Jesus said, His disciples believed and the entire New Testament teaches that the Lord is coming soon.
Jesus said that He will return soon.
Jesus said that He does not know when He will return (Mt. 24:36; Mark 13:32), but He nevertheless said that He will return soon; while some of His hearers are still alive:
While sending His disciples out on a mission trip “to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Mt. 10:6), He told them to hurry, for they will not have enough time to visit all the cities of Israel before He comes (Mt. 10:23).
Teaching His disciples that they must take up their cross and follow Him because it is foolish to gain the world and lose one’s soul (vv. 24–26), He concluded, “whoever loses his life for My sake will find it … for the Son of Man is going to come in the glory of His Father with His angels, and will then repay every man according to his deeds. Truly I say to you, there are some of those who are standing here who shall not taste death until they see the Son of Man coming in His kingdom” (Mt. 16:25-28; cf. Luke 9:27 & Mark 9:1)
After saying that everybody will see Him coming on the clouds with power and great glory, He told a parable to warn Him disciples to be watchful, and concluded, “this generation will not pass away until all these things take place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but My words will not pass away“ (Mt. 24:34-35; cf. Mark 13 & Luke 21).
Note that, in each instance above, He emphasizes the truth of His words. Yet, 2000 years later, He has not returned. Some people just bluntly conclude that Jesus made a mistake. Others proposed various, sometimes desperate, solutions for this conundrum. These articles evaluate various proposals, and conclude with a view that has major implications for our understanding of the kingdom of God.
The apostles also believed that the Lord is coming soon.
Some commentators propose that Jesus did not really say that He would come soon. They propose that He actually referred to something else, such as to the coming of the Holy Spirit, or to God coming in judgment on Jerusalem in A.D. 70. However, it is not only Jesus that said that He would come soon; this concept is found everywhere in the New Testament, for instance:
Paul wrote: “Our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed. The night is nearly over; the day is almost here” (Rom. 13:11-12). “God … will soon crush Satan under your feet” (Rom. 16:20). “The time is short, from now on it would be wise for those who have wives to be as if they had them not” (1 Cor. 7:29). “The Lord is coming soon” (Phil. 4:5). Similar to what Jesus said, Paul also wrote that we will not all die before He comes: “We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed” (1 Cor. 15:50). “We who are still alive … till the coming of the Lord” (1 Thess. 4:15).
The author of the letter to the Hebrews wrote that “all the more as you see the Day approaching. … You need to persevere so that when you have done the will of God, you will receive what he has promised. For in just a very little while, He who is coming will come and will not delay” (10:25, 36-37).
James wrote: “The coming of the Lord is at hand … the Judge is standing right at the door” (5:8, 9)
Peter wrote: “The end of all things is at hand” (1 Pet. 4:7). “it is time for judgment to begin” (1 Pet. 4:17).
John wrote: “The world is passing away … it is the last hour. Even now many antichrists have arisen; from this we know that it is the last hour.” (1 Jn. 2:17-18).
In Revelation John also wrote: “The Revelation of Jesus Christ” was “to make known to his servants the things which must shortly come to pass” (Rev. 1:1, 3; 22:6). Jesus three times said, “I come quickly (or soon).” (Rev. 22:7, 12, 20; cf. 3:11).
These statements that the Lord is coming soon are found all over the New Testament. Only two authors in the whole New Testament don’t have anything to say about His soon return. We conclude that the authors of the New Testament believed that the Lord is coming soon because that is what Jesus taught.
Some people find a technical solution that addresses one verse but not the others. They might, for instance, argue that the “I come quickly” statements in Revelation can be understood as “I will come suddenly”. Or they might say that “this generation” in Matthew 24:34 refers to the last generation that will witness the signs of His coming. But the idea that Jesus would come soon is found all over the New Testament. These partial solutions therefore do not solve the problem. We need to find a solution for all of these statements put together.
Jesus told parables in which He said that “the bridegroom tarried” (Matt. 25:5) and “after a long time the lord of those servants comes” (Matt. 25:19). “Long time” is the exact opposite of “soon“. These parables imply that there will be a long time before He returns. The very statement that “some who are standing here will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom” (Mt. 16:25-28) also implies a long time, for it means that some would have died by then, which implies a number of decades. However, a “long time” is not inconsistent with Christ’s statements of the nearness of the end. For any person twenty years is a long time to wait, but it is still within the lifetime of “some who are standing here”.
Jesus also said that “the Son of Man is coming at an hour that you do not expect” (Luke 12:39), and some therefore propose that ‘soon’ should be understood as ‘unexpected’, but these are two different concepts that are able to co-exist.
Some propose that Jesus thought that His return would be soon, but that He was mistaken; what He predicted did not happen. He said that He does not know when He will return (Mt. 24:36; Mark 13:32), but He mistakenly believed that “the end of the age” (Mat. 24:3) would be in the near future. Jesus and his apostles were wrong about one of the most important doctrines of the church.
However, this view would be inconsistent with the evidence we have of His supernatural knowledge and abilities, including the miracles He performed, and the wonderful things He taught.
Thousand Years as One Day
Peter explained the delay as follows:
2 Peter 3:3 … in the last days mockers will come with their mocking … 4 … saying, “Where is the promise of His coming? For ever since the fathers fell asleep, all continues just as it was from the beginning of creation.” … 8 But do not overlook this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day. 9 The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.
That Peter had to explain the delay implies that the Christians were already then asking questions about the delay. Peter here explains the delay by giving two reasons, namely:
- Time does not matter for God, for with the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years like one day), and
- His motive is to save all; He is not wishing for any to perish (die).
We should not use Peter’s words to argue that God meant “soon” from His perspective of time, because that would imply that God purposefully deceived His disciples, which we cannot accept.
We should rather interpret Peter’s words as meaning that Jesus was to return while some of His hearers were still alive, but that God delayed His return, “not wishing that any should perish”. This concept is discussed further below.