About one hundred years after Jesus rose from the grave, a Christian prophet named Montanus preached that Jesus would soon return. He said the Holy Spirit told him so. Montanus and his fellow prophets were probably the first Pentecostal-like groups in the early church. One of Montanus's fellow prophets, Maximilla, even said, "after me there will be no more prophecy, but the end." She was wrong. Jesus didn't return after her death.
About four hundred years after Jesus rose from the grave, a barbarian chieftain named Alaric sacked Rome. Christians were sure that the prophecy of Daniel 2, the prophecy about how a fourth empire of iron and clay would fall, had now been fulfilled. One preacher wrote, "Behold, from Adam all the years have passed and now comes the Day of Judgment." Well, even though Rome was sacked in 410, and fell forever in 472, Jesus did not, as it happens, return on those dates.
About one thousand years after Jesus rose from the grave, kings and commoners both feared that the millennium of Revelation was finally done. They went on pilgrimages and to confession to prepare for Jesus' return. He didn't. Others argued that the millennium began when the emperor Constantine made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire, meaning Jesus would return in 1326. He didn't.
About 1200 years after Jesus was born, Joachim of Fiore, a Roman Catholic priest, told the English crusader King Richard the Lion Hearted that the sixth head of the dragon mentioned in Revelation 20 was Saladin, the Turkish ruler of Jerusalem--an early example of mistaking the mystical and symbolic texts of the book of Revelation for today's headlines. Joachim of Fiore also told King Richard that Innocent III would be the last pope and Jesus was coming back soon. But Jesus did not return.
About 1600 years after Jesus' resurrection, the great Scottish Mathematician John Napier was born. He was the mathematician who first worked out the concept of logarithms, which most of us studied in high school or college. Based on his study of Revelation, and after running his own numbers, Napier insisted that his current pope was the antichrist. He wrote an immensely popular book that predicted that Jesus would return in 1688 or 1700. But Jesus did not return.
About 1650 years after Jesus rose from the grave, Czar Alexander tried to reform the Russian Orthodox Church to be like the Greek Orthodox Church, which mostly involved changes in the liturgy. Many people thought this made the Czar the Antichrist of Revelation. Worship wars are an ancient Christian tradition, I guess. Anyway, these opponents to Alexander's changes predicted that Jesus would return in 1666--666 being the number of the beast. Rather than obey Alexander, who sent his armies to force people to worship his way, tens of thousands of the people committed suicide by burning their churches, barns and homes down around themselves and their families rather than submit. Jesus, however, did not return.
About 1700 years after Jesus' resurrection, Sir Isaac Newton, the first person to describe the theory of gravity as we now know it, and perhaps one of the greatest geniuses of all time--Sir Isaac Newton predicted that the end of the world would come in 1944. Jesus did not return at that time, however.
About 1750 years after Jesus was born, the Puritan Reformed scholar Jonathan Edwards, predicted that the papacy would fall in 1866 and that Jesus would return in the year 2000. Now, even though Jonathan Edwards was perhaps the greatest revival preacher ever, and even though he is still thought of by many people as the greatest philosopher and theologian in the tradition of John Calvin ever—Jonathan Edwards was wrong about Jesus coming back in Y2K.
And so it goes. Charles Wesley, who founded the Methodist church (one of founding United Church denominations) believed that Jesus would return in 1794. Jesus did not. William Miller predicted that Jesus would return in 1843. Millions of Americans believed him. Jesus did not return. Miller's follower, Ellen White, founder of the Seventh Day Adventist Church, made a career out of predicting the end of the world. Jesus did not return on any of the days that she promised he would. Jacob Smith, the founder of the Mormon Church, promised us that Jesus would return in 1891. To this day, in spite of Jesus' failure to return in 1891, the head of the Mormon Church is still titled the "Prophet, Seer, and Revelator." Jehovah's Witnesses predicted that Jesus would return in 1914, 1915, 1918, 1920, 1925, 1941, 1975, and 1994. Jesus did not.
About 1950 years after Jesus' birth, Hal Lindsay promised us that Jesus would return no later than 1980. Jesus did not return, so Hal Lindsay revised is arithmetic and interpretations and said that he was sure now, Jesus would return no later than the year 2000. Jesus did not return. He's still writing and doing TV though, and now promises that Jesus will return sometime around 2048. I'm betting he's wrong.
Faith Healer and TV evangelist Benny Hinn said Jesus would return in in the 1990s. He's still on TV. The famous founder of the Charismatic Calvary Chapel chain of California mega-churches, recently deceased Chuck Smith, promised us that Jesus would return in 1981. He didn’t. Jack Van Impe said that Jesus would return in 1975 and 1976 and 1999 and 2000. Like Hal Lindsay and Benny Hinn, you can still find Jack Van Impe on TV hawking his latest prediction. He doesn't seem to be hurting, financially, for all his prediction failures.
Since the founding of the church, Christians have been predicting the date of Jesus’ return. All of such predictions were, and continue to be, wrong. For all their Bible studies and adding and subtracting of millenniums and 666s; for all their book, TV and Christian radio exposure, for all their Bible thumping and endless diagrams and fear mongering and condemnations of those who disagree with them, for all their novels like Left Behind and Scofield Study Bibles--they have all been wrong. For all of their insistence over the past 2000 years that their earthquakes and wars and famines and antichrists are the ones mentioned in the book of Revelation--none of them has ever been right, for since the day Jesus left we have always had wars and famines and bad leaders and the poor with us. The truth is, everyone who has ever turned to Daniel or Revelation in order to tell us that Jesus is returning on some specified date, or soon, or that some empire is the one mentioned in Daniel, or some person we're reading about in the papers is the antichrist—all have been wrong. Jesus has not returned and none of their supposed insights into Daniel or Revelation has come to pass.
Of course, these end time predictions excite our curiosity, unbridle our imaginations, and arouse our appetite for mystery and a good story. But finally, all this excitement obscures what should be for us the central truth that really needs to be revealed and wondered over and celebrated and shouted from the rooftops. Something happened at Easter that changes how all of us will choose to live the future. We will follow him rather than wait for him to catch us up.
But of dates and times? Forget it. Forget trying to predict when (and if) Jesus will come back, because as scripture says in several ways and in several places, "no one knows about that day or hour, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father." What could be plainer and simpler than that?