That Jesus and the apostles stressed to their audiences the imminence of the judgement, Jesus’ parousia and the end of the age is clearly demonstrated by the use of such terms as ‘at hand’ (James 5:8, 1 Peter 4:7), ‘soon’ (Romans 16:20, Revelation 1:1) and ‘this generation’ (Matthew 23:36; Matthew 24:34). It is also strongly indicated by the use of the second and first person (e.g. 1 Thessalonians 4:15; 2 Peter 3:15,16) when describing the coming events.
Two of the only arguments that have been given against this straightforward interpretation of the terms are as follows:
The first is Jesus’ admission that He did not know the hour or the day of the judgement:
Matthew 24:36 – But of that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father alone.
I am always surprised when this argument is brought forward, but since it is done often, it needs to be addressed.
Jesus had just (in the previous verse) said that these things would happen within that generation. However the actual day or hour was unknown to Him. He did not say He did not know the year, or the century, or the millennium! He even specified the generation! Even if one takes the very poor interpretation of generation = race, Jesus’ words did not mean that it would take a long time, simply that He did not know the exact time. The argument is truly a straw to clutch, and yet it is still presented. This in itself says a lot!
The second argument is from Peter’s second letter:
2 Peter 3:8 – But do not let this one fact escape your notice, beloved, that with the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years like one day.
It is interesting to note that this verse has also been used to justify long-age creation. “God made the world in six days? Yes, but ‘with the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years like one day.'”
Those who adhere to a literal six-day creation model cry “No! No! That’s not what it means! Peter isn’t saying that a day is the same as a thousand years!”
When met with verses that speak of an imminent return, judgement “at hand”, and within the generation, those same people cry just as loudly, “But ‘with the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years like one day.'”
The fact is, either Peter was defining the heavenly time-scale or he wasn’t.
Either time-frames given in the Bible are fluid, or they are not.
Look at the context of the verse, from 2 Peter 3:3-10:
2 Peter 3:3 – Know this first of all, that in the last days mockers will come with their mocking, following after their own lusts, (4) and saying, “Where is the promise of His coming? For ever since the fathers fell asleep, all continues just as it was from the beginning of creation.” (5) For when they maintain this, it escapes their notice that by the word of God the heavens existed long ago and the earth was formed out of water and by water, (6) through which the world at that time was destroyed, being flooded with water. (7) But by His word the present heavens and earth are being reserved for fire, kept for the day of judgment and destruction of ungodly men.
(8)But do not let this one fact escape your notice, beloved, that with the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years like one day.
(9)The Lord is not slow about His promise, as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing for any to perish but for all to come to repentance. (10) But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, in which the heavens will pass away with a roar and the elements will be destroyed with intense heat, and the earth and its works will be burned up.
The last-days mockers, like their kind at the time of Noah, were denying God’s promise of judgement. Peter’s assurance, on the other hand, was that it would come. They were not to be impatient, nor were they to doubt the promise and start listening to the mockers.
First of all, the ‘thousand years’ is a simile. A day is like a thousand years. Peter is not saying that it is, or even might end up being, a thousand years. It was used to contrast the impatience of the last-days mockers with the patience of God.
Secondly, if the simile is meant to illustrate that the long ages to come are short in God’s eyes, then it is also true that short ages are long in God’s eyes. 1 day = 1000 years; 1000 years = 1 day. From this, could it also be argued that they had less time than they thought? Of course not! The simple fact is, those who were impatient, or skeptical because of what seemed to be an unfulfilled promise, needed to see things from a heavenly perspective, not from an earthly one.
Yes, it might take another thousand years, or it might take a day. That was God’s timing, not any man’s.
The point was that the mockers would appear in the last days, and show their impatience or doubt. Peter is simply assuring them that God was being patient, giving people the opportunity to repent.
So when were the ‘last days’? This is the real issue. Peter simply said that the actual time was not important, since God was infinitely patient. However, he strongly implies that those to whom his letter is addressed are living in that time.
2 Peter 3:11 – Since all these things are to be destroyed in this way, what sort of people ought you to be in holy conduct and godliness, (12) looking for and hastening the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be destroyed by burning, and the elements will melt with intense heat! (13) But according to His promise we are looking for new heavens and a new earth, in which righteousness dwells. (14) Therefore, beloved, since you look for these things, be diligent to be found by Him in peace, spotless and blameless, (15) and regard the patience of our Lord as salvation; just as also our beloved brother Paul, according to the wisdom given him, wrote to you, (16) as also in all his letters, speaking in them of these things, in which are some things hard to understand, which the untaught and unstable distort, as they do also the rest of the Scriptures, to their own destruction. (17) You therefore, beloved, knowing this beforehand, be on your guard so that you are not carried away by the error of unprincipled men and fall from your own steadfastness.
In spite of the common argument that the letters were in their inspired way addressed to all Christians throughout the ages, the plain reading that would have been understood by the recipients of Peter’s letter is that ‘you’ (i.e. they) were to prepare for the promise, as they looked for ‘these things’.
Jude practically quotes Peter in his letter, describing the mockers (Jude 16-19ff) and stressing the need for preparedness of the Christians. So when were these mockers to appear?
Jude 4 – For certain persons have crept in unnoticed, those who were long beforehand marked out for this condemnation, ungodly persons who turn the grace of our God into licentiousness and deny our only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ.
They were there, mocking, doubting and trying the patience of God and His people, when Jude wrote his letter.
Conclusion: Peter was describing God’s patience, not His time-frame. One day did not equal a thousand years, but in God’s history of patient forbearance was simply like a thousand years. How could the Christians, already waiting some thirty odd years perhaps, dare to despair or doubt God’s promise, when God had been waiting so much longer?