Doctrine of the Last Things (Part 6)
Transcript of William Lane Craig's Defenders 2 class.
Purpose, Time, and Delay of the Second Coming
Purpose of the Second Coming
We have been talking about the Second Coming of Christ. Last time we talked about the nature of the Second Coming. Now we want to turn to the subject of the purpose of the Second Coming. Why is there such a thing as the Second Coming of Christ? Let me suggest four purposes that are fulfilled by Christ’s coming again.
1. It completes the work of redemption. It completes the work which was begun on the cross and with the resurrection of Christ and now finally his return again. Let’s look at 1 Corinthians 15:22-28, 50-57. Here Paul writes,
For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive. But each in his own order: Christ the first fruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ. Then comes the end, when he delivers the kingdom to God the Father after destroying every rule and every authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death. “For God has put all things in subjection under his feet.” But when it says, “All things are put in subjection under him,” it is plain that he is excepted who put all things under him. When all things are subjected to him, then the Son himself will also be subjected to him who put all things under him, that God may be everything to every one.
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I tell you this, brethren: flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable.
Lo! I tell you a mystery. We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed. For this perishable nature must put on the imperishable, and this mortal nature must put on immortality. When the perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written:
“Death is swallowed up in victory.”
“O death, where is thy victory?
O death, where is thy sting?”
The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.
In this passage I think it is very clear that the triumphant Second Coming of Christ completes the work of redemption. It will be the final destruction of sin and of death – the last enemy to be destroyed. Then all things will be given over to God the Father as the Son delivers the Kingdom to God. So while the Kingdom of God is already present here on Earth amongst those who know Christ, it will come in triumph and destroy every enemy – especially death – at the return of Christ. So first of all it completes the work of redemption.
2. As I have already indicated from Paul, it is the time of the resurrection of the dead. Those who die go into an intermediate state between the death of the body and the final resurrection. We will talk about that later in this class. But the resurrection of the dead will not occur until the return of Christ. That is when the dead will be raised. John 5:25-29 is Jesus’ prediction of this event. Jesus says,
Truly, truly, I say to you, the hour is coming, and now is, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live. For as the Father has life in himself, so he has granted the Son also to have life in himself, and has given him authority to execute judgment, because he is the Son of man. Do not marvel at this; for the hour is coming when all who are in the tombs will hear his voice and come forth, those who have done good, to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil, to the resurrection of judgment.
Here Jesus speaks of the dead – both righteous and unrighteous – which will be called forth from the grave at the time of the return of the Son of Man for judgment.
That segues to the third point.
3. This Second Coming of Christ will be for the purpose of judging all people. As Jesus said, they will be raised from the dead, and he refers to this as a resurrection of judgment. Look at Matthew 16:27 for a reference to this function of the Second Coming: “For the Son of man is to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay every man for what he has done.” This indicates the coming judgment of the Son of Man.
Also see 1 Corinthians 4:3-5. Paul says,
But with me it is a very small thing that I should be judged by you or by any human court. I do not even judge myself. I am not aware of anything against myself, but I am not thereby acquitted. It is the Lord who judges me. Therefore do not pronounce judgment before the time, before the Lord comes, who will bring to light the things now hidden in darkness and will disclose the purposes of the heart. Then every man will receive his commendation from God.
Here Paul talks about not judging too quickly. He says, “I do not even judge myself. I am not aware that I am outside of God’s will or in sin in any way, but ultimately it will be the Lord who will bring out every hidden thing and disclose the heart purposes of every person. Then judgment will occur.” When does this happen? He says it happens when the Lord comes.
Finally, see Jude 14-15 – the little epistle of Jude just before the book of Revelation. Speaking of the unrighteous, he says,
It was of these also that Enoch in the seventh generation from Adam prophesied, saying, “Behold, the Lord came with his holy myriads, to execute judgment on all, and to convict all the ungodly of all their deeds of ungodliness which they have committed in such an ungodly way, and of all the harsh things which ungodly sinners have spoken against him.”
Here he speaks of the Lord coming to bring judgment upon the unrighteous.
So there will be a judgment that is coming that will occur at the time of the return of Christ.
4. The purpose of the Second Coming is to gather the church. This is referred to, for example, in Matthew 24:29-31. Jesus said,
Immediately after the tribulation of those days the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will fall from heaven, and the powers of the heavens will be shaken; then will appear the sign of the Son of man in heaven, and then all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see the Son of man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory; and he will send out his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other.
So there will be this great in-gathering of the elect, of the Christians who are alive at the time of the return of Christ. The dead will be raised and the elect Christians will be gathered and together ushered into the Kingdom of God.
So the work of the Second Coming is multifaceted. It is to complete the work of redemption, to resurrect the dead, to judge all people, and to gather the church.
Question: You’ve explained that when a Christian dies the soul goes to be in the presence of Christ and the body remains here waiting for the resurrection. What about those who are not believers? I realize this isn’t a pleasant topic, but are they simply just not in the presence of Christ or are they truly in the presence of Satan in what we might call hell? Or is that later?
Answer: We will talk about that later when we talk about the state of the soul after death. But, by way of preview, the Bible uses the word Hades for this intermediate state of the unrighteous dead. Hades is not Hell. The word for Hell in the New Testament is Gehenna, and this is the final state of the damned. But there is this intermediate state between death and this resurrection for judgment in which the unrighteous dead are separated from God and are in a conscious torment separated from Christ called Hades. We will look at this in more detail later on.
Question: Based on what you just said then there is an awareness on the part of both parties – those that are with the Lord that they are in fact with the Lord, and those that are separated from the Lord are aware.
Answer: Yes, I think that is pretty clear. We will talk about this more later. But I think it is clear that it is not an unconscious state. It is not as though when you die you go unconscious like you are in a coma. This is a state of either conscious bliss or conscious torment. I’ll have more to say about that when we get to that section.
Time of the Second Coming
Now we come then to one of the most interesting and controversial issues – the question of the time of the Second Coming. When is Christ going to return again to raise the dead, judge all people, and gather the church?
On the one hand, as you read Jesus’ Olivet Discourse about the signs of his coming, it would seem that this is a long way off. This is not something that is imminent. Look at Mark 13 again – the Olivet Discourse that we have been talking about over the last few lessons. Notice the elements of Jesus’ predictions in answer to the disciples, “When will this be and what will be the sign when these are to be accomplished?” He predicts there will be a period of religious apostasy. In Mark13:5-5,
And Jesus began to say to them, “Take heed that no one leads you astray. Many will come in my name, saying, ‘I am he!’ and they will lead many astray.
So there will arise false Christs who will lead people away from the truth. He also predicts persecution and a worldwide witness of the church in Mark 13:9-11, 13-19. Jesus says,
But take heed to yourselves; for they will deliver you up to councils; and you will be beaten in synagogues; and you will stand before governors and kings for my sake, to bear testimony before them. And the gospel must first be preached to all nations. And when they bring you to trial and deliver you up, do not be anxious beforehand what you are to say; but say whatever is given you in that hour, for it is not you who speak, but the Holy Spirit.
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and you will be hated by all for my name’s sake. But he who endures to the end will be saved.
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For in those days there will be such tribulation as has not been from the beginning of the creation which God created until now, and never will be.
Here Jesus predicts the spread of the Gospel. He says it is going to be preached to all nations. There will be persecution; there will be tribulation and distress. It looks like there is a lot that is going to happen before Jesus comes again. He predicts that there will be wars and conflicts. Mark 13:7-8:
And when you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is not yet. For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes in various places, there will be famines; this is but the beginning of the birth-pangs.
Here Jesus predicts one war after another, unrest, turbulence. Notice he also predicts these natural disturbances – famines and earthquakes. Then in Mark 13:34-35 he says,
But in those days, after that tribulation, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.
So this doesn’t look like anything imminent to me. It looks like Jesus is saying, “This is a long way off. A lot has to go down first before I come again.”
When you look at the writings of the apostle Paul this same impression, I think, is underlined. In 2 Thessalonians 2:1-10 Paul is dealing with the concern of certain persons at Thessalonica who for some reason or another seem to think the day of the Lord has already come. Paul calms them by saying, “No, no. A lot has to happen first before the Coming of the Lord.” He says in verse 1,
Now concerning the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our assembling to meet him, we beg you, brethren, not to be quickly shaken in mind or excited, either by spirit or by word, or by letter purporting to be from us, to the effect that the day of the Lord has come. 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 perdition, who opposes and exalts himself against every so-called god or object of worship, so that he takes his seat in the temple of God, proclaiming himself to be God. Do you not remember that when I was still with you I told you this? And you know what is restraining him now so that he may be revealed in his time. For the mystery of lawlessness is already at work; only he who now restrains it will do so until he is out of the way. And then the lawless one will be revealed, and the Lord Jesus will slay him with the breath of his mouth and destroy him by his appearing and his coming. The coming of the lawless one by the activity of Satan will be with all power and with pretended signs and wonders, and with all wicked deception for those who are to perish, because they refused to love the truth and so be saved.
So Paul is again saying that there has got to happen a lot of things first before the day of the Lord comes, and particularly the appearance of this anti-Christ figure who will seat himself in the temple and proclaim himself to be God.
Moreover we know that Paul anticipated that, after a period of spiritual harvest among the Gentiles during which the mass of the Gentiles would come into the Kingdom of God, then ethnic Israel would also experience a turning to God and be saved. He mentions this in Romans 11:25-26. He says,
Lest you be wise in your own conceits, I want you to understand this mystery, brethren: a hardening has come upon part of Israel, until the full number of the Gentiles come in, and so all Israel will be saved; as it is written,
“The Deliverer will come from Zion,
he will banish ungodliness from Jacob”
So, in Paul’s thinking, during this interim period there is a kind of spiritual dullness or hardness or recalcitrance that has come upon ethnic Israel – upon ethnic Jews – whereby they refuse the Gospel and reject Christ. But Paul says this will not persist. After the full number of the Gentiles come into the Kingdom then, he says, Israel also will be saved and there will be a turning to Christ among ethnic Jews. You will remember again Jesus saying that the Gospel of this Kingdom must be preached to all the nations of the world. That would be this harvest among the Gentiles as the Gospel goes out to the whole world to bring them in before finally Israel will turn to Christ.
So, as I say, when you put all of this together it seems to me that the impression is that this is a long way off. There is going to be wars, rumors of wars, worldwide preaching of the Gospel, this tremendous harvest among the Gentiles, persecution and apostasy, and then finally Christ will come again.
Therefore it is so surprising after this to find Jesus saying in Mark 13 and in certain other passages sayings that suggest that in fact he thought this was going to happen in the lifetime of his hearers. In Mark 13:30 Jesus says, “Truly, I say to you, this generation will not pass away before all these things take place.” So this verse quite out of left field seems to suggest that Jesus thought this was going to happen within the lifetime of his hearers. This is not the only verse like this. Look also at Mark 8:38-9:1. Jesus said,
“For whoever is ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him will the Son of man also be ashamed, when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.” And he said to them, “Truly, I say to you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see that the kingdom of God has come with power.”
Here again it seems in this verse that Jesus is saying that there are people listening to him who will experience the coming of the Son of Man in glory and power. Compare this Markan passage with the way Matthew renders this same verse. This is the parallel passage in Matthew – Matthew 16:28. In Matthew’s version the verse is sharpened. It becomes even more obvious. Jesus said, “Truly, I say to you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the Son of man coming in his kingdom.” Notice the difference in wording between Mark and Matthew. In Mark, Jesus said, “There are some standing who will not taste death before they see that the kingdom of God has come with power.” Matthew says, “There are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the Son of man coming in his kingdom.”
Delay of the Parousia
How do you deal with these verses? On the one hand we have abundant evidence from Jesus as well as Paul that the Second Coming of Christ was not something that was going to happen soon. It looked like a lot had to happen. First it was a long way off, and yet here you have these very puzzling sayings of Jesus that seem to suggest that he was predicting his return within the lifetime of his hearers. How can we deal with this?
As you can imagine, there are quite a number of different suggestions that have been made.
For example, the Preterist view has no problem with these verses because the preterist says these were all fulfilled in AD 70 in the destruction of Jerusalem. When Jerusalem was destroyed all that Jesus had predicted, in fact, actually happened including the Son of Man coming into God’s throne room and receiving the Kingdom.
That is certainly a strength of the Preterist view. It just completely solves this problem by saying that these predictions were in fact fulfilled within the lifetime of the hearers. But I’ve already expressed my reservations about the Preterist view and why I just don’t find it plausible. It seems to me that it is not a plausible interpretation of the data. So, for me at least, that is not an option. I don’t think that that solves the problem.
Another alternative would be to say that the prophecy was changed or that Jesus’ prophecy was simply provisional but that it was susceptible to change. We have in the Old Testament certain examples of prophecies like this. Think of Jonah’s prophecy to Nineveh in the book of Jonah. What did God tell Jonah to proclaim to the Ninevites? “Yet forty days, and Nineveh will be overthrown!” They had forty days and then God’s judgment was coming down on Nineveh. But it never happened. Why not? Because the Ninevites repented! They turned to God and so God stayed his judgment so that Jonah’s prophecies never came true, much to Jonah’s displeasure as you remember. He wanted to see these pagan Ninevites judged by God. So the prophecy was provisional. If things change, God would not do what he had said he was going to do.
Another example would be in 2 Kings 20, the story of King Hezekiah and the prophet Isaiah. No less than the greatest prophet of the Old Testament – Isaiah – came to King Hezekiah and said, “Set your house in order. The Lord says that you are going to die.” It was an unconditional prophecy that Hezekiah received. But Hezekiah then turned to God in prayer, pled with the Lord, and the Lord said, “Because you have prayed and asked me, I will not end your life as I said I would. I will, in fact, prolong your years another fifteen years.” So the prophecy was not fulfilled. Once again there was a prophecy given as to something was going to happen within a certain amount of time but then it didn’t happen because the prophecy was changed. It was provisional.
So we do have examples of prophecies that involve time limits that are malleable or changeable as it were. So the suggestion here is maybe that is the way it was with Jesus’ predictions of his return. Maybe Jesus was prophesying that he would return within the lifetime of his hearers but then for some reason or another that we don’t know the return was delayed and delayed and delayed. And we still live in this period of the delay of the parousia as it is called. That is what the problem is known as – the delay of the parousia. Maybe this just fits in with prophecies of this nature.
Well, that is possible I suppose. But the problem I think with this explanation is nothing seemed to change in this case. In the case of Nineveh, the people repented so that God’s judgment of them would be inappropriate now. In the case of Hezekiah, he turned to the Lord and prayed and so God stayed his judgment on King Hezekiah. But in the case of Christ’s coming again, he gave all of these signs. It is not as though anything changed; everything seemed to be happening just as he predicted. So it seems implausible to think that what Christ was giving here were merely provisional sorts of prophecies.
Question: One interpretation of Matthew 16:28 (“Truly, I say to you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the Son of man coming in his kingdom.”) to which I personally subscribe is that he was referring to the transfiguration which took place six days later.
Answer: In chapter 17, which follows right on the heels of this prediction.
Followup: Right. Also, as I mentioned I think last time in response to the idea of “this generation,” there are two possibilities. One, he could have been referring to race or group. And second, which I think is more plausible, he is referring to the generation that is alive when these things begin to happen rather than you folks right now.
Answer: Those, again, are certainly possible. I think a lot of people would say that in the transfiguration they see the Son of Man coming in his Kingdom, but I don’t know. To me, yeah, maybe, though it sure doesn’t sound like what he is talking about. Also, I think one of the problems with that is you have to offer two different interpretations for those different passages. The one about “this generation won’t pass away” you offer one way to avoid that, but then for the passage in Mark 8 or Matthew 16 you offer a different one, which makes it look a little more ad hoc. It would be nice if there were sort of one explanation that would deal in a single way with all of these passages rather than trying to sort of find ways to avoid them individually. These are certainly options. Wait and see whether or not the option I suggest isn’t more convincing. We’ll see.
Question: This is going to seem a little off the wall, left field type stuff. But it occurred to me a long time ago – and the reason I think it is off the wall is because nobody else in church history has ever commented on it in this way – I think that there were some that did see the Second Coming. For instance, John in Revelation. Peter seems to know an awful lot about the details, as if a revelation came to him. Of course, Paul was taken up to heaven in some sort of way and saw all these things and was able to give us lots and lots of details about the Second Coming and what happened there. I don’t know. That was something that occurred to me a while back. I’ve always thought about it.
Answer: I have heard others refer to John and the vision that he has of the apocalypse in the book of Revelation in which he describes all that he sees. I think it would be more convincing if the text itself somehow connected it with John’s vision. For example, if this were found in the Gospel of John rather than Matthew and Mark, which doesn’t seem to have any connection with the book of Revelation and what John saw there. It would just be more convincing, I think, if the text had some reason to give us to think that it is John that Jesus has in view. But this is still another option that is on the table.
Question: I’ll be the fly in the ointment. I am a preterist or a partial-preterist. It is just exciting to compare all of this stuff and comparing Scripture with Scripture and so on. I just appreciate the opportunity.
Answer: Thank you! I appreciate that comment. Someone was saying to me just before class that in this class we are not afraid to disagree with each other and to recognize that among brethren we can be united on the essentials and then have charity on the secondary details. Certainly, questions like this are part of the secondary details however interesting and stimulating they might be.
Next time, I will lay out what I think in my mind is the most plausible account of these passages and this seeming inconsistency.
 Jonah 3:4
 Jonah 3:5-10
 Jonah 4:1
 Total Running Time: 35:51 (Copyright © 2014 William Lane Craig)