By Pastor Doug Batchelor
“Hope deferred makes the heart sick,
But when the desire comes, it is a tree of life.”
—Proverbs 13:12 (NKJV)
Few things cause more sadness than failed expectations. Over time, many believers have been discouraged by failed predictions of Jesus’ coming.
Jesus cautions in Matthew 24:11, “Many false prophets shall rise, and shall deceive many.” It’s a straightforward warning that He repeats a little later in verse 24. He says, “If any man shall say unto you, Lo, here is Christ, or there; believe it not” (v. 23).
The subject of this article is extremely important: dealing with the danger of setting or embracing particular dates for Jesus’ return. Christians need to be reminded periodically what the Bible plainly says about this perilous practice, even now, when it seems like His return could come at any moment.
When anyone starts predicting the day and hour of the second coming, in light of everything Jesus said about what we can know and what we can’t know, it’s reckless.
Still, we’ve all been exposed to these false predictions, and it’s not going to stop. Probably one of the most well-known episodes in recent times was when Harold Camping, president of Family Radio, predicted that Christ would return May 21, 2011. When that date passed, he said it would be October 21, 2011—and obviously, if you’re reading this article, we’re still here. His adherents were so convinced that judgment day would occur that many sold everything they had to announce this prediction all across America.
Sadly, Camping had already once predicted that Jesus would come in September 1994. His followers did not learn from his first mistake, but had they known their Bibles, they would have seen the Word is very clear on the matter of date setting. That’s why it’s so important for you and I to be clear about it too.
A Brief History of Date Setting
History is replete with those who have set a date or two for Christ to return—and then watched those dates come and go. There isn’t enough space here to cover all of the false prognostications, but it would be good to cover a few high points.
But first, let me clarify that some of these date setters were well meaning, so I’m not judging their love for the Lord. Some of them just misapplied Bible verses and overzealously proclaimed it on a grand scale ...
- William Miller, a well-intentioned and godly man, said the Lord was coming October 22, 1844. He took Bible prophecies that talked about the sanctuary and misapplied them to the second coming. I believe he had an accurate date but the wrong event.
- Hal Lindsey wrote the bestselling book The Late Great Planet Earth, in which he predicted Jesus would come in 1988. Thousands got excited, but none of it happened. Today, Lindsey still has a TV program where he explains prophecy.
- Edgar C. Whisenant sold 4.5 million copies of his book 88 Reasons Why the Lord Is Going to Come by 1988. Trinity Broadcasting Network interrupted their programming to tell people how to get ready for the rapture. The next day, their normal programming simply resumed.
Non-Christians Aren’t Immune
It’s not just Christians who are interested in apocalyptic date setting. Remember Y2K? And once again a troubled world is asking questions about the end. You’ve likely heard about the Mayan calendar, which some say declares the last day on December 21, 2012. However …
Authors disagree about what humankind should expect. … Sandra Noble, executive director of the Foundation for the Advancement of Mesoamerican Studies, says, “For the ancient Maya, it was a huge celebration to mark the end of the whole cycle; to render December 21st, 2012 as a doomsday ... is a complete fabrication and a chance for a lot of people to cash in” (USA Today, 3/27/2007, emphasis added).
Did you catch that? It’s not only televangelists trying to “cash in” on date setting. It’s also people trying to sell books or tickets to a movie.
My wife Karen and I were in Belize recently and explored the Mayan ruins. At one point, I was sitting in a van with a driver who was Mayan and asked him about it. He just laughed and said, “It doesn’t mean anything.” So why do we get so excited about these things?
Do We Really Want to Know?
There’s a certain amount of insecurity we all feel about the future, knowing our lives are going to end. Perhaps some just want to know when their time is up so they can fit everything in on their bucket list before it’s too late.
Still, if you could know the day you were going to die, would you want to? What if I told you it was 100 years from now? Would you feel better about it? If it’s next week, would you want to know? Are you ready for it? For you, the jury might still be out.
What kind of attitude should you have about the second coming? Fortunately, the Bible tells us. Even in New Testament times, self-styled prophets were unsettling everybody by predicting dates for the end. Paul writes quite a bit about the second coming in 2 Thessalonians. He says, “Now, brethren, concerning the coming of our Lord ... we ask you, not to be soon shaken in mind or troubled, either by spirit or by word or by letter” (2:1, 2 NKJV).
It’s interesting that he says not to be troubled. Everything else we read in the Bible offers a sense of urgency—“I am coming quickly”—yet Paul says here, “Wait a second! Don’t be shaken.” Even if you have a dream, hear it spoken by a famous evangelist, read it in a bestselling book, or even if a spirit appears saying it has the exact date calculated—don’t be troubled! Why? Because we don’t base our conclusions on dreams. It’s got to go along with what the Word of God says.
What Does God Want Us to Know?
Does the Lord want you to calculate the day of His coming? In Mathew 24, Jesus says, regarding the temple in Jerusalem, that not one stone was going to be left upon another. His disciples surely thought, “Wow! That must be the end of the world!” So they asked Jesus when these things would be. But see how Jesus answers them in verse 36: “But of that day and hour knoweth no man, no, not the angels of heaven, but my Father only.”
In Acts 1:6, we read, “They asked Him, saying, ‘Lord, will You at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?’ And He said to them, ‘It is not for you to know times or seasons which the Father has put in His own authority.’” Notice that emphasis—the Father has it in His own authority.
Instead, Jesus takes them from their focus on when He’s coming back and places it elsewhere. “But you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be witnesses to Me … to the end of the earth” (Acts 1:8 NKJV). The reason Jesus gives us the Holy Spirit is not so we can untangle a mathematical secret and announce it in a book. No! He gives us the Holy Spirit so we can live godly lives and bring people to the cross.
“Who then is a faithful and wise servant, whom his lord hath made ruler over his household, to give them [food] in due season? Blessed is that servant, whom his lord when he cometh shall find so doing” (Matthew 24:45, 46). Jesus wants us to be feeding others the Word of God. He doesn’t want us to be running off to some wilderness hideout, holing up like hermits waiting for the end. You might have met people like this. They want to calculate a date because they want to know when to start liquidating their assets, running to the hills, storing up their ammo and dry goods. They want to know that they are ready for the end. Who are they thinking about? Themselves. They’re not thinking about helping the lost get ready to meet Jesus.
Christians ought to be as motivated to share the gospel now as His disciples were then. Christ has not withdrawn His commission simply because He’s closer to coming back than yesterday. Why do we need a date to stir us up? After the terrorist attacks of 9/11, our church had our best attendance in years. We had people spilling out of the sanctuary. They thought, “Maybe it’s the end; I’d better get back to church.” But Luke 12:40 says, “Be ye therefore ready also: for the Son of man cometh at an hour when ye think not.”
You Might Not Know What You Think You Know
As a prophecy teacher, I’ve often been asked if the ongoing economic crisis is a sign that Jesus is coming. My answer is, “Yes and no.” (I’m not trying to hedge my bets, mind you.) Yes in that it shows we can’t put our trust in money. But no in that Jesus doesn’t say that after great economic stress He’ll come. He actually suggests otherwise: “As it was also in the days of Lot: they did eat, they drank, they bought, they sold, they planted, they builded” (Luke 17:28). In the days of Lot, the citizens were out being industrious and investing their gold the same day the end came.
In a sense, the prophecies of Scripture are better understood looking back. For instance, we know Jesus prophesied His death to the apostles. How many times did He tell them plainly that He was going to be betrayed, crucified, and would rise again? How much good did it do for the disciples? In Luke 24:6–8, after the faithful women arrived at the tomb, the angels said,
He is not here, but is risen: remember how he spake unto you when he was yet in Galilee, Saying, The Son of man must be delivered into the hands of sinful men, and be crucified, and the third day rise again. And they remembered his words.
Typically, the truth of the future can be kind of fantastical—it goes in one ear and out the other because it’s beyond our understanding. Jesus says in John 13:19, “Now I tell you before it come, that, when it is come to pass, ye may believe that I am he.” He’s saying He wants to reveal the future so that when those events happen, people will understand that Jesus is the point of all prophecy. Indeed, prophecy isn’t always about knowing exactly when this or that will happen.
What We Can Know Today
How can we be prepared if we don’t know the date? Jesus says,
When it is evening you say, “It will be fair weather, for the sky is red”; and in the morning, “It will be foul weather today, for the sky is red and threatening.” … You know how to discern the face of the sky, but you cannot discern the signs of the times (Matthew 16:2, 3 NKJV).
If you’re in the south and you see the barometric pressure dropping, you know it’s time to batten down the hatches. You might not know exactly when that storm will strike, but you do know to be prepared.
In the same way, when we look at the confluence of everything happening in our world, it’s significant. Wars and rumors of war are a daily headline. Political and religious tensions are growing. Monstrous natural disasters seem to strike every other month. Doesn’t it seem to you that if Christ doesn’t come soon, all flesh would die? But knowing this isn’t about a date or hour—it’s about something else altogether.
How You Can Be Ready Even When You Don’t Know
First Thessalonians 5:1–3 is an impressive warning for the people of God:
Concerning the times and the seasons, brethren, you have no need that I should write to you. For you yourselves know perfectly that the day of the Lord so comes as a thief in the night. For when they say, “Peace and safety!” then sudden destruction comes upon them, as labor pains upon a pregnant woman. And they shall not escape.
The Lord is not coming at a time when people are looking for a fire escape. Rather, Jesus is going to come at a time when His people are serving Him because of their love for Him. Luke 21:34 says, “Take heed to yourselves, lest your hearts be weighed down with carousing, drunkenness, and cares of this life, and that Day come on you unexpectedly” (NKJV). If we get caught up in the cares of the world, we won’t be preparing our hearts to meet Jesus.
If we’re living lives of consistent surrender and obedience and looking for opportunities to share our faith, we won’t need to worry about the date on the calendar because we’ll be ready every day for the Lord’s coming!
A Spiritual Rush and Depression
One of the major problems with date setting is that it’s like getting your vigor from eating a giant candy bar; sure, you’ll feel a surge of energy, but there will be lethargy afterward. Setting a date gives people an artificial spiritual high. When the date passes, there is a corresponding depression that follows.
The fallout for these false alarms can be an attitude of increasing doubt about the Word of God—like the boy who cried, “Wolf!” Read 2 Peter 3:4 and ask yourself how motivated you would be to live for Christ if you were to stop believing He’s really coming.
His Promise Is Sure
Thousands of date setters have failed, but that doesn’t mean the Lord has forgotten about us. He’s coming back; we might not know the day and the hour, but we know He is coming and the time is near. We just need to be ready for it.
Remember, the Lord doesn’t want us to get ready because we know the date. He wants us to be ready because we know Him. If you’re motivated to get ready because you know a date, you have the wrong motive. How would you live if you thought Jesus was coming in a week? I ask you to live like that now for the rest of your life. Just be the way He wants you to be because you love Him and know He is coming someday soon.
Maybe you haven’t truly accepted Jesus as your Savior, trying to wait until the eleventh hour to get ready. Don’t tempt fate. Wouldn’t you like to know that you’re ready now? God is coming to rescue us from the sin-stained world—that’s a promise.
My prayer is that the Lord will deliver all His people from our inclination to calculate and fix the date on our calendars. Instead, let’s invite Him into our hearts now so we can be ready at any moment.