Imagine: a child is kidnapped, and the kidnappers demand a big ransom. The parents deliver the money to the criminals, who then say that at a certain time and place, the parents can come and retrieve their kid.
Yet the parents never pick up the child!
Ridiculous? Of course.
It’s the same with those who deny the second coming of Jesus. After all, didn’t Jesus say that “even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45; see also 1 Timothy 2:5, 6)?* With Jesus paying such a large “ransom” for us—that is, His life—it would be absurd for Him not to come again and retrieve what cost Him so much. In fact, one could argue that the greatest certainty we have of the second coming of Jesus is His first coming. And that’s because without the Second Coming, Jesus would have wasted His time at the first coming, including the cross—and who believes that?
So how are believers in Jesus today, almost 2,000 years later, to respond to the delay in His return?
The promise of Christ’s second coming appears all through the New Testament. Jesus Himself repeatedly promised that He would return. Following are just three examples:
- “As the lightning comes from the east and flashes to the west, so also will the coming of the Son of Man be” (Matthew 24:27).
- “In My Father’s house are many mansions; if it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and receive you to Myself; that where I am, there you may be also” (John 14:2, 3).
- “For the Son of Man will come in the glory of His Father with His angels, and then He will reward each according to his works” (Matthew 16:27).
Jesus, however, never indicated when He would come back. On the contrary, He said: “You also be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect” (Luke 12:40). He also emphasized that no one knows when He will return: “But of that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but My Father only” (Matthew 24:36). Yet, as I pointed out a moment ago, Jesus also said: “Behold, I am coming quickly! Blessed is he who keeps the words of the prophecy of this book” (Revelation 22:7).
the apostles and Christ’s return
All the New Testament writers believed in Christ’s return, and they believed it would be soon; that is, in their day. What follow are just a few of many texts in which it’s clear that these men believed not only in Christ’s coming but also that the day of His coming was near:
Paul said, “Do this, knowing the time, that now it is high time to awake out of sleep; for now our salvation is nearer than when we first believed. The night is far spent, the day is at hand” (Romans 13:11, 12). James wrote, “The coming of the Lord is at hand. . . . The Judge is standing at the door!” (James 5:8, 9). And Peter said, “The end of all things is at hand” (1 Peter 4:7).
All this leads to the obvious question, Why the delay? Why is it taking so long for Jesus to return? How can Christians talk about the nearness of Christ’s coming when, in fact, we’re now almost at 2,000 years and counting since He promised to return?
For starters, language itself can be tricky, even ambiguous. With the use of the words soon or near or at hand, context means a lot. For example, there’s a difference in meaning between the following two sentences: “I’ll soon finish my doctoral studies” and “I’ll soon finish eating my breakfast.” Though they use the same word, soon, they mean two significantly different things. One could mean “four years” and the other “four minutes.” For a God who has existed from eternity and for whom “one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day” (2 Peter 3:8), the concept of time will differ from that of humans, whose perception of time is greatly limited to our own mortal experience.
Also, though writing about the time of Jesus’ coming, the New Testament authors indicated that it could be longer than some thought. In a direct reference to “the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our gathering together to Him” (2 Thessalonians 2:1), Paul said that it will not happen “unless the falling away comes first, and the man of sin is revealed, the son of perdition, who opposes and exalts himself above all that is called God or that is worshiped, so that he sits as God in the temple of God, showing himself that he is God” (verses 3, 4). Paul was pointing to a time, that was still future to him, of great apostasy in the church, which many Protestant Reformers saw as the rise of the Roman papacy, and that didn’t happen until centuries after Paul wrote about the coming of Jesus.
Peter, too, while talking about the nearness of Christ’s return, implied that it would still take a while. In fact, he warned about scoffers, those who mock the idea of Christ returning, even saying: “Where is the promise of His coming? For since the fathers fell asleep, all things continue as they were from the beginning of creation” (2 Peter 3:4). His words clearly point to the reality of a delay, at least in the minds of some.
as near as death
How, then, are Christians to relate to this delay? The key, really, is to understand the nature of human death. Contrary to the popular notion of an immortal soul that at death either soars to heaven or descends to hell, the Bible teaches that death is an unconscious sleep in which the dead aren’t aware of anything—and that would certainly include the passage of time!
For example, the psalmist wrote, “The dead do not praise the Lord, nor any who go down into silence” (Psalm 115:17). Solomon, the wisest man who ever lived, agreed, for he said that “the living know that they will die; but the dead know nothing” (Ecclesiastes 9:5). And Job lamented, “Why did I not die at birth? Why did I not perish when I came from the womb? . . . For now I would have lain still and been quiet, I would have been asleep; then I would have been at rest. . . . There the wicked cease from troubling, and there the weary are at rest” (Job 3:11–17).
When His friend Lazarus had died, Jesus said, “Our friend Lazarus sleeps, but I go that I may wake him up” (John 11:11). These words would have made no sense had Lazarus’s soul been floating around in heaven in some kind of conscious existence. In that case, Jesus would have, perhaps, said, “Our friend Lazarus is in the bliss of heaven, but I am going to bring him back down to this earth again,” or something similar. Instead, Christ’s unambiguously stated point was that Lazarus was unconscious, dead. Otherwise, why would Jesus go to “wake him up”?
Numerous other Bible passages clearly depict that death is a sleep and that at Christ’s second coming, the dead will rise from that sleep. That was precisely the view of the prophet Daniel, who wrote that “many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, some to shame and everlasting contempt” (Daniel 12:2). Isaiah predicted a time when “your dead shall live; together with my dead body they shall arise. Awake and sing, you who dwell in dust; for your dew is like the dew of herbs, and the earth shall cast out the dead” (Isaiah 26:19; see also 1 Thessalonians 4:16).
Thus, the perception of everyone who has ever lived, from antiquity to the end of time, will be that Jesus’ second coming is no more than an instant after they die. If to the surgery patient undergoing anesthesia an operation that takes a few hours can seem to take only a few seconds, imagine how death—with no brain waves at all—will seem to last only an instant. The dying close their eyes, be it for three weeks or three thousand years, and the next thing that they will know is this: “The Lord Himself [is descending] from heaven with a shout, with the voice of an archangel, and with the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ [of whom they are one!] will rise first” (1 Thessalonians 4:16).
Is the Second Coming near? For every Christian who ever died, it’s never that far away.
* All the Bible verses in this article are quoted from the New King James Version®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Clifford Goldstein is the editor of the Seventh-day Adventist Church’s daily Bible-study guide and a frequent contributor to Signs of the Times®. He lives in Maryland, near Washington, DC.