Dr. MacArthur’s “Question 2”: The problem of how the early church could regard the return of the Lord Christ as “imminent”.
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.]
Apparently, Dr. MacArthur considers this to be the least important objection, devoting a mere 14% of the article to it.
[Given the quality of his reasoning and presentation, it is perhaps not a surprise…]
Some argue that Christ’s coming could not possibly have been imminent for the early church, given the obvious fact that two thousand years later, He has still not returned. Skeptics often ridicule Christianity or challenge the inerrancy of Scripture on that very ground. After all, the verses cited at the beginning of this chapter do prove that James, Peter, John, Paul, and the writer of Hebrews all believed Christ’s return was very near—“at the door” (James 5:9); “at hand” (Philippians 4:5; 1 Peter 4:7); “approaching” (Hebrews 10:25); “com[ing] quickly” (Revelation 3:11; 22:7). [emphasis mine]
Do not complain, brethren, against one another, so that you yourselves may not be judged; behold, the Judge is standing right at the door.
Let your gentle spirit be known to all men. The Lord is near.
The end of all things is near; therefore, be of sound judgment and sober spirit for the purpose of prayer.
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.
"I am coming quickly; hold fast what you have, so that no one will take your crown."
“And behold, I am coming quickly. Blessed is he who heeds the words of the prophecy of this book.”
This is a great set of references to clearly establish that the Lord will return "soon"—“soon”, that is, as defined by the Lord Christ and not by Dr. MacArthur!
How can it be, then, that two thousand years later Christ still has not returned? Could the apostles have been in error about the timing? That is precisely what some skeptics claim. [emphasis mine]
What shall we make of this charge against the truthfulness of Scripture? Does the passing of two thousand years indeed prove that Christ’s coming was not imminent in the early church era, and that the apostles were mistaken? [emphasis mine]
Certainly not. Remember the clear statement of Christ in Matthew 24:42: “You do not know what hour your Lord is coming.” The exact time remains hidden from us, as it was from the apostles. But Christ could nonetheless come at any time. The Judge is still at the door. The day is still at hand. There are no other events that must occur on the prophetic calendar before Christ comes to meet us in the air. He could come at any moment. And it is in that sense that Christ’s coming is imminent. In the very same sense, His coming was imminent even in the days of the early church. [emphasis mine]
It appears that Dr. MacArthur is utterly incapable of accepting the obvious truth that the temporal point of reference is the LORD’s, not man’s! He needs desperately to review this magnificent text:
“For My thoughts are not your thoughts,
Nor are your ways My ways,” declares the Lord.
“For as the heavens are higher than the earth,
So are My ways higher than your ways
And My thoughts than your thoughts."
This truth must include our perception of time as well, Dr. MacArthur.
There is another glaring logical inconsistency: Dr. MacArthur cites Mat 24.42 but believes that “Christ could nonetheless come at any time”.
Let me demonstrate it this way:
“Lord, you told us that we can’t and won’t know the time of your return. But, regardless, it could happen now.”
How can a person claim to believe Mat 24.42 yet hold to the error that the Lord could return now? (“Now” would certainly satisfy the (false) requirement of “at any moment”!) The issue is that it presumes knowledge which the Lord Himself declared unknowable to men.
How can a man of his reputation miss such an obvious and simple point!?!? In one breath he states “the passing of two thousand years…” but then in the next continues to maintain “His coming was imminent even in the days of the early church”!
Really!?!? Have words lost their natural meaning? Is it now verbally fashionable to make mutually contradictory statements yet maintain that both are true.
Any assertion of any time of the Lord's return must be, by definition, both false and a distortion of Scripture, including the statement "His return is imminent." Obedient Christians believe in the sure return of the Lord Christ, but at that time of His choosing.
Dr. MacArthur consistently applies his own definition of “soon”, “quickly”, “at the door”, etc., and thereby is obliged to contradict himself! The Lord’s return is “imminent”—but hasn’t occurred in nearly two millennia! Moreover, it must have been “imminent” even to the early church!
When did oxymoronic statements find their place in eschatological "expositions"?!?!?
It is at this point that Dr. MacArthur descends into the abyss of the stunningly careless and unbiblical reasoning of the “delay”. I devote an entire chapter to this spectacular error, so won’t cover it here.
[As this series details, Dr. MacArthur's article has several spectacular errors. But, the concept that the Lord Christ "delayed" His return is probably the most egregious.]
Let’s consider this question:
In what way did Christ intend for the truth of Rev 22.7 and Rev 22.20 to be understood by John when He spoke it?
In Dr. MacArthur's interpretation there can be only two, mutually exclusive possibilities:
- He intended that John understand them as “at any moment”. In this case, the Lord must be considered guilty of misleading John, for He had no intention of returning “quickly” (as Dr. MacArthur defines it), since nearly 2000 years have elapsed.
- He intended that John understand them as not “at any moment”, instead reserving that understanding for that portion of His people who would live many centuries in the future, well after John's death. (!)
It should be obvious that both of these possibilities are complete nonsense because they are based on the false premise that “quickly” means “at any moment”.
Stated another way, if a Christian implicitly understands “quickly”, “near”, etc., as “imminent” and “at any moment” (as Dr. MacArthur does), then he/she is unconditionally lead into an absurdity from which there is no escape—short of becoming a “double-minded man” (Jam 1.8).
Stated plainly, His word is useless!
In reality, this objection is the most important—and insurmountable! Dr. MacArthur failed miserably at attempting to mitigate it, much less refute, it. (Perhaps this is the reason he devotes so little space to it?) In applying his own definitions of “near”, “quickly”, etc., Dr. MacArthur becomes a Pollyanna (“an excessively or blindly optimistic person”) and does great disservice to the Body of Christ by reducing the Lord's own words to unreliable, contradictory and easily refutable nonsense.
This is nothing short of an astonishingly misguided attack on the credibility of the Bible by someone who claims to be its adherent.
From the simple and indisputable fact that nearly 20 centuries have elapsed since the Lord spoke those words, we must conclude that the obvious solution is to realize that we must apply the Lord's definition to the passage of time and His view of “suddenness”. He is the “Ancient of Days” (Dan 7.9), the One “declaring the end from the beginning” (Isa 46.10).
Time does not pass for Him in the same way that it does for us.
[In fact, to speak of the "LORD's passing (in) time" does not really make sense, since He lives outside of and beyond time. There just isn't any other language that is available to describe this concept.]
Dr. MacArthur did not, in the several references to NT Scripture above, answer his Question 2. In fact, he destroyed his own position by the introduction of the unbiblical notion of the “delay” of the Lord’s return.