Could Christ return at any moment?

My guess is that most evangelicals today would respond, “Of course!” In fact, I suspect a “No” answer would seem close to heresy. Indeed, the idea that Christ could return at any moment has become part of fundamental orthodoxy for many believers in the last 200 years. So it may surprise you to hear me suggest that not only does this teaching have little or no biblical evidence, but also the Bible actually teaches the opposite.

Don’t misunderstand—I do believe in the imminence of Christ’s return, as I’ll explain below. But first, I want to offer evidence for why an imminent return isn’t the same as an any-moment return.

Reasons for Delay

The idea of an any-moment return stands in tension with the idea that certain events must precede Christ’s return. And contrary to the notion of an any-moment return, the New Testament predicts that many events must occur before his return. These events require a necessary delay, which Jesus teaches us to expect (Matt. 24:45–51; 25:5, 19; Luke 18:7; 19:11–27). Let me give you five of these “delaying” events:

  1. Carrying out the Great Commission demanded some delay (Matt. 24:14; 28:18–20; Acts 1:8; 22:21; 23:11; 27:24).
  2. The death of Peter in old age required many years of delay (John 21:18–19; 2 Pet. 1:14).
  3. The destruction of Jerusalem and the carrying of the Jews captive into all the nations until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled must occur first (Luke 21:23–38). Since most of the New Testament was written before that destruction, at least those parts of the New Testament can’t encourage believers to expect an any-moment return.
  4. The commission of Paul to take the gospel far away to the Gentiles, and the prediction that he would bear witness at Rome, entailed some delay in the second coming (Acts 9:15; 22:21; 23:11).
  5. Perhaps most clearly of all, 2 Thessalonians 2:1–12 contains Paul’s explicit teaching that the signs of the apostasy and the man of lawlessness must occur “first,” and it connects these events with a period just prior to Christ’s second coming. Such teaching is inconsistent with any-moment expectation of Christ’s return.

Just a couple of remarks. First, some of these things have clearly occurred and thus no longer stand between us and Christ’s return. But all of them show that any-moment-ness isn’t an intrinsic part of imminence.

Second, Christians who hold to any-moment-return teaching often seek to account for these passages by distinguishing two stages of Christ’s return: a secret, pre-tribulation rapture that could occur at any moment; and a public, post-tribulation appearing that will have signs preceding it. This is a valiant effort, but as we will see, it runs afoul of the New Testament data.

Defining Imminence

Having said all this, let me hasten to say again that I do believe in the imminence of Christ’s return. But the question is how the term imminence should be defined. The English words imminence and imminent are seldom used in our translations of the Bible. A quick search shows only one use in the NASB (with reference to Peter’s death, 2 Pet. 1:14) and none in the ESV. So if we choose to use this word to describe the impending character of Christ’s second coming, we don’t have a ready-made biblical definition. We must define it as the Bible’s eschatology requires.

So how does the Bible describe the impending character of Christ’s second coming? It’s defined in terms of nearness. The New Testament teaches that Christ’s return has drawn near (Heb. 10:25), is near (Rev. 22:10), and is nearer now than when we believed (Rom. 13:11).

An imminent return isn’t the same as an any-moment return.

But both common sense and biblical usage tell us that for something to be near, and for it to be possible to happen at any moment, are two different things. For example, Jewish feasts are often spoken of in Scripture as being near. Such feasts—far from occurring at any moment—fell on set days during the year (John 2:13; 6:4; 7:2; 11:55). Nearness language is also applied to the seasons of the year (Matt. 21:34; 24:32; Mark 12:38; Luke 21:30), which occur at regular intervals. Finally, this terminology is used of an obviously post-tribulational return of Christ in Luke 21:28 and 1 Peter 4:7, which all would agree must be preceded by signs rather than occurring at any moment.

What About Expectancy and Alertness?

Many suggest the biblical ideas of expectancy or alertness imply the any-moment-ness of Christ’s return. But this isn’t necessarily so.

Take the idea of expectancy. Common sense reveals that we often wait expectantly for things we know can’t come at any moment, such as the arrival of spring. Further, each Greek word conveying expectancy is used of eschatological events that everyone admits can’t occur at any moment:

  • “the appearing of the glory of our great God” (Titus 2:13)
  • “the revealing of the sons of God” (Rom. 8:19)
  • “the revelation of Jesus Christ” (1 Cor. 1:7)
  • “the coming of the day of God, on account of which the heavens will be destroyed by burning, and the elements will melt with intense heat” (2 Pet. 3:12)
  • the arrival of a “new heavens and a new earth, in which righteousness dwells” (2 Pet. 3:13)

Even Christians who affirm the any-moment return of Christ agree that these events occur after the final tribulation. And yet the terminology of expectancy is used of all of them.

The same is true with alertness (i.e., remaining awake and sober). The terminology of alertness occurs frequently, for instance, in the Olivet Discourse of a coming “after the tribulation of those days” (Matt. 24:29, 42–44; cf. 1 Pet. 1:13; 4:7). In short, even from a pretribulational, any-moment perspective, these events are post-tribulational, and therefore can’t occur at any moment. And yet the terminology of alertness is still applied to them.

It’s impossible to deduce any-moment-ness from the terminology of expectancy or alertness.

Thus, it’s impossible to deduce any-moment-ness from the terminology of expectancy or alertness. Biblically speaking, you can be expectant and alert for Christ’s return without believing that he could return at any moment with no predicted signs preceding it.

What Difference Does It Make?

This whole discussion may seem like quibbling over fine points, and I don’t wish to overstate its importance. Still, unbiblical teaching can never be totally without cost. So let’s consider briefly why it matters.

Perhaps the chief practical problem is this: Any-moment imminence approaches the error of the Thessalonian believers who thought that the day of the Lord had come (2 Thess. 2:1–2). This mistaken belief seems to have led to a loss of composure and long-term vision, with the Thessalonians quitting their jobs and so on (2 Thess. 3:6–15).

You can be expectant and alert for Christ’s return without believing that he could return at any moment with no predicted signs preceding it.

Significantly, Paul’s response to the Thessalonian error is to assure them that that day won’t come until certain events happen first (2 Thess. 2:3–12). We may debate over who “the restrainer” is or whether we’ll be able to recognize the man of lawlessness when he appears. But it’s not up for debate that in Thessalonica any-moment imminence bore ill fruit, and Paul responded by flatly denying it and assuring them that certain signs would precede Christ’s coming.

I’m not claiming that all (or even most) of those who hold any-moment imminence fall into this error. But I am saying there is a great resemblance between it and the Thessalonian error, and it has often been connected with Christian withdrawal from cultural efforts and institutions. I’m suggesting we ought to imitate Paul rather than the Thessalonians, lest we partake of their errors.