Is the doctrine of Imminence still relevant?
One would think that a key tenet of our faith in which all Christians could rally around, would be the return of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. After all, isn't that what it means to be Christian? Or do we profess faith in a God we have no desire to ever meet? As mind boggling as it may seem, there are large sections of professing Christians who do not teach, preach, write, or even talk about our Lord's soon return.
The conundrum in our current reality, is that our Lord's return has become a controversial and even taboo topic most churches refuse to discuss openly. This seeming hostility towards the Lord's return is not accidental though, but by design. On the spectrum of things hated, Satan's hatred of this topic is infinitely more visceral than even the most diehard leftist liberal's hatred of President Trump.
So if we divide Eschatology (the study of last things) into two major sections, there would be the macro (large) view and the micro (small) view. One would think something as innocuous as the doctrine of imminence would be fairly non-controversial, given the abundant warnings laid out in Scripture to be ready. As is the situation with the macro-views of eschatology (Premillennial, Amillennial, and Post-Millennial), which divide over where Christ returns in relation to the Millennium, this doctrine of imminence most sharply divides amongst the micro-views within the Premillennial camp itself. It is the benchmark by which the Pre-Tribulation view distinguishes itself from the other premillennial rapture views such as Pre-Wrath, Mid-Trib, and Post-Tribulation Rapture. It is of imminence that the late Dr. John Walvoord writes,
The central feature of pretribulationism, the doctrine of imminency, is, however, a prominent feature of the doctrine of the early church ... [which] lived in constant expectation of the coming of the Lord for His church.
In his seminal research article speaking exhaustively about the issues surrounding the doctrine of imminence (i.e., any moment return of Christ at the Rapture), Dr. Gerald Stanton (contributing to the Pre-Trib Research Center) has done the yeoman's job of putting all the historical and current issues together of this topic. But because imminence is a pillar by which the Pre-Tribulation Rapture position distinguishes itself from other premillennial views, it has as of late, become controversial. To which, this article you now read will quote from research by Dr. Stanton for reference to compare. Quoting from the source document:
It is generally agreed that the Christian Church of the first three centuries was Premillennial, although the common term used was Chiliasm, from the Greek chiliad meaning "thousand." It is less clear when the concept of Christ's soon return was first explicitly stated as imminent which is a theological word rather than a Biblical. Richard Reiter has traced it to the Niagara Bible Conference of 1878, and more specifically to the five resolutions of the first general American Bible and prophetic conference held in New York City the same year. Article 3 stated: "This second coming of the Lord is everywhere in the Scriptures represented as imminent, and may occur at any moment." However, among the Niagara delegates arose three different definitions of imminent (1) Christ may appear at any moment, but this will be understood only by the final generation of the Church (A. J. Gordon). (2) Christ could return within the lifetime of any individual generation of believers (Samuel H. Kellogg). (3) "Imminent" requires "the coming of Christ for his saints as possible any hour" (Arthur T. Pierson).
I believe that we are most likely aligned to option number one and because of that, the concept of imminence went through roughly four stages:
- Post-Ascension Imminence
- True Imminence
- Transitional Imminence
- Limited Imminence
To be clear, I am not proposing that the four mentioned above change the capacity for Christ to have returned at any moment, but only in our understanding of it. Seeing as we are still here some two-thousand years after Christ's ascension, clearly, there is more to this topic than just simply labeling it imminence and moving on. I propose that if we break down these time periods, we should be able to better understand how imminence has impacted all the many generations since the time Christ walked the earth in His First Advent.
Post-Ascension Imminence: 33-100AD
After the resurrection and just prior to Christ's ascension, His disciples approached Him and asked if, at this time, He would now restore the Kingdom to Israel. They did not ask when the Rapture would occur, as that had not yet been revealed through the Apostle Paul. Christ's response to their question then was...
...It is not for you to know times or seasons which the Father has put in His own authority. But you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be witnesses to Me in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth." Acts 1:6-8
At a minimum, Christ knew that His return would not precede the deliverance of the Revelation as given to John in 95AD which is why He addressed them as such in Acts 1. But from there, we also know that the Gospel did, in fact, begin to spread throughout the Roman Empire. It went as far East to India and China, and spread north and south of Judea both to the European and African continents. We also know that at the height of the Roman Empire, there were only around 200 million persons on the earth at that time.
The Apostles Peter, James, John, and Paul, along with Luke, Matthew, Mark, and Jude, contributed their writings under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit to construct what we call the New Testament canon. Their expectation as believers in the first century was that since Christ had been in their lifetime so too should they should expect to see His return. There are two considerations to this I would like to include in this discussion:
- The New Testament was written by men under the influence and direction by the Holy Spirit. As such, their message was meant to be as applicable to their generation as it would be to any future one.
- Their understanding, particularly Paul's, was such that he included himself in holding to the blessed hope of which was a new mystery being revealed, the Rapture (Harpazo-Greek) or catching up of the Church unto Christ.
But what wasn't known to them was what would be later revealed to the then, elderly and sole remaining Apostle, John, on the isle of Patmos in/around 95-96AD. What was revealed to John then was not even revealed to Christ in His humanity...namely, that no man knows the day or hour, but the Father only. To this, Clarence Larkin writes:
When Jesus was asked just before His death, when the things that He had prophesied against Jerusalem should come to pass (Mark 13:1-31), He replied in verse 32, "But of that day and that hour knoweth no man, no, not the angels which are in Heaven, neither (NOT YET) the Son, but the FATHER." But after His Ascension He received from the Father the information that the Disciples asked for, and before the close of the first century, while at least one of those Disciples was still living, the beloved John, He sent an angel messenger to impart to him, and through him to the Churches, the information that is "unveiled" in this Book of Revelation. Thus we see that the canon of Scripture would be incomplete without this message from Jesus to His Church after His return to Heaven. (Source) (Emphasis his)
Summary: Since their proximity in time to Christ and the events surrounding His crucifixion, resurrection, and conception of the church at Pentecost, it is only natural that they would cling tightly to the idea of a soon return of Christ. For example, our current generation is quickly passing away and those that lived through the atrocities of World War I and II, still remember in vivid detail the events of life during those times. But as their generation passes, the immediacy and first-hand knowledge of experience pass with it. As the memory of it fades, what remains is the writings and teachings that are continued long after the last eyewitness passes into eternity.
True Imminence: 100-1917 AD
From 100AD to the early 20th century, mankind truly had no idea of where they were on God's timeline. In 70AD, the Roman General Titus conquered and destroyed the city of Jerusalem along with its Jewish temple. In 135AD, the Roman Emperor Hadrian quelled another rebellion in what remained of Jerusalem, ushering in what we now call the Diaspora. Hadrian attempted to put the final nail in the coffin of the city, the people, and even the name of Israel. By the time John had been imprisoned on the isle of Patmos, Jerusalem as he had known it, hadn't existed for at least 25 years.
Seeing as he was there on the Mount of Olives when Jesus gave His discourse on the things to come, this destruction of Jerusalem wasn't a mystery to him. It may have been a shock perhaps watching it unfold, but it was not a mystery since Jesus had already said it would happen (Matt. 23:37-24:2; Mark 13:23; Luke 19:41-44). But with John, the last of the apostles passing into eternity, the nation of Judah and the city of Jerusalem long since destroyed and the Jewish people scattered, the Gospel began to flourish amongst the gentile communities who had no historical connections to the land itself. They had no remembrance of Christ personally, nor even now the apostles who walked with Christ. What remained of them were the disciples of the apostles of whom would become the early church fathers.
As such, from 100-430AD, the early church was largely premillennial. It wouldn't be until Augustine's book, "The City of God" was published and became part of the theological foundation for the newly developing Roman Catholic Church. While it contained many things (it was twelve books) and dealt with a myriad of topics, the one that may have had the most and lasting impact was the idea of Amillennialism. This taught that there would be no physical return of Christ to the earth, but that His Kingdom was spiritual, it was now, and it was in heaven. This promoted among other things, spiritual triumphalism and the necessity for God to rule through men. Needless to say, this deadened the idea of imminence amongst the lay people and the clergy. They no longer looked for Christ to return but rather, that they would be part of building the kingdom here on earth. Aside from the license to do much wrong in the name of God (Crusades, Inquisitions, papal abuses, etc.), people truly were in the dark ages about understanding where they were on God's timeline.
These eschatological dark ages would continue even through the Protestant Reformation as these new movements simply carried over the same eschatological teachings they had received while under the Roman Catholic system. It wouldn't be until the late 1600-early 1700s that teachers, pastors and the like began openly preaching and teaching about the return of Christ. The same could be said for the early Dispensationalist movement amongst the Plymouth Brethren in the early 19th century. As men began to return to a literal interpretation of scripture instead of being filtered through a denominational creed or Roman Catholic lenses, men and women began to earnestly look for the return of Christ. They did this because that is what a literal interpretation of Scripture points one towards. At the same time, there was an explosion of false Christian cults, sects, and other movements exploding upon the scene. As soon as Dispensationalism began to grow, along comes Joseph Smith and his "Latter Day Saints", the Seventh Day Adventists (which came out of the Millerites), Christian Science, Jehovah Witnesses, etc.
Summary: The church had largely forgotten the relevance of Israel, and began changing their focus to a "kingdom now" mentality. Those combined obscured man's ability to know when and where they were on God's timeline. But as men and women began to return to a literal interpretation, the imminence factor began to come into play once again. Countering that, Satan introduces a flood of false teachings and movements to confuse mankind on just how close they were getting to the end.
Part two: to be continued.........