So by now we all know that Harold Camping has once again failed to predict the rapture of the Church and the subsequent end of the world. But Camping is just another in a long line of failures to predict the end of the world. What I wish to address here is the most common response to such predictions and why the proof text used to counter such claims (Mt. 24:36). While appropriate for Camping’s date-and-time setting failure, it is not really as helpful against most end time predictions.
In Matthew’s Gospel, chapter 24 Jesus predicts the fall of the Jerusalem temple and also about His return. End-time debates aside, most Christians throughout history have believed that by the time we reach verse 29 Jesus begins speaking about His future Second Coming. Verse 36 reads as follows: “But concerning that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father only.” (ESV) This statement allegedly makes the prediction of Jesus’ return forever impossible. However, there are a few problems with using this as a proof text for such a belief.
First, most people concerned about dating the return of Jesus are not actually talking about the Second Coming. Rather, they are referring to an event known as the Rapture. The Second Coming of Jesus Christ is a physical return to Earth for judgment (e.g., Rev. 19) while the Rapture is said to be an invisible coming of Jesus Christ to snatch away his followers at some time prior to His Second Coming (e.g., 1 Thess. 5:13-18). Now, the problem is that most believers in a Rapture think it will occur prior to Jesus’ Second Coming, yet the event being referenced in Mt. 24:36 is the Second Coming. Thus, it is not predicting the Rapture and cannot be used to prove that that event’s timing cannot be known. (Further, if someone objects and says that the two events occur at the same time, then one should maintain the “post-trib” view of the Rapture – for this event clearly occurs after the tribulation – Mt. 24: 29).
Second, Jesus says that we cannot know the “day or the hour,” but this does not necessitate that we could not know the week, month, season, or year. If this is thought to be implied, there needs to be an argument made – because it is not in the text. For some reason few people seem to notice this, and the ones that do often simply brush it off (when I brought this up to a famous Christian apologist, he just laughed it off). But I am not simply splitting hairs here. When we read the stories that Jesus uses in the very same passage to illustrate what He is saying, we see that some actually indicate that we should be aware that the time is near. It is only foreknowledge concerning the day/hour details that are denied.
The flood and workers illustrations point to an issue of days, while the thief illustration refers to the hour. The servant illustration points to the day and the hour. When we get to chapter 25 the bridesmaids illustration points to unknown hours. But note that the first illustration is the fig tree – where Jesus points out that the season should be obvious! We may not be able to predict Jesus’ return years or centuries ahead of time, but the text does imply that the season should be recognizable.
But you, brothers, are not in darkness so that this day should surprise you like a thief. (1 Thess. 5:4)
Now, none of this means that we should simply accept anyone’s prediction of the Rapture, Jesus’ Second Coming, or the end of the world. But we do need to offer something more substantial than the “no one knows the day or the hour” quip.