William Miller (the founder of the Seventh Day Adventists) predicted that the Second Coming of Jesus would occur sometime between March 21, 1842 and March 21, 1843. When Jesus did not return during that time, disappointment swept through the camp of Miller’s followers. Miller himself was undaunted; he asserted that he simply miscalculated the timing. He refigured and asserted with confidence that Jesus would return on October 20, 1844. As time drew near, a sign appeared on a Philadelphia shop window: “This ship will close in honor of the King of Kings who will appear about the twentieth of October. Get ready, friends, to crown him Lord of all.”
Most of the ‘Millerites’ sold or gave away their possessions and prepared their wardrobe for the coming of the kingdom. They gathered in white robes and waited, but there was no return of Christ. Five years later William Miller died and these words were penned on his tombstone, “At the appointed time the end shall be.”
What does the Bible have to say with regard to the timing of Christ’s return?
Jesus says in Matthew 24:36, “No one knows about that day or hour, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” If we continue reading in Matthew 24:42-44, Jesus makes it clear why it is not for us to know when he will return. He says, “keep watch because you do not know on what day your Lord will come. But understand this: If the owner of the house had known at what time of the night the thief was coming, he would have kept watch and would not have let his house be broken into. So you also must be ready, because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him” (v. 42-44).
Jesus then illustrates this teaching again with the Parable of the Ten Virgins in Matthew 25:1-13. He is driving home this message to “keep watch, because you do not know the day or the hour” of his return. Despite this clear teaching, people seem to have an insatiable desire to try to answer the “when” question of the second coming. You see this not only on the tabloids at the check-out counter in the grocery store, but also in the teachings of many religious sects (some claiming the name of Christ) and Christian leaders (does anyone remember the 2010 predictions of Harold Camping?).
It is not a sign of godliness to predict something with certainty that God says we will not know. Jesus commands us to watch and be prepared for his return. This seems to indicate that it is possible that Jesus could come back at any time – even today.
“Now, wait a second.” you may say, “Scripture does present the notion that certain signs will precede the return of Christ.” This is true; Matthew 24, Mark 13, and Luke 21 all contain Christ’s teaching on signs of the end of the age. In Luke 21:11, for example, Jesus says, “There will be great earthquakes, famines and pestilence in various places, and fearful events and great signs from heaven.”
Well, what are we to think about these things? How do we reconcile passages that warn us to be ready because Christ could suddenly return at any moment with passages that indicate that several important events must take place before Christ can return? There are some Christians who believe that by charting some of the “signs” that are thought to precede the return of Christ, they can make the statement that “since A, B and C have happened, now Christ can return” and name the exact moment when the return of Christ will occur.
We should realize is that some of those prophetic signs mentioned in the gospels were fulfilled when the temple in Jerusalem was destroyed in 70 A.D. Yet, we certainly have no reason to believe that all of Jesus’ end time teaching was realized just a few decades after his death.
For example, what about the signs in heaven when “the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light; the stars will fall from the sky, and the heavenly bodies will be shakened” (Mark 13:24-25)? In 2 Thessalonians 2, Paul writes about “the man of lawlessness” coming before the day of the Lord and being beaten on that Day. In the past, many people have thought this could be Nero, or Hitler, or the Pope during the Reformation, yet these have all come and gone and Christ has yet to return. There is still a futuristic element to Jesus’ prophecy that we must take into consideration.
Wayne Grudem offers up a pretty good answer to the tension between Christ’s return being unexpected while at the same time having obvious signs that precede his coming. Grudem concludes that there is a way to resolve these two sets of passages without making subjective statements as to whether or not certain signs have been fulfilled. He says: “[I]t is unlikely but possible that the signs have already been fulfilled, and therefore we simply cannot know with certainty at any point in history whether all the signs have been fulfilled or not. This position is an attractive one because it takes seriously the primary purpose for the signs…to intensify our expectation of Christ’s return…With regard to the warnings to be ready…Christ could return at any time…and so we must be ready, even though it is unlikely that Christ will return at once (because it seems that there are several signs yet to be fulfilled)” (Grudem, Systematic Theology, 1101).
This position accords well with the nature of biblical prophecy, where the chronology of future events is not always specified. The Apostle Peter reminds his readers that they are not to lose faith when scoffers mock their belief in the second coming and say “Where is this ‘coming’ he promised?” Peter writes in 2 Peter 3:9-10: “But do not forget one thing dear friends: With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day. The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness…But the day of the Lord will come like a thief.”