Christ is coming. But he is not coming soon. This is the position of historic postmillennialism. And it runs counter to all the other evangelical eschatological positions.
In my last blog article I began a brief analysis of the doctrine of the imminent return of Christ. I began setting up the matter and also showing its problems for dispensationalism. In this article I will conclude the study.
Often dispensationalists try to distinguish between Christ’s return being imminent and its being soon. This strives to protect them against charges of date-setting. This does not protect them from the charge, however, because it is inconsistently held. In a letter sent to awhile back from Thomas D. Ice, Executive Director of the Pre-Trib Research Center, Ice writes: “We distinguish between imminent and soon in the sense that soon would require a near coming, while imminent would allow, but not require a soon coming.” Bundled in that very letter was his first newsletter entitled: “The Pre-Trib Research Center: A New Beginning.” The first sentence of the newsletter (once past the headings) was: “Our purpose is to awaken in the Body of Christ a new awareness of the soon coming of Jesus.” The system giveth and taketh away. In fact, in a book edited by Ice, Tim LaHaye speaks of “the soon coming of Christ.”
Ironically, dispensationalists should be the last people to seek signs of the approaching end, for such a quest undermines their most distinctive doctrine: the ever-imminent, sign-less, secret rapture. Yet, date-setting has long plagued premillennialism, especially dispensationalism. The last twenty years are particularly rife with cries of the approaching end. In 1990–91 needless American fears over the 30-day Gulf War — Iraq’s great tribulation — fuel the flames of date-setting, much like in World War I. Hal Lindsey writes: “At the time of this writing, virtually the entire world may be plunged into a war in which this city [Babylon] may emerge with a role and destiny that few have any inkling of.” Later he sums up: “This is the most exciting time to be alive in all of human history. We are about to witness the climax of God’s dealing with man.” LaHaye’s chapter in When the Trumpet Sounds (1995) is titled “Twelve Reasons Why This Could Be the Terminal Generation.”
Even noted dispensational theologians are engaging in date-setting. Ironically, in the summer of 1990, as the Gulf War clouds loomed, Walvoord’s book review appeared in which he wrote disparagingly of my insistence that dispensationalists are date-setters: “So premillennialism and dispensationalism have been derided as a date-setting system of doctrine, even though very few of its adherents indulge in this procedure.” But in 2001 Walvoord writes: “Many indications exist that human history is reaching its climax in end-time events.”
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The New Testament teaches, however, that the Lord’s glorious, bodily return will be in the distant and unknowable future. It is neither imminent nor datable. Bahnsen notes that “distinctive to [postmillennialism] is the denial of the imminent physical return” of Christ. Mathison agrees: “Scripture simply does not teach the dispensational doctrine of the ‘imminent’ return of Christ.”
Christ’s return has not been imminent since the ascension. Jesus clearly teaches: “While the bridegroom was delayed, they all slumbered and slept” (Mt 25:5). “For the kingdom of heaven is like a man traveling to a far country, who called his own servants and delivered his goods to them. . . . After a long time the lord of those servants came and settled accounts with them” (Mt 25:14, 19). This passage does not expect an any-moment return — indeed, the “wise” virgins prepare for his delayed return.
Just before his ascension Christ deals with a problem among his often-confused disciples (e.g., Mt 16:21–23; Lk 24:25; Jn 20:9): “They asked Him, saying, ‘Lord, will You at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?’ And He said to them, ‘It is not for you to know times [chronos] or seasons which the Father has put in His own authority” (Ac 1:7). Chronos indicates a long period of uncertain duration. In fact, it appears in the plural, which indicates “a rather long period of time composed of several shorter ones.” As premillennialists Blomberg and Chung put it: this “Acts passage utilizes the two broadest words in Hellenistic Greek for ‘time’ (chronos and kairos),” which precludes any “claim to be able to pin down end-times events to any definable period of time.”
Peter seems to reflect this long-term waiting in Acts 3:19, where he speaks of the “times of refreshing” for here “the plural may be intended to convey the idea that it is a long way off” (cf. 2Ti 3:1). According to William Urwick “the only errors mentioned in the New Testament respecting the time of our Lord’s coming, all consist in dating it too early.” We see this problem in the passages I cite above, as well as in the famous passages: 2 Thessalonians 2:1–3 and 2 Peter 3:3–4.
Matthew 28:20 states that the Great Commission will stretch through “all the days” (literal translation of the Greek, pasas tas hemeras). This indicates a great many days before the end. The parables of the mustard seed and leaven set forth a gradually developing kingdom, which grows until it dominates the world’s landscape and penetrates all of the world’s cultures. This surely suggests a long period of time. As I show in chapter 12, 2 Peter 3 allows a long delay before Christ’s coming as evidence of the “longsuffering” of God. This fits well with postmillennial eschatology, for it allows time for the advancing victory of Christ’s kingdom and encourages a future-orientation for the church’s labors.
A frustrating feature of much amillennialism is the dialectical tension within the system regarding this matter. Amillennialists often hold to contradictory positions, balancing the one (imminency) against the other (a long wait). And they often proclaim this double-speak as a positive merit of the system! For instance, Kim Riddlebarger states: “As we have seen in part 3 in the Olivet Discourse, Jesus taught that his coming is both immanent [sic] (‘this generation will not pass away’) and distant (the parable of the ten virgins). He also taught that specific signs precede his coming and yet that his coming will occur when we least expect it, apparently, after a delay of an indeterminate period of time.” Cornelis Venema concurs: “A balanced and complete reading of the Gospels, therefore, reveals a double emphasis. Some passages emphasize the ‘soon-ness’ or imminence of Christ’s coming; others suggest something of a delay or a considerable period of time intervening.”
But if imminency can cover 2000 years of church history, then postmillennialists have no problem with it. Considered from this perspective, Venema is mistaken when he asserts that “amillennialism has a clearer expectation of the imminence (the ‘soon-ness’) of Christ’s return than does Postmillennialism.” Richard Gaffin holds that “Christ could have returned at virtually any time since the ministry of the apostles.” But if imminency can stretch out for 2000 years (so far!), then imminency is not imminency. How can 2000 years be called “soon-ness”? We cannot reasonably stretch imminency over a 2000 year period, then declare “as the end approaches and the return of Christ becomes ever more imminent.” For then imminency has no meaning: it can fit any time-frame and cannot become “more” imminent.
Interestingly, not all Reformed scholars agree with Riddlebarger, Venema, and Gaffin. John Murray denies the doctrine noting that “the insistence that the advent is imminent is . . . without warrant, and its falsity should have been demonstrated by events.” O. T. Allis and Morton Smith associate imminency doctrine with dispensationalism. Amillennialist Venema can even argue for “the great length of time symbolized in the imagery of the thousand years [in Rev 20],” which covers the entire inter-advental period.
Christ’s return is not datable. Rather than giving specific signs that allow even generalized date-setting, the Scripture forthrightly states: “of that day and hour no one knows, no, not even the angels of heaven, but My Father only” (Mt 24:36). A danger lurks among some who claim to be his people and who may be caught unawares: they will let down their guard because the date is unknowable (Mt 25:1ff). Although prophecy portrays a long era in history in which Christianity will reign supreme, it never gives information allowing us to determine the end. Christ’s glorious rule through his covenant people will be for a long time before he returns in judgment — but for how long, no man knows.