Was Christ Mistaken About His Second Coming?

Bertrand Russell once claimed that Jesus, if he ever really existed, was obviously wrong about his second coming. Was the atheist correct?
By Wayne Jackson | Christian Courier

No narration available

The late Bertrand Russell of Great Britain was a confessed atheist and a bitter opponent of Christianity. He once wrote an essay entitled, Why I Am Not A Christian. A brief portion of that infamous literary (?) production was a blasphemous section subtitled, “Defects in Christ’s Teaching.”

Though Russell actually believed that it was “quite doubtful whether Christ ever existed at all,” he nevertheless felt that the Christ portrayed in the gospel accounts was defective—both in character and in the content of his teaching.

Russell contended the Lord’s character was flawed because he believed in hell. And the infidel also alleged that Christ’s doctrine was faulty because he claimed his second coming to occur during the lifetime of many then living.

Though both of these ignorant charges can be fully refuted, the latter will be focused upon in this brief article.

Concerning Jesus, Russell wrote:

“He certainly thought that his second coming would occur in clouds of glory before the death of all the people who were living at that time. There are a great many texts that prove that.”

He then cites Matthew 10:23 and 16:28 as examples (Enger 1961, 592-593).

Russell’s problem (in addition to his basic atheism) was, of course, that he failed to recognize that words may be used in different senses. They may be used literally, or they may be employed figuratively.

When one encounters a passage that speaks of a “coming” of Christ, he must examine the context to determine the correct usage of the term in that particular setting.

Now, what are the facts of this matter?

First, it is quite clear that Christ did prophesy that he would literally come again (Matt. 25:31). His coming was to be: personal (1 Thes.4:16); visible (Acts 1:11); sudden and unexpected (1 Thes. 5:2, 3); glorious (Matt. 25:31); victorious (2 Thes. 1:7-10); and terminal (1 Cor. 15:24).

Now here is a fact of paramount importance: there is not a shred of evidence to indicate that Christ believed his second coming (Heb. 9:28) would occur within the first century.

As a matter of fact, the Son of Man, having emptied himself (Phil. 2:6ff) of the independent exercise of his divine powers by the incarnation, did not know the time of his second coming (Matt. 24:36). Though he knew not the day nor hour of that great event, Christ did hint that there could be a considerable delay before he would come again.

For example, in the Parable of the Talents Christ represents himself as a man who delivered talents to his servants to be developed while he was gone into another country (heaven). In Matthew 25:19 he declared:

“Now after a long time the lord of those servants cometh, and maketh a reckoning with them” (emphasis added).

It is not correct, therefore, to assert that Christ believed in his imminent return!

But secondly, there were other senses, figurative senses, in which the, Lord promised to “come.”

For instance, in foretelling the persecution which the Jews would inflict upon the early disciples, Christ said:

“[W]hen they persecute you in this city, flee unto the next: for verily I say unto you, Ye shall not have gone through the cities of Israel, till the Son of man be come” (Matt. 10:23).

This is not a reference to the Lord’s personal, second coming; rather, it relates to his judgmental coming upon the Jewish nation in consequence of their rejection of him!

The passage is parallel to Matthew 24:30, which is clearly related to the destruction of Jerusalem, an event to be accomplished in the days of that generation (24:34). Hence it was a disciplinary coming, somewhat analogous to the promises of punitive “comings” to some of the churches in Asia Minor (cf. Rev. 2:5, 16; 3:3).

In another sense, Jesus promised he would “come” with the outpouring of the Holy Spirit and the establishment of his kingdom on the day of Pentecost.

In seeking to comfort the disciples in those dark hours before the cross, the Lord promised: “I will not leave you desolate.” He then announced that the Comforter, the Holy Spirit, would come (Jn. 14:16-18, 26; 15:26). Yet in that connection, Christ declared: “I come unto you” (In. 14:18).

How was Christ to come to them? Not personally, but representatively, in the Person of the Holy Spirit whom he was sending (Jn. 15:26).

This is in perfect harmony with Matthew 16:28 which depicts Christ as “coming” in his kingdom.

Note the logic:

  • The Lord’s kingdom was to come with power (Mk. 9:1).
  • But the power was to come with the Spirit (Acts 1:8).
  • Thus, the kingdom was to come with the Spirit.

However, as we have already shown, the Spirit’s coming was in a sense a coming of the Lord (In. 14:18). Therefore, with the coming of the kingdom, in one sense of the term, Christ came; and this is the meaning of Matthew 16:28,

“[S]ome of them that stand here ... shall in no wise taste of death, till they see the Son of man coming in his kingdom.”

No, Christ was not mistaken regarding his coming, Bertrand Russell was wrong; dead wrong (and when you are dead wrong, it’s too late to be right!).

  • Enger, Robert & Lester Dennon, Eds. 1961. The Basic Writings of Bertrand Russell. New York: Simon & Schuster.