Yet biblical prophecies portraying this world’s end still draw attention. Turmoil of war ever looms. Skepticism is prevalent everywhere—which Jesus anticipated (“‘When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?’” [Luke 18:8].)1 The modern era has been one of ever-deepening loss of belief in the authority of Scripture and the church. Many now think humans are only “machines” alone in the universe. A sense of the ultimate meaninglessness of life is pervasive, the ultimate outlook grim. Everything seems to be destined for death with little hope for anything beyond this life. Belief in heaven and eternal life are dismissed as childish in this skeptical period in Western history.
Modern ideas have attempted to take the place of God: belief in progress, politics, and Enlightenment optimism—secular ideas of salvation that all problems can be solved, given enough time. Biblical writers suggest a different perspective, insisting that behind the shadows God is moving all things toward His promise to make all things new. The books of Isaiah, Daniel, and Revelation give assurance that the reign of the evil dragon will finally end and God’s kingdom will be established. Biblical prophets dare give full weight to the radical gravity of sin because they know the remedy.
The way we understand the ultimate destiny of this world will affect our whole way of thinking, with repercussions in every area of life. For example, canonical writers describe a literal historical beginning of this world and a literal worldwide flood in Genesis 1 to 11. The Genesis 1 to 11 narratives are never considered myth. On that basis, they argue for a literal end of this world and the restoring of God’s kingdom, involving gripping issues such as the final judgment and eternal life.
These are not unrelated, independent topics. Each event has a definite bearing upon the others. The doctrine of eschatology deals with God’s final, definitive acts that lead right into the restoration of His kingdom.
Attention to “the last things” has always been a paramount Seventh-day Adventist concern, not merely a hypothesis of the future. Prophecy is no human fabrication. Nor is it a mysterious secret knowledge available to an elite few. The voice of God comes through the prophets as they nail down the certainty of a future with their oft-repeated, spine-tingling “thus says the Lord!” New Testament writers display the same conviction, persistently referring to the second coming of Jesus. “Nevertheless we, according to His promise,” wrote Peter, “look for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells” (2 Peter 3:13, NKJV).
Human expectations and hopes are always tentative because we cannot control future events. The most ardent hopes are often disappointed. We are constantly faced with possibilities and probabilities, never certainties. The unfolding of history is complicated, involving a myriad of factors out of human control.
Bible writers even give pointed warnings against trying to penetrate the future. However, their warnings are always against the source of the information: “‘Do not turn to mediums or wizards; do not seek them out, to be defiled by them: I am the Lord your God’” (Lev. 19:31). God refers to the foolishness and futility of this kind of activity: “Thus says the Lord, your Redeemer, and He who formed you from the womb: ‘I am the Lord, who makes all things, Who stretches out the heavens all alone, Who spreads abroad the earth by Myself; Who frustrates the signs of the babblers, and drives diviners mad; Who turns wise men backward, and makes their knowledge foolishness; Who confirms the word of His servant, and performs the counsel of His messengers; Who says to Jerusalem, “You shall be inhabited,” To the cities of Judah, “You shall be built,” and I will raise up her waste places’” (Isa. 44:24–26, NKJV).
Any legitimate study of the future must be grounded in God’s Word. Only of God can it be said that He “let none of his words fall to the ground” (1 Sam. 3:19). Contra “open theism,” God insists that He knows the future, claiming that this is proof of His divinity: “‘Present your case,’ the Lord says. ‘Bring forward your strong arguments,’ the King of Jacob says. ‘Let them bring forth and declare to us what is going to take place; as for the former events, declare what they were, that we may consider them, and know their outcome; or announce to us what is coming. Declare the things that are going to come afterward, that we may know that you are gods; indeed, do good or evil, that we may anxiously look about us and fear together. . . . “‘Remember the former things long past, for I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is no one like Me, declaring the end from the beginning And from ancient times things which have not been done, saying, “My purpose will be established, and I will accomplish all My good pleasure”; Calling a bird of prey from the east, the man of My purpose from a far country. Truly I have spoken; truly I will bring it to pass. I have planned it, surely I will do it’” (Isa. 41:21–23; 46:9–11, NASB).
God’s prediction of the future is not a counterpart of secular fortune telling. He is not seeking to satisfy our curiosity. Prophecy always penetrates to the core of our existence, compelling a confrontation with the King of kings. The promise of the future is inextricably linked with the coming of Christ. Christian expectation is not connected to various unrelated events in the future, but to Jesus Christ Himself. Prophecy doesn’t deal with whom one should marry, how the rent will be paid, or who the next president will be. Nor is it a secret knowledge available only to a privileged few. It is grounded in Christ, who has come once as Savior and who will come again as King to save “those who are eagerly waiting for Him” (Heb. 9:28). This is the climax of human history, distinguishing it from secular futurism.
On that day we are promised that all things will be made right. Everything will be disrobed before God and before the Lamb. No longer will evil be called good and good evil; no longer will bitter be made sweet and sweet bitter. The end of all human deceptions will reveal life as it really is. There will be no more justification of terrible persecutions in the name of God, no more rationalization of racial prejudice. All excuses will be scrutinized, all motives known. And God will make everything right.
In light of this, we are called to live thoughtfully with regard to the future. The “last days” are not to produce nervousness or anxious preoccupation. We are counseled to “keep sane and sober” (1 Peter 4:7, RSV). According to Scripture, news of the future should lead to clarity of insight, rather than moments of anxiety and unrest, as Paul instructs the Thessalonians (2 Thess. 2:2). We are told to gird up our minds (1 Peter 1:13, RSV), and be prepared with lamps burning (Luke 12:35, RSV). Expectation requires an alert, untiring watchfulness, a sharp spiritual eye sensitive to the present and the future. Paul urges, perhaps recalling Christ’s parable of the sleeping bridal party: “so then let us not sleep as others do, but let us be alert and sober” (1 Thess. 5:6, NASB). “Since we are of the day, let us be sober, having put on the breastplate of faith and love, and as a helmet, the hope of salvation” (vs. 8, NASB).
But we are still here. And our expectation is sometimes taunted because Jesus hasn’t come yet. The issue of “the delay” needs to be faced. After all Jesus did promise (2,000 years ago), “Behold, I come quickly” (Rev. 22:12, KJV).
Contemporary Interest in Eschatology
Since the 19th century, when acknowledging the millennia lapsing since Jesus made His promise to come soon, some Christians have argued that God’s kingdom must have already appeared, accomplished as human problems are solved. Through human genius, God’s kingdom is already being established. Eventually, it is assumed, with evolutionary optimism, all problems will be conquered (disease, poverty, with political cooperation halting all wars, etc.).
Other Christians have decided that the New Testament teaches that there would only be a short time between Christ’s resurrection and His second advent. Thus, so many centuries later, the New Testament must be completely outdated. The Second Advent must have occurred at Christ’s resurrection, when the earth shook, rocks were split, tombs were opened, and the dead rose (Matt. 27:51–53). This was the breakthrough of the kingdom of God. Since the cosmic event has not occurred, these gripping supernatural events at the Resurrection are interpreted as the “real end.”
Some Christians argue for a “timeless end time,” which sees the Second Coming as a symbol of the endless seriousness of every moment of life. There will be no dramatic end of history, no literal, cosmic coming of Christ; but rather a decisive moment for each person marked by some crisis in life when the actual gravity of the nearness of God is experienced individually.
Christ’s earlier promise to come again and restore God’s kingdom has obviously not happened; thus, Christ’s words need to be reinterpreted. These modern attempts consequently deny the Second Advent as a literal, cosmic future event. This is dangerous, however, for it blurs what Scripture has described so explicitly, robbing the gospel of its glory. Biblical writers consistently present a literal, worldwide second coming of Jesus, grounded on salvation acts that have already occurred. God promises a real climax of history. Perhaps, the faith of past believers was not threatened by the delay because they recalled the way God has acted in the past.
Delay in the Old and New Testaments
Fulfillment of divine promises involves waiting all through Scripture.
In the Old Testament:
● Enoch preached the coming of Christ and the final judgment, yet he still awaits the second coming of Christ in heaven (Jude 14, 15).
● Noah warned of a coming flood for 120 years,2 having never seen rain. Once he was shut in the ark, he waited another seven days for the promised deluge to start.
● Abraham was divinely promised offspring as numerous as the stars in the heavens, yet he waited until he was 100 years old for only the first of his promised multitude of heirs. He died believing the promise (Heb. 11:12, 13).
● Israel, captive slaves in Egypt, yearned hundreds of years for deliverance: “the children of Israel groaned because of the bondage, and they cried out” (Ex. 2:23, NKJV). God told Abraham that the exodus was hundreds of years ahead because “‘the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet complete’” (Gen. 15:16).
● Joseph did not realize the fulfillment of his dreams until after his brothers had sold him into slavery and he had spent years in prison.
● Many of the hymns Israel sang in worship pleaded for God to act: “I will say unto God my rock, Why hast thou forgotten me? Why go I mourning because of the oppression of the enemy?” (Ps. 42:9, KJV); “How long, O God, will the adversary revile, and the enemy spurn Your name forever? Why do You withdraw Your hand, even Your right hand? From within Your bosom, destroy them” (74:10, 11). “How long?” presupposes a painful continuity of time, a waiting period for the saving work of God.
● In the time of Isaiah, God’s people again were waiting and watching: “‘Watchman, what of the night?’ The watchman says, ‘Morning comes, and also the night’” (Isa. 21:11, 12, RSV). The question implies that Israel had to accept delay.
● During the time of Ezekiel, the promised deliverance from Babylonian captivity was critical (Jer. 25:12, 13). God Himself addressed the issue: “‘Son of man, what is this proverb that you people have about the land of Israel, which says, “The days are prolonged, and every vision fails”? Tell them therefore, “Thus says the Lord God: ‘I will lay this proverb to rest, and they shall no more use it as a proverb in Israel.’ But say to them, ‘The days are at hand, and the fulfillment of every vision’”’” (Eze. 12:22, 23, NKJV).
For Israel in captivity, things were not improving, leading to doubts that the promises of deliverance would come true. But the Lord declared: “‘The days are at hand, and the fulfillment of every vision’” (Eze. 12:23, NKJV). There must be no more mention of delay (vs. 25). When the critics complain that fulfillment is uncertain, the Lord insists that “‘“None of My words will be delayed any longer”’” (vs. 28, NKJV). The continuity of time does not disqualify the Lord nor the reliability of His words.
● After his dramatic visions of the future, Daniel was told he must wait: “‘But you, go your way till the end; for you shall rest, and will arise to your inheritance at the end of the days’” (Dan. 12:13, NKJV).
● Habakkuk wondered: “O Lord, how long shall I cry, and You will not hear? Even cry out to You, ‘Violence!’ And You will not save. Why do You show me iniquity, and cause me to see trouble? For plundering and violence are before me; there is strife, and contention arises. Therefore the law is powerless, and justice never goes forth” (Hab. 1:2–4, NKJV).
● God’s response to Jonah provides an important clue for why God delays judgment: “‘Should not I pity Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than 120,000 persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also much cattle?’” (Jonah 4:11, ESV).
In the New Testament:
● Martha and Mary questioned Jesus’ delay when their brother was deathly ill: “‘If you had been here, my brother would not have died’” (John 11:21, 32).
● Jesus’ parable of the wedding party sleeping as the bridegroom tarried suggests a delay the wedding attendants hadn’t reckoned with (Matt. 25:5). Significantly, this parable follows immediately after Jesus’ discussion of the signs of the end (Matthew 24).
● In the Book of Acts, written after Christ’s ascension following His resurrection, Peter already speaks of what is “‘far off,’” referring to future generations (Acts 2:39, NASB). The pouring out of the Holy Spirit does not mean that the promise of heaven is outdated. Luke’s careful attention to the church in the first century does not hint at a delay causing any crisis. Nowhere does the book allude to anxiety because the restoration of God’s kingdom had not yet occurred. The New Testament does not mention any disregard of Christ’s promise.
● There are New Testament traces that indicate His coming had been expected soon. Undoubtedly, the fact that the Lord had not come is the basis for some of Paul’s counsel to the Thessalonians—certain things must happen first (2 Thessalonians). But their hope was not shaken, nor did it hamper their expectation. Salvation was guaranteed through the death and resurrection of Christ—thereby, the prospects of the future were assured and glorious! A crisis would arise only if faith in God’s promises were lost.
● The Book of Revelation suggests a time lag before the final climax of earth’s history: “When he had opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of them that were slain for the word of God, and for the testimony which they held: And they cried with a loud voice, saying, How long, O Lord, holy and true, dost thou not judge and avenge our blood on them that dwell on the earth? And white robes were given unto every one of them; and it was said unto them, that they should rest yet for a little season, until their fellow servants also and their brethren, that should be killed as they were, should be fulfilled” (Rev. 6:9–11, KJV).
● The New Testament mentions scoffers who have come to incorrect conclusions about Christ’s return: “‘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’” (2 Peter 3:4). Jude also speaks of “mockers in the last time” (Jude 18, NKJV).
Some no longer believe in the promise of the Second Coming. Their attitude demonstrates a haughty certainty of their supposedly irrefutable arguments. But we are counseled to beware of such an attitude (2 Peter 3:1–3, 8, 14, 17), for the unchangeableness of scoffers comes from their secular philosophy of history. “Do not let this one fact escape your notice, beloved, that with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day. 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” (vss. 8, 9, NASB).
This passage conspicuously denies any notion that God is stalling His return. Nor is the continuity of time evidence of false prophecy. Ellen White puts it this way: “Like the stars in the vast circuit of their appointed path, God's purposes know no haste and no delay.”3 This is an inspired perspective on the eternity of God. He doesn’t measure time with our finite standards, viewing history differently than we do. Human beings experience life in the twinkling of an eye compared to God’s eternity. We can’t possibly calculate from His infinite perspective. God hints at this in nature with many ways to measure time found there. For example, a fly or mosquito, if escaping a swat, lives to the ripe old age of three weeks; 12 to 15 years is considered a full age for cats and dogs.
Perhaps God’s design of the retina receiving an upside-down picture is to remind us that what we see is not the correct picture. That is why the apostle Peter addresses skeptics with their simplistic understanding of history. Behind his remarks is neither an irrational view of time, nor a concept of eternity that obscures attention to time. Rather, he rejects an illegitimate interpretation of history. The continuous duration of time must be understood in terms of the mercy of God. God promises that evil will never rise again (Nahum 1:9). He can do this because He will have allowed the issues and results of the Great Controversy to be fully worked out, so there will be no sympathy for sin anywhere in the universe again.
Jesus promises to come suddenly, but He will not be unexpected. This really gets to the heart of the matter, for Jesus said: “‘If you do not wake up, I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what hour I will come to you’” (Rev. 3:3). This suddenness will not pose a danger for those who have expected His return. As Paul encouraged the Thessalonians, “But you, beloved, are not in darkness, for that day to surprise you like a thief” (1 Thess. 5:4).
This attitude calls for constant vigilance and preparation. The danger lies in being careless about or forgetful of the coming of the Lord. As Jesus said of people in the days of Noah, they “‘did not know until the flood came’” (Matt. 24:39, NKJV).
As we await the restoration of God’s kingdom, we can become pessimists. We can doubt the Word of God, or come up with false interpretations of prophecy or settle into a pattern of denial and bluster—joining the scoffers who see the world as a place of denial and illusion, with no hope of the future. However, the sentiment of Scripture is much different, giving a forward thrust in the announcement of the arriving God. The coming of Christ is certain as it heralds the future. As the electrifying promise of heaven sounds, we can rejoice that God is on the move toward us, and “‘of his kingdom there will be no end’” (Luke 1:33).
Because God’s kingdom is just ahead, we know that human cover-ups, false denials, lies, frauds, and false pretenses are part of the old world that is passing away. We will not be forever trapped in our mistakes and delusions. Even one break from our sinful habits will be a sign of Christ’s coming, for Jesus has promised to enable us to do things we thought impossible: change our habits, confront our addictions, and forgive our enemies. The second coming of Christ is a major part of the gospel. And it will be worth the wait. Both Old Testament and New Testament writers dwell on the glorious descriptions of God’s kingdom restored, promising that it will completely eclipse everything we have known on earth.
Ellen White, after a heavenly vision, describes her experience: “We tried to call up our greatest trials, but they looked so small compared with the far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory that surrounded us, that we could not speak them out, and we all cried out, ‘Alleluia! heaven is cheap enough!’ and we touched our glorious harps and made heaven's arches ring. After I came out of vision, everything seemed changed; a gloom was spread over all that I beheld. Oh, how dark this world looked to me! I wept when I found myself here, and felt homesick. I had seen a better world, and it had spoiled this for me.”4
Yes, it will be worth the wait. Even so, come, Lord Jesus, quickly come!
Jo Ann Davidson, Ph.D., teaches Systematic Theology at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary in Berrien Springs, Michigan.
NOTES AND REFERENCES
3. The Desire of Ages, p. 32.