On the "Soon" Return of Jesus

It is often said in skeptical circles that the New Testament contains falsehoods since Jesus promised that He would come back soon, and He in fact did not, as is evidenced by the fact that the world still exists and the dead have not been raised, things which He was supposed to take care of at His coming. This statement is often based on verses such as the following, or ones very like them:

Matthew 10:22-23 - “And you will be hated by all for My name’s sake. But he who endures to the end will be saved. When they persecute you in this city, flee to another. For assuredly, I say to you, you will not have gone through the cities of Israel before the Son of Man comes.”
Matthew 24:34 - “Assuredly, I say to you, this generation will by no means pass away till all these things take place.”
Revelation 22:20 - He who testifies to these things says, “Surely I am coming quickly.” Amen. Even so, come, Lord Jesus!

The way that most Christians today handle these types of verses is to stress that the Lord’s return is always imminent. However, there is a whole other school of Christian thought, which dates back to the earliest commentaries, known as preterism. This is the eschatological belief that most of the prophecies of Christ’s “coming” in the New Testament actually refer to the destruction of Jerusalem in 70AD. There is great Biblical support for such a position, but that is beyond the scope of this short article. This view is differentiated from the relatively recent heresy of Hymenaenism (aka pantelism, hyper-preterism, full preterism) whose adherents have tried to abscond with the orthodox title of “preterism,” though they are clearly outside the pale of orthodoxy.

Preterists recognize that there is a very soon time element in the majority of the prophecies about the Lord’s return. However, they also realize that the Bible is a rich portrait of history with many already past historical “comings” of God in judgment and vibrant uses of types and anti-types. The skeptics may think they are at an advantage here since they will then point out that despite all these niceties, the “coming” of Christ described in the New Testament was supposed to accomplish the end of this world, the resurrection of the dead, and the transformation of the living believers which did not happen in AD70. But that is correct only if one assumes that there can be only one “coming” described in the New Testament which must accomplish one set of goals. However, Scripture does not, if carefully and consistently read, teach that the final resurrection and judgment events were “soon,” only that a “coming” of Christ was soon, although admittedly the imagery and terminology of the AD70 “judgment-coming” of Christ are often used and blended with the Final Consummational coming of Christ. But that is no different from the rest of Scripture in which verses which apply to David also apply to the anti-type Christ, and in which verses speaking of Israel, apply to the Ideal Israel, Christ Himself.

The question then becomes, does the New Testament teach a “coming” to consummate the world and resurrect that dead that is clearly not soon to the first century church? Yes. Let’s examine just a few verses in brief, but enough to disarm the skeptical assertions. Since the final resurrection is a key aspect of this “coming” of Christ, our first stop will be the seminal text on the resurrection.

1 Corinthians 15:20-28 - But now Christ is risen from the dead, and has become the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. For since by man came death, by Man also came the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ all shall be made alive. But each one in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, afterward those who are Christ’s at His coming. Then comes the end, when He delivers the kingdom to God the Father, when He puts an end to all rule and all authority and power. For He must reign till He has put all enemies under His feet. The last enemy that will be destroyed is death. For “He has put all things under His feet.” But when He says “all things are put under Him,” it is evident that He who put all things under Him is excepted. Now when all things are made subject to Him, then the Son Himself will also be subject to Him who put all things under Him, that God may be all in all.
1 Corinthians 15:50-56 - Now this I say, brethren, that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God; nor does corruption inherit incorruption. Behold, I tell you a mystery: We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed- in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed. For this corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality. So when this corruptible has put on incorruption, and this mortal has put on immortality, then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written: “Death is swallowed up in victory.” “O Death, where is your sting? O Hades, where is your victory?” The sting of death is sin, and the strength of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.

Now these passages tell us, at minimum, several things important to our discussion.

ONE. Christ was physically raised first, and then those who belong to Christ will be physically resurrected at His “coming.”

TWO. After this physical resurrection of those who belong to Christ, the “end” of Christ’s reign comes.

THREE. The “end” is characterized by Christ having all things put under His feet, ending all authority and power, and swallowing up death in victory.

There are no “true” time indicators in this passage indicating nearness or soonness. I do not take Paul’s reference to “we shall not all sleep,” to mean that he expected to live to see this event for several good reasons. First, Paul’s writings show fluidity in the use of “we,” including its use to refer to Christians of all times, and considering that fact that Paul was alive at the time he wrote this, it is a natural means of expression, i.e. he naturally would include himself and his audience among the living. But I have an even better reason, and that is to compare what Paul said here to what he said on a similar issue in Ephesians, and what the author of Hebrews said.

Hebrews 1:13 - But to which of the angels has He ever said: “Sit at My right hand, till I make Your enemies Your footstool”?


Ephesians 1:15-21 - Therefore I also, after I heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love for all the saints, do not cease to give thanks for you, making mention of you in my prayers: that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give to you the spirit of wisdom and revelation in the knowledge of Him, the eyes of your understanding being enlightened; that you may know what is the hope of His calling, what are the riches of the glory of His inheritance in the saints, and what is the exceeding greatness of His power toward us who believe, according to the working of His mighty power which He worked in Christ when He raised Him from the dead and seated Him at His right hand in the heavenly places, far above all principality and power and might and dominion, and every name that is named, not only in this age but also in that which is to come.

We learn some very important clues here too.

ONE. Christ is sitting at the Father’s right hand until His enemies are vanquished which is the event mentioned in 1 Cor 15. It is at this time that the dead are resurrected and the living believers are transformed.

TWO. Christ will be seated at the Father’s right hand, for a minimum, in the age in which Paul was writing and the age to follow. That does not allow for a soon fulfillment.

Lastly for our discussion, the resurrection is mentioned in Reveleation 20. In following a preterist interpretation of this passage, there is also clear proof that the final resurrection and final judgment were not believed to be soon.

Revelation 20:4-6, 11-15 - And I saw thrones, and they sat on them, and judgment was committed to them. Then I saw the souls of those who had been beheaded for their witness to Jesus and for the word of God, who had not worshiped the beast or his image, and had not received his mark on their foreheads or on their hands. And they lived and reigned with Christ for a thousand years. But the rest of the dead did not live again until the thousand years were finished. This is the first resurrection. Blessed and holy is he who has part in the first resurrection. Over such the second death has no power, but they shall be priests of God and of Christ, and shall reign with Him a thousand years…. Then I saw a great white throne and Him who sat on it, from whose face the earth and the heaven fled away. And there was found no place for them. And I saw the dead, small and great, standing before God, and books were opened. And another book was opened, which is the Book of Life. And the dead were judged according to their works, by the things which were written in the books. The sea gave up the dead who were in it, and Death and Hades delivered up the dead who were in them. And they were judged, each one according to his works. Then Death and Hades were cast into the lake of fire. This is the second death. And anyone not found written in the Book of Life was cast into the lake of fire.

Again there is some important information here, though admittedly couched in symbolism. After a “thousand years” death is destroyed. This is the same thing spoken of in 1 Corinthians 15, which also places the final resurrection at that time. So although the preterist and the skeptic would actually agree that the events of Revelation were to begin “soon” (Revelation 1:3), the final resurrection and the final judgment are NOT described to be near or soon, they are, at a minimum, at least “one thousand years” away from the time of John’s writing. No while preterists maintain that the number “one thousand” is not be to taken literally but rather symbolically as it is in other Scriptures, it is certainly not symbolic of a short period of time, such as forty years. And Paul makes it clear that it was NOT to occur in the age in which he was currently living while Christ makes it just as clear that AD70 ended the age in which both He and Paul were “living”. Thus, under this view, we are now living in the “age to come,” which is the age in which the resurrection was to occur, specifically on the “last day.” (John 6:39-54)

-Dee Dee Warren