A Biblical Rebuttal of John MacArthur’s Statement that the Lord’s Return is “Imminent”

Dr. MacArthur’s “Question 1”: The detour injected into the presentation by discussing the Tribulation.

As stated in my Introduction, I apply a grading system to the validity of texts to which Dr. MacArthur appeals:

Rating
Description
L
legitimate
M
misused or irrelevant
O
out-of-context

 

[Dr. MacArthur's quotes appear highlighted like this.]

In my Introduction, I cite 2 The 2.1-4 to prove the premise that since the Holy Spirit taught us that there are three very specific events that must take place before the Lord Christ’s return it is therefore impossible to maintain that the He could return “at any moment” since these have not (as of Nov 2020) taken place.

Either the specified events must first take place OR the return of the Lord Christ can be “at any moment”.

As the so-called “Law of Noncontradiction” states, two mutually exclusive statements can’t both be true.

[The folly of Dr. MacArthur’s reasoning will become even more apparent when he ventures into the “eschatological weeds” with his "mental meandering" regarding the “delay” of the Lord’s return in the futile attempt to resolve the fact that the Lord's promise to return was made two millennia ago. An entire chapter is devoted to this error.]

It is possible that Dr. MacArthur recognized this serious logical problem (and 2 The 2.1-4 specifically!) and therefore attempted a resolution with his Question 1, Will the Tribulation Precede Christ’s Coming for the Church?

Nonetheless, some students of Bible prophecy today insist Christians should not have any immediate expectation of Christ’s return. Instead, they say, we should be looking for the beginning of the seven-year Tribulation period, the fulfillment of certain judgments and preliminary signs, the rise of the Antichrist—or all of the above. When they talk about future things, the emphasis is heavily weighted toward dread and disaster for the people of God. As far as they are concerned, “the blessed hope” becomes relevant only after the church has gone through the Tribulation.

At first glance, this position seems not altogether devoid of biblical support. After all, when Christ outlined the events of the last days, He included many prophecies about tribulation and hardship, and He said these signs would precede and point to His return (Matthew 24:21, 30). [emphasis mine]

The epistles also contain prophecies about apostasy and persecution in the last days preceding Christ’s return. For example, the apostle Paul forewarned Timothy of perilous times that would come (2 Tim 3:1–3). He told the younger pastor, “The Spirit expressly says that in latter times some will depart from the faith” (1 Tim 4:1)—and he went on to describe an apostasy that would precede and signify Christ’s return to earth.

Ref
Rating
Discussion
Mat 24.21,30
?

For false Christs and false prophets will arise and will show great signs and wonders, so as to mislead, if possible, even the elect.

And then the sign of the Son of Man will appear in the sky, and then all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of the sky with power and great glory.

2 Tim 3.1-3
?

But realize this, that in the last days difficult times will come. For men will be lovers of self, lovers of money, boastful, arrogant, revilers, disobedient to parents, ungrateful, unholy, unloving, irreconcilable, malicious gossips, without self-control, brutal, haters of good,

1 Tim 4.1
?

But the Spirit explicitly says that in later times some will fall away from the faith, paying attention to deceitful spirits and doctrines of demons,

 

Remember, Dr. MacArthur is attempting to resolve the logical contradiction between the fact of certain specific events of the Tribulation that are shown to precede the “at any moment” return of the Lord Christ. I marked the passages he cited as “?” because they are legitimate texts that indicate a period of trial for the believer prior to the Lord’s return—but clearly will contradict the point he tries to make!

[Did you notice the “At first glance, this position seems not altogether devoid of biblical support.” comment? It might be the only biblically consistent statement in his entire article.]

It is time, therefore, for Dr. MacArthur to somehow resolve the very clear Scripture of 2 The 2.1-4 with the fact that it contradicts his position on the “imminent” return of the Lord Christ:

[Please note that there is a very subtle but misleading side-step about to happen here: Dr. MacArthur assumed an eschatological interpretation, namely, that the saints will not experience the Tribulation, a premise He didn’t prove.

But here is the point:

Dr. MacArthur believes a priori that the saints will not experience the tribulation: therefore (in this careless manner of thinking), 2 The 2.1-4 simply can’t mean
what it clearly says.

This is a clear case of “I know what the Scripture says, but I believe something else anyway.”]

Those who believe the church must suffer through the hardships of the Tribulation period invariably cite 2 Thessalonians 2:1–3 as proof: [emphasis mine]

Concerning the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our gathering together to Him, we ask you, not to be soon shaken in mind or troubled, either by spirit or by word or by letter, as if from us, as though the day of Christ had come. Let no one deceive you by any means; for that Day will not come unless the falling away comes first, and the man of sin is revealed, the son of perdition (emphasis added).

So on the one hand, the NT is permeated with an eager sense of expectancy and conviction that the blessed hope of Christ’s return is imminent. On the other hand, we are warned about trouble and affliction that will precede Christ’s return. How can we reconcile these two threads of prophecy? How can we cultivate a daily expectation of Christ’s return if these preliminary signs must yet be fulfilled before He returns? [emphasis mine]

Where is the “eager sense of expectancy and conviction that the blessed hope of Christ’s return is imminent” in the text of 2 The 2.1-4? Where does the text state that directly—if this "truth" is so obvious?

The simple answer is that It doesn’t! Dr. MacArthur appears to believe that the Christian longs for the return of the Lord Christ—but only if that return is viewed as “imminent” or “at any moment”!

He seems unable to grasp the concept that the believer can long for the return of the Lord Christ, yet still recognize that there are real, unfulfilled events on the prophetic timeline! An engaged couple can long for the wedding and beginning their life together, even though it may be scheduled for months or years into the future! Why is the longing of the Body of Christ for the return of their Lord any different?

 

Several points must be borne in mind. First, all the general “signs of the times” given in the NT have been fulfilled—and are being fulfilled before our eyes. They are, in fact, characteristics of the entire church age. Apostasy and unbelief, self-love and sin, wars, rumors of wars, and natural disasters have all been common throughout the church age. Practically every generation of Christians since the time of Christ has believed they were seeing the end-times signs fulfilled before their very eyes. So how are we to know whether our own time is the true “last days” of Bible prophecy—or just more of the same general apostasy and calamity that have characterized the entire Christian era? [emphasis mine]

The apostle John settled that question under the Holy Spirit’s inspiration when he wrote, “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). The church was already in “the last days” even before the apostolic era ended. In fact, “last days” is a biblical term for the Christian era itself (Hebrews 1:1–2). This entire age is a prelude to the final culmination of human history. These are the last days—and so was the early church era. [emphasis mine]

Did you see what Dr. MacArthur did here? He accurately cites the fact that many and various global trials have always been with us in a futile attempt to “wave away” the very real and specific events detailed in 2 The 2.1-4 which have not yet occurred!

Dr. MacArthur: the issue raised in 2 The 2.1-4 does not simply “go away” if you ignore it or attempt to direct attention elsewhere.

 

So how are we to know whether our own time is the true “last days” of Bible prophecy—or just more of the same general apostasy and calamity that have characterized the entire Christian era?

Beware! This looks dangerously close to the all-too-common lament of “We really can’t know for certain what the Scripture teaches us because it is too difficult to understand.”

This is another tactic of those who propagate error: obfuscate the truth, or claim that the "truth" simply can't be known with certainty.

It is impossible to imagine the damage that would have occurred in OT Israel if the prophets equivocated as Dr. MacArthur does here! Perhaps something like this:

"Thus says the LORD... I think. But, I could be wrong. There are so many ways to understand what He said, after all, it's up to you to interpret as it makes sense to you."

The responsibility of the Holy Spirit is to teach the true church, but according to Dr. MacArthur (essentially, “we really can’t know for certain…”), He must have failed in His duties when He inspired the Apostle to write the second epistle to the Thessalonians. This is nothing less than the activity of a false teacher (at least relative to this topic).

 

Ref
Rating
Discussion
1 Joh 2.18
M

Children, it is the last hour; and just as you heard that antichrist is coming, even now many antichrists have appeared; from this we know that it is the last hour.

Heb 1.1-2
M

God, after He spoke long ago to the fathers in the prophets in many portions and in many ways, in these last days has spoken to us in His Son, whom He appointed heir of all things, through whom also He made the world.

 

All that Dr. MacArthur has accomplished here is to state the obvious: yes, the Last Days began with the first advent of the Lord Christ nearly two millennia ago. The problem Dr. MacArthur creates with this “resolution” is to continue to ignore the specific events detailed by the Holy Spirit which must precede the revelation of the “man of lawlessness”.

His approach would be laughable if not actually irresponsible and destructive.

 

Second, nothing in the NT ever suggests we should defer our expectation of Christ’s appearing until other preliminary events can occur. The one apparent exception is 2 Thessalonians 2:1–3 (quoted in full above), which says, “that Day [the day of the Lord] will not come unless the falling away comes first, and the man of sin is revealed.” That is obviously a key text for those who believe the Tribulation is next on the prophetic agenda, and that the church should be expecting the reign of Antichrist rather than the return of Christ. Indeed, if 2 Thess 2:1–3 actually means Christ’s coming for the church cannot occur until after seven years of Tribulation, it nullifies everything the New Testament teaches about the imminence of Christ’s return. [emphasis mine]

It is said that “if a lie is repeated often enough it becomes the truth”.

Dr. MacArthur began with a lie—the Lord Christ can return “at any moment”—repeated it throughout his Introduction (but failed to prove it from the pages of the Bible). He nonetheless continues to promote it as “truth” to the extent that he attempts to dismantle the very clear Scripture of 2 The 2.1-4 because it contradicts his predetermined position!

Again, this is the definition of a false teacher—at least regarding the truth of the timing of the return of the Lord Christ.

It is astonishing—and deeply troubling—that a man of Dr. MacArthur’s reputation could be so careless with Scripture and so (apparently!) casually set aside very clear Scripture.

Permit me a bit of sarcasm: Perhaps Dr. MacArthur has received a new revelation directly from the Holy Spirit that allows him to override the clear meaning of 2 The 2.1-4!?!? Perhaps Dr. MacArthur is working on 2 Thessalonians version 2?

He now attempts to soften the contradiction by maintaining that to understand 2 The 2.1-4 in the simplest, most direct and literal sense is somehow not correct and that it says the opposite of what it appears to say.

As you review the litany of texts Dr. MacArthur cites, notice how many of them are relevant to the point (which is to say, essentially none of them!).

 

But look carefully at the context of 2 Thessalonians 2. The Thessalonian Christians had been confused and upset by some false teachers (possibly people pretending to speak for the apostle) who were teaching that the persecutions and sufferings they were currently experiencing were the very judgments associated with the day of the Lord. (The expression always refers to judgment and usually to a time of apocalyptic judgment—cf. Isaiah 13:9–11; Amos 5:18–20; 1 Thessalonians 5:2–3; 2 Peter 3:10; Revelation 6:17; 16:14.) Many in the Thessalonian church, in the midst of their own severe hardship and distress, had evidently believed that lie, and they believed it meant they themselves had become objects of God’s final apocalyptic wrath. Obviously, they were deeply troubled by this, for in his earlier epistle, Paul had encouraged them by telling them of the rapture (1 Thessalonians 4:14–17)—the coming of Christ for his church. Paul had even instructed them to comfort one another with the promise of Christ’s coming for them (1 Thessalonians 4:18). [emphasis mine]

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Discussion
Isa 13.9-11
M

Behold, the day of the LORD is coming, cruel, with fury and burning anger, to make the land a desolation; and He will exterminate its sinners from it. For the stars of heaven and their constellations will not flash forth their light; the sun will be dark when it rises and the moon will not shed its light. Thus I will punish the world for its evil and the wicked for their iniquity; I will also put an end to the arrogance of the proud and abase the haughtiness of the ruthless.

Amo 5.18-20
M

Alas, you who are longing for the day of the LORD, for what purpose will the day of the LORD be to you? It will be darkness and not light; As when a man flees from a lion and a bear meets him, or goes home, leans his hand against the wall and a snake bites him. Will not the day of the LORD be darkness instead of light, even gloom with no brightness in it?

1 The 5.2-3
M

For you yourselves know full well that the day of the Lord will come just like a thief in the night. While they are saying, “Peace and safety!” then destruction will come upon them suddenly like labor pains upon a woman with child, and they will not escape.

2 Pet 3.10
M

But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, in which the heavens will pass away with a roar and the elements will be destroyed with intense heat, and the earth and its works will be burned up.

Rev 6.17
M

for the great day of their wrath has come, and who is able to stand?

Rev 16.14
M

The sky was split apart like a scroll when it is rolled up, and every mountain and island were moved out of their places.

1 The 4.14-17
M

For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so God will bring with Him those who have fallen asleep in Jesus. 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.

1 The 4.18
M

Therefore comfort one another with these words.

 

The "Day of the Lord" is a complex event; that is, it contains many “moving parts” which occur both sequentially and concurrently. Elements of that great day are, certainly, the the (partial) wrath to be experienced within the period of the Tribulation, the return of the Lord Christ, followed by the Judgment of the Nations (during which the Lord Christ will judge those who are alive when He returns).

[EDIT Feb 2019: An article detailing this truth is now complete and posted: The Day of the LORD. It is also useful to reference an earlier article, The Final Sequence on this site.]

If you look at his citations, they speak of

  • the certainty of wrath,
  • the suddenness of the pouring out of judgments (once begun),
  • signs in the heavens, and
  • the rapture.

They are powerful verses, to be sure, but a "mashup" of truths not at all relevant to the point he attempted to make; namely, that the Thessalonian thought they had missed the rapture.

Rather, the Apostle’s answer to the Thessalonians' concern (by inspiration of the Holy Spirit!) was that there were still some events that must take place before the Day of the Lord unfolds and, therefore, what the Thessalonians were experiencing could NOT be that Great Day!

While Dr. MacArthur correctly maintains that the Thessalonian were disturbed by some who taught that the "Day of the Lord" had already taken place, he ignores the fact that the Apostle’s answer does not include details on the wrath to be poured out generally, but instead on the “man of lawlessness” who rules from the temple before the “real” outpouring of wrath takes place!

Dr. MacArthur truly has “missed the forest for the trees”!

No amount of literary “sleight-of-hand” can eliminate the hole into which Dr. MacArthur has fallen (and can’t extricate himself!). Nevertheless, he “doubles down” with an increasingly weak position:

There were two aspects of the error troubling the Thessalonian church: one was the notion that they had missed the rapture. The other was the accompanying fear that they had already entered into the apocalyptic judgment that signaled the day of the Lord had arrived already. [emphasis mine]

And so when Paul says, “that Day will not come unless the falling away comes first, and the man of sin is revealed, the son of perdition” (2 Thess 2:3, emphasis added)—he is talking about the day of the Lord and its apocalyptic judgment, not the rapture. He was not suggesting that the coming of Christ for the church would be delayed until after the Tribulation events had all played out. He was certainly not suggesting that the Thessalonians should defer their hope of Christ’s coming for them until the end of the Tribulation. He had spent his entire first epistle urging them to be watchful and expectant and to encourage one another with the news of Christ’s imminent return (cf. 1 Thessalonians 1:1–9; 4:15–18; 5:6, 9, 11). If the apostle now meant to teach them that all the events of the Tribulation must be fulfilled before Christ could return for them, that would be scant “comfort” indeed. In fact, it would overturn everything the NT has to say about Christ’s return being imminent, comforting, and hopeful. [emphasis mine]

So the consistent teaching of the NT is that Christians should be looking for the imminent coming of Christ for His church, and 2 Thessalonians 2:1–4 is no exception. [emphasis mine]

Dr. MacArthur is correct when he asserts that the text of 2 The 2.1-4 implies a correlation between the rapture and the "Day of the Lord". However, consider the following points:

  1. The Apostle does not mention the tribulation in 2 The 2.1-12.
  2. The Apostle does mention the revelation of the apostasy and the “man of lawlessness”.
  3. The mystery of lawlessness is already at work (and has been for nearly 20 centuries).
  4. The “man of lawlessness” will be destroyed by Christ when He returns.
  5. Great deception will prevail as a direct result of God's judgment on the people of the earth at that time.
  6. In verses 13-15, Paul comforted and encouraged the Thessalonians with the fact that they had “been chosen of God from the beginning for salvation” (the glorious truth of the election of grace!), rather than from any inference that they would have been raptured by the time the apostasy is revealed. (This point is vital!)
  7. In verses 16-17, comfort was to be found and experienced in the fact that God the Father loved them and had already given them comfort, and by the prayer that God would continue to do so.

Dr. MacArthur makes the (proper) point of recognizing the fact that the rapture is implied in v1 (“The coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our gathering together to Him”) in the larger context of v1-12. But he then seeks to distance the rapture from that very context (“he is talking about the day of the Lord and its apocalyptic judgment, not the rapture”).

This is classic self-contradiction.

[Again, Dr. MacArthur has evidently missed the fact that vv. 1-12 do not mention the tribulation as such. The Apostle’s main point is the revelation of the apostasy and the “man of lawlessness” rather than the rapture. The Apostle reassured the Christians in Thessalonica that they could not have missed the coming of Christ and their being gathered to Him because the necessary ordering of events which had not yet taken place.

The text is very clear if you read it obediently rather than with the unbiblical predispositions of Dr. MacArthur!]

The only temporal considerations that may be gleaned from this passage is the (chrono)logical ordering of:

  1. The coming of Christ.
  2. The revelation of the apostasy and the “man of lawlessness”.
  3. The gathering of the saints with Christ because it cannot precede point #2: the revelation of the “man of lawlessness”.

Nothing is stated or implied in the duration of any of the events, or any possible passage of time between them, only their (chrono)logical order.

Consider last of all the implication of Dr. MacArthur's general reasoning here: he claims that comfort was to be found as a direct result of the assertion that the Thessalonians would not experience the tribulation, rather than in the simple fact that God had already provided comfort and was being asked to continue to provide comfort (v16-17).

Dr. MacArthur’s logic here implies that comfort is to be found in and defined as the absence of tribulation rather than that divine comfort which attends the believer in all trial. Both are possible (and there are many Biblical examples of each), but Dr. MacArthur's reasoning essentially emphasizes the former to the near exclusion of the latter.

Ref
Rating
Discussion
1 The 1.1-9
M

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. Therefore comfort one another with these words.

1 The 4.15-18
M

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. Therefore comfort one another with these words. 

1 The 5.6
M

so then let us not sleep as others do, but let us be alert and sober.

1 The 5.9
M

For God has not destined us for wrath, but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ,

1 The 5.11
M

Therefore encourage one another and build up one another, just as you also are doing.

 

Again (I’ve become weary of stating the obvious!), these texts do not apply to Dr. MacArthur’s argument and serve only to demonstrate how desperate he is to present a "truth" not found in the Bible simply by citing many texts.

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