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HE IS COMING, BUT NOT SOON

Kenneth L. Gentry, Jr. —  7 Comments
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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.


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Kenneth L. Gentry, Jr.

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Ken is a Presbyterian pastor and the author or co-author of over thirty books, most on eschatology. He has been married since 1971, and has three children and several grandchildren. He is a graduate of Tennessee Temple University (B.A., 1973), Reformed Theological Seminary (M.Div., 1977), and Whitefield Theological Seminary (Th.M., 1986; Th.D., 1988). He currently pastors Living Hope Presbyterian Church (affiliated with the RPCGA) in Greer, SC. Much of his writing is in the field of eschatology, including his 600 page book, He Shall Have Dominion: A Postmillennial Eschatology and his 400 page, Before Jerusalem Fell: Dating the Book of Revelation (his Th.D. dissertation). He contributed chapters to two Zondervan CounterPoints books on eschatological issues: Three Views on the Millennium and Beyond (edited by Darrell L. Bock) and Four Views on the Book of Revelation (edited by C. Marvin Pate). He also debated Thomas D. Ice in Kregel's The Great Tribulation: Past or Future? His books have been published by American Vision, Baker, Zondervan, Kregel, P & R, Greenhaven Press, Nordskog, Wipf & Stock, and several other publishers. He has published scores of articles in such publications as Tabletalk, Westminster Theological Journal, Evangelical Theological Society Journal, Banner of Truth, Christianity Today, Antithesis, Contra Mundum, and others. He has spoken at over 100 conferences in America, the Caribbean, and Australia. He is a member of the Evangelical Theological Society and a Church Council Committee member of Coalition on Revival.

7 responses to HE IS COMING, BUT NOT SOON

  1. I have a lot of friends who are into IHOP’s version of Post-Trib; “Glorious church in the midst of Tribulation”. Most Preterism articles I read only critic Pretrib or Premillennialist in general. Can any of you guys send me comment or link that specifically critic this view?

    • Kenneth L. Gentry, Jr. April 7, 2014 at 6:30

      The only IHOP I know is the International House of Pancakes. You will have to give me more info.

      • Robin McClusky July 19, 2014 at 6:30

        Yeah. I have been wondering. How does a postmillenialist deal with all the false teachings around today? IHOP (International house of prayer). Search “ihop kundalini” on youtube.

        “Dominion theology is not new. Its modern roots go back to William Branham in the late 1940’s. The teaching was essentially dormant for a time but began to be resurrected in the 1980’s and now influences a major segment of the Christian population through teachers like Mike Bickle, Rick Joyner, Paul Cain, Francis Frangipane, Jill Austin, Kim Clement and literally a host of others.”

        from: http://arkhaven.org/eschatology_behind_lakeland_revival.htm

        Also, how is 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 interpreted? Is that in the future? Is 1 Thess. 5 talking about the destruction of Jerusalem in 70. AD ?

        My current position would be an optimistic amillennial position. I do think the great commission will succeed and that Christ is reigning now. Hoping for an answer.

      • Kenneth L. Gentry, Jr. July 21, 2014 at 6:30

        Remember that postmillennialism holds that Christianity will prevail before the end. That is not now prevailing as the dominant culture and that heresy is widespread teaches two things: (1) It is not yet the dominant culture; (2) it is not yet the end.

        I believe 1 Thess 4 applies to the second advent and 1 Thess 5 AD 70. We have to recognize a relationship between AD 70 and the second advents,, which causes them to often be linked together. AD 70 is an advertisement, as it were, for the second advent (as many non-preterist scholars recognize). Therefore biblical writers can draw them together in one context because they are theologically related. The best example of this is in Matt 24 where both AD 70 and the second advent are dealt with side-by-side.

        This is somewhat like the spiritual resurrection in history and the final resurrection at the end of history being drawn together, as Christ does in John 5:34ff. They, too, are theologically related.

        Too bad the great commission fails in your view. I guess Christ gave it his best shot! 🙂

  2. Robin McClusky July 30, 2014 at 6:30

    Thanks for the answer.
    I say, amill, but recently I have been trying to understand the Postmill position. I feel pretty challenged when I read Isaiah 9. Also totally convinced about matthew 24 being fulfilled.

    When Paul says in 1 Thess 4 v.15 “For we say this to you by a revelation from the Lord: We who are still alive at the Lord’s coming will certainly have no advantage over those who have fallen asleep”

    and..

    v. 18 “Therefore encourage one another with these words”.

    Couldn’t one argue that Paul expected this to happen soon?

    I could understand how 1 Thess 5 fits 70 AD, but it seems awkward the 2 texts are in 2 different time periods that are thousands of years apart from each other.

    • Kenneth L. Gentry, Jr. August 1, 2014 at 6:30

      Thanks for reading, thinking things through, and interacting! I do not believe 1 Thess 4 implies that Paul expected this to happen soon. And for two reasons:

      (1) He would be wrong, and by writing this in Scripture, Scripture would be wrong. So I have a theological problem with this prospect.

      (2) Exegetically, I don’t believe it is necessary to believe Paul thought this would be soon because he considering two scenarios for the purposes of encouraging believers then (and today): He speaks of those who are alive when Jesus returns and those who are deceased. So the return of Christ involves Christians living in that future day as well as those who have died before that event. Of course, all of the Thessalonian Christians of Paul’s days would be deceased. And that is his point: those who have died before Christ’s return are at no disadvantage.

      Scripture often places two episodes side-by-side even though they are distantly separated. For instance, in John 5:24ff our current spiritual resurrection to new life is linked to our future physical resurrection to final life.

      In Matt 24 Jesus speaks of the destruction of the temple in AD 70 (Matt 24:2-34) then shifts to the distant return of Christ in Matt 24:36ff.

      Theological relationships can be emphasized even while historical distance separates them. Our spiritual resurrection in salvation is a pointer to our physical resurrection in eternity. The AD 70 judgment on the temple is a pointer to the world-judgment at Christ’s return.

      I hope this is helpful.

  3. Mike Bickle is as Pre-millennial as it gets. Here’s his teaching on it: http://mikebickle.org/resources/resource/3070

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