What the Lord’s “Imminent” Return Means

A.T. Pierson was arguably the most influential advocate of Christian missions in the late nineteenth century. As a key organizer of the Student Volunteer Movement, Pierson coined the “watchword” of the movement: “the evangelization of the world in this generation.” Pierson also played a foundational role in the emerging fundamentalist movement, which adhered to belief in the “imminent” return of Christ to earth. But what did “imminent” mean?

In an 1886 address titled “Our Lord’s Second Coming, a Motive to World-wide Evangelism,” Pierson explained that “imminent” was not synonymous with “impending.”

Imminence is the combination of two conditions, certainty and uncertainty. An imminent event is one which is certain to occur at some time, uncertain at what time. Imminent is not synonymous with impending. It is not exact to say that what is imminent is near at hand; it may or may not be.

It is therefore unfair to discredit the imminence of our Lord’s coming by saying that it is a mistake into which even apostles and early disciples were betrayed: that they thought the Lord would come in their day and as He did not it was proven a misapprehension into which modern disciples have the less reason to fall since they have this warning before them. Such argument frames into its structure a fallacy if not a sophistry. Primitive [early] disciples believed that Christ might come in their day; they could not say that He would; the difference may seem slight, but it saves them from the charge of deception or delusion.

Pierson, still living in a world with exceedingly limited options for transatlantic communications, proposed a comparable scenario:

Your brother is in Europe, and may return at any time, even by the next steamer; you do not say he will, and so you are not mistaken if he does not. Any man in this assembly may die today; yet I do not affirm that anyone will, and should all live to see the next day, or the next century dawn, no error has been made in the above statement.

The New Testament uniformly teaches the IMMINENCE OF OUR LORD’S COMING. It is an event which in this sense is ever at hand. “Behold the Judge standeth at the door.” His hand may be on the latch. But when he will enter no man knoweth, not even the angels in heaven When He does it will be suddenly and without knocking. His last word is “Watch and pray; for ye know not when the time is.”

For more on Pierson, see Dana L. Robert, Occupy until I Come: A. T. Pierson and the Evangelization of the World (Eerdmans, 2003).

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