What Imminence Means
The doctrine of imminence as used by scholars and lay teachers means that the return of Christ could happen at any moment. To be sure, adherents and expositors of this teaching affirm that the “fullness of the Gentiles” must come into the Kingdom first, as per Romans 9. However, since that number is known only to God and no signs are associated with it in Romans 9, it is essentially a “signless event” that makes the return of Christ completely unpredictable from a human epistemological standpoint. Various scholars, such as Bart Ehrman among others, seem to believe that the New Testament teaches imminence.
Imminence is not the position of the NT or the early church: it was flatly denied by various Fathers, and by the Didache. Christ and the Apostle Paul, drawing on various Old Testament sources and divine revelation, taught that the return could NOT happen at any moment within a particular framework. As we are still living within that framework, the return of Christ is not imminent within the meaning of imminence as a technical term provided above.
On a related note, imminence as defined above should not be conflated with the belief that the return of Christ could happen within one’s own lifetime. Paul may have thought that the return of Christ could happen within his lifetime, but that does not entail that: (a) he absolutely believed it would without a shadow of a doubt or (b) that it could happen at any time. Paul knew the necessary conditions for the return of Christ (and knew that they were necessary conditions) and therefore knew that if they did not obtain during his lifetime, Christ could not return during his lifetime.
Although perhaps it need not be mentioned, for the avoidance of doubt, I would also say that rejection of imminence does not entail the belief that one can know in advance the day and/or hour of Christ’s return. It is not possible to know this, for Christ Himself does not know it, only the Father, and neither directly nor indirectly is the timing or mechanism for its calculation revealed in Scripture. The position of the NT and the Fathers is simply that the return of Christ cannot happen until the necessary conditions are first met. Once they are met, the return becomes imminent, but not predictable with any fine level of granularity. All one can say once the conditions are met is that it is truly soon.
The argument may be summarised as follows:
- Christ cannot return until certain conditions are met.
- These conditions have not been met yet.
- Therefore, Christ’s return is not imminent.
The “soonness” within this framework of understanding provides the answer to the question of the puzzling verse, “This generation shall not pass away until all these things have been fulfilled” (Matthew 24:34). The verse cannot refer to the generation that witnessed the fall of Jerusalem in AD 70 because Christ clearly did not return in that generation’s lifetime and, in context, his return falls within the set “all these things”. It also cannot be simultaneously interpreted as “generation” and be applied to the entire inter-advental period, as that would be a contradiction and therefore meaningless and therefore false. Many successive generations of humans have lived during the inter-advental period, but “this” in context can only mean one.
The time span between the main condition for Christ’s return and the return itself is relatively brief – approximately 3.5 years. This can truly be called soon. Therefore, most assuredly, those who witness this condition – subject to untimely death – will witness the return. In otherwords, the generation that sees that sign will also see that return. There will be those alive at both the sign and the return.
The necessary conditions
The main condition that precedes the return of Christ for the purposes of the texts in the background of Phillip’s post (i.e. Matthew 24 and 2 Thessalonians 2) is the Abomination of Desolation. Once this event has occurred, Christ’s return becomes (relatively) imminent. He could return at any time following that event and indeed cannot return any later than approximately 3.5 years after that event, since the prophecies concerned indicate that He will be carrying out the Restoration on earth at that time.
Further conditions that precede the return of Christ are:
- The Gospel being preached in all nations (Matthew 24:14)
- The “fullness of the Gentiles” coming into the Kingdom (Romans 9)
- The Great Cosmic Disturbance (Isaiah 13, 34; Joel 2; Matthew 24:29-30; Revelation 6)
These conditions are of varying epistemological significance. We are not really in a position to say what the Gospel being preached in all nations and the fullness of the Gentiles coming in really looks like for God’s purposes. Therefore, although these are technically conditions that affect imminence, they are not accessible to humans for prognostication purposes. Accordingly, from a pragmatic perspective, it is simpler to conclude that Christ could return at any time following the Abomination of Desolation and inception of the Great Tribulation and act in light of that position.
The Cosmic Disturbance is implied to be very close in time to the actual revelation of Christ within the Olivet Discourse and Revelation 6. Accordingly, when this event occurs, “soon” will become “within the next few days/hours/minutes”. Controversially, many have also inferred that when this event occurs, it will then be too late to repent. The Scripture is not explicit on this point and, in any event, it is not godly to leave repentance to the last minute, but the matter is raised for the sake of completeness as it is often mentioned in discourse on this topic.
Reading in context
A point must be made about the necessity of proper contextual reading and application. As with so many other parts of the Gospels and wider NT, the Olivet Discourse is not intended to be read in a vacuum. Much faulty exegesis of the Olivet Discourse and 2 Thessalonians 2 has arisen from a failure to pursue proper intertextual studies.
In order to properly understand NT eschatology, one must be familiar with OT and intertestamental texts. (In turn, a thorough understanding of these texts requires a sound grasp of Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek grammar and syntax.) These texts are also rhetorically structured. This means, that as with the writings of Paul, it is necessary at times to examine the structure of arguments more thoroughly, paying close attention to conjunctions, in order to grasp the thrust of the author’s intent.
Furthermore, in applying the prophecies to the real world, one must have an eye for typology, just as if one were studying Christology and atonement theory in the NT. The mistake made by preterists and other interpreters is failing to make a proper dichotomy between the 586 BC type and the 167 BC type (this unfortunate conflation of types has perhaps been fuelled by a widespread neglect of 1 and 2 Maccabees amongst Protestants).
As regards reading through the lens of Church tradition, the following text is also important for its rejection of imminence.
For as lawlessness increaseth, they shall hate one another and shall persecute and betray. And then the world-deceiver shall appear as a son of God; and shall work signs and wonders, and the earth shall be delivered into his hands; and he shall do unholy things, which have never been since the world began. Then all created mankind shall come to the fire of testing, and many shall be offended and perish; but they that endure in their faith shall be saved by the Curse Himself. And then shall the signs of the truth appear; first a sign of a rift in the heaven, then a sign of a voice of a trumpet, and thirdly a resurrection of the dead; yet not of all, but as it was said: The Lord shall come and all His saints with Him. Then shall the world see the Lord coming upon the clouds of heaven.
–Didache 16:7-17 (Lightfoot translation)
The reader is encouraged to read Hippolytus, Justin Martyr, and Jerome for further, similar conclusions.
Lastly, a point needs to be made about tension between seeming imminence and the actual return within the NT itself and other texts (e.g. the imminence-like language of Didache 16:1-6). It is clear from the unambiguous language in the relevant texts that Christ cannot bodily return until the Abomination of Desolation and Great Tribulation occur first.
However, Christians during the days when the Temple still stood could reasonably conclude that the Abomination of Desolation might happen within their lifetimes. Furthermore, since all things are possible with God, one could never be sure in other periods that the Temple might not be rebuilt (although that looked decidedly unlikely at times). In any event, since we must all face judgment when we die, Christians are to live as if Christ could return at any moment because, from the standpoint of personal judgment, He could analogously return in the sense that we could each die at any time, given our mortality and the fragility of life. Christ and the Apostles were at all times keen to impress the importance of godly living upon their hearers and readers.
Certain authors have been influential in formation of my thoughts and writing of this post.
- Dr Alan Kurshner
- Charles Cooper
- Dr George Eldon Ladd
- Dr Brock Hollett