Michael S. Heiser
I recall the traumatic experience of seeing the movie The Thief in the Night as a teenager. The film was about how Jesus could return at any moment—like a thief in the night, a description borrowed from 1 Thessalonians 5:2. The message: If we weren’t believers, we could be left behind by the Lord. The movie didn’t lead to my decision to put my faith in Christ, but it did accomplish one desired effect—it scared me. Is the idea of the imminent return of Jesus biblical?
Jesus warned His followers to be ready for His return; even He did not know the precise day or hour it would happen (Matt 24:36). Therefore, He would return unexpectedly (24:50). Other passages written after Jesus’ resurrection suggest that His return could be very soon (1 Cor 1:7; Titus 2:13), even “at hand” (Phil 4:5; Jas 5:8–9).
Two thousand years have passed since these blunt statements were made, leading many to believe that they have been misunderstood. Additional obstacles to the idea of an “imminent” return emerge from other Scripture passages. The New Testament suggests that certain signs or events would precede the return of Jesus. For example, the temple had to be destroyed (Matt 24:2), and there would be celestial signs indicating His return (Matt 24:30; Luke 21:11).
In three of His parables, Jesus suggested that His return would not be immediate but after a delay (Luke 19:11–27; Matt 25:5, 19)—at least until the death of an aged Peter (John 21:18). Paul believed, apparently on the basis of Matthew 24:14, that the gospel had to reach all the Gentile nations before the salvation plan of God was fulfilled and Jesus would return (Rom 11:12, 25).
Even 1 Thessalonians 5, the chapter in which the “thief in the night” phrase is found, suggests that believers will have some sort of inkling about the time of His return. Note how Paul uses nouns and pronouns to distinguish believers as able to discern something unbelievers will not:
Now concerning the times and the seasons, brothers, you have no need to have anything written to you. For you yourselves are fully aware that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. While people are saying, “There is peace and security,” then sudden destruction will come upon them as labor pains come upon a pregnant woman, and they will not escape. But you are not in darkness, brothers, for that day to surprise you like a thief. For you are all children of light, children of the day. We are not of the night or of the darkness. So then let us not sleep, as others do, but let us keep awake and be sober (5:1–6).
If believers have some sense of when the Lord will return, the idea that Jesus’ return could be at any moment may be incorrect. To solve this problem, many Christians argue that 1 Thessalonians 5 refers to the return of Jesus at Armageddon, but that there will be an earlier return (a rapture) that will happen before any sign or hint. Perhaps the best advice is that instead of describing Jesus’ return as imminent, we might want to think of it as impending. Either perspective can agree on that thought.
Biblical references are from the English Standard Version (ESV).