Is the Idea of the Imminent Return of Jesus Biblical?

I recall the traumatic experience of seeing the movie A 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 (1 Thess 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.


why is the bible hard to understandDr. Michael S. Heiser is a scholar-in-residence for Faithlife, the makers of Logos Bible Software. He is the author of The Unseen Realm: Recovering the Supernatural Worldview of the Bible and has taught many Mobile Ed courses, including Problems in Biblical Interpretation: Difficult Passages I.

This article is excerpted from Dr. Heiser’s book I Dare You Not to Bore Me with the Bible.

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Michael S. Heiser

Michael S. Heiser is a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania (M.A., Ancient History) and the University of Wisconsin- Madison (M.A., Ph.D., Hebrew Bible and Semitic Studies). He has a dozen years of classroom teaching experience on the college level and another ten in distance education. He is a former scholar-in-residence at Logos Bible Software.

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  • Hi Dr. Heiser. I always find your material challenging and informative, whether or not I agree with everything. Have you considered the preterist view, that the return of Jesus happened in 70ad? Have you ever reviewed/responded to that view? I would love to hear what you have to say. I’ve recently been convinced that the Great Tribulation was the first Jewish-Roman war and Jesus’ return was “without observation” at that time. Again, I’d love to hear your thoughts about preterism. Thanks and have a great day, Bill Ross

    • Hi Bill,

      when you read the Gospel you see a close connection between the destruction of the temple and the return of Jesus. You had, however the persecution of the Christians under Nero and after him with the total eradication of all apostles except John and a dramatic decrease in spiritual quality of the Christian literature. There was a tendency to collect all available writings of the apostles instead of direct inspiration by God, (canned food instead of fresh meat) and the disappearance of the supernatural gifts of tongues and prophecy Something dramatic had happened that changed the plan of God, as the rebelliom of the Isrqaelites changed God’s decision not to have Moses lead the people of Israel into the promised land, but to let them enter 40 years lsater.MIght it be, that the early churches rebelled against the apostles appointed by Jesus Christ Himself and, therefore against His direct leading? (see 3. John!) To claim, that Jesus is now in any way more present after 70 than between His ascension and 70 is not credible in my eyes, if I look at the history of the Church. Jesus told His disciples to go into all the world and to disciple all nations (Mt. 28) It needed the 20th century to get major inroads of the Gospel both at Jews and Muslims.

  • The image in your newsletter featuring Jesus knocking at the door… have you written or vlogged about that passage? I would love to hear your views on that difficult passage. Thanks.

  • I am surprised that Dr. Heiser gives such short shrift to the doctrine of the Rapture of the Church when one of the primary Rapture passages directly precedes the 1 Thessalonians 5 passage. Further, in 1 Corinthians 15:51-58, the use of hapax legomena in v. 52 may indicate something special, unique is happening here. I would suggest that the Rapture of the Church is in view. These and some of the passages Dr. Heiser cites near the beginning of the article argue for the imminent return of Christ.

    • None of the passages you mention speak of a “rapture” of the church. 1 Thessalonians 5 speaks about the “day of the Lord.” This phrase appears throughout Scripture and refers to judgment, not rapture. The phrase “come like a thief in the night” does not refer to stealing but to surprise. Those who say peace such as the Rabbis and Priests did bowing to the Pax Romana were the ones upon whom sudden destruction would come. Sudden – surprising. However, the Christians do not sleep. They are aware of the judgment to come upon the temple and those who had perverted the religion given in the Old Covenant.

      The change in 1 Corinthians likewise does not mention or suggest a “rapture.” Read carefully, at the last trumpet the dead shall be raised. the mortal shall put on immortality. Death is swallowed up in victory first by Christ’s resurrection and finally, “at his coming” those who are in Christ will be resurrected (vv. 20-28). These verses are the foundation for the verses you quote. Notice that death is the last enemy to be destroyed. But the resurrection of the saints comes AFTER his destruction of death which is the sound of the last trumpet.

      Nowhere in Scripture is there any mention or allusion to a “rapture of the church” before the final coming of Christ.

  • Believers are to remain sober and vigilant that the day may not over take us like a thief (Rev 16:15). Drunkenness has to do with falling asleep on the watch (Joel 1:5 especially but also: Isa 28:1-3; Ezk 23:42; Nah 1:10 cf Zeph 1:12). That’s what’s so dangerous about the NAR and all this getting drunk in the spirit nonsense. Biblically, revivals begin with repentance and mourning, not laughter. We are saved from wrath (1 Thess 1:9) but we are destined for tribulation (1 Thess 3:3 Greek). That’s what the pretrib guys don’t want to admit. They confuse wrath for tribulation and the Greek, especially Paul uses these terms separately. Be sober that the day may not over take you like a thief. Stay awake Beloved (Luke 12:35-40; Rev 16:15).

    • Are we to believe that all the tribulations experienced in the world today and that of past history by believers and unbelievers are of the same nature and scale even cause as that is prophecied in the book of Revelation? (Matthew 24:21)
      Is there not a unique factor to the prophetic concept of the “Great Tribulation” period versus the idea of tribulations experienced by individuals in general and even the persecuted church past and present?
      Is that future period of Jacob’s trouble or The Great Tribulation not unseperably linked with the outpouring of “God’s Wrath” on the disobedient like never before or will be again? (Revelation 16:18-20 & Ephesians 2:1-10)

        • It is speaking of the First Jewish-Roman war which resulted in the destruction of the temple, Jerusalem and a large percentage of the Jews. According to Josephus 1.1 million non-combatants were slaughtered. The Jewish covenants (the old and new) were done away with so that the Jews are no long God’s special people. It was Israel’s darkest day.

  • Dr. Heiser seems to equate imminent with soon. But applied to the return of Christ at the rapture it means it could happen at any time. And that has always been true. The signs of Matthew 24 relate to the return of Christ in Revelation 19, a totally separate event if language means anything. Also, if you simply look at 1 Thessalonians 5:10 all true believers will be taken in the rapture whether they are sober and alert or not. The context encourages us to be alert and expecting Christ’s return not because we might be left behind, but because we do not want to be embarassed by being caught unprepared.

  • I cannot agree with this view, The destruction of Herod’s temple is not the singular sign of the Great Tribulation. There is no question that it was an outpouring of God’s wrath but no more than the Babylonian exile. You will recall God forgave the Jewish people and returned them to their land after the exile. Today, we see Israel back in their land. Is this coincidence? I don’t believe so.
    The amount of life lost as recorded by Josephus while tragic, will be marginalised by the overwhelming numbers that are prophesied in the book of Revelation.
    The statements of Christ in Matthew 24:22 can not be relegated to the First Jewish-Roman war nor to the destruction of the 2nd Temple in AD 70.
    Revelation which the Apostle John wrote in AD 90 predicts another temple and the prophet Ezekiel also predicts a third temple in Chapters 39-47. I believe it is Biblically safe to say there is still a Temple in Israel’s future. Israel as a nation still has a bright future according Zechariah 14
    Which brings me to ask what Scriptural References can you offer in support of your statement that God has abolished the Old and New Covenants made to Israel?

Written by Michael S. Heiser