“Hide and Seek” is one of the most universal experiences of childhood. Within the innocent, trivial game lies an integral truth. The one who “seeks” should wait for a predetermined amount of time; after time has elapsed, he or she shouts, “Ready or not, here I come!” Similarly, Jesus ascended to heaven, for a predetermined amount of time. When God’s allotted time has elapsed, Jesus will return – whether one is ready or not. Belief in the return of Christ is one of the most significant tenets of Christianity. Such a belief began with the first members of the church, the Apostles. Belief that Jesus of Nazareth would return to earth and reign persisted into the subsequent centuries, thanks to the teachings and writings of the early church fathers. Since the Ascension, Christians have been vigilantly waiting for that undisclosed amount of time to elapse, and for their Lord to find them. Both during and after the Apostolic age, believers expected a time when Jesus would literally return to earth and reign as King of kings.
A careful survey of the canonical New Testament, along with credible sources from the era, show that Christians have long-since awaited Jesus’ return. After the Resurrection, the apostles wondered when Jesus would claim his place as David’s heir, and reclaim his kingdom on earth.1 Their eager expectation was not zealous Jewish nationalism, but a question concerning Jesus’ own teachings. He told his Apostles he would reign; he even told his followers they would reign:
Jesus said to them, “Truly, I say to you, in the new world, when the Son of Man will sit on his glorious throne, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel.” – Matthew 19:28 ESV
Elsewhere in the Bible can be found further emphasis on Jesus’ literal return and future reign.2 Dr. George Sweeting once concluded that more than a fourth of the Bible is predictive prophecy:
“Both the Old and New Testaments are full of promises about the return of Jesus Christ. Over 1800 references appear in the O.T., and seventeen O.T. books give prominence to this theme. Of the 260 chapters in the N.T., there are more than 300 references to the Lord’s return—one out of every 30 verses. Twenty-three of the 27 N.T. books refer to this great event…For every prophecy on the first coming of Christ, there are 8 on Christ’s second coming.”3
Even within the Model Prayer of Matthew 6, one finds Jesus praying for his coming kingdom. It has been suggested that many early believers (especially the apostles) expected Jesus to return within their own lifetimes. This is, arguably, the reason writings of the New Testament came several decades after the Ascension. The earliest gospel (probably Mark) was written around thirty to forty years after Jesus’ personal ministry on earth. Nevertheless, Biblical emphases on Jesus’ return began with Old Testament themes, which foretold a coming Messiah.
Within the Bible, special importance is placed on the literal return and reign of Jesus. However, there are some Christ-followers who assert Jesus will never set foot on this earth again. Many self-identifying Christians accept the metaphorical, spiritual, or otherwise nonliteral understanding of the Parousia.4
Different schools of Theological thought often convolute the simplicity of scripture and confuse Christians. For example, in studying church history and final things, many people conclude prophesied events of scripture have already been fulfilled. Other beliefs, like Preterism,5 and Realized Eschatology,6 also contend that Jesus’ return will not encompass a literal reign.
There are many explanations for the division in interpretations and expectations among Christians. For instance, Don McGee proposed two main reasons Christians deny the literal return and reign of Christ.7 Replacement Theology and Amillennialism sufficiently explain the many differences of opinion. Additionally, widespread ignorance of church history has also contributed to the various interpretations of Jesus’ return and reign. Perhaps, a final reason for large scale disbelief in a literal interpretation is the lack of individual, personal study. Despite the various eschatological flavors available to confuse, an examination of Biblical writings,8 and Jesus’ own statements, coupled with a simplification of church history, can rectify all doubts of Christ’s return and reign.
One need not an exhaustive understanding of church history to know Christians have been anticipating Messiah’s personal return for centuries. The Greek church father, Papias (60-130 A.D.), taught a literal return and millennial reign of Christ. He said, “There will be a millennium after the resurrection of the dead, when the kingdom of Christ will be set up in material form on this earth”9 (emphasis mine). Justin Martyr (100-165 A.D.), famed apologist of his time, held premillennial views of the return and reign:
“But I and others, who are right-minded Christians on all points, are assured that there will be a resurrection of the dead, and a thousand years in Jerusalem, which will then be built, adorned, and enlarged, as the prophets Ezekiel and Isaiah and others declare…
And further, there was a certain man with us, whose name was John, one of the apostles of Christ, who prophesied, by a revelation that was made to him, that those who believed in our Christ would dwell a thousand years in Jerusalem; and that thereafter the general, and, in short, the eternal resurrection and judgment of all men would likewise take place.” 10
Irenaeus, a second-century church father, showcased similar thoughts in his Against Heresies. For the first few centuries of the church’s existence, literal interpretations of the return and reign were dominant. Other well-known fathers, like Clement of Rome and Ignatius of Antioch, could be mentioned in sharing this view – along with many others. Centuries later, when Premillennialism experienced a resurgence, the Reformation helped reestablish belief in a literal return and reign. For instance, during an analysis of Martin Luther’s eschatological views, Winfried Vogel argued the reformer’s life was motivated and driven by the coming of Christ. 11
Therefore, it can be concluded that belief in a literal return and thousand-year reign of Christ is no recent invention. However, such a belief is the minority view. The Pew Research Center conducted a survey, in April 2010, asking respondents how they saw life in the year 2050. Their results showed that forty-one percent of Americans expect Jesus’ literal return. 12
In summation, one must be called to remember that Jesus Christ also said we would not know the day nor the hour of his return. Matthew Henry said, “God has wisely kept us in the dark concerning future events and reserved for himself the knowledge of them, that he may train us up in a dependence upon himself and a continued readiness for every event.” It is a blessing that different opinions and understandings of prophecy do not rob or give salvation. Christ-followers are saved by who they know, not what they know. Nevertheless, if Christ does not return today, all will stand before him eventually. The question is, does he know you? Will he be able to welcome you in, or will he declare, “Depart from me…I never knew you”? One should be continually ready to stand before the King, waiting for his return, both in the air and to reign. – Jacob Roberts
- Acts 1:6 – The Apostles inquired whether Jesus would “restore the kingdom to Israel.”
- Matt. 24:42-44; Acts 1:10-11; I Thessalonians 4:16-17; Titus 2:11-13; Hebrews 9:28; James 5:7; Rev. 1:7-8; 3:11
- Today in the Word, MBI, December 1989, p. 40
- (Pär ū sē´ å) Transliteration of Greek word which means “presence” or “coming.” In NT theology it refers to the events surrounding the Second Coming of Christ.
- Preterism, from the Latin praeter meaning “past” or “beyond” is the belief the all or many Bible prophecies have already been fulfilled. Most significant in the Preterist view is that all of the Olivet Discourse found fulfillment with the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70. Preterist utilize Matthew 24:34, specifically, to bolster their position.
- Realized Eschatology is (basically) the belief that all prophetic events were fulfilled in Jesus’ lifetime and ministry.
- McGee argued that widespread belief in Replacement Theology (belief that the Church has supplanted Israel as God’s “chosen” people) and amillennialism (disbelief in a millennial reign of Christ on earth) for the mass acceptance of the understanding that Christ will not return to this earth. See Don McGee’s Framework for Understanding Bible Prophecy, pages 139-143.
- Revelation 19:7–9, 14; 1 Thessalonians 3:13; Zechariah 14:9; Revelation 19:15, 16
- Papias as quoted in Eusebius Ecclesiastical History, II vols, (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1926), Vol. I, p. 297.
- Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho, chapter 80-21
- Andrews University Seminary Studies, Autumn 1986, Vol. 24, No. 3, 249-264.
- “Section 3: War, Terrorism and Global Trends,” Pew Research Center – U.S. Politics & Policy, December 31, 2019, https://www.people-press.org/2010/06/22/section-3-war-terrorism-and-global-trends/).