The Hour of His Return

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Editors Note: This column was originally published in January of 2011.  Since that time, Cliff Lee retired from baseball, Harold Camping passed away, and May 21, 2011 came and went like any other day.  While some of the particulars in this piece are dated, the overarching message about the Second Coming and end times prophecies and philosophies remains relevant until the day of Christ’s return.

It was 4:30 in the morning on Tuesday, the 14th of December 2010. I was making my way out of the upstairs bathroom after my shower, but the hallway was dark. At the far end there was a lurking shadow. I admit a bit of apprehension crept into my soul.  But I kept on walking. Turned out it was my wife. Ordinarily, she doesn’t get up until after I’m downstairs.

I said, “Hi.”

She said, “Do you know who Cliff Lee signed with?”

It struck me as somewhat odd that she would ask that question at that time of day in those circumstances, but, since she did ask, I guessed, “The Yankees? Texas?”

With barely restrained exuberance the fateful words bubbled out, “With the Phillies!”

I relate that account because in December of 2010 when ace southpaw pitcher Cliff Lee signed with Phillies after they had traded him away – and it was acknowledged he was one of the two or three best pitchers in baseball – everyone in the Philadelphia area treated his signing and the circumstances of their finding out about it almost on a par with the events of November 22, 1963. “How did you find out?” and “’Where were you when you found out?” are questions that will resonate for decades to come regarding Lee’s signing with the Phillies.

The next day one of the local Philly papers ran a picture of Cliff Lee with a huge headline reading, “The Second Coming.” That’s taking matters much further than just a comparison with the events in the Dallas motorcade in 1963. 

But since it’s been brought up, let’s talk a bit about the Second Coming. I’m referring, of course, to the Second Coming of Jesus, not to Cliff Lee signing his second contract with the Phillies.

Since the earliest days of Christianity there have been predictions about when Jesus will return. As the year AD 1000 approached there were many “prophetic voices” saying Jesus would return during that millennial year. 500 years later Martin Luther expected Jesus to return in his lifetime. 500 years after Luther we’re still getting predictions of Christ’s return in our lifetime. I would like for us to look at one particular example of these “prophetic voices” to help us understand how to respond to all such claims. 

Here’s the one we’ll use for our analysis: Harold Camping announced on Family Radio in October of 2010 that Jesus would return on May 21, 2011. On Quodlibet Sunday in 2010 [the second Sunday of Advent] I received three separate questions about Camping’s assertion. That would seem to indicate folk listened to Camping or talk with folk who listened to him.

What are we to make of Camping’s prophecies? How ought we to think about Christ’s promised physical return to earth? The first question is easy; the second question more complex.

First, don’t take prophetic “insights” like Camping’s seriously. He is a proven false prophet, having made a similar prediction some years ago. Do take him seriously as a voice to whom many people listen. Unfortunately, folk who listen to him get very confused. Why? Because like all false prophets he is a parasite, living off the flesh of others, with nothing positive to contribute to the ongoing life of his host.

Let me explain. He feeds off biblical texts; he quotes verses from the Bible. By using such quotations, he applies a veneer of credibility and orthodoxy to his views, views that otherwise would be seen for the ridiculous assertions they are. He ignores or turns aside texts such as Matt. 24:36 where Jesus says that no one knows the day or the hour of His return, only the Father does. 

He also feeds off truths taught in Christian theology for he refers to doctrines that are part of the deposit of faith entrusted to the Church. In this instance he is feeding off the truth of Christ’s Second Coming. How he uses it is more in line with the headline writer who opined that Cliff Lee’s signing might be the Second Coming than with the Christian truth of Christ’s Second Coming. Yet, by using that terminology, Camping gets a hearing and folk get confused, or, in the worst-case scenario, are completely led astray.

Here’s the assertion we need to make at such times: Christ will not return on May 21, 2011. 

There.  That answers the first question, now let’s move on to the second: how ought we to think about Christ’s Second Coming.

First, some basic parameters should be established:

  1. The Second Coming will be a physical coming of Christ, not a spiritual coming. This refutes the notions of groups like the Jehovah’s Witnesses that Christ returned spiritually in the early 20th century. 
  2. The Second Coming will be recognized for exactly what it is by the whole world, there will be no question of whether or not it has happened. This refutes groups like complete Preterists, those who assert that Christ returned in AD 70. 
  3. No one knows when the Second Coming will occur; no one knows just exactly how the Second Coming will occur. This refutes all the chart makers and date setters – whether they are like Mr. Camping or have some other agenda – who have the Second Coming figured out down to the “T.” 

The Church down through the ages has agreed on those three points: The Second Coming of Christ will be physical, it has not happened yet, and no one knows exactly when and how it will occur. As long as those three points are affirmed, then one is on the path of solid Christian doctrine. 

The Church down through the ages has agreed on those three points: The Second Coming of Christ will be physical, it has not happened yet, and no one knows exactly when and how it will occur

Over the centuries three ways to order one’s thoughts about the Second Coming have been considered possible. They are different views. They do not agree with one another. Each is considered orthodox. Those three ways are: premillennialism, amillennialism, and postmillennialism. I suspect that you can suspect that the millennium plays a significant role in each position!

Here’s a good way to remember what each word means: the prefix of each word describes the Second Coming of Christ in relation to the millennium. Hence, premillennialism has the Second Coming occurring before [or pre] the millennium. That ought to clue you into postmillennial thought that has the Second Coming taking place after [or post] the millennium.

But what in the world does the a in amillennialism mean? Well, think of words such as atheist and agnostic and apolitical. In each instance the a serves as a negative for the main word. Hence, an atheist does not believe in any god, an agnostic says he doesn’t know about whatever it is that’s under discussion, and the apolitical person has no political notions. Amillennialists say there is no actual millennium, but that the entire time from the resurrection of Christ until His Second Coming is the equivalent of the millennium.

How about a line-up card (continuing with the baseball theme with which we began this column!) so we know who is on which team: 

Premillennialists include: Justin Martyr, Lactantius, Charles Stanley, John MacArthur, and Tim LaHaye.

Postmillennialists include: Jonathan Edwards, B.B. Warfield, Charles Hodge, D. James Kennedy, and R.C. Sproul.

Amillennialists include: Augustine (though some would say he is postmillennial), Martin Luther, John Calvin, Carl Trueman, and J.I. Packer. 

That’s quite a line-up card for each position! We won’t try to go any further with this just now. But I will say this: each of those great teachers would condemn all date setting such as Harold Camping’s May 21, 2011, prediction; none of them would dare to equate the Phillies’ signing of Cliff Lee with the Second Coming of Christ. 

As we walk through the years of our lives may we be ever mindful that history is HisStory which means that all human history will culminate with His Second Coming. 

In the Joy of the Lord,
John H.C. Niederhaus