Popular Blunders About Christ’s Return
Welcome back on this Friday. Pastor John, back in June of 2021, here on the podcast, you gave us a personal update. And at the very end of that update, like a little footnote, you briefly mentioned that you were about to head off for a two-month writing leave to write a whole book about 2 Timothy 4:8 on the second coming of Christ. That was back in APJ 1641. In God’s kindness, the book you alluded to there got written, edited, and published, and is now out under the title Come, Lord Jesus: Meditations on the Second Coming of Christ (Crossway, 2023). We’re going to look at that book over the next week or so on the podcast in four episodes of questions that I have for you.
First off, in this new book, what becomes pretty obvious to any reader is that you don’t spend too much time dwelling on wrong views of the end times. Your goal really was to clarify what actually happens when Christ returns and to celebrate it and encourage us to love his appearing. That’s the main theme of the book. But I wonder if you would be willing to take ten minutes or so on this episode to sketch for us some of the misconceptions — the blunders and the urban legends — about the second coming that you hope your book will help people to avoid in the future.
In general, I do think it’s right that we do the most good for the church with regard to the second coming when we don’t focus on distortions and misconceptions, but rather on the truth and the beauty of what it really is in the Bible. And yet, it’s right, now and then, to make our people understand there are misconceptions; there are errors.
Frankly, I’m really happy that my book is viewed as being mainly proactive and positive rather than critical. But of course, even that positive view can be overstated. If we never focus on what’s wrong and show how harmful it is, we won’t really be biblical, because the biblical witness itself describes errors and their harmfulness — like Jesus did with the scribes and Pharisees or like Paul in exposing errors of false teaching in Colossians and other places.
So yes, I am willing to point out some misconceptions about the second coming. Let’s just take them one at a time, and I’ll try to explain why I think they’re a problem.
1. Christ will come after a golden age of Christendom.
First, I would mention the view that the second coming of Christ is far into the future. It will not happen until the kingdom of God is established as the ruling earthly power, including the Christianization of the cultures and societal structures of the earth. This is usually called postmillennialism, meaning that the second coming happens after (or post) the millennium. And the millennium in that view is understood to be an extended period in this age when the gospel has triumphed in such a way that a golden age of Christendom holds sway around the world and the powers of civil government, for example, are brought into the service of promoting Christian doctrine.
Now, I think this view does not adequately come to terms with both the teaching and the spirit of the New Testament that we are to live with a consciousness of the nearness of the coming of the Lord. I don’t think it comes to terms adequately with the teaching of the New Testament concerning this present age as lying “in the power of the evil one” (1 John 5:19), or how Paul describes this age till Jesus comes as this “present evil age” (Galatians 1:4), or the statement in Hebrews that “here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city that is to come” (Hebrews 13:14), or how the movement toward the end is described with a movement of greater evil, not less evil (2 Timothy 3:1–5). And practically, I think this view pushes the appearing of the Lord so far out into the distant future that it becomes inconsequential in the daily consciousness of the churches that embrace this view.
“There is no New Testament promise that the church, in this fallen age, will transform any given culture.”
And I think it skews the mission focus of the New Testament away from world evangelization and personal disciple-making and the process of sanctification. It reorients people’s passions onto culture transformation as a foregrounded goal rather than a possible secondary consequence of speaking truth and doing love to the glory of Christ. And the reason I say “a possible secondary consequence” is that the culture is not the report card of the church. There is no New Testament promise that the church, in this fallen age, will transform any given culture. It may. It has. And it may not. It is as likely in any given setting that martyrdom, not transformation, will be the effect of obedience. And when that happens, the church has not failed. Just read the book of Revelation. Martyrdom is not failure.
2. Christ has already come.
Second, there is a view of the second coming that basically says it’s already happened — for example, in the events of AD 70, when the Romans destroyed Jerusalem. It’s not a very common view, I admit, but in that view, the descriptions of his coming that sound globally visible and world-shaking and obvious were really just traditional apocalyptic language to say that the Lord comes in historical judgments in this age, and then he carries it out for the rest of the time — namely, his rule over the world through the church, with no expectation of any literal second coming at all.
And I don’t think the language of the New Testament that describes Christ coming can be reduced to symbolic statements of historical events like AD 70. Paul’s understanding of the second coming in 1 Thessalonians 4:13–17 is that it involves the resurrection of all the Christians from the grave. That did not happen in AD 70 or at any time. It’s going to happen when the Lord’s appearing comes.
3. No events need to happen before Christ comes.
Third, I think it’s a mistake to say that there are no events that are yet to happen in history before the Lord comes. Second Thessalonians 2:1–12 describes an apostasy and the appearance of the “man of lawlessness.” And Paul gives these two realities as an answer to the question for those who thought that the day of the Lord was upon them. And he says, “Let no one deceive you in any way. For that day will not come, unless the rebellion comes first, and the man of lawlessness is revealed, the son of destruction” (2 Thessalonians 2:3).
4. Christ will spare his people from the tribulation.
Fourth, perhaps the most common misconception of the second coming is that it happens, so to speak, in two stages. First, he comes and takes Christians out of the world and returns them to heaven with him while there’s a great tribulation on the earth. And then, after a short time, maybe seven years, he returns with his saints to establish his kingdom.
Now, that’s one misconception I do deal with in the book. I devote a whole chapter to it, in fact. So I’m not going to go into any detail here. It is probably the most common misconception, and people will be surprised. “Whoa, I didn’t know that was a misconception. That’s what I’ve always believed.” I grew up with this view. My dad held this view. I love my dad to death, to the day he died, and we got along just fine. But gradually I came to see that this view did not have the Bible on its side.
I think the primary danger of a view like this is not that it undermines any important doctrine (at least I’m not aware of anybody going off the rails in any fundamental way because they hold this view). But the danger is that it fosters the expectation that God will spare his people from suffering in the latter days. I think that’s a mistake. And it could be a harmful mistake if people lost their faith because suddenly they found themselves enduring end-time hardships that they thought they were going to escape.
“God’s own people experience some of the suffering of judgment, but we don’t experience it as punishment.”
First Peter 4:17 says, “It is time for judgment to begin at the household of God; and if it begins with us, what will be the outcome for those who do not obey the gospel of God?” I think he’s showing in that statement that God’s own people, the apple of his eye, experience some of the suffering of judgment, but we don’t experience it as punishment. Christ took our punishment. We experience it as testing, proving, purifying us.
5. Christ will never come.
Finally, I think it’s a mistake to say what the skeptics did in 2 Peter 3:4: “Where is the promise of his coming? For ever since the fathers fell asleep, all things are continuing as they were from the beginning of creation.” In other words, it’s a serious mistake, Peter says, to think, “Well, it’s just been too long. Everything just goes on. He’s just not coming. It was all a myth.” That is a tragic mistake. And here is Peter’s response: “Do not overlook this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day. The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness” (2 Peter 3:8–9). Wow — what a response.
Love the Lord’s Appearing
So again, Tony, like I said at the beginning, I would much rather spend three hundred pages in a book meditating on the beauty and the power and the wonder of what’s really going to happen when the Lord comes than I would talking about mistakes. So that’s what I tried to do in the book. The aim isn’t mainly to correct errors. It’s mainly to help people love the Lord’s appearing.