When I arrived home after a long trip several years ago, my family welcomed me back warmly, except for our little son, William. My wife explained that during my absence he had missed me and even gotten sick, and now he was hiding from me. But in a short while he showed up very excited, saying, “Daddy, I already know what I will be when I grow up! I will be a pilot, and we will have our own airplane. So, we will always travel together as a family, and I will take you wherever you need to go.” William’s creative idea cut my heart, but this thought reflected his strong desire to keep us all together as a family.
The Adventist movement comprises a worldwide spiritual family (cf. Eph. 2:19) that misses Jesus’s physical presence and longs for His return. Already during His earthly ministry, the disciples asked, “ ‘Tell us, when will these things be? And what will be the sign of Your coming, and of the end of the age?’ ” (Matt. 24:3).1 Just prior to His ascension, the disciples inquired again, “ ‘Lord, will You at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?’ ” (Acts 1:6). Almost 2,000 years have passed, and Jesus has not yet come.
This article deals with the time element as related to the Second Coming and the establishment of God’s kingdom.
An imminent expectation
The New Testament speaks of a literal and visible second coming of Christ to occur in the near and not-so near future. From the near perspective, Christ states, for instance, that “ ‘you will not have gone through the cities of Israel before the Son of Man comes’ ” (Matt. 10:23); “ ‘there are some standing here who shall not taste death till they see the Son of Man coming in His kingdom’ ” (Matt. 16:28; cf. 2 Pet. 1:16–18); “ ‘this generation will by no means pass away till all things take place’ ” (Luke 21:32); and “ ‘Surely I am coming quickly’ ” (Rev. 22:20). The apostle Paul reflected the same view in the inclusive expression “we who are alive and remain until the coming of the Lord” (1 Thess. 4:15).
From the not-so-near perspective, Jesus mentioned some general signs of the times, and then warned, “ ‘but the end is not yet’ ” (Matt. 24:4–6). To this He added, “ ‘And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in all the world as a witness to all the nations, and then the end will come’ ” (v. 14). In a similar tone the apostle Paul stated that the Second Coming would occur only after the great “apostasy” and the manifestation of “the man of lawlessness” and “the son of destruction” (2 Thess. 2:1–12, NASB).
Several scholars have tried to solve the tension between these two types of statements regarding the Second Coming and the establishment of God’s kingdom. Johannes Weiss and Albert Schweitzer proposed a kind of frustrated eschatology. Assuming that “there are no stages of” the coming of God’s kingdom, Weiss argued in 1892 that “at some earlier period in His ministry Jesus believed the coming of the Kingdom closer than turned out later to be the case.” So, “under the pressure of certain circumstances, Jesus became convinced that the end had been postponed.”2
Much in the same line, Schweitzer suggested in 1906 that Jesus’ early Messianic expectation was that He would soon be “supernaturally removed and transformed,” and then “revealed as the Son of Man” in the Parousia. But the nonfulfillment of the promise of Matthew 10:23 frustrated His plans and became “the first postponement of the Parousia.” For Schweitzer, the whole history of Christianity down to the present day “is based on the delay of the Parousia, the non-occurrence of the Parousia, the abandonment of eschatology, the progress and completion of the ‘de-eschatologizing’ of religion which has been connected therewith.”3
By contrast, C. H. Dodd advocated a realized eschatology when he argued in 1936 that the content of Jesus’ message was not a future coming and a future kingdom, but rather a kingdom that had already arrived.4
Avoiding the previous one-sided perspectives, Geerhardus Vos and George E. Ladd argued for an insightful already-and-not-yet eschatology, implying that God’s kingdom is already present but not yet fully installed. In 1930, Vos suggested that “the world to come” is already “realized in principle,” and overlaps with “this age or world” from the resurrection of Christ to the Parousia.5 For Ladd, “at the heart of Jesus’ mission was a spiritual struggle with the powers of evil. In Jesus’ person and mission the Kingdom of God was conquering the kingdom of Satan” to such an extent that “the death of Jesus is both an act of Satan and an act in which Jesus wins the victory over Satan.” So, the time between the resurrection of Jesus and His parousia is “a time of the overlapping of the two ages.”6
Back in 1888, Ellen G. White empha-sized a twofold understanding of the kingdom of God. She pointed out that the expression “kingdom of God” is employed in the Bible to designate both the kingdom of grace and the kingdom of glory. The proclamation “ ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand’ ” (Mark 1:15) referred to the king-dom of grace “established by the death of Christ” and characterized by “the work of divine grace upon the hearts of men.” But the kingdom of glory (see Matt. 25:31, 32) is yet future and will not be installed before the second coming of Christ.7 So, God’s children are still in the world without being of the world (John 17:14–16). In Christ they already dwell “in the heavenly places” (Eph. 2:6)8 and experience “the powers of the age to come” (Heb. 6:4, 5; cf. 2 Cor. 5:17; Gal. 1:4; Col. 1:13, 14).
But if the kingdom of grace was established without any delay at Christ’s death in the middle of the seventieth week of Daniel 9:24–27 (cf. Gal. 4:4), can we speak of a delay of the Second Coming and, consequently, of the establishment of the kingdom of glory?
The dilemma of the delay
The Bible says that in God “there is no variation or shadow of turning” (James 1:17), and that His purpose always “prevails” (Prov. 19:21, NIV) and cannot “ ‘be thwarted’ ” (Job 42:2, NIV). In regard to the Second Coming, Christ even stated that God the Father knows the “ ‘day and hour’ ” when that event will take place. Ellen White affirms, “But like the stars in the vast circuit of their appointed path, God’s purposes know no haste and no delay.”9
On the other side, we are faced with the notion of a “delay” of the Second Coming. In the parable of the wise and foolish virgins, Christ stated that “ ‘while the bridegroom was delayed [Greek chronizontos], they all slumbered and slept’ ” (Matt. 25:5). Commenting on 2 Thessalonians 2:3 (“for that Day will not come unless”; emphasis added), Ellen White stated that the Second Coming “could not take place before” the end of the 1,260 year-days in 1798.10 But from the late 1860s she spoke of an actual delay of the Second Coming and even presented basic reasons for it.11
Different attempts have been made to solve this tension as well. With emphasis on the human endeavor, Seventh-day Adventists eventually became convinced that the Second Coming was an unconditional event that will occur only when the Adventist message is preached to the whole world (Matt. 24:14; Rev. 14:6, 7).12 But some authors have subscribed to the so-called harvest principle, suggesting that the Second Coming will take place only when God’s people reach the stage of sinless perfection.13
Looking more from the divine perspective, various authors believe that there is no real delay of the Second Coming. For example, in his book The Apparent Delay, Arnold V. Wallenkampf argued, “By saying that God had to postpone His Son’s second coming because of our dalliance, we deprive Him at one stroke of both His foreknowledge and omniscience. In so doing we lower our omniscient God to our own level.”14 Mario Veloso suggested that there could be a delay only if Christ “had set an announced time for His return” and if there would be no more historical events to manifest themselves prior to His manifestation.15
Dealing with the two perspectives, Ralph E. Neall admitted to feeling uncomfortable with the attempts to harmonize the tension in Ellen White’s writings on the subject, “except perhaps by suggesting that the time of the end is fixed from God’s viewpoint but delayed from man’s.”16 Studying those writings, Neall grasped that in Mrs. White’s thought “the Lord is waiting for the church to finish proclaiming the three angels’ messages along with her parallel teaching that the church must proclaim the message because the Lord is coming soon.”17
Should we simply live with such an unsolved tension, or is there something else that can shed light on this complex matter?
Crucial for the whole discussion is the interplay between human free will and divine foreknowledge.18 Those who believe that God’s foreknowledge is causative usually also accept double predestination and, consequently, end up denying any delay of the Second Coming. Those who accept process theology tend also to believe that God’s foreknowledge is causative, but they provide room for human free will by denying that God actually knows future human decisions, but only the possibilities.19 However, if we agree that God’s foreknowledge is absolute but not causative,20 then there is room for a delay of that event.
According to Siegfried J. Schwantes, “the Biblical view of history rejects casual determinism as undermining personal responsibility.”21 In the Bible there is an ongoing interplay between God’s sovereignty and a human’s moral responsibility for his or her own actions. God even “altered the details of His plans because of man’s perversity and sometimes because of his repentance,”22 as is well illustrated in the case of the Flood (Gen. 6:1–8) and Nineveh (Jon. 3). But no local and temporal adjustment can take God by surprise or frustrate His ultimate goals (cf. Dan. 4:32).
The notion that God’s foreknowledge is absolute and not causative means that “free actions do not take place because they are foreseen, but they are foreseen because they are to take place.”23 From a more practical perspective, God knows whether I will be saved or lost, and even so, I am free to choose my own destiny. In a similar way, God knows precisely when Christ will return, even though the time when that event will occur is at least partially dependent on human behavior and performance. So, “the Lord is not slack concerning His promise, as some count slackness, but is longsuffering toward us, not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance” (2 Pet. 3:9).
The foregoing discussion suggests that the tension between the various New Testament statements about the kingdom of God can be harmonized through the already-and-not-yet concept and the twofold view of a present kingdom of grace that precedes the future kingdom of glory. The tension between the fact that God knows the time of Christ’s return and the delay of that event can be synchronized through the notion that God’s foreknowledge is absolute but not causative. But one may still wonder why such tensions were left in the New Testament. Could not the Bible be more explicit on these matters?
We have to realize that “some passages of Scripture will never be perfectly comprehended until in the future life Christ shall explain them”24 and that to a certain extent our own sinful nature limits our understanding of truth (John 16:12). So, in His teachings, Christ sought to encourage and prepare His disciples for the future, without deceiving them “with false hopes.”25 We are told that while answering the disciples’ question, “ ‘Tell us, when will these things [the fall of Jerusalem] be? And what will be the sign of Your coming, and of the end of the age?’ ” (Matt. 24:3), Jesus “mingled the description of these two events,” so as not to discourage His disciples.26
Bible hope is anchored on a sound dialogue between the eschatology of the world (vv. 29–31) and the eschatology of one’s own life (Heb. 9:27). Christ not only warned, “ ‘Watch therefore, for you do not know what hour your Lord is coming’ ” (Matt. 24:42) but even contrasted the faithful servant who waits for the imminent coming of his Lord (vv. 43–47) with the evil servant who says, “ ‘ “My master is delaying his coming” ’ ” (vv. 48–51). This blessed hope has warmed the hearts of past generations and should do the same for ours. As my son longed for me to return, we, too, long for the coming of the Master.
1 Unless otherwise stated, all Scripture references are from the New King James Version.
2 Johannes Weiss, Jesus’ Proclamation of the Kingdom of God, eds. Richard H. Hiers and D. Larrimore Holland (Philadelphia, PA: Fortress, 1971), 73, 85, 86.
3 Albert Schweitzer, The Quest of the Historical Jesus, trans. W. Montgomery (Mineola, NY: Dover, 2005), 356–358, 363.
4 C. H. Dodd, The Apostolic Preaching and Its Development (Chicago: Willett, Clark, 1937), 142–149.
5 Geerhardus Vos, The Pauline Eschatology (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 1994), 38, 39.
6 George E. Ladd, A Theology of the New Testament, rev. ed., ed. by Donald A. Hagner (Cambridge: Lutterworth, 1994), 66, 67, 192, 713.
7 Ellen G. White, The Great Controversy (Mountain View, CA: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1911), 346, 347. The wording goes back to the 1888 edition.
8 For a further study of the meaning of the expression “in the heavenly places,” see Carmelo Martines, “Una re-evaluación de la frase ‘en los lugares celestiales’ de la carta a los Efesios,” Davar Logos 2, no. 1 (2003): 29–45.
9 Ellen G. White, The Desire of Ages (Oakland, CA: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1898), 32.
10 White, The Great Controversy, 356.
11 See Ellen G. White, Evangelism (Washington, DC: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1946), 694–697.
12 See P. Gerard Damsteegt, Foundations of the Seventh-day Adventist Message and Mission (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1977), 271–293.
13 E.g., Herbert E. Douglass, “Men of Faith—the Showcase of God’s Grace,” in Herbert E. Douglass et al., Perfection: The Impossible Possibility (Nashville, TN: Southern Pub. Assn., 1975), 9–56; C. Mervyn Maxwell, “Ready for His Appearing,” in Herbert E. Douglass et al., Perfection: The Impossible Possibility, 137–200; Herbert E. Douglass, Why Jesus Waits: How the Sanctuary Message Explains the Mission of the Seventh-day Adventist Church (Washington, DC: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1976).
14 Arnold V. Wallenkampf, The Apparent Delay: What Role Do We Play in the Timing of Jesus’ Return? (Hagerstown, MD: Review and Herald Pub. Assn, 1994), 91, 92.
15 Mario Veloso, “There Is No Delay,” Ministry, December 1996, 6–8.
16 Ralph E. Neall, “The Nearness and the Delay of the Parousia in the Writings of Ellen G. White” (PhD diss., Andrews University, 1982), abstract, 246.
17 Ralph E. Neall, How Long, O Lord? (Hagerstown, MD: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1988), 114.
18 For further discussion of the subject, see James K. Beilby et al., eds., Divine Foreknowledge: Four Views (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2001), 32.
19 Clark Pinnock et al., The Openness of God: A Biblical Challenge to the Traditional Understanding of God (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1994), 32.
20 Steven C. Roy, How Much Does God Foreknow? A Comprehensive Biblical Study (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2006), 32.
21 Siegfried J. Schwantes, The Biblical Meaning of History (Mountain View, CA: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1970), 32.
22 George E. Shankel, God and Man in History: A Study of the Christian Understanding of History (Nashville, TN: Southern Pub. Assn., 1967), 205.
23 Augustus H. Strong, Systematic Theology (Valley Forge, PA: Judson Press, 1907), 286.
24 Ellen G. White, Gospel Workers, rev. ed. (Washington, DC: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1948), 312.
25 Ellen G. White, The Acts of the Apostles (Mountain View, CA: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1911), 21.
26 White, The Desire of Ages, 628.