Ever since the time of Jesus, people have been claiming that end-time events will occur in their own day.
In the mid-1800s, a Bible scholar named William Miller claimed Jesus would return by March 21, 1844. It didn’t happen. Spring came and went with no sign of Jesus. Miller determined that his calculations had been wrong and claimed a divine delay was part of God’s plan. He eventually settled on a date in October 1844 that again proved wrong. His followers were ridiculed. Some underwent physical hardship as they quit their jobs to devote themselves to spreading the word about the imminent return. Some farmers left their crops unharvested; others gave away their possessions. Out of Miller’s failed prophecies (called “The Great Disappointment”) arose Seventh-day Adventism.
“Ever since the time of Jesus, people have been claiming that end-time events will occur in their own day.”
Fast-forward to 1988. Edgar Whisenant, a former NASA rocket engineer, wrote a booklet called 88 Reasons Why the Rapture Will Be in 1988, in which he claimed that Jesus would return sometime between September 11–13, and that the tribulation would begin at sunset on October 3. Two million copies of the booklet circulated in the years leading up to 1988. Some people in the American South quit their jobs, sold their homes, and gave themselves completely to prayer before the predicted date. September 1988 passed quietly. The sun set on October 3 and rose again on October 4 with no sign of the tribulation. Whisenant recalculated, this time figuring the end would come in September 1989, then 1993, and then 1994. He died in 2001.
On and on it goes. It’s easy to mock these failed predictions, but there’s a related and more widely accepted trend among evangelical Christians that Graham Beynon has called “implicit date-setting.” While not setting a specific date for the return of Jesus, many claim we are living at the very end of history, and support this claim by matching current events with specific biblical prophecies. It is estimated that a third of white American evangelicals (about 20 million people) believe they will live to see the end of the world. As a pastor, I’ve been told quite often by Christians that they believe Jesus will return in our own generation.
How should we respond to explicit and implicit date-setting?
We should begin by recognizing the positive aspect of mistaken attempts to discern the date of Jesus’s return: they draw upon and promote an eager expectation of the return of Jesus. We can applaud that restlessness for Jesus. If we’re honest, we may admit that we don’t feel enough of it ourselves. However, many of these attempts ignore the words and spirit of Jesus’s saying in Matthew 24:36, “Of that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father only.” As claim after claim of the imminent return of Jesus has proven wrong over the last two thousand years, Jesus’s words have proven true.
Three Problems with Date-Setting
Additionally, attempts at date-setting (of both the explicit and implicit varieties) undermine a biblical approach to waiting for Jesus in three significant ways.
1. Date-setting encourages a type of restlessness for the end of time that discourages patience. When the New Testament authors cry out, “Come, Lord Jesus!” it is always with the perspective that Jesus will only come when God intends him to and that we don’t know exactly when that is. Our ignorance of the date of Jesus’s return requires a mingling of eager expectation and humble patience. But that humility and patience is undermined when Christians believe they have “figured out” that we live in the last generation.
“Date-setting encourages a type of restlessness for the end of time that discourages patience.”
2. Date-setting discourages productive living. When charismatic date-setters convince their followers of specific dates, they often leave them very unproductive. Followers have emptied their bank accounts, quit their jobs, and squandered resources that could have been put to better use for the kingdom.
Jesus aims for just the opposite. At the end of his great section of end-time teaching in Mark 13, Jesus tells a story that makes the case for productivity. He says that a man went on a journey, left his servants in charge, and told the doorkeeper to stay awake. Jesus then commands his disciples to stay awake, because they don’t know when he will return. In this context, staying awake doesn’t mean figuring out when Jesus will return, but getting on with our responsibilities in this life, “in the meantime,” until he returns.
3. Date-setting attempts to seize control. Waiting for an event when we don’t know it’s timing can be uncomfortable and demanding. It seems that Jesus wants us to feel this discomfort because he wants us to be always prepared for his coming. The conclusion to the parable of the ten virgins is this: “Watch therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour” (Matthew 25:13). As the theologian G.C. Berkouwer once said, we’re not called to reckon the time of Jesus’s return — we’re called to reckon with it, to allow it to fruitfully shape our lives in the present.
Waiting for Jesus
Waiting based on explicit or implicit date-setting is our human attempt to seize control of the time of Jesus’s coming. It removes the uncomfortable, awkward uncertainty of not knowing when Jesus will return by establishing a date, whether exact or approximate. But God wants us to wait for Jesus not because we’re confident of a date, but because we trust God’s promise. The apostle Peter told his readers how they were to wait: “According to [God’s] promise we are waiting for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells” (2 Peter 3:13).
When our waiting for Jesus is founded on God’s promise, we draw our confidence from the dependability of the one who has made the promise. That’s good news for Christians because the God of promise is the sovereign Lord of history, and therefore totally reliable. Our certainty arises from the dependability of God’s character, not the precision of our calculations. Jesus’s return is not a puzzle to figure out, but rather a promise from God to trust.
“Our certainty arises from the dependability of God’s character, not the precision of our calculations.”
Waiting based on God’s promise produces humility and hope. Humility, because this kind of waiting can never run away from God to find the certainty of Jesus’s return in a hidden code or clue or correlation with modern events separable from God himself. The certain assurance that Jesus will return can only be obtained by leaning upon God’s promise, which means leaning upon God himself. This brings us to a deeper awareness that we don’t and can’t make it happen; it is totally up to God. This humbles us.
But waiting for Jesus on the basis of God’s promise also produces hope, because it means the foundation of our waiting is not merely a wish; it’s a certainty grounded in the character of God himself. In Acts 1:10–11, two angels promise that Jesus will return from heaven. That promise produces great hope within us as we cling to it and build our lives upon it. It yields a robustly biblical hope that we will not be condemned at the last day, because Jesus our advocate will rescue us from the wrath to come (1 Thessalonians 1:10).