Question: "Can the return of Christ truly be said to be imminent?"
Answer: The word imminent means “likely to happen at any moment; impending.” When we speak of the imminence of Christ’s return, we mean that He could come back at any moment. There is nothing more in biblical prophecy that needs to happen before Jesus comes again. The imminence of Christ’s return is generally taught among evangelicals, with some disagreement according to one’s view of dispensationalism and whether one holds a pre-, mid-, or post-tribulational view of the rapture.
Jesus spoke of His return repeatedly during His ministry, which naturally prompted questions from His disciples. One of their questions was, “When will these things happen?” (Mark 13:4). Jesus responded, “Of that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but the Father alone. Take heed, keep on the alert; for you do not know when the appointed time will come” (verses 32-33). It is important to remember in any discussion of eschatology that God does not intend for us to fully understand the timing of His plans.
However, the Bible says that Jesus’ return is near, and we are to wait eagerly for it (Romans 8:19-25; 1 Corinthians 1:7; Philippians 4:5; Jude 21). James encourages us to “be patient and stand firm, because the Lord’s coming is near” (James 5:4). Revelation 1:3 and 22:10 also say that “the time is near.”
Jesus taught His disciples to watch for His return. “You also must be ready, because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him” (Luke 12:40). The command to “be ready” implies imminence. Throughout the New Testament, the church is told to be ready (Philippians 3:20; Titus 2:13; 1 Thessalonians 5:6). If the disciples and the early church were to expect the coming of the Lord at any time, how much more should we be waiting in keen expectation?
At this point, it is good to distinguish between the second coming of Christ, proper, and the rapture of the church. The second coming of Christ, when He defeats His enemies and sets up His kingdom, will not occur until after certain other end-times events take place, including the tribulation (Matthew 24:15-30; Revelation chapters 6–18). Therefore, the second coming is not imminent. However, according to the pre-tribulational view, the rapture will take place before the tribulation. The rapture could occur at any moment (1 Thessalonians 4:13-18; 1 Corinthians 15:50-54) and can rightly be called “imminent.”
Our salvation is “ready to be revealed in the last time” (1 Peter 1:5). Jesus could return for His own at any moment, and that event will set in motion the series of events detailed in Revelation 6-18. Like the five wise virgins in Jesus’ parable (Matthew 25:1-13), we must be ready. “Be on the alert then, for you do not know the day nor the hour” (Matthew 25:13).