Millennial Views: When Is Christ Returning?

May 7, 2014

Recently, in an example of perhaps an extreme reaction against popular dispensational-style “date setting,” R.C. Sproul Jr. opined that Christ will likely not return for tens of thousands of years, apparently basing his view on an interpretation of Exodus 20:5-6, where “showing mercy to thousands” means “thousands of generations” rather than thousands of people – and extrapolating out many thousands of generations even beyond the current 3400+ years since Moses. (I note here from the ESV translation and footnote, that this text may also mean “to the thousandth generation.”)

As to his reaction against dispensational-style date setting (“I know that every odd astronomical event, every middle eastern hot spot fires up the end times hysteria machine, but I’m not willing to get on that ride,”), a wise observation from J.C. Ryle comes to mind – and a good reminder that extremism in reference to the Second Coming is nothing new:

It proves nothing against the doctrine of Christ’s second coming and kingdom, that it has sometimes been fearfully abused. I should like to know what doctrine of the Gospel has not been abused.  Salvation by grace has been made a pretext for licentiousness, election, an excuse for all manner of unclean living, and justification by faith, a warrant for Antinomianism. But if men will draw wrong conclusions we are not therefore obliged to throw aside good principles. .. And where is the fairness of telling us that we ought to reject the second advent of Christ because there were Fifth Monarchy Men in the days of the Commonwealth, and Irvingites and Millerites in our own time. Alas, men must be hard pressed for an argument when they have no better reasons than this!

I am not familiar with the specifics of Sproul Jr’s beliefs, though suspect his could well be similar to Sproul Sr.: non-futurist and likely preterist, and amillennial. The main point I would address here is the general worldview of scripture: is the Bible really just a book about spiritual truths, in which the message of the gospel itself is the primary and only clear teaching? Or is God’s word all-encompassing, to include God’s purposes to be accomplished in history and in the real world around us?  Can we really “watch” for signs of Christ’s return and recognize the general season; or is Christ’s Return a truly sign-less, imminent event that could come at any time, just as likely in 28,000 years as in 50?

Discussions among premillennialists often consider the question of “imminence” versus whether certain events must first come to pass (before the resurrection and rapture), but generally all premillennialists recognize at least “stage setting” of events that must come to pass in order to literally fulfill Christ’s Second Coming (in similar manner as the literal fulfillment of prophecies regarding Christ’s First Coming). For instance, in 2 Thessalonians 2:2 Paul describes a future “man of lawlessness” entering the temple and declaring himself to be god – which presupposes a future temple to exist in order for such to happen. The Old and New Testament prophecies concerning Babylon have not literally been fulfilled, which led even 19th century expositors (Benjamin Wills Newton, for example) to expect a future rebuilding of Babylon – which has actually begun within the last several years. Stage setting to make possible the communication logistics described in Revelation 11:8-11 has already occurred (reference this post with quote from Horatius Bonar). The regathering of Jews into the land of Israel, predicted by historic premillennialists (from their reading of God’s word) such as Charles Spurgeon and J.C. Ryle – has come to pass, though they did not live to see it.

Thus, the premillennial worldview recognizes in God’s word 1) events that truly have not happened yet (and logical precursors that only recently developed), and 2) the real world impact, the relationship between God’s word and real world history and actual world events; the full counsel of God is not merely that which gives spiritual guidance and “the plan of salvation” but a “both / and” reality affecting both our spiritual lives and the physical creation itself. As such, we can see the development of world events to know at least the general season and anticipate Christ’s return as likely within the next 50 to 100 years, perhaps sooner.

It turns out that actually, it is the non-futurist non-millennialist, who thinks all prophecy (except Christ’s return) has already been fulfilled, who really has a “sign-less” and “any moment” Second Coming – a Second Coming that might as well be tens of thousands of years from now and will be completely unexpected without any warnings and nothing to “watch for.”

  1. May 7, 2014 at 9:47 am

    I love the J.C. Ryle quote…his sentiment is sorely needed today. After reading R.C. Sproul, Jr’s blog post, it seems to me that he leans toward Postmillennialism like his father. I have one or two friends who embrace this view, and they’ve expressed a similar take on Christ’s return being a long way off. I think this comes about due to the Postmillennialist’s expectation of the golden age occurring in this age before our Messiah’s second advent. I still can’t shake off the impression that Postmillennialism diminishes the believer’s suffering for the sake of Christ. My concern is that this view may lead to offense in believers during intense persecution/opposition.

    • May 7, 2014 at 10:36 am

      Thanks for the comment, Matthew. Yes, postmillennialism with a very long future time frame would make sense, a way for them to allow for an optimistic end for the age when it certainly isn’t occurring in the present day. And such an attitude is one that results in people being asleep/not aware of the realities of intense persecution that believers (some now and others in the future) will experience.

  2. Edward
    June 17, 2014 at 12:32 am

    Thanks for sharing this wonderful quote from J.C. Ryle. It is an excellent point and a great Biblical response to those who adopt their interpretation of Bible prophecy by way of, at least in part, a reaction to extremes or errors of the past.

    • June 17, 2014 at 2:06 pm

      Thanks for the comment, Edward. Yes, quotes like this are so timeless, still needed as a response to those who so react to the excesses and extremes of any doctrine.

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