Doctrine of the Last Things (Part 8)

August 26, 2014     Time: 00:34:03

Caution about Date of the Second Coming

Last time we dealt with the question of the delay of the parousia. I presented a solution to this question that I called textual ambiguity; that is to say, the sayings of Jesus concerning his coming apparently within the generation of the eyewitnesses may reflect a quite different context than the context in which we find it in the Gospels. So it was not in fact originally the claim that Christ would return as the triumphant Son of Man within the lifetime of his hearers. We had a good example of that in Matthew 10:23 where you will remember Matthew, by putting certain passages within the context of the mission charge to the Twelve, made it sound as though Christ was going to come again before the Twelve had returned on their mission trip to the towns and cities of Israel.


Question: As you were talking about these different phrases and sayings of Jesus and as they appeared in different contexts and different books of the Bible and so forth, it sounded like there was just some good old cutting and pasting going on, like just moving things around. I know that is not the way to look at it, but is that kind of what happened? How does that play into biblical inerrancy, when things would show up in different places and different stories?

Answer: I think that it does raise significant questions for that, but we can tell that the Gospel authors did have what I call the editorial freedom to sort of cut and paste. I think that is not a bad analogy, frankly. In other words, the words can be accurate in terms of the gist of what was said but they can take a very different meaning depending upon the context that they are put in. So they are an accurate rendition of what Jesus said but depending on the context they may take on different nuances. I think that is something we just have to live with. You will need to compare different passages with different passages in order to try to sort out the meaning of certain sayings or teachings of Jesus. I think in this case it is justified in doing this because we have a good example in Matthew of where this is done – Matthew 10:23 – and also because of the teachings of Jesus that I’ve cited that show that he thought a great deal had to happen before the Son of Man would return, he didn’t know the time of his own return he says, and there is this list of parables about how the Son of Man’s return might indeed be delayed. So it is those other teachings that give, I think, one justification for raising this as a possibility.

Question: I agree with what you are saying, and also the question that this is bringing out about if they were to put it in an inappropriate place it would be an error. But it is not. It is like they know it is related to a Second Coming. It is like him coming personally. So my belief is that he was saying that Christ will come to people – they will overcome and rule with Christ in that generation with power. So that is a type of coming. That is a full redemption of Adam who is fallen for individuals. So there are some there that will rule with Christ in power. Acts 3:21, I think, says it is necessary for heaven to receive Christ until everything has been accomplished. All enemies bow beneath his feet. So he remains in the clouds. Those that overcome and rule with him must remain in the clouds, too. It is not an error to put it in that context since it deals with Christ’s coming. So there are those that have always ruled with Christ here on Earth.

Answer: I think you are suggesting a somewhat different interpretation, but I don’t mean to suggest this is the only view. This is just the view that I find, at least for now, to be the most plausible of the alternatives that I’ve encountered, and so I wanted to share it with you for your consideration.[1]

Question: I think some of these verses have a near and far-term application in that there is a telescoping time – near-term fulfillment and portraying far-term fulfillment. You also have to overlay or introduce the rapture as well as the tribulation. There is no saying that one will start the other. You could have a period of time in between, even a long period of time.

Answer: I am not sure if you were here when we discussed the rapture question, but the position that I took is that there really isn’t any such event; that that is a matter of reading things into the text that really isn’t there. That is very different than talking about textual ambiguity. Here one is importing things into the text that just aren’t anywhere to be found, I don’t think. But your point about telescoping is certainly true. I think that we earlier mentioned that it could well be that there is a kind of preliminary fulfillment of these end-time prophecies in the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70 – a kind of preview. Then there will be a double fulfillment. There are other examples in the coming of Christ himself where you have a kind of double fulfillment of prophecies that were made by the Old Testament prophets. So that I would certainly want to affirm.

Followup: So you probably disagree on the second point, but the third point would be the verse that talked about going to all the cities. This is, again, a term like saying “to all the world.” The general, near term fulfillment – he didn’t give them a list of cities to check off. We don’t know the exhaustive list of all the towns of Israel that were at the time in Judea, and they probably didn’t go to all of them.

Answer: I think you are missing the point there that I am trying to make. What I am saying is that when you look at the charge to the Twelve that you have in Mark, it doesn’t include these eschatological or end-time elements. But in Matthew’s charge to the Twelve, he imports this stuff from the Olivet Discourse. As someone earlier put it, he cuts and pastes it into the charge to the Twelve so that it looks like Jesus is saying, Before you go through all the towns of Israel (however many that might have been), before you are done with your mission trip, the Son of Man will return. Obviously Matthew didn’t believe that. He knew that wasn’t right because he goes on and relates the rest of the life of Jesus. So this would be, I think, a real clear example of what I am calling textual ambiguity where a saying appears to take on a meaning that it originally did not have because of a context in which it is given.

Question: The Kingdom of heaven, when Jesus comes, or even jump back to comes and says it is at hand, and the Kingdom of heaven is a progress, it is a process. So when Jesus said that some of you will see the Kingdom of heaven come which is true because that eleven is alive and doing its work. It is just not the whole though, but it is all in sync with this whole process of king, where Jesus is the king of the Kingdom of heaven, he is bringing to everyone the God-with-us consciousness.

Answer: All right. Let’s emphasize, I think, what you are correctly pointing out, and that is that the advent of the Kingdom of God which was the centerpiece of Jesus’ proclamation – that the Kingdom of God is at hand – has what New Testament scholars call an already-but-not-yet element to it. That is to say, the Kingdom of God is already present among mankind in virtue of Jesus’ own presence among them. It breaks into human history in his person, and then among those who are his followers who are members of the Kingdom. But the Kingdom of God clearly isn’t fully inaugurated yet. That won’t happen until the Son of Man comes at his Second Coming when he will destroy every enemy including death and Satan and judgment will take place. Then the Kingdom of God will be fully inaugurated.[2] So you are quite right in saying that this advent of the Kingdom of God is a process. It is already but not yet completely fulfilled. In Mark 8:38-9:1 it says, “There are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the Kingdom of God has come with power.” Again, as I say, they will see that something has happened. The Kingdom of God has come in the person of Jesus, but this phrase “with power” makes me suspect that he is referring to something dramatic. That is why I suggested it could be the resurrection. Because that is the context in verse 31 – he begins to tell them about his death and resurrection. They took offense to this idea but then he says, “Some of you will see that the Kingdom of God has really come with power.” So you are right. It is already inaugurated in the person of Jesus though some of those will come to a realization of that. So in that case this isn’t really an end-time prophecy at all.

Caution about Date of the Second Coming

Let me go on to the next issue which is the time of the Second Coming and how one should respond to that.

1. As we’ve already alluded to, the Second Coming of Christ is going to be unexpected. It is not going to be something that is obvious and clear in terms that it is about to happen. It is going to be unexpected. Matthew 24:44, “Therefore you also must be ready; for the Son of man is coming at an hour you do not expect.” This is going to catch people by surprise. It is going to come when they don’t expect it.

Also Acts 1:7, “He said to them, ‘It is not for you to know times or seasons which the Father has fixed by his own authority.’” We saw that Jesus also said the Son doesn’t know as well. So the Father has fixed the time of Christ’s return, and it is not for us to know. Therefore, the Second Coming is going to be something that will be unexpected and surprising.

At the same time, Jesus emphasizes that the fact that the Second Coming is something that is unexpected and could be delayed means that we always need to be ready for it because it is coming at a time when you are not expecting it to come. Therefore, we should not use any unfulfilled signs of the Second Coming. We don’t yet see these prophesies fulfilled – it doesn't look near – but we shouldn't use that as an excuse for bad living or not living as disciples of Christ. Matthew 24:45-51, Jesus goes on to say,

Who then is the faithful and wise servant, whom his master has set over his household, to give them their food at the proper time? Blessed is that servant whom his master when he comes will find so doing. Truly, I say to you, he will set him over all his possessions. But if that wicked servant says to himself, “My master is delayed,” and begins to beat his fellow servants, and eats and drinks with the drunken, the master of that servant will come on a day when he does not expect him and at an hour he does not know, and will punish him, and put him with the hypocrites; there men will weep and gnash their teeth.

So even if there are unfulfilled signs that the coming of Christ doesn’t appear to be near, we must not use that as an excuse for laxity in the Christian life. Rather, we should always be ready for Christ to return unexpectedly, even within our own lifetimes.[3]

2. Keep in mind that God’s timescale is obviously different than ours. Our timescales are human conventions, but God, who is eternal, isn’t bound by these same sort of conventions. So in 2 Peter 3:8-10 Peter says,

But do not ignore 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 about his promise as some count slowness, but is forbearing toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance. But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a loud noise, and the elements will be dissolved with fire, and the earth and the works that are upon it will be burned up.

Here Peter says this is going to happen. The Lord is going to come unexpectedly. This universe and this Earth will be destroyed and consumed. But, he says, just because this seem a long time to you, to God it is like the day before yesterday. It has been two thousand years since Christ died and rose and ascended into heaven, but a thousand years is like a day with the Lord. So it is like the day before yesterday for him when Christ died and rose and ascended to heaven. So God’s timescale is different, and he is not in any hurry to bring to pass these things. But he is forbearing, wanting as many people to be saved as possible.

3. Christians have always believed that theirs was the last generation. So we should not get overly worked up about thinking Christ is going to return in our lifetimes. We should be ready because he is going to surprise us. It is going to be unexpected. But every generation has thought that they are the last, including this one. One of the most famous of these prophesies was by Edgar Whisenant who wrote a book called 88 Reasons Why the Rapture will be in 1988. Well, Whisenant was wrong; the Lord didn’t return in 1988. He said, I made a miscalculation, recalculated it, but that then didn’t come to pass either. I think we need to be very, very cautious about reading the signs of the times and thinking that the Lord is going to return in our generation. Christians have always believed that, and they’ve always been wrong. So while we should be prepared, we should be ready, it is going to catch us by surprise, I don’t think we should get overly worked up in thinking that the end is near and that we are living in the end times.

4. Finally, I want to make one last point. I think that if we are honest it is rather difficult to believe in the literal Second Coming of Christ because it is just so other-worldly. It is so strange to think that, say, maybe next Tuesday Christ is going to come again and the universe and the Earth and everything is going to be destroyed and we will be ushered into the presence of Christ. It just is so other than what we normally experience. Everything seems to be going along very well – doesn’t it? – operating according to natural law. It is hard to believe that next Tuesday this all might be over. But if you think that then you are not really saying anything different than what early New Testament Christians confronted. Look at 2 Peter 3:3-4, in talking about the Second Coming of Christ, says,

First of all you must understand this, that scoffers will come in the last days with scoffing, following their own passions and saying, “Where is the promise of his coming? For ever since the fathers fell asleep, all things have continued as they were from the beginning of creation.”

You can well imagine early Christians being confronted with scoffers like this saying, Look, everything is going along just fine since the origin of the universe; where is the promise of his coming again?[4]

What these scoffers did not and could not have realized is that even on a purely physical, scientific approach to eschatology, there is the imminent possibility of an apocalyptic scenario that would involve worldwide destruction. Amazing as it may be, eschatology is no longer simply a field of theology. Eschatology is today a field of physics, particularly of astrophysics. It is a subdivision of the field of cosmology. Cosmology is the study of the large-scale structure of the universe as a whole. Cosmology involves two sub-disciplines: cosmogony (which is the study of the beginning of the universe, the past of the universe. Here is where you have the familiar Big Bang theory of the origin of the universe and questions about whether the universe is past eternal or whether it began to exist. Less familiar to us laymen is the other field of cosmology which is called (ready for this?) eschatology! Yes, that is the name that physicists give to the study of the future and the end of the universe – the study of the last things.

In physical eschatology there is the possibility of such an imminent, unexpected worldwide destruction of the universe. If the universe is not in its lowest energy state of the vacuum but is in what is called a false vacuum (let this ball represent the universe) and it is hung up in this false vacuum which is not the lowest energy state that it could possibly have, given enough time it will inevitably make a quantum physical transition to this lower energy state. When it does so, it will bring about a complete metamorphosis of nature. Because this is an indeterminate quantum process, it is unpredictable. It could happen at any time. It could happen next Tuesday. It could even happen this afternoon for all we know. In such a transition, what will happen is that throughout the universe there will be bubbles of this lower-energy true vacuum that will begin to form and then they will begin to expand at incredibly rapid speeds to bring about a transition of the entire universe to this lower-energy state.

In their book The Five Ages of the Universe, two cosmologists (Fred Adams and Gregory Laughlin) describe this physical apocalypse that may be coming. This is their words,

Silently, and without warning of any kind, it came. . . .

The shock wave began at a particular but rather undistinguished point of space-time and then traveled outward at blinding speed, rapidly approaching the speed of light. The expanding bubble then enveloped an ever larger portion of the universe. Because of its phenomenal velocity, the shock wave impinged upon regions of space with no advance warning. No light signals, radio waves, or causal communication of any kind could outrun the advancing front and forewarn of the impending doom. Preparation was as impossible as it was futile.

Inside the bubble, the laws of physics and hence the very character of the universe were completely changed. The values of the physical constants, the strengths of the fundamental forces, and the masses of the elementary particles were all different. New physical laws ruled in this Alice-in-Wonderland setting. The old universe, with its old version of the laws of physics, simply ceased to exist.

One could view this death and destruction of the old universe as a cause for concern. Alternatively . . . as a reason for celebration. Inside the bubble, with its new physical laws and the accompanying new possibilities for complexity and structure, the universe has achieved a new beginning.[5]

The parallels between this scenario and the apocalypse that is described in 2 Peter 3:8-10 where the heavens will pass away, the elements will be dissolved with fire, and the works of the Earth and everything that is upon it will be burned up are amazing.[6] The parallels between these are unmistakable. They bring about a complete metamorphosis of nature, sudden, without warning like a thief in the night, unavoidable, and it issues in a new heavens and a new Earth. A renovated universe!

Don’t misunderstand what I am saying. I am not saying that what 2 Peter 3:8-10 is describing is a poetic rendition of a quantum phase transition in the history of the universe. I am not saying that. I am making a much more modest point. I am simply saying that if physical eschatology involves apocalyptic doomsday predictions that could be realized tomorrow, for all we know then we should not balk at similar forecasts on the part of theological eschatology about the impending destruction of the universe. It seems to me that they are quite on a par. The difference between the two is, of course, for Christians we look forward to this event as the Second Coming of Christ and the deliverance from this world and its shortcomings and being ushered into the new heavens and new Earth that God has prepared for us.


Question: I believe in the rapture, and I think it could happen next Tuesday. Then the Second Coming of Christ, which I think is being described in the Olivet Discourse, is seven years after that. When we say it is unexpected we must say this is a relative term. Notice that he says, “Only the Father knows the day and the hour.” That doesn’t mean we might not know the year or the month or possibly even closer to that. I would direct your attention to Matthew 24:33. It says, “Even so, when you see all these things” which he is including earthquakes – by the way, we now have confirmation from the government that the major earthquakes frequency has doubled – pestilences – “you know that it is near right at the door.” Well, “near right at the door” is not totally unexpected. We don’t know the day or the hour but we might know the week, or the month, or the year. Why would Jesus have spent this much time telling his disciples about the signs?

Answer: I think you have to be careful not to be too overly literal about “the day and the hour.” That is probably a kind of idiom for saying you don’t know the time. We don’t know the seasons either. As for “near,” again, I think that is kind of a relative term. What God counts as near may be very distant as far as human reckoning is concerned.

Followup: “Day and the hour” is imprecise, but “right at the door,” I think, is saying that is pretty close. That is not 100 years, 50 years. I think that would imply a very close time.

Answer: OK.

Question: I might have just not heard you say anything about this but this whole concept about cosmology – is it based on any kind of fact or is it all theoretical?

Answer: Don’t make that dichotomy between theory and fact. That is a false dichotomy. It is based upon theory. So we don’t know if the universe is in one of these false vacuum states. That is why I said it is possible. This is based upon quantum phase transitions in the quantum vacuum. There can be a system that is kind of hung up temporarily in a false vacuum state, and then it will tunnel and roll down to a true vacuum state. It is possible, as I say, that the universe could be hung up in a situation like that which would result in the kind of catastrophe that Laughlin and Adams describe.[7] But no, we don’t know at all if that is the case.

Question: I just looked it up. That quote came out in 1999 and of course there has been a lot of things we’ve learned since then. The guys who wrote it are working on a revised edition as we speak. So you might want to wait just a little bit if you are going to check it out and read it.

Answer: OK. That’s great.

Question: Coming from a little more philosophical view, what does this do to the uniformity of nature and that as a part of induction? If everything can change in a second, the principle of uniformity of nature comes into question from that point of view.

Answer: Well, it would mean that the physical constants and the values of the forces of nature and other quantities like that would be contingent, not necessary. So if such a change would take place, a very different universe would result. We wouldn’t be there to see it. We would be wiped out in the destruction of the universe that we live in.

Followup: I was referring more to when we talk about science today and people especially in the atheist community who say “Science works” and “Things are going to be exactly tomorrow as they are today.”

Answer: This would show that that is not necessarily true. We don’t know what tomorrow holds in that sense. This is a physically possible situation. So those who are working in physical eschatology have to reckon with this possibility. So that is right. The person who says that, as I say, is kind of like those scoffers that are mentioned in 2 Peter 3. They don’t realize that our own best science predicts that, in fact, things may not be uniform in the future. It could be radically different.

Question: What would be the force that would cause the quantum phase transition that you are talking about?

Answer: It doesn’t have a cause. It is simply indeterminacy. If you have a situation that is indeterminate, it quantum tunnels through the barrier. This is the same sort of physical process where a particle located at one place has some probability of being in another place. It is not as though there is some cause that makes it move. It is just that given enough time it will tunnel through the barrier and appear on the other side. So it is a prediction of the indeterminacy of quantum physics.

I thought that was a very interesting analogy that can help us, I think, with respect to believing in the reality of the Second Coming of Christ and the ushering in of a new heavens and a new Earth when he returns that we look forward to.

Next time we will wrap up this section by talking a little bit about our response to the teaching that we’ve seen so far.[8]


[1] 5:10

[2] 10:01

[3] 14:57

[4] 20:00

[5] Fred C. Adams and Greg Laughlin, The Five Ages of the Universe: Inside the Physics of Eternity (New York: Free Press, 2000) p. 154.

[6] 25:42

[7] 30:09

[8] Total Running Time: 34:02 (Copyright © 2014 William Lane Craig)