As I write this we are within hours of the time set by radio preacher Harold Camping for the end of the world. If you are reading this blog, it means Camping was wrong. Again. Mr. Camping, now 89 years old and the founder of Family Radio, headquartered in Oakland, California, previously predicted that Jesus was coming back in 1994. That glaring “oops!” has not deterred his faithful. Whether his current followers have short memories or have not bothered to check Mr. Camping’s bona fides is unclear. Those who bought into his 1994 false prophecy but now are certain that this time Camping got it right should remember the old adage: Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me. Camping and his followers have, indeed, been shamefully fooled.
To be fair to Camping and his followers, he is by no means the only date-setter who has lead people astray. Since the early-19th century we have seen the likes of Joseph Smith, William Miller and Charles Taze Russell (and later his organization, the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society, commonly known as “Jehovah’s Witnesses”).
Smith, founder of the Mormon church, called a meeting of his church leaders in February 1835 to tell them that he had spoken to God recently, and during their conversation he learned that Jesus would return within the next 56 years, after which the end times would begin promptly.
Miller was a New England farmer who, like Harold Camping, had no formal training in biblical studies. His study of Bible prophecy resulted in his discovery that the Scriptures tell us exactly when Jesus will return (notwithstanding Jesus stating in Matthew 24:36 that “No man knows the day or the hour, not even the angels”). According to Miller’s calculations Jesus was coming back some time between March 21, 1843 and March 21, 1844, eventually fixing the date at April 23, 1843. Many of his followers sold or gave away their possessions, assuming they would not be needed. When April 23 came and went, Miller re-calculated and concluded Jesus would return on April 23, 1844. After that date came and went most of his followers scattered, but some of them banded together to form what became the Seventh Day Adventist denomination.
Charles Taze Russell set the following dates for the return of Jesus: 1874, 1878, 1881, 1910, 1914. His Watchtower organization set 1918, 1925, 1941, 1975, and 1984 as the dates that Jesus would return. One has to wonder how many false prophecies an organization must make for it to be considered a “non-prophet” organization.
There are many, many others who share the dubious distinction of thinking they figured out when Jesus was returning and presumptuously publicized the date. Televangelist Pat Robertson, in May 1980, informed his "700 Club" television show audience that he knew when the world would end, saying "I guarantee you by the end of 1982 there is going to be a judgment on the world." Perhaps we missed that one, Pat.
Edgar Whisenant sold thousands of copies of his book, “88 Reasons Why Jesus is Coming Back in 1988.” Whisenant was so confident his calculations were correct that it is reported he said, "If there were a king in this country and I could gamble with my life, I would stake my life on Rosh Hashana 88." His confidence apparently affected others as well because Paul and Jan Crouch of the Trinity Broadcast Network swallowed it whole. Instead of airing their nightly Praise the Lord television talk show, the Crouches ran videotapes of prerecorded shows dealing with the rapture. For non-Christians who might be watching, the revised programming included specific instructions on what to do in case Christian family members or friends disappeared and the world was thrust into the tribulation. When nothing happened by the end of September 13, Whisenant revised his prediction, suggesting the rapture would come at 10:55 a.m on September 15. When that failed, he revised it to October 3. After that he admitted he made a "miscalculation" of one year and insisted the rapture would occur in 1989. He even wrote another book to "prove" it.
Self-proclaimed “prophet” Ronald Weinland wrote a book in 2006 entitled "2008: God's Final Witness." In his book Weinland states that hundreds of millions of people will die, and by the end of 2006, "there will be a maximum time of two years remaining before the world will be plunged into the worst time of all human history. By the fall of 2008, the United States will have collapsed as a world power, and no longer exist as an independent nation." As the book notes, "Ronald Weinland places his reputation on the line as the end-time prophet of God." Did Weinland, a former follower of cult leader Herbert W. Armstrong, gracefully fade away when his prophecies did not come true? As the late John Wayne often said, “Not hardly.” Weinland currently has a website where he backpedals, re-writes his own prophetic history, and otherwise dishonestly deals with his previous false prophecies, now claiming that 2012 is the year Jesus is coming back (Weinland, perhaps more delusional than Harold Camping, claims that he and his wife are the two witnesses mentioned in Revelation chapter 11 who will be slain then will rise from the dead).
Is it Reasonable to Believe Jesus is Coming Again?
With all the utter-nonsense that has resulted from people trying to figure out what Jesus Himself said “no one knows,” (i.e., the date of His return), can a thinking person still reasonably believe that Jesus of Nazareth is coming again to Earth? Yes. How can an intelligent person believe in such an event? Because we have reliable documents, written by eyewitnesses, where Jesus Himself tells his followers, “I go to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you I will come again, and receive you to Myself, that where I am, there you may be also” (John 14:2-3). And since the evidence is compelling based upon His miracles, fulfilled prophecy, and especially His resurrection from the dead, that Jesus was the Messiah, the Son of God (and God the Son), then it would be foolish not to believe Him when He said He would come again to Earth.
Unfortunately, too many have misinterpreted Scripture, stretched the Bible to say something it does not say, and made unsupported assertions about prophetic passages that resulted in the lame-brained date setting previously discussed. From David Koresh (born Vernon Howell, who lead most of his Branch Davidian followers, including more than a dozen children, to a fiery death at their compound in Waco, Texas in 1993) to Ronald Weinland, people who typically lack formal biblical training have a tendency to “discover,” for example, what the seven seals of Revelation really mean (in Koresh’s case, he claimed to be the Lamb of God who could open the seals), asserting they have some special insight that no one else has. Biblically naïve and gullible people too often accept, without question, the interpretations and pronouncements of these self-proclaimed “prophets.” In most cases it leads to disillusioned followers, as in the case of William Miller or Ronald Weinland. In some cases it leads to a violent death, as in the case of Jim Jones or David Koresh.
Biblical Test of a Prophet
According to the Bible, in order to qualify as a prophet of God, the prophet must be 100% accurate. Deuteronomy 18:20, 22 says, “But the prophet who speaks presumptuously in My name which I have not commanded him to speak…that prophet shall die…When a prophet speaks in the name of the lord, if the thing does not come about or come true, that is the thing which the LORD had not spoken…” Mr. Camping, et al., should be grateful that today we do not employ this sanction against false prophets.
Is the Church Contributing to Those Who Mock the Belief in the Return of Jesus?
A common reaction to the doomsday false prophets is scoffing. Even professing Christians who sat through prophecy seminar after prophecy seminar, or heard sermon after sermon about the return of Jesus, are susceptible to getting “burned out” on prophecy to the point where they don’t want to hear about it any more. Is it possible that the “mockers” Peter speaks of in I Peter 3:3ff include people who came out of evangelical churches that spent an inordinate amount of time speculating about the return of Jesus? When a pastor or teacher sets a date or otherwise makes a prediction that does not materialize, a question of credibility emerges. Falso uno, falso omnibus.
A Scriptural Basis for a Literal Return of Jesus to Earth
What, then, is my Scriptural basis for believing Jesus is coming back? First, as previously mentioned, Jesus said He would come again (John 14:3). Even though Jesus often spoke in parables and mashals (short parables with a moral lesson), His reference to His coming again was not an allegory. It was a clear promise. The Apostle Paul speaks of Jesus’ return as the “blessed hope” of Christians (Titus 2:13, “looking for the blessed hope and the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ”). Paul ends his first letter to the church at Corinth with an Aramaic word (“Maranatha”) that means, “The Lord is Coming” (a prayer for His soon return) (I Corinthians 16:22).
Evangelical Bible scholars overwhelmingly see Christ’s return to Earth as a prophecy that will be literally fulfilled at some point. These scholars generally point out that those Bible prophecies that have already been fulfilled were fulfilled literally (e.g., Micah 5:2 is understood as a Messianic prophecy that predicts Bethlehem will be the birthplace of the Messiah, an understanding King Herod’s chief priests and scribes shared according to Matthew 2:4-5). Thus, to be consistent, there is no reason to believe the words of Jesus in John 14:3 and elsewhere mean anything other than He will return to Earth bodily.
The Times and Seasons
Even though no one knows the day or hour of Jesus’ return (Matthew 24:36) the Scripture provides certain signs to enable us to understand the times and seasons in which we live (e.g., Ezekiel chapters 37-39 reference the return of the Jews to the Promised Land; I Thessalonians 5:1 says the Corinthians should be aware of the times and epochs in which they live; I Thessalonians 5:4 indicates that the return of Jesus should not overtake Christians like a thief because we are not in darkness.
Is Christ’s Return One Event or Two?
The historic view of the church is that Jesus will come back to Earth and will establish a kingdom on Earth for 1,000 years (historic premillenialism). Others do not believe in a literal 1,000-year reign of Christ on Earth (amillennialism), while some interpret the Scriptures to say Jesus will come back at the end of the 1,000 years (post millennialism).
The most common view among evangelicals today is premillenialism (i.e., there will be a literal 1,000 year reign of Jesus on Earth). There is a split among Bible-believing Christians as to whether Jesus’ return to Earth is one event or two. Perhaps the most common view among premillenialists is that Jesus will first come back for His church, and will meet them in the sky, after which there will be a seven-year period of tribulation, including the final 3 ½ years of Great Tribulation in which the judgments mentioned in Revelation chapters 6-18 will take place. Then at the end of the seven-year tribulation period Jesus returns bodily to Earth to reign for 1,000 years.
What is the evidence for the view that Jesus will return for His church seven years before He returns bodily to Earth to set up His kingdom? The following chart helps to contrast His pre-tribulation return for His church (commonly referred to as the “rapture,” which means the sudden removal or “translation” of believers from Earth to heaven) with his visible second coming.
Rapture Second Coming
Meet Lord in air He returns to Mount of Olives
Living saints translated No translation of church
He returns to heaven He remains on earth
Earth not judged Earth/sin judged
Imminent event Follows signs
Verses that are commonly used to support the pre-tribulation rapture include I Thessalonians 5:9, “God did not appoint us to suffer wrath but to receive salvation;” I Thessalonians 1:10 “Jesus, who rescues us from the coming wrath;” and Revelation 3:10 “I will keep you from the hour of trial that is going to come upon the whole world…”
Regardless of the date-setters and false prophets that bring contempt to the legitimate study of Bible prophecy, there are compelling reasons to believe that Jesus is coming again. Given the rebirth of Israel in 1948, there are reasons to conclude that His return could be soon. Whether one believes in a pre-tribulation rapture, mid-tribulation rapture, or a post-tribulation return of Jesus to Earth, the important fact is the Jesus is coming again. To quote the lyrics of the song “Outlaw” by the late singer/songwriter Larry Norman,
Some say He was the Son of God, a man above all men.
That He came to be a servant, and set us free from sin.
And that’s who I believe He was, cause that’s who I believe
And I think we should get ready, cause its time for us to leave.
Why do I believe that Jesus is coming back? Because He said so, and that’s who I believe. Even so “Come Lord Jesus” (Revelation 22:20).