PMT 2014-030 by Kenneth L. Gentry, Jr.
A most remarkable feature of prophetic interest is the Christian’s conviction that we are living “in the shadow of the second coming,” that we are in a “countdown to Armageddon.” We often find linked with a radical misunderstanding of the last days the doctrine of the imminent return of Christ, especially among dispensationalists and premillennialists — but also even with amillennialists.
I will deal with the question in two articles. In this one I will set up the matter; in the next one I will answer it. I will focus largely on the dispensational approach to the question. Interestingly, the doctrine of imminence is simultaneously one of dispensationalism’s most potent drawing cards while being also its most embarrassing error.
John F. Walvoord explains imminency for us: “The hope of the return of Christ to take the saints to heaven is presented in John 14 as an imminent hope. There is no teaching of any intervening event. The prospect of being taken to heaven at the coming of Christ is not qualified by description of any signs or prerequisite events.”
Gerald Stanton states that imminency means the event “is next on the program and may take place at any time.” Indeed, “his coming is next on the revealed program of God.” It is “the next predicted even in God’s prophetic timetable.”
Earl D. Radmacher vigorously denies any prophecy is being fulfilled today: “Equally as unjustified as date-setting for Christ’s return are the numerous sermons attempting to find fulfillment of prophecy in this age.”
Unfortunately, Walvoord’s statement clashes with the wider body of his work. In his more recent Prophecy in the New Millennium he dogmatically asserts: “In the centuries of human progress since Adam, the twentieth century deserves its own unique place as an era of unusual prophetic fulfillment that is unequaled in history, except possibly in the first century.” Which is it: (1) The Bible offers “no teaching of any intervening event”? Or (2) the twentieth century is “an era of unusual prophetic fulfillment”? If prophecies are fulfilled in the twentieth century are they not “intervening” events until they occur? Are they not events that must transpire before the end?
In another work, Prophecy Knowledge Handbook, Walvoord even provides a detailed list of the “predicted order of prophetic events related to Israel,” which include the German holocaust, the United Nations action to form Israel as a nation — and more. Thus, “in the predictions that Christ made almost 2,000 years ago, He accurately portrayed the progress in the present age” so that “all these situations have been fulfilled in history.”
LaHaye agrees: “there are more fulfilled signs today than in any previous age.” Lindsey concurs: “This is a unique time in history in which all of the predicted signs that were to precede the Second coming of Christ are coming into focus within the same generation.” Fruchtenbaum follows suit noting of Israel’s reformation as a nation in 1948: “Israelology sees this as a definite fulfillment of prophecy.”
Furthermore, many dispensational theologians hold this imminency doctrine quite inconsistently. For they simultaneously hold that Revelation 2 and 3 outline the entire Church Age up into our own era. For instance, Towns outlines the “history” forecast in the letters, showing that Philadelphia points to 1750–1900, while Laodicea deals with the time from 1900 to the present. (Though he apparently has changed his view in his article in the Dictionary of Premillennial Theology. He must have re-computed the biblical evidence and determined that the Philadelphia era lasts a full ten years more, ending in 1910.) The Popular Encyclopedia of Bible Prophecy holds that the Philadelphia period starts exactly twenty years earlier, it still sees this era as prophetically determined: “Philadelphia — Missionary church (AD 1730–1900).” How could Christ’s return be imminent in the first century if Scripture prophesies events unfolding up through history even to our day? Would these prophecies fail if Christ returns in the second century?
Apparently this problem finally dissuades Walvoord from promoting the view. In his commentary on Revelation he writes: “Many expositors believe that in addition to the obvious implication of these messages the seven churches represent the chronological development of church history viewed spiritually. . . . There does seem to be a remarkable progression in the messages. It would seem almost incredible that such a progression should be a pure accident, and the order of the messages to the churches seems to be divinely selected to give prophetically the main movement of church history.” But twenty-five years later he states: “Some hold that these churches also, in general, represent the history of the church. . . . There is, however, no scriptural verification of this type of interpretation.” Nevertheless, the view still remains popular among dispensationalists.
Even though some dispensationalists attempt to discount this view, they end up with the same problem. For instance, Benware rejects the view but states that the seven churches more generally “represent churches throughout the Church Age, from John’s day until the Rapture.” But if the second coming has been “imminent” since Christ’s ascension, how can Scripture prophesy even the general condition of the church age, which occurs after the ascension, after Pentecost?
To be continued!