Another New Year and Still No Return of Christ

One of many predictions of Christ’s return that didn’t pan out.

As I write this, another year has passed into history, and a new year has crested the horizon. Skeptics like to point out that Christians have been saying Jesus is coming back soon – any minute now – practically since He left. “Enough already! Haven’t all these failed predictions convinced you Christians that none of this is true?” they ask. What of that? Does Christ’s not returning as He promised (yet) show Christianity to be false? Let’s work through that today.

First off, does Jesus say exactly when He’s returning? No. Predictions of exact dates are based on the all-too-fallible interpretations of mere humans. And Jesus specifically said that no man knew the day or the hour of His return [Matt 24:36,42,44], so these attempts to predict such a date are actually contrary to what Christ taught. While we are to pay attention, be prepared, and live accordingly [2Pet 3:11,14], we portray Jesus as a liar if we try to say He is returning at such-and-such a time. But why was God so vague in all the end-time references in the Bible? Why “tease” us like that? I would suggest that maybe He wanted to prepare us for what was to come, but not let our procrastinating tendency get the better of us.  What if God had actually said that Jesus would come back on March 11th of the year 4377? Honestly, I don’t think many of us would have a real sense of urgency about broadcasting the good news of salvation to those who need to hear it if we knew the deadline was thousands of years away. Meanwhile, people are dying every day separated from God. The situation has been, and continues to be, urgent, but our limited perspective blinds us to it. Given a definite date, far beyond the end of our lives, we would say it wasn’t a problem, forgetting that the task of evangelizing the world is a long-term project (humanly speaking). Simply put, we would blow it off, while the world lay in dire need of the Good News we so casually held onto.

Secondly, this ridicule of skeptics due to Christ’s delay is exactly what Peter says will happen in his 2nd letter, when he warns that mockers will come, asking where Christ’s return is, and saying that all has been the same since the beginning of creation. But Peter reminds his readers that it hasn’t really been the same since the beginning – God judged the earth once with a flood, and will judge the earth again. Third, Peter offered his readers an important reminder that I want to focus on today: “The Lord is not slow about His promise, as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing for any to perish but for all to come to repentance.” [2Pet 3:9]

People tend to think about the Second Coming of Christ as something that can happen at any time, and should’ve already happened since it was anticipated so long ago (by human standards). OK, fine – let’s look at the alternative. What if Christ delays coming back for a million years? Or a hundred million years? Our sun has enough hydrogen to burn for several billion years, and geologically, the earth is good for several hundred million more years of supporting advanced life forms. So is there any reason He couldn’t delay a really long time from our perspective? We humans tend to have short attentions spans (Twitter, anyone? Just saying…), and we tend to think that any delay is an unreasonable delay.  But what would be the end effect of such a long delay? We Christians would have more time to evangelize the world so that in the end, the number of people that died without hearing the Gospel would be minuscule compared to the overwhelming masses of people over thousands (or millions) of years who did hear and had the opportunity to repent. For instance, imagine if He had returned in His disciples’ lifetimes, as they appeared to have been expecting. It’s estimated that only 1 out of every 360 people in the known world were committed Christians in AD 100, after the disciples had been evangelizing the world for 70 years. But that ratio has been decreasing ever since. Now, almost 2 millennia later the number is closer to 1 in 7.[1] Even in human terms, I can understand waiting 2000 years to allow those kinds of numbers of perishing people to come to Christ. While I don’t think a time would ever come when the world’s population is entirely Christian, or even majority Christian [Matt 7:13-14], I could see a time when the number of people unable to hear a gospel presentation and decide for themselves whether to accept or reject Christ approaches zero. Is that God’s plan? I don’t know, but it could explain why He tarries, “not desiring that any should perish” [v9].

As Bill Mounce says, eschatology (the study of end times) is primarily ethical. It’s not intended to provide a detailed map of future events, but rather tell us how we should live in light of what’s coming, being always ready, and working faithfully until He returns.[2] Christ’s not returning yet is not reason to doubt His eventual return, but to be grateful for His patience in allowing more people the opportunity to hear and choose wisely. It’s also a reminder for us Christians that our work is not yet done, and as long as there are still people dying without Christ, it is incumbent on us to not slack in our service of bringing them the Good News, no matter the cost. So I ask you today, to not let another year slip away unprepared to stand before Christ, for whether Christ ever returns in any of our lifetimes, we are nevertheless guaranteed an appointment before Him after our deaths [Heb 9:27]. Make sure you’re ready, and then help others do likewise.

[1] Lausanne Statistics Task Force, as cited by William Lane Craig in On Guard: Defending Your Faith with Reason and Precision (David C Cook, Kindle Edition), Kindle Locations 2707-2708. Ratio of 1 in 7 is the estimated number of committed Christians to non-Christians, in 1989. Nominal Christians are not included in either category. If all nominal Christians were included with non-Christians (worst case), the current ratio would still only increase to 1 in 9. Such estimations are necessarily imprecise, for only God truly knows the heart, but this does, it seems, provide a lower bound on the ratio of Christians to non-Christians worldwide.
[2] Bill Mounce, in his lecture on Mark 13 in Biblical Training Institute’s Academy curriculum.