A Biblical Rebuttal of John MacArthur’s Statement that the Lord’s Return is “Imminent”
Problems in the Introduction
As stated in my Introduction, I apply a grading system to the validity of texts to which Dr. MacArthur appeals:
[Dr. MacArthur's quotes appear highlighted like this.]
Here are some excerpts from Dr. MacArthur’s Introduction:
Christ could come at any moment. I believe that with all my heart—not because of what I read in the newspapers, but because of what I read in Scripture. [emphasis mine]
From the very earliest days of the church, the apostles and first-generation Christians nurtured an earnest expectation and fervent hope that Christ might suddenly return at any time to gather His church to heaven. [emphasis mine]
The New Testament writers often wrote of Christ’s “appearing,” and they never failed to convey the sense that this could happen imminently. [emphasis mine]
All those texts suggest that in the early church expectation of Christ’s imminent return ran high. A solid conviction that Christ could return at any time permeates the whole NT. [emphasis mine]
Dr. MacArthur begins to appeal to "Scripture" to make his point:
James, writing what was probably the earliest of the New Testament epistles, expressly told his readers that the Lord’s return was imminent:
Therefore be patient, brethren, until the coming of the Lord. The farmer waits for the precious produce of the soil, being patient about it, until it gets the early and late rains. You too be patient; strengthen your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is near. Do not complain, brethren, against one another, so that you yourselves may not be judged; behold, the Judge is standing right at the door.
The Lord has been standing “at the door” for two millennia; it says nothing of the "when" part of the Lord's passage through that door.
Notice that James did not write “the Judge is standing right at the door and He might come through at any moment.”
It is abundantly clear that Dr. MacArthur completely misunderstands the Lord’s use of “quickly”, “near”, “at the door”, “soon” and instead consistently applies his own, human definition (and creates a considerable mess in the process).
The Lord has His own timetable in mind.
Peter echoed that same expectation when he wrote, “The end of all things is at hand; therefore be serious and watchful in your prayers” (1 Peter 4:7). The writer of Hebrews cited the imminent return of Christ as a reason to remain faithful: “Let us consider one another in order to stir up love and good works, not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as is the manner of some, but exhorting one another, and so much the more as you see the Day approaching” (Hebrews 10:24–25). He wrote, “Yet a little while, and He who is coming will come and will not tarry” (v. 37). And the apostle John made the most confident pronouncement of all: “Little children, it is the last hour; and as you have heard that the Antichrist is coming, even now many antichrists have come, by which we know that it is the last hour” (1 John 2:18). When John recorded his vision in the book of Revelation, he prefaced it by saying these things “must shortly take place” (Revelation 1:1).
The end of all things is near; therefore, be of sound judgment and sober spirit for the purpose of prayer.
and let us consider how to stimulate one another to love and good deeds, not forsaking our own assembling together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another; and all the more as you see the day drawing near.
For yet in a very little while, He who is coming will come, and will not delay.
Now, little children, abide in Him, so that when He appears, we may have confidence and not shrink away from Him in shame at His coming.
The Revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave Him to show to His bond-servants, the things which must soon take place; and He sent and communicated it by His angel to His bond-servant John,
Each of the references above state clearly that the Lord expressed His return as “near”; that is beyond question.
However, the Lord’s use of the terms such as “quickly”, “near”, “at the door”, “soon”, etc. are from the Lord Christ's point of view, not the view of man!
Dr. MacArthur appears to forget that the Lord is timeless and works in the affairs of mankind according to His schedule, not ours:
2 Pet 3.8
But do not let this one fact escape your notice, beloved, that with the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years like one day.
[What an extraordinary statement! Peter paraphrases the same thought from Psa 90.4; it should be obvious that the "Ancient of Days" handles time very differently from a mankind trapped in time.]
There is a fascinating prophecy in Hosea that clearly demonstrates that this “Divine clock” runs at a pace much different from mankind’s:
Hos 5.14 – 6.3
For I will be like a lion to Ephraim and like a young lion to the house of Judah.
I, even I, will tear to pieces and go away, I will carry away, and there will be none to deliver.
I will go away and return to My place until they acknowledge their guilt and seek My face;
In their affliction they will earnestly seek Me.
“Come, let us return to the Lord.
For He has torn us, but He will heal us; He has wounded us, but He will bandage us.
He will revive us after two days; He will raise us up on the third day,
That we may live before Him.
So let us know, let us press on to know the Lord.
His going forth is as certain as the dawn;
And He will come to us like the rain, like the spring rain watering the earth.”
This prophecy is consistent with Israel’s history: they were finally decimated as a nation by the Romans in 70 A.D. Two “divine-days” later, in 1948, Israel once again became a globally recognized nation. The prophecy continues to state that on the third day, they will be “raised up”, a statement consistent with the Millennium and the fulfillment of the LORD’s promise to King David that his son would rule Israel and, within the context of other texts regarding the same promise, the entire planet:
2 Sam 7.10-17
I will also appoint a place for My people Israel and will plant them, that they may live in their own place and not be disturbed again, nor will the wicked afflict them any more as formerly, even from the day that I commanded judges to be over My people Israel; and I will give you rest from all your enemies. The Lord also declares to you that the Lord will make a house for you. When your days are complete and you lie down with your fathers, I will raise up your descendant after you, who will come forth from you, and I will establish his kingdom. He shall build a house for My name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever. I will be a father to him and he will be a son to Me; when he commits iniquity, I will correct him with the rod of men and the strokes of the sons of men, but My lovingkindness shall not depart from him, as I took it away from Saul, whom I removed from before you. Your house and your kingdom shall endure before Me forever; your throne shall be established forever.”’” In accordance with all these words and all this vision, so Nathan spoke to David.
The “near” fulfillment of this great promise occurred during the reign of Solomon, but as the highlights show, a kingdom whose scope was much larger than Solomon’s, and one which was to be permanent rather than temporary, was in clear view.
The “far” fulfillment is the rule of the Son of David during the Millennium when Israel will become the pre-eminent nation on earth with its King, the Lord Christ.
[EDIT Feb 2019: A new article, The Day of the LORD, presents this vast and vital topic.]
The New Testament writers often wrote of Christ’s “appearing,” and they never failed to convey the sense that this could happen imminently. “And now, little children, abide in Him, that when He appears, we may have confidence and not be ashamed before Him at His coming” (1 John 2:28; cf. 3:2; Colossians 3:4; 2 Timothy 4:8; 1 Peter 5:4). [emphasis mine]
Now, little children, abide in Him, so that when He appears, we may have confidence and not shrink away from Him in shame at His coming.
Beloved, now we are children of God, and it has not appeared as yet what we will be. We know that when He appears, we will be like Him, because we will see Him just as He is.
When Christ, who is our life, is revealed, then you also will be revealed with Him in glory.
in the future there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day; and not only to me, but also to all who have loved His appearing.
And when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the unfading crown of glory.
Four of the five texts cited by Dr. MacArthur’s use the adverb “when” (highlighted); he is obviously confused about the true meaning of this word: it should go without saying that "when" does not mean “imminent”:
Definition of “when”: adverb
- at what time or period? how long ago? how soon?
- under what circumstances? upon what occasion?
Definition of “imminent”: adjective
- likely to occur at any moment; impending
- projecting or leaning forward; overhanging
It can be seen clearly that these two words are not equivalent nor interchangeable!
The adverb “when” is used to indicate a time that may be past or future. The event being qualified by “when” may be “imminent” or it may be temporally distant (either the past or future).
There is nothing in the definition of the word “when” that implies or equates to “imminent”.
Dr. MacArthur’s claim that “[the NT authors] never failed to convey the sense that this could happen imminently” is patently false. Not one of the texts cites says anything about “imminence”.
Again (!), each text is misused and irrelevant to the point he claimed to make.
All those texts suggest that in the early church expectation of Christ’s imminent return ran high. A solid conviction that Christ could return at any time permeates the whole NT. When the apostle Paul described the Lord’s coming for the church, he used personal pronouns that show he clearly was convinced he himself might be among those who would be caught up alive to meet the Lord: … [emphasis mine]
For this we say to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive and remain until the coming of the Lord, will not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive and remain will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we shall always be with the Lord.
For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all men, instructing us to deny ungodliness and worldly desires and to live sensibly, righteously and godly in the present age, looking for the blessed hope and the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior, Christ Jesus,
It is quite true that in the reference in 1 Thessalonians the Apostle uses the first-person plural pronoun “we”. However, Dr. MacArthur creates a very serious problem with this careless interpretation, namely:
If the Apostle thought he would experience the rapture, then he must have somehow known he would live long enough to experience that great day, although the Lord clearly claimed (Mat 24.36) that no one can know the day or hour:
But of that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father alone.
Note how Dr. MacArthur attempts to sidestep this problem by using the verb “might”. But, the Apostle didn’t express the probability (“might”); he expressed a certainty (“we who are alive and remain”).
So, if we believe Dr. MacArthur’s interpretation then we must impugn either the Apostle, the Holy Spirit, or the process of divine inspiration for the permanent inclusion of 1 The 4.15-17, a statement that, at the very least is careless and at the worst massively misleading.
Why? Well, the Apostle missed by about two millennia (so far!).
Before leaving this point, let's see if we can use another approach to solve this problem. If we assume that the Apostle used the third person pronoun instead:
“… that those who are alive and remain until the coming of the Lord, will not precede those who have fallen asleep …”
we have the same problem: the Apostle would have had “inside information” that he wouldn’t live long enough to experience that event, another clear contradiction of Mat 24.36.
So, we encounter a contradiction of Mat 24.36 regardless of whether the first or third person pronoun is used.
What is the solution? The only biblically-consistent explanation is the use here of the “author’s plural” in contrast to Dr. MacArthur’s pathetic argument.
Moreover, we have other Holy Spirit-inspired Scripture to corroborate this point:
For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain. But if I am to live on in the flesh, this will mean fruitful labor for me; and I do not know which to choose. But I am hard-pressed from both directions, having the desire to depart and be with Christ, for that is very much better; 24 yet to remain on in the flesh is more necessary for your sake. Convinced of this, I know that I will remain and continue with you all for your progress and joy in the faith,
In Dr. MacArthur's interpretation, this verse is a real problem. How is it that this statement
"he used personal pronouns that show he clearly was convinced he himself might be among those who would be caught up ..."
could be true in another context in which Paul recognized two alternatives:
- continuing to live and serve those who belong to the Lord Christ or
- die (depart) to be with the Lord Christ?
Do you see the problem? If the Apostle really believed that he would be caught up (or at least that it was a possibility), how—and why!—could he possibly refer to his death? Dr. MacArthur has made the Apostle into a "double-minded" man whose word simply can't be trusted.
Again, Dr. MacArthur might have recognized this problem and therefore "hedged his bets" with that qualifier "might".
But, continuing with his citations...
The reference to Tts 2 is a perfect example of a beautiful Scripture truth that has no bearing on the point being asserted.
[Sadly, we will see this “technique” is very common in Dr. MacArthur’s article as will be seen in later chapters as well.]
In a manner like the section above (regarding the definitions of “imminent' and “when”), let us review the definition of “until”, the term used by the Apostle in the cited 1 The 4 text:
Definition of “until”: conjunction
- up to the time that or when; till
- before (usually used in negative constructions)
The same comments as for the group above apply here: “until” does not mean or imply “imminent”.
All the Apostle proves is that something will occur for the group of believers who happen to be alive at the moment the Lord returns. There is no inference that that return could happen “at any moment”. I have, therefore, marked this citation as “O”—used out of context!
The purpose of Dr. MacArthur’s Introduction was supposed to provide the biblical foundation for the “imminent” return of the Lord Christ. While he appealed to a dozen texts of the Scripture, not one proved his point. Rather, each was misused, irrelevant or (in one case) used out-of-context.
It is deeply troubling that such a respected leader could use Scripture so irresponsibly.