the only sign that seems certainly not to have occurred, the darkening of the sun and moon and the falling of the stars, could occur within the space of a few minutes, and therefore it seems appropriate to say that Christ could now return at any hour of the day or night. It is therefore unlikely but certainly possible that Christ could return at any time.” (Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology, Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 1994, page 1104; see pages 1101-05 for his argument on behalf of this solution.)
Yet another possible solution is to say that there are two distinct returns of Christ, a secret coming in which he takes Christians out of the world and, after seven years of tribulation, a public coming in which he comes to reign over the earth. The secret coming could occur at any time, but the public coming won’t take place until after the tribulation and other events which must happen before his return. This is the position taken by the denomination to which I belong, its Statement of Fundamental and Essential Truths stating:
The Rapture, according to the Scriptures, takes place before what is known as the Great Tribulation. Thus, the saints, who are raptured at Christ’s coming, do not go through the Great Tribulation.
The second coming of Christ includes the rapture of the saints, which is the blessed hope, followed by the visible return of Christ with His saints to reign on earth for one thousand years.” (General Constitution and By-Laws, The Pentecostal Assemblies of Newfoundland Labrador, 1998, pages 8-9)
I’ll consider this view in a forthcoming post on the time of the Great Tribulation.