It first became real to me about 1957. A well-known evangelist came to a nearby town of Temple, Texas and held an evangelistic series there. He painted such a lurid picture of the Seven Last Plagues that I spent the next year and a half terrorized. Repeatedly, I approached the kitchen sink with trepidation, fearing that as I turned the handle on the faucet blood would pour out rather than water. He said it would come soon.

When I was 14, and a freshman at Oak Park Academy in Iowa, one Sabbath in late October someone said, “Did you hear that probation closed on Thursday?”
Needless to say, I was somewhat taken aback. “What makes you say that?” I asked.

“It’s been 120 years since October 22, 1844,” he said. “Jesus said, ‘As it was in the days of Noah, so shall it be in the end.’ Noah preached for 120 years, and now we have, too. So, just as the angels closed the door of the ark, and probation closed for those before the flood, now probation is closed for those not saved.”

Only a few years later when I was Andrews University, in January 1975, I was invited to dinner with two young men who insisted, based on their readings of certain prophecies, that the end was to come February 5 of that year.

It’s easy to fault these people for setting a time, but this is a church that began with time setting. For the most part, and officially, we have come to accept that “No man knows the day nor the hour.” Even then, however, I encountered someone who claimed that although we could not know the day nor the hour, we could know the year. Time setting, it seems, dies very, very hard.

The problem, and I have written about it in several other places, I believe centers on a single word, a single concept. “Soon.”

If you tell people something is going to happen soon, and it doesn’t happen for more than 150 years, it is not surprising that people begin to question whether you know what you’re talking about. We are now more than 170 years from October 22, 1844.

It’s quite clear that none of our pioneers had any notion that the Second Coming would not have occurred before now. And certainly that 7-year-old that heard about the dreadful Last Plagues that were coming soon never expected more than a half-century would pass before those predictions were fulfilled.

Just about the same time, when I was 7, I remember walking the campus of what was then Southwestern Junior-College in Keene, Texas with my father. I asked him, “When will I be grown-up?”

My father smiled and said, “Oh, you’ll be grown-up sooner than you think.” He tousled my hair. “All too soon.”

I could not then imagine that a scant two months after my 24th birthday, my father would be dead. And now that sad event is more than four decades ago. I am now older than my father ever got to be.

All this to demonstrate that soon can mean different things in a different context. My father was right. All too soon I was grown up. All too soon he was gone from my life. All too soon not only did I grow up, but my own children grew up, and now I am grandfather of a teenager.

As I said, the word “soon” means different things in different contexts. Another way of saying it: soon is a relative term, rather than absolute one. And that makes a great deal of difference.

You see, the issue of soon isn’t nearly 170 years old. It’s nearly 2000 years old, because Jesus said he would be coming soon. So, what does soon mean? We can’t just duck the issue. We can’t use glib explanations about how the apostles simply misunderstood what Jesus was really saying. Because if the apostles didn’t understand what he was saying, how do we claim that we do?

If soon didn’t mean within 2000 years, what on earth could it mean?

How do we construct or understand a meaning for the word soon that makes sense in terms of the last 170 years, and in terms of the last 2000 years?

Of course, some explain it in terms of human imperfection. If only we humans had been more dedicated, the Lord would’ve come before now. I see two main problems with that explanation.

First, it is in essence a legalistic explanation. Our performance, our surrender, our obedience — frame it however you will — we humans have failed, it is our fault. But Scripture is clear that God will bring about the end, not humans. We can pray for the latter rain, but it will be God who sends it.

And I know that some will cite statements saying, “the Lord could have come before now,” as evidence of our failure. But that doesn’t deal with problem number two.

The second problem involves God’s foreknowledge. I know there’s a lot of complex discussion of this issue going on right now. But it’s going to be very difficult to convince anybody that God really knew what was going on if we insist that he did not foresee that humans would fail to do whatever it is we need to do, on schedule.

If God did not foresee that human beings could foul things up and fail to live up to a schedule, then his foreknowledge is less than our own, because we foresee that all the time.

This is running long, and finishing it will take at least as many words more as I’ve already written on the topic. So I will leave you with this question. “Relative to what?” I said earlier, and I think demonstrated as well, that the word “soon” is a relative term, not an absolute one. When we answer the question, “Relative to what?” We shall be on the way to finding a meaning for the word “soon” that works, both for the apostle’s day, and for our own.

That’s where I intend to go next time.

Read other posts from this series on Adventist Identity.