Monthly Archives: January 2015

The Return of Christ: When and How – Part 2

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.

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The Return of Christ: When and How – Part 1

Although open theists hold that God doesn’t know all of the future, it’s being impossible for Him to know the part of it to be brought about by our exercising the free will that He gave us, they believe that He has planned and thus knows part of the future. Moreover they believe that He has revealed in the Bible some of what He has planned.

In this and my next few posts I’m going to consider what the Bible tells us about the future, guided by”Part 7: The Doctrine of the Future” of Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 1994), thus completing the series of posts on systematic theology which appeared here from August 24, 2013, to September 2, 2014. The break from then to now occurred because I wrote the series in conjunction with my family’s reading from Systematic Theology in our after-breakfast reading and we didn’t read from it in the five months that a Brazilian high school student was staying with us.

Before beginning the study, I’ll repeat something that I said both when I launched Open Theism and when I began reporting at it on our family’s reading of Systematic Theology:

Comments from followers of and visitors to Open Theism are welcome. However it is intended to introduce open theism to my family and friends. Thus it is not intended for advanced discussion of open theism or for arguments between supporters and opponents of open theism, other sites being available for both of those activities. Thus I will approve the publication of only those comments that are made in a non-technical and friendly manner.

We call the study of what God has planned for the future eschatology or “the last things.” There are many disagreements over what the Bible says about the future. In both our family reading and in my posts here I’ll emphasize the position taken by our church, which is basically the same as the viewpoint favoured by Grudem except for the time of Christ’s return.

Grudem begins Chapter 54, “The Return of Jesus: When and How,” of Systematic Theology, by making affirmations about five aspects of Christ’s second coming on which all evangelicals agree and then considers one matter on which they don’t agree, whether Christ could return at any time. I’ll present in this post the five aspects on which there is agreement and consider in my next post the matter on which they disagree.

1. Christ’s return will be sudden, personal, visible, and bodily.
This is demonstrated by such Bible passages as the following:
– “You also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect.” (Matthew 24:44; Jesus was addressing his disciples.)
– “This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come again in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.” (Acts 1:11; two “men in white robes” or angels were addressing the apostles.)
– “He is coming with the clouds, and every eye will see him.” (Revelation 1:7)
The above passages and all other Bible passages quoted in this post are from the ESV.

2. We should long for Christ’s return.
We should have the same desire for Christ’s return as John expressed at the end of Revelation. In response to Jesus’ telling him, “Surely I am coming soon,” he exclaims, “Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!” (Revelation 22:20) Other Bible passages expressing this desire are 1 Corinthians 16:22; Philippians 3:20; and Titus 2:12-13.
Grudem considers whether Christians actually do long for Christ’s return and whether they should undertake long-term projects. He concludes that Christians vary in their longing for His return in accordance with their spiritual condition at the time and with how much they see the world as being “in the power of the evil one” (1 John 5:19). And he asserts that they should commit themselves to long-term activities, observing that even if they don’t get far in those activities before Jesus’ return he will say to them, “Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over muc. Enter into the joy of your master” (Matthew 25:21).

3. We don’t know when Christ will return.
This is indicated by such Bible passages as Matthew 24:44, quoted above, and the following:
– “Watch therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.” (Matthew 25:13; Jesus was addressing his disciples.)
– “But concerning that day or that hour, no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. Be on guard, keep awake. For you do not know when the time will come.” (Mark 13:32-33; Jesus was addressing Peter, James, John, and Andrew.)
– “You also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect.” (Luke 12:40; Jesus was addressing his disciples.)
Consequently anyone who claims to know the date when Christ will return should be rejected as wrong.

4. All evangelical Christians agree that the final result of Christ’s return will be the judgment of unbelievers and the final reward of believers. I’ll consider these after considering the disagreements referred to in #5 below.

5. However they differ over specific details leading up to and immediately following Christ’s return. I’ll consider their disagreement over the question of whether Christ could return at any time in my next post and their disagreements over the relationship of Christ’s return to the millenium and to the great tribulation in the two posts following my next post.

Can Open Theism Account for Biblical Prophecy and God’s Ability To Guide Us?

This is the last in a series of four posts on the objections made to open theism that I identified in What Is Open Theism?. It expands on this passage in the post:

Further [opponents of open theism] charge that [open theism] cannot account for biblical prophecy and that it weakens our confidence in God’s ability to accomplish His purposes and to guide us.

Prophecy

Classical theists attribute prophecies–divinely inspired utterances or revelations–foretelling what is going to happen in the future to God’s foreseeing the future because He foreordains everything that happens (Calvinists) or because He sees past, present, and future as an eternal present (Arminians). I considered a few Biblical predictive prophecies from the perspective of classical theists in my Biblical Passages Containing Prophecies Later Fulfilled.

However, as I explained in God’s Omniscience and Man’s Freedom, open theists claim that God can’t foresee the part of the future brought about by humans exercising their free will. Thus classical theists charge that they can’t account for Biblical prophecies involving humans. Open theists respond that all Biblical predictive prophecies fit into one of these categories or into a combination of them:
– they are of things that God intends to do in the future
– they are of things that God, because of His exhaustive knowledge of the past and the present, knows will occur as a result of factors already present
– they are of things that God intends to do if people act in a certain way

Prophecies of the third kind are called conditional prophecies. God describes their nature in Jeremiah 18:7-10: “If at any time I declare concerning a nation or a kingdom, that I will pluck up and break down and destroy it, and if that nation, concerning which I have spoken, turns from its evil, I will relent of the disaster that I intended to do it. And if at any time I declare concerning a nation or a kingdom that I will build and plant it, and if it does evil in my sight, not listening to my voice, then I will relent of the good that I intended to do to it” (ESV; all quotations from the Bible are from the ESV).

A good example of a conditional prophecy is found in Jonah 3. Following God’s instructions, Jonah went to Nineveh and proclaimed, “Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” (verse 4). The people of Nineveh believed his message and repented, and “[w]hen God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God relented of the disaster that he had said he would do to them, and he did not do it” (verse 10). Jonah’s reaction shows that he realized that God’s prophecies could be conditional, his saying to God, “O LORD, is this not what I said when I was yet in my own country? That is why I made haste to flee to Tarshish; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster” (Jonah 4:2).

Guidance

Classical theists believe that God has a specific plan for everyone and, controlling (Calvinists) or knowing (Arminians) the future, guides people to do what He has planned for them. However open theists claim that in giving humans free will God gave up control over them and so doesn’t know what they will do in the future. Thus classical theists charge that open theists cannot be sure that God can accomplish His purposes or guide people to do what He wants for them.

Open theists admit that “since…God does not as a general rule override human freedom and/or the natural order…individuals might fail to receive that which God desires to share with them” (David Basinger in Clark Pinnock et al, The Openness of God, Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 1994, page 167). However they argue that that because God knows the past and the present exhaustively and is eminently resourceful, He is able to devise ways to guide people toward doing what He wants for them. And they argue that because God is sovereign, He will eventually accomplish His will for mankind.

Personally I think that the open theistic view accounts better than the classical view does for the successes and failures that I read about in the Bible and see in my own and others’ lives. For example, I don’t think that David’s adultery with Bathsheba and subsequent murder of her husband (2 Samuel 11) occurred because this was God’s will for him and them. He let David do what he chose to do and then, after having Nathan rebuke David and allowing the child of David and Bathsheba to die, brought good out of the situation, the birth of Solomon (2 Samuel 12).

Classical theists emphasize the supremacy of God, and certainly we should recognize that He is supreme. However should we not also recognize Him as loving and relational? Bruce Ware observes by way of illustration that “many Christians have sung, ‘What a friend we have in Jesus’ along with ‘Immortal, invisible, God only wise’ with no conflict and, in fact, with mutual reinforcement” (God’s Lesser Glory, Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway Books, 2000, pages 188-89). No diminishing of God’s sovereignty, and thus of His ability to accomplish His purposes and ability to guide us, is necessary in affirming that in His love for us He has given up His control over us, because the Bible teaches both. Let us trust His assurance that “for those who love God all things work together for good” (Romans 8:29).

Does Open Theism Lessen God’s Sovereignty and Glory?

This is the third in a series of four posts on the objections made to open theism that I identified in What Is Open Theism?. It expands on “demeaning His sovereignty and diminishing His glory” in this passage in the post:

Opponents of open theism also charge that it undermines God’s omnipotence and omniscience, thus demeaning His sovereignty and diminishing His glory.

God’s Sovereignty

Opponents of open theism charge that it demeans God’s sovereignty because according to it much that happens is the result of decisions made by created beings, humans and fallen angels, rather than what God wants.

However God’s giving us (and angels) free will so that we could resist His will if we chose to doesn’t mean that He put himself at our mercy, as opponents of open theism claim. He retained the right and power to intervene when and how He wished so that He could make things ultimately work out according to His will. He demonstrated this when, as pictured in Philippians 2:5-11, Jesus Christ became one of us, was crucified, and rose from the grave so that we could be reconciled with God.

Certainly God’s controlling everything, even forordaining millions to spend eternity in Hell (as Calvinism teaches) would demonstrate that God is in control and thus is sovereign. But

How different, and how much more glorious, is the portrait of of a God who chooses to create a cosmos populated with free agents. Out of love, God empowers others to be personal beings. Out of love, he respects their God-given ability to make decisions even when doing so causes him pain. Out of his love for his whole creation, he wisely weaves their free decisions into his general providential plan. Finally, out of love he becomes one of them and dies for them that they might eternally share in his love. That is divine sovereignty! Gregory A. Boyd, God of the Possible, Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Books, 2001, pages 149-50)

For full consideration of the sovereignty of God, see the chapter on God’s sovereignty in John Sanders’ The God Who Risks (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 1998; pages 208-236).

God’s Glory

From the beginning to the end of his God’s Lesser Glory (Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway Books, 2000), Bruce A. Ware expresses his concern that open theism diminishes God’s glory. In its concluding chapter, “God’s Greater Glory and Our Everlasting Good,” he identifies three ways in which he thinks open theism diminishes God’s glory: God’s failure in the past to move the world forward in the way that He intended and His possible failure to do so in the future, our receiving credit for good produced by our free actions, and God’s lessened sovereignty (see above). For Ware’s explanations of the three ways, see pages 219-230 of God’s Lesser Glory.

As regular readers of this blog may know, I arrived at open theistic views while considering the problem of evil sometime after the death of my first wife O God, Why Did You Let Esther Die? and God’s Omniscience and Man’s Freedom). Thus it was natural for me to react to Ware’s objection by thinking of it in connection with the problem of evil. I would find it hard to view as glorious a God who foreordained (or who foresaw but couldn’t do anything about) all the evil and suffering in the world. On the other hand, it seems to me that recognizing that evil is brought about created beings and that God will ultimately intervene to bring about His will enhances rather than diminishes God’s glory.

However I also read what others thought about Ware’s objection. I was especially impressed by Clark Pinnock’s response to it in his Most Moved Mover (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House, 2001). After admitting the seriousness of Ware’s objection, Pinnock responds, “The open view does not lessen God’s glory if the gospel is true. Is it not to God’s glory that he wants a relationship with his creatures, a partnership in which he makes himself vulnerable and suffers for sinners? Is it not conventional theism that lessens God’s glory with its all-controlling and unconditioned deity?” To each of his questions, I emphatically replied, “Yes,” even before reading the rest of his eloquent response to Ware’s objection on pages 182-83 of Most Moved Mover.

Surely rather than lessening God’s sovereignty and His glory, as its opponents charge, open theism enhances them!

Does Open Theism Undermine God’s Omnipotence and Omniscience?

This is the second in a series of four posts on the objections made to open theism that I identified in What Is Open Theism?. It expands on this passage in the post:

Opponents of open theism also charge that it undermines God’s omnipotence and omniscience.

God’s Omnipotence

God’s omnipotence is His being all-powerful. He can do everything that is in accordance with His nature and isn’t self-contradictory. However He can’t, for example, lie or make a square circle, the former not being in accordance with His nature and the latter being self-contradictory.

Calvinists believe that God foreordains everything that happens, including everything that we do. They grant that we don’t always do what He values, which they call His preceptive will, but claim that we always do what He foreordains, which they call His decretive will.

Arminians and open theists believe that God voluntarily limited Himself by giving us free will and that what we do is a result of our choosing to do them rather than of God’s foreordaining them. Calvinists accuse both of undermining God’s omnipotence by believing this.

How do Calvinists reconcile God’s foreordaining (and thus causing) everything and yet so much happening that doesn’t seem in accord with what God wants? John M. Frame ascribes it to God’s evaluating every possible state of affairs and choosing among them for the sake of His “historical drama” (No Other God, Phillipsburg, NJ: P & R Publishing, 2001, page 110). Personally I think that a God who would send His Son to the cross for us looks upon what happens here as more than just an historical drama. It’s a real life adventure in which both He and we, as a result of His giving us free will, participate.

For an explanation of who Calvinists and Arminians are, see Calvinism and Arminianism.

God’s Omniscience

God’s omniscience is His being all-knowing. He knows Himself perfectly, all things actual and all things possible, and according to traditional theists the future as well as the past and the present.

Calvinists attribute God’s knowing the future to His foreordaining everything, and Arminians attribute His knowing it to His knowing all things by one simultaneous intuition. However, open theists argue that since the future doesn’t exist yet it can’t be foreknown except for those aspects of it that He determines will happen or that are logically entailed by the present. Holders of all three views hold that their view best fits the Scriptural data.

Because traditional theists believe that God’s omniscience includes complete knowledge of the future and open theists believe that it includes only partial knowledge of it, traditional theists charge that open theism undermines God’s omniscience. Open theists deny the charge, pointing out that they believe that God knows all that it is possible to know and thus that they believe that He is omniscient.

Although I appreciate the charge by traditional theists that open theism undermines God’s omnipotence and omniscience, I think that the open theistic view of God’s omnipotence and omniscience is more Scriptural and more logical than the views of traditional theists.