Just because Jesus told his disciples God alone knows when he will return, that hasn’t prevented 2,000 years of Christian speculation.
“Some have said: ‘Jesus just said we can’t know the day or the hour. But that doesn’t mean we can’t know the year,’” said Doug Weaver, professor of religion at Baylor University. “They insist we can read the signs of the times.”
Some claim even greater specificity. A billboard along I-35 in Central Texas proclaims, “Christ stands on Mt. Olivet at noon” on Aug. 2, 2027. It cites Amos 8:9 as its proof-text, and a website links the verse to an anticipated solar eclipse visible in Jerusalem.
Date-setting seems most common among fundamentalist Christians who take Scripture most literally—except for Jesus’ words about nobody knowing when he will return, an irony not lost on Thomas Slater, professor of New Testament language and literature at Mercer University’s McAfee School of Theology.
“I see it as a form of neo-gnosticism,” Slater said, referring to a new form of an ancient heresy that taught secret knowledge gave enlightened followers access to the divine.
“It’s a kind of religious elitism that says, ‘The knowledge we have puts us in a different category,’” he said. “In trying to eliminate uncertainty, it creates a form of gnosticism that teaches, ‘My knowledge will save me.’ What saves any of us is trust in God through Jesus Christ. There’s not any amount of knowledge that will save us.”
Even so, Middle East unrest, terrorist attacks and natural disasters prompt some Christians to study prophetic timelines to determine if current events might be signs of Christ’s Second Coming.
Interest in End Times prophecy historically has intensified during periods of cultural crisis, Weaver noted. Financial panics, wars and natural disasters often have spurred increased interest in Christ’s return, he noted.
“It’s been going on for a long time, but it gained new momentum with the rise of premillennial dispensationalism,” Weaver said.
Revelation 20 describes the millennium—a 1,000-year period when the devil is bound and Christ reigns with the resurrected saints on earth. Christians historically have taken three approaches to interpreting it.
• Amillennialists view the 1,000-year reference as spiritual, figurative and symbolic.
• Postmillenialists believe Christians will establish the kingdom of God on earth through social reform and missions outreach, and Christ will return at the end of that golden age of gradual improvement.
• Premillennialists believe just before human history reaches its worst point, Christ will return to set matters right and establish a literal 1,000-year physical kingdom on earth.
The premillennial view dates back to early times in church history, but its most popular form—dispensationalism—dates back only to John Nelson Darby and the Plymouth Brethren in the mid-1800s. It gained traction among some conservative Christians in the United States in the 20th century through the annotated Scofield Reference Bible, accelerated with Hal Lindsey’s bestselling The Late, Great Planet Earth in 1970 and entered popular culture with the Left Behind series in the 1990s.
The positive side of that belief system, Weaver said, rests in its absolute certainty in God’s providential care for his people and in offering hope for the future.
“The problem is that it doesn’t focus on the present,” he said, noting dispensationalists typically have not placed emphasis on social justice and making the world better. “It’s all about God’s activity in the future.”
Assumptions that social conditions must continue to worsen until Christ’s return offer Christians an unbiblical escape from responsibility, Slater added.
“It’s not a very Christian attitude,” he said.
Of all the distinguishing marks of dispensationalism, perhaps the most attractive to some Christians is the Rapture—belief that God will snatch Christians out of the world before they have to suffer through a time of Great Tribulation.
“Fear feeds that focus on the Rapture and the escape from pain and suffering,” Weaver observed. For some, it’s as elemental as the confession of a 90-year-old church member who once pointed to a casket and told him, “I don’t want to be in that box.”
Al Smith, psychology professor at Wayland Baptist University’s San Antonio campus, agrees fear serves as a powerful force drawing some Christians to become obsessed with the Second Coming.
“The more the world around us seems chaotic and falling apart, people gravitate to anything that gives them reassurance,” he said.
Particularly, a teacher or preacher who offers a clear-cut, definitive timeline when the future looks uncertain tends to find a ready audience, he added.
“People gravitate toward a charismatic person who is seen to have inside information,” Smith said.
Ironically, Christians obsessed with knowing the precise sequence of events surrounding Christ’s return and reading the signs actually are demonstrating lack of trust in God, he observed.
“I don’t need to know all the details. I don’t need to know when the end will come. God is infinitely more qualified to determine that than I am,” Smith said. “If we have to have every detail, how much faith does that require?”
Obsession with End Times prophecy also often reflects a degree of self-centeredness and even narcissism, he observed.
“There is a tendency to believe the promise of Christ’s return is not just for everybody in general. It has to be for me now,” Smith noted. “Some tend to believe it must be so because we have a special relationship with God. It must happen now so I can experience it.”
While the inclination may be understandable, Weaver sees it as less than biblical. He particularly takes issue with the notion that Christians will escape suffering through the Rapture, rather than going through tribulation.
“It’s the idea that God will allow the church to do an end-run around suffering, when Christ embraced suffering,” he said.