The Biblical Doctrine of Imminence

On the authority of Scripture, Christians believe that the return of Christ is now imminent, just as it has been imminent ever since Christ ascended into heaven. The texts teaching that Christ is coming soon are too many to be enumerated here. A few will suffice.

For yet a little while, and he that shall come will come, and will not tarry.

Hebrews 10:37

7 Be patient therefore, brethren, unto the coming of the Lord. Behold, the husbandman waiteth for the precious fruit of the earth, and hath long patience for it, until he receive the early and latter rain.

8 Be ye also patient; stablish your hearts: for the coming of the Lord draweth nigh.

9 Grudge not one against another, brethren, lest ye be condemned: behold, the judge standeth before the door.

James 5:7-9

Scripture never furnishes the exact date of the Second Coming. It tells us only that the event will happen soon. Yet one of the first puzzles we encounter when we study prophecy is that Scripture also suggests that Christ's return will not happen immediately. Rather, there will be some delay.

3 Knowing this first, that there shall come in the last days scoffers, walking after their own lusts,

4 And saying, Where is the promise of his coming? for since the fathers fell asleep, all things continue as they were from the beginning of the creation.

5 For this they willingly are ignorant of, that by the word of God the heavens were of old, and the earth standing out of the water and in the water:

6 Whereby the world that then was, being overflowed with water, perished:

7 But the heavens and the earth, which are now, by the same word are kept in store, reserved unto fire against the day of judgment and perdition of ungodly men.

8 But, beloved, be not ignorant of this one thing, that one day is with the Lord as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day.

9 The Lord is not slack concerning his promise, as some men count slackness; but is longsuffering to us-ward, not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance.

2 Peter 3:3-9

Here, Peter leaves three strong hints that the Second Coming will be postponed a long while.

  1. What is Peter's purpose in telling us that God sees a thousand years as a mere passing day? Is he not encouraging us to suspect that the delay before Christ's return might stretch out to thousands of years?
  2. He says that the Second Coming will be postponed until long after the deaths of the fathers. He means the fathers of the church—the apostles and the believers of their generation.
  3. He says that before Christ returns, the church will be infiltrated by scoffers who doubt everything the Bible says about events hidden beyond observation in either the past or the future. They will question the Second Coming, as they will also question the traditional Christian view that the world has suffered a catastrophic Flood. A new view of world history will arise, which supposes that the world has evolved by gradual stages from remote beginnings. In this warning of future apostasy, Peter looks ahead to a time when Christianity has ripened to the full and entered a period of decline. In Peter's day, the church was still in its infancy. Thus, he is clearly placing the Second Coming in the distant future.

The New Testament gives us still other cautions that the Church Age might be protracted. One of the clearest lies unobtrusively in the Parable of the Talents (Matt. 25:14-30). Most Bible scholars believe that the parable speaks of all those in every age who serve Christ. It gives the terms of their employment, as it were. It says that they will be rewarded in proportion to how much they have increased the wealth entrusted to them. The man who leaves his servants in charge of his property when he departs for a far country is obviously a figure of Christ Himself. Notice what the parable says about the duration of his journey. "After a long time the lord of those servants cometh, and reckoneth with them" (Matt. 25:19). The vivid implication is that Christ will return to the earth only after a "long time."

Christ hinted at delay also when the disciples directly questioned Him about the time of His coming.

6 When they therefore were come together, they asked of him, saying, Lord, wilt thou at this time restore again the kingdom to Israel?

7 And he said unto them, It is not for you to know the times or the seasons, which the Father hath put in his own power.

8 But ye shall receive power, after that the Holy Ghost is come upon you: and ye shall be witnesses unto me both in Jerusalem, and in all Judaea, and in Samaria, and unto the uttermost part of the earth.

Acts 1:6-8

He said, in essence, that His return belongs to another time and season, which will not arrive until they and their followers have finished the long, arduous task of evangelizing the whole world.

Yet while Scripture points to some delay in Christ's return, it discourages us from overestimating it.

35 Let your loins be girded about, and your lights burning;

36 And ye yourselves like unto men that wait for their lord, when he will return from the wedding; that when he cometh and knocketh, they may open unto him immediately.

37 Blessed are those servants, whom the lord when he cometh shall find watching: verily I say unto you, that he shall gird himself, and make them to sit down to meat, and will come forth and serve them.

38 And if he shall come in the second watch, or come in the third watch, and find them so, blessed are those servants.

Luke 12:35-38

Jesus said that He might return during the second or third watch. Since there are four watches in a night, He meant that He might return long before the night has run its course. In other words, He might return at a time that many would consider early in history.

Skeptics view all this teaching with scorn. "How can Christ's return be both imminent and delayed?" they say. Since it has been nearly two thousand years since Jesus died, they charge that the believers in antiquity who expected a quick return of Christ were deluded—that the teaching of imminence was for them a false promise. Yet Peter anticipated this attack on the truthfulness of the Bible. In the passage we just read, 2 Peter 3:3-9, he said that the promise of Christ's return "soon" reflects God's view of time. God reckons a thousand years as no more than a day. Hence, the whole Church Age, from Pentecost until now, has lasted barely two days. From this compressed perspective, the Second Coming lies within the near future of any point in church history.

Although God has always known that Christ's return would be delayed thousands of years, He has commanded every believer in every age to watch for His return and to keep an attitude of expectancy, as if his coming could happen at any moment. That is our obligation as well. The command to watch for Christ's return is a major theme of the New Testament. Twelve times, in stating our duty as we wait for Him, it uses the word "watch."

Watch therefore: for ye know not what hour your Lord doth come.

Matthew 24:42

In many other texts the New Testament formulates the same idea in other words.

Looking for that blessed hope, and the glorious appearing of the great God and our Saviour Jesus Christ.

Titus 2:13

The closing words of the Bible give us the prayer that we should always keep on our lips:

He which testifieth these things saith, Surely I come quickly. Amen. Even so, come, Lord Jesus.

Revelation 22:20

Why must we stay watchful? Because if we let go this attitude and lapse into thinking that Christ will not come soon, we imperil ourselves with many dangers.

34 And take heed to yourselves, lest at any time your hearts be overcharged with surfeiting, and drunkenness, and cares of this life, and so that day come upon you unawares.

35 For as a snare shall it come on all them that dwell on the face of the whole earth.

36 Watch ye therefore, and pray always, that ye may be accounted worthy to escape all these things that shall come to pass, and to stand before the Son of man.

Luke 21:34-36

Unless we stay watchful, we may grow slack and careless in our duties, worldly and self-indulgent in our lifestyle, devoting ourselves to surfeiting (overeating), drunkenness, and cares of this life rather than to the work and worship of God.

How the Doctrine of Imminence Has Become Distorted

Many modern teachers of Bible prophecy have gone astray in their teaching. Watching for Christ is so important that they have hammered home this truth at the expense of others. Because they have lost sight of the corrective that these other truths supply, they have introduced a subtle change into the doctrine of imminence and thereby distorted it. In their view, the command "watch . . . always" (Luke 21:36) implies that the return of Christ has been possible at every moment in church history. They rephrase the doctrine of imminence, making it say not that Christ is coming soon, but that He could come at any time in the future, just as He could have come at any time in the past.

This way of stating the doctrine of imminence might seem harmless enough on the surface, but in fact it is erroneous and dangerous. It is erroneous because it contradicts Scripture, which states that Christ will come at a definite time set by the Father.

But of that day and hour knoweth no man, no, not the angels of heaven, but my Father only.

Matthew 24:36

The Father's plan of preparing a people for Himself was perfected long ago, before the foundation of the world (Eph. 1:4; Rev. 13:8; Matt. 25:34). In His grand program of history, He doubtless assigned each event, including the return of Christ, to a fixed date. Thus, the statement, "Christ could come at any time," is true only as an expression of human ignorance. No harm is done in saying it if we mean only that we do not know when He is coming. But Scripture, which is divine revelation informed by divine omniscience, could not make such an assertion without compromising the truthfulness of God.

Imagine a son asking his father, "Can we go to the park tomorrow?" If the father intends to go next week but says, "Maybe," is he not misleading his son? Is he not violating truth? Hence, in Scripture we do not find, nor could we find, any assertion that Christ might come at any moment. The fact is, there is only one moment when He could come, the moment already ordained by the Father. It is therefore erroneous to say that His coming has been possible at any time since Pentecost.

The new teaching on imminence is also dangerous. The vast majority who accept this teaching are pretribulationists, for they believe that Christ will come twice, the first time secretly, like a thief, to snatch away the church. At that event, known as the Rapture, all living believers will be instantly changed into their immortal state and will rise in the air to meet Christ. Proponents of the new teaching on imminence reason that if the Rapture has been possible ever since the Church Age began, then there can be no other events which must, according to prophecy, precede the Rapture. In other words, we should not think that Christ's coming will be anticipated by certain signs marking the approach of the end.

Teachers who take this view are fond of saying, "Since Pentecost, the Rapture has been the next event on the prophetic timetable." They argue that if there were signs, then the only believers entitled to view Jesus' return as imminent would be those alive after the last sign had come to pass. All believers living earlier in history, before the last sign, would know that it was not yet time for Jesus to come.

How do these teachers explain Peter's warning of scoffers in the Last Days (2 Pet. 3:3, quoted earlier) and Paul's warning of perilous times in the Last Days (2 Tim. 3:1)? They say that texts like these describe the whole Church Age—that there have always been scoffers like Peter describes and wicked men like Paul describes. The Last Days, they say, began at Pentecost. When we see such scoffers and wicked men in our day, we should regard their existence as only a general sign that we live in the Church Age preceding the Rapture, not as a specific sign that we have come to the end of the Church Age.

The claim that there are only general signs of Christ's coming has come onto the scene fairly recently. It is a new twist in Bible interpretation. My father's generation firmly believed both in the imminence of Christ's return and in the anticipation of His return by a series of specific signs, and they saw no contradiction between these two beliefs. Which view is correct—the older or the newer? For four reasons I side with my father's generation.

1. The Bible teaches that we will be able to see Christ's return drawing near.

Not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as the manner of some is; but exhorting one another: and so much the more, as ye see the day approaching.

Hebrews 10:25

2 For yourselves know perfectly that the day of the Lord so cometh as a thief in the night.

3 For when they shall say, Peace and safety; then sudden destruction cometh upon them, as travail upon a woman with child; and they shall not escape.

4 But ye, brethren, are not in darkness, that that day should overtake you as a thief.

1 Thessalonians 5:2-4

The Lord rebuked the church of Sardis because they did not anticipate the hour of His coming.

Remember therefore how thou hast received and heard, and hold fast, and repent. If therefore thou shalt not watch, I will come on thee as a thief, and thou shalt not know what hour I will come upon thee.

Revelation 3:3

In any journey, how do you know that you are getting close to the end? You rely on signs along the way, each one announcing that you have come closer to the destination. Likewise, as we go through history, we see events along the way that mark our progress and assure us that the end is drawing near.

2. There were signs of the times before the first coming of Christ.

1 The Pharisees also with the Sadducees came, and tempting desired him that he would shew them a sign from heaven.

2 He answered and said unto them, When it is evening, ye say, It will be fair weather: for the sky is red.

3 And in the morning, It will be foul weather to day: for the sky is red and lowring. O ye hypocrites, ye can discern the face of the sky; but can ye not discern the signs of the times?

4 A wicked and adulterous generation seeketh after a sign; and there shall no sign be given unto it, but the sign of the prophet Jonas. And he left them, and departed.

Matthew 16:1-4

If there were signs of His first coming, should we not expect signs of His second coming? We must not place ourselves in the company of the Pharisees and Sadducees whom Jesus rebuked for neglecting the signs of the times. The signs in His day pointed to Him as the Christ. The Jewish leaders should have recognized Him by His fulfillment of Bible prophecy. This is also our source of confidence that His return must be soon.

3. The dominant view today is that Bible prophecy is blind to the details of history between Pentecost and the Rapture. But this view is convincing only to the ignorant. In fact, the Bible gives us glimpses of many events and developments during the Church Age. For example, in both the Old Testament and the New, it prophesies that Jerusalem would be destroyed sometime after the death of the Messiah (Dan. 9:26; Luke 19:41-44). This disaster took place in AD 70. The Christians alive in those days justifiably saw the event as a sign that history was moving rapidly toward its consummation. In the next lesson we will show that dozens of other major signs in fulfillment of prophecy have visited the church during its pilgrimage through the centuries. All the signs we will discuss have been manifest in datable events, not in general conditions prevailing throughout the Church Age. Hence, the oft-heard claim that there are only general signs of Christ's coming is incorrect.

4. We still must deal with this question: If the Bible teaches that Christ's return would be long delayed and if it prophesies a long series of events before His coming, how has the church from earliest times managed to keep an expectant attitude? How has it been able to obey the command to remain watchful, as if Jesus might return at any time? Most Bible teachers today answer the question by denying that the Bible suggests delay or provides signs of Christ's return. But this modern outlook is simplistic and rests on a humanistic assumption—the assumption that we in ourselves can figure out what the Bible teaches. In fact, we cannot figure it out except by the illumination of the Holy Spirit. Perhaps with the exception of a few godly men, He did not permit the church in its infancy to understand the texts which imply long delay. Moreover, He generally has not allowed the church to predict signs before they occur. Rather, He has brought them to the attention of the church only after they have passed into the realm of history.

For example, as we will show later, the formation of Israel in 1948 was surely a sign of the approaching end. But before the Jews began returning to Palestine, the church did not foresee them regathering there, or imagine that such a regathering must precede Christ's coming. In the decades before 1948, many Christians felt that the partial return then accomplished was a complete fulfillment of those prophecies announcing a future restoration of Jews to the land of their fathers.

The Purpose of Signs

As we have said, the Lord desires His people to keep watching for His return, whether or not His return is truly imminent by human reckoning. The danger of not being watchful is compared to falling asleep. Jesus' Parable of the Virgins warns the believer of grave consequences if the return of the Lord catches him drowsy and unready.

1 Then shall the kingdom of heaven be likened unto ten virgins, which took their lamps, and went forth to meet the bridegroom.

2 And five of them were wise, and five were foolish.

3 They that were foolish took their lamps, and took no oil with them:

4 But the wise took oil in their vessels with their lamps.

5 While the bridegroom tarried, they all slumbered and slept.

6 And at midnight there was a cry made, Behold, the bridegroom cometh; go ye out to meet him.

7 Then all those virgins arose, and trimmed their lamps.

8 And the foolish said unto the wise, Give us of your oil; for our lamps are gone out.

9 But the wise answered, saying, Not so; lest there be not enough for us and you: but go ye rather to them that sell, and buy for yourselves.

10 And while they went to buy, the bridegroom came; and they that were ready went in with him to the marriage: and the door was shut.

11 Afterward came also the other virgins, saying, Lord, Lord, open to us.

12 But he answered and said, Verily I say unto you, I know you not.

13 Watch therefore, for ye know neither the day nor the hour wherein the Son of man cometh.

Matthew 25:1-13

The parable is no doubt a prophecy of events yet to occur. Yet it has had many preliminary fulfillments. In the past, the church has often been startled from sleep by a cry at midnight. The cry has been the voice of preachers alerting the church to signs in history that the age is rapidly moving toward the time when the Bridegroom will appear. The purpose of signs is exactly the one they have served—namely, to rouse the church from a slumber of inactivity, careless living, and complacency about seeing Christ.

The believer's outlook should be what Paul enjoins.

6 Therefore let us not sleep, as do others; but let us watch and be sober.

7 For they that sleep sleep in the night; and they that be drunken are drunken in the night.

8 But let us, who are of the day, be sober, putting on the breastplate of faith and love; and for an helmet, the hope of salvation.

9 For God hath not appointed us to wrath, but to obtain salvation by our Lord Jesus Christ,

10 Who died for us, that, whether we wake or sleep, we should live together with him.

1 Thessalonians 5:6-10

Again he says,

And that, knowing the time, that now it is high time to awake out of sleep: for now is our salvation nearer than when we believed.

Romans 13:11

What Is Not the Purpose of Signs

Signs are not intended to help us predict when Christ will come. When the nation of Israel was founded in 1948, people in the churches were excited. They felt that Christ might return any day. Yet they were no more able to set the date of His coming than they were before. We will never be able to set the date. Why?

But of that day and hour knoweth no man, no, not the angels of heaven, but my Father only.

Matthew 24:36

The answer is simple. The date is a secret. Anyone who tries to tell us when Christ will come brands himself as a deceiver and a false prophet. There is a compelling reason why God denies us such information.

But know this, that if the goodman of the house had known in what watch the thief would come, he would have watched, and would not have suffered his house to be broken up.

Matthew 24:43

"Good man" is an old King James word with no basis in the Greek. The Greek does not characterize this man as good or bad. The Greek word merely signifies the owner or ruler of a house. Who is the ruler of this world? Jesus said at the Last Supper,

Hereafter I will not talk much with you: for the prince of this world cometh, and hath nothing in me.

John 14:30

Jesus was referring to Satan. Paul concurs in this estimate.

Wherein in time past ye walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that now worketh in the children of disobedience:

Ephesians 2:2

Indeed, Satan now sits on the throne of this world, although he is only a usurper who will someday be supplanted by the rightful king, who is Christ. Jesus says the secrecy of His return is a ploy to hamper Satanic opposition. It reflects high strategy in God's war against Satan. We do not know what Satan could do to frustrate the rapture of the church from this world, but he will never get a chance to do it. Christ will strike as a thief in the night.

For yourselves know perfectly that the day of the Lord so cometh as a thief in the night.

1 Thessalonians 5:2

Like a thief, He will take something from another's house—the church out of Satan's kingdom. The comparison to a thief in the night yields valuable information.

  1. Christ will come by surprise, at a moment no one anticipated.
  2. His coming will be without noise or visible display. The saints He removes will just suddenly disappear. No one who scorns the Bible will understand why they disappeared. Immediately the devil will likely come forward with explanations that will satisfy many of the ungodly.
  3. He will come at night—that is, when the world is asleep. To be asleep means to be mindless of spiritual things. The Rapture will occur and judgment will commence at a moment when the world as a whole has forgotten God, dismissed His Word as mere fairy tales, and abandoned itself to the worship of self and sin.

37 But as the days of Noe were, so shall also the coming of the Son of man be.

38 For as in the days that were before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day that Noe entered into the ark,

39 And knew not until the flood came, and took them all away; so shall also the coming of the Son of man be.

Matthew 24:37-39

It would be well for us to heed Christ's words further along in the same discourse.

Therefore be ye also ready: for in such an hour as ye think not the Son of man cometh.

Matthew 24:44

Christ will come when even the church at large is not looking for Him. During my lifetime I have seen a sharp decline of interest in Bible prophecy. What is the result of this trend? Many Christians today, especially in the younger generation, are not watching for Christ to return. They are certainly not expecting Him to return at any moment.

What we have discovered, therefore, is a sign—the first sign we have considered—that Christ's return must be very near. The sign? We live at a moment in history when very few are expecting Christ to come.