I became a credentialed worker in an established denomination in 1981 and was ordained three years later. I have not served in that denomination since 1988, but I still have sincere respect for it. One of its distinctives, established by its 19th century founder, was an emphasis on the return of Christ.
While I was going through the credentialing process, I met with the Committee on Licensing and Ordination at least twice. After completing a written test for theological integrity, I faced an oral exam before the committee. They were an august group of pastors and denominational administrators, and I was intimidated.
After answering questions that spanned theological and practical ministry issues, I was asked about an answer I had given on the written test concerning eschatology – the doctrine of last things. One of the denominational executives was not satisfied with my answer, and he instructed me to read two massive books on the subject.
After dutifully reading the books, I found myself more confused than ever. Neither book offered a convincing rebuttal of the view I held, at least as far as I could see, but they did offer an alternative theory which I, in turn, could not rebut. I was scheduled to meet with the committee again in a couple of months and I was afraid that they would decline to credential me.
The next time I met with the committee, the dreaded question about Christ’s return was never brought up. The committee issued credentials and the district soon placed me in a small church on the poor side of a rustbelt city.
I have seen how the Bible can be used to support alternative and even contradictory beliefs regarding Christ’s return. As a pastor, I have also seen how this ambiguity leaves room for some teachers to exploit people’s natural interest in the last things to their own advantage.
I was installed as the pastor of Lockwood Community Church in August of 1988. I had not even found my way around the building before someone handed me a booklet titled, “88 Reasons Christ Will Return in 1988.” Over the next weeks, one person after another asked what I thought of this booklet, which had sold over 3 million copies.
People were deeply concerned, and some genuinely convinced, by the arguments the author presented. When, a month later, Christ had not returned, the excitement faded, and people moved on to other things. Three months after that, the same author produced a new book titled, “On Borrowed Time,” which offered, if I remember correctly, 89 reasons why Christ would return in 1989.
Christ’s second coming sells; there is no doubt about it. Jerry Jenkins’ “Left Behind” series sold 65 million copies and has spun off a children’s book series along with a chain of major motion pictures. Both John Hagee’s “Four Blood Moons,” which predicted the beginning of the end times in 2014 and 2015, and Jonathan Cahn’s “The Harbinger” made the New York Times best seller lists.
I do not mean to imply that these writers got it all wrong, and I am certainly not suggesting that they produced these books merely for economic gain. I am, however, saying that the subject of Christ’s coming is immensely popular with curious readers, and this leaves an opening for spiritual swindlers to operate. One of Jesus’s most common instructions regarding his return was: “Do not be deceived.”
How can we avoid being deceived? We can refuse to listen to date-setters. Jesus said that even he did not know the day of his return. Some people will try to convince their readers that there is a way around this inherent ignorance. There is not.
Don’t be motivated by fear. False prophets play on people’s fears while Christ’s genuine spokespeople encourage their hope. Fearful people are a charlatan’s best friend.
The people least likely to be deceived are not the ones who study Christ’s coming most, but the ones who love it best. To “love his appearing” – those are St. Paul’s words – is very different from being curious about it. Those who “love his appearing” serve his kingdom now and prepare for his reign then. Nothing offers a greater degree of protection from deception.
I enjoyed your article. but could you tell me the verse you are refering to that Paul said about Christ’s return.
Jill, thanks for asking – that was a significant oversight on my part. The verse is 2 Timothy 4:6. But read the context, which is helpful. Blessings!