A charge often heard today is that we Christians are always proclaiming the imminent end of the world.
In order to denigrate the faith further, some say that we have always been predicting Armageddon falsely. Sometimes this even takes the form of saying Jesus was a false prophet, as He supposedly predicted His coming in the lifetime of those who heard Him.
In our day, the important tasks of preaching, apologetics, and teaching prophecy have been made more difficult because of ill-advised Rapture predictions, such as the famous book detailing 88 reasons why Jesus would return in ’88, and the more recent Harold Camping fiasco. Non-Christians who have killed themselves or others in anticipation of the end of the world also help to create an environment in which anyone who says “Jesus is coming!” is immediately perceived as a crackpot.
Nonetheless, we must patiently proclaim and teach the truth of the Savior’s return. Part of the Great Commission, part of being teaching people to observe everything He has commanded, must surely be teaching them what He charged us to do in view of His coming. So Christians who live an skeptical age like ours should be prepared to answer these questions:
1) Does the Bible really teach that Jesus is coming again?
2) Can we know the signs of His coming and of the end of the age – and what are they?
3) What did Jesus mean when He said “this generation would not pass away?”
4) Have Christians always believed the end of the world is imminent?
Information about the first three questions is readily available, but perhaps not many readers have seen material that can help them deal with the fourth. Haven’t Christians always been running around saying the world would soon end? Not at all.
Christians throughout history realized and taught that centuries might pass before Christ’s return drew near. I believe it’s only in more recent times that a larger percentage of Christians have been gripped with an urgency to announce the Lord’s coming. Leading Christian teachers, whether ancient, medieval, or post-Reformation Protestant, did not firmly expect Jesus to come in their lifetimes.
Writing about the year 180 A.D., the Church Father Irenaeus taught about the end times in his book, “Against Heresies.” In it, Irenaeus asserted that before Antichrist could come forward, the Roman Empire would first need to break into ten constituent parts:
In a still clearer light has John, in the Apocalypse, indicated to the Lord’s disciples what shall happen in the last times, and concerning the ten kings who shall then arise, among whom the empire which now rules [the earth] shall be partitioned. He teaches us what the ten horns shall be which were seen by Daniel, telling us that thus it had been said to him: “And the ten horns which thou sawest are ten kings, who have received no kingdom as yet, but shall receive power as if kings one hour with the beast. These have one mind, and give their strength and power to the beast. These shall make war with the Lamb, and the Lamb shall overcome them, because He is the Lord of lords and the King of kings.” It is manifest, therefore, that of these [potentates], he who is to come shall slay three, and subject the remainder to his power, and that he shall be himself the eighth among them. And they shall lay Babylon waste, and burn her with fire, and shall give their kingdom to the beast, and put the Church to flight. After that they shall be destroyed by the coming of our Lord. For that the kingdom must be divided, and thus come to ruin, the Lord [declares when He] says: “Every kingdom divided against itself is brought to desolation, and every city or house divided against itself shall not stand.”
Notice that Irenaeus expected Rome to fall or be partitioned. This did not occur until nearly 300 years after he wrote this. It could only be after the ten component kingdoms gave their power to the beast that he expected the Antichrist and his companions to “put the Church to flight.” This hardly sounds like a man who expected to see the world ending in a couple of years – to say nothing of being raptured out at any moment.
(Original at CCEL: http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/anf01.ix.vii.xxvii.html)
Writing in the third century, Hippolytus laid out a very detailed end-times scenario in which he also expected the ten kings to arise first, then Antichrist. Needless to say, that would first require Rome to collapse or be reorganized. Again, he knows nothing of an imminent end of the world, or an imminent Rapture.
(Original at CCEL: http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/anf05.iii.iv.ii.i.html)
Adso was a 10th-century writer who expected Antichrist to take his throne in a rebuilt Temple in Jerusalem:
“Then coming to Jerusalem, he will with various torments slay (cut the throat) all of all the Christians whom he is unable to convert to himself, and he will take his seat in the holy temple. The temple now destroyed, which Solomon prepared for God, he shall build and shall restore in its place, and shall circumcise himself, and give out the lie concerning himself that he is the Son of the Almighty God.”
[Original Latin for reference: Deinde Hierosolymam veniens, omnes Christianos quos ad se non poterit convertere, per varia tormenta jugulabit, et suam sedem in templo sancto parabit. Templum etiam destructum, quod Salomon Deo paravit, aedificabit, et in statum suum restaurabit, et circumcidet se, et Filium Dei omnipotentis se esse mentietur.]
Clearly such beliefs, whether accurate or not demand the rebuilding of the Temple, whether there is Jewish political of the city or not. In any case a time interval is contemplated.
The great American theologian Edwards, writing in the 1700′s, expected gradual improvement in the world through the preaching of Christ, but saw that some interval remained before the end:
When the Spirit begins to be so gloriously poured forth, when the devil sees such multitudes flocking to Christ in one nation and another, when the foundations and pillars of his kingdom are ready to come to swift and sudden destruction, all hell will be greatly alarmed. Satan has ever had a dread of having his kingdom overthrown, and has been doing great works to prevent it, especially since the day of Constantine the Great. To this end he set up those mighty kingdoms of Antichrist and Mahomet, and brought in all the heresies, superstitions, and corrupt opinions in the world. But when he sees all begin to fail, it will rouse him exceedingly. If Satan of old dreaded being cast out of the Roman empire, how much more does he dread being cast out of the whole world!
It seems, in this last great opposition, all the forces of Antichrist, and Mahometanism, and heathenism, will be united; all the forces of Satan’s visible kingdom through the whole world of mankind. And therefore it is said, that “spirits of devils shall go forth unto the kings of the earth, and of the whole world, to gather them together to the battle of the great day of God Almighty. “ And these spirits are said to come out of the mouth of the dragon, and out of the mouth of the beast, and out of the mouth of the false prophet; i. e. there shall be the spirit of popery, the spirit of Mahometanism, and the spirit of heathenism all united. By the beast is meant Antichrist; by the dragon, in this book, is commonly meant the devil, as he reigns over his heathen kingdom: by the false prophet, is sometimes meant the pope and his clergy; but here an eye seems to be had to Mahomet, whom his followers call the great prophet of God. This will be as it were the dying struggles of the old serpent; a battle wherein he will fight as one that is almost desperate.
WHAT ABOUT US?
We could no doubt find more examples, but I hope these few help you to see that major Christian leaders until recent times probably did not expect Jesus to come in their day.
However, we who can see more certain signs such as Jewish presence in and political control of the land of Israel (and the prophesied array of nations against them) are on good ground and not at all unreasonable to expect Christ’s return in our lifetimes.
Of course, that begs the question of whether we can expect an any-moment Rapture, but we have discussed that in the past and will leave it aside for right now.