We have been looking at the problem of “soon” in terms of The Second Coming and Adventist identity. Put simply, the problem is that we have been speaking of Jesus coming soon, very soon, get this, for eight generations now!

So far, it doesn’t seem like a lot has happened. Now, please spare me the comments about natural disasters and moral corruption being “signs of the end.” Perhaps I should dedicate a whole blog to that topic. But for now, I just have to say this: I personally have heard this for more than half a century. I grew up with this. To be frank, growing up, I never expected that the year 2000 would take place on this planet. When I was 10 years old, or even 20, the year 2000 didn’t seem “soon.” Now it is 15 years in the past.

As the length of time we have been proclaiming the soon coming of Jesus grows, it becomes less and less credible. This loss of credibility is our fault, by which I mean those of us who write, speak, preach, and teach the Adventist faith.

Why is it our fault? Because we have failed to re-examine what we’re saying, or worse, exploited it. Exploiting it means using the threat — ironically to be said that way but it is how we used it — the threat of the second coming to frighten people into becoming members of our church. I often think of the verse that speaks of scoffers who will say, “Where is the promise of his coming?” I want to reply, “We have buried it — the promise, I mean — under fears about persecution.” We have turned the promise into a threat. But that should probably be left for another blog.

So what does “soon” mean, when it comes to the second coming of Christ? How could it be soon 2000 years ago, and still be soon today? The answer, I believe, lies in examining exactly how the word “soon” functions.

First of all, soon is a relative term, not an absolute one. When you get an envelope in the mail from Publishers Clearing House announcing that you will soon be receiving another letter, you know it doesn’t mean six months from now. It probably means in a week or two. On the other hand if you see a sign at a construction site that says, “Coming Soon,” you generally expect whatever they are building will take weeks or perhaps months before it is completed.

Last time I shared an anecdote about when I was seven, and my father telling me that “soon enough” I would be grown-up. In his eyes, the 15 years or so would pass rapidly. From my perspective, it still looked like a long time.

So what have we learned by these examples? First of all, we reinforced that soon is a relative term, it is a different period of time in different contexts. Secondly, we see that is a matter of perspective: 15 years looks different to a seven-year-old then it does to his parent.

For those still wondering, this is where Albert Einstein comes in. One of his great insights was that things appear differently depending upon the perspective of the observer. For example, a man sitting on a train going 40 miles an hour sees a ball rolling down the aisle in the train car moving toward the back at 40 miles an hour. To a person sitting in the back of the train car, the ball is rushing at him at a rapid 80 miles an hour.

If a person standing outside the train could see the ball, it would appear to be standing still, because the 40 mph forward motion of the train and the 40 mph contrary motion of the ball would cancel each other out.

To put another slight twist on this, a major league baseball player standing at home plate who saw a ball coming at him at 80 miles an hour would not consider it a very fast fastball. It would be “relatively” slow. The word “soon” is like that ball. How rapid it is depends upon where you stand, and what you compare it to.

When you think about it that way, it isn’t surprising that the word “soon” would be look very differently to God than to mere human beings. We stand after all in very different places. But this does not eliminate all difficulties. After all, God knows that we are dust, knows our perspective is very different than his own. So why didn’t He just tell us that “soon” to him, and “soon” to us would mean very different things? Well, actually, He did.

In what is called the synoptic apocalypse — Jesus’ teaching about the end time in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke — he includes several parables: The Unfaithful Servant, The Wise and Foolish Virgins, and The Talents. In each of those parables, there is an apparent delay of the Master’s return. So he did give us warning, we just failed to pick up on it. I’ll go into this in more detail in the next blog.

We saw that soon means different things in different contexts. In an advertising campaign, it’s probably a few weeks. In construction, it could be months or even years. For a child growing up, it’s a couple of decades. And we hear about this sort of thing all the time.

For example, we are told to plan for retirement now, because it’s coming sooner than you think. Not only that, if you’re going to save up enough money to retire on, it will take time. Compounding interest is on your side, but only if you start almost immediately. So you must prepare your retirement very soon, even in absolute terms, because the time will pass, and before you know it, retirement will be upon you. And now we begin to see why soon can be urgent now, and yet take years to come to fruition.

Back to our situation, what is the project or task that God has in mind when he says soon? What has to be accomplished before he returns? And that answer becomes simple: this gospel of the kingdom must be preached for a witness to all nations.

Next time, we’ll look at the size of that task, what soon means in relation to that task, and why God didn’t just tell the apostles, or our pioneers how long it would really be.

Read other posts from this series on Adventist Identity.