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The problem with how we perceive time and how it relates to the Second Coming

Over and over the Lord has indicated that the time of the end is near and that the day of His coming will be soon. And yet most of those scriptural passages are now almost two hundred years old, but we are still waiting for their fulfillment. So how are we to interpret words like “close,” “quickly,” “soon,” “hasten,” and “speedily”? This is why some, including some faithful Church members, claim that we have no reason to believe that the Second Coming is not still five or six hundred years away, and that we are working ourselves up into a dither over nothing.

To understand these prophecies, we need to consider some things about time, such as how we perceive time and how we are interpreting the pertinent scriptural terminology. In doing so, perhaps many of these seeming contradictions can be explained.

Here are some things to consider as we contemplate issues related to time and the future:

1. We must be careful that we don’t assume that our interpretation of what a word or phrase means is the right one, or the only one. For example, let’s examine more closely what Moroni said to Joseph Smith on September 21, 1823. He quoted the eleventh chapter of Isaiah, saying that it was about to be fulfilled. Some people assume that is a reference to Christ’s Second Coming. But a reading of that chapter shows that while there are references to things that are still in the future for us—e.g., the return of the ten tribes (see Isaiah 11:16)—most of the chapter has reference to other things, such as the raising up of a prophet in the latter days, the Restoration of the kingdom of God, and the beginning of the gathering in of the house of Israel. We now know that the prophet was Joseph Smith and that the kingdom is The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. In other words, Joseph’s call was being fulfilled even as Moroni spoke, and the promise that the kingdom of God was to be restored to the earth again was less than seven years away. That certainly qualifies as “about to be fulfilled.

As another example, Moroni cited Joel and said that “this was not yet fulfilled, but was soon to be.” Here is part of that passage: “And it shall come to pass afterward, that I will pour out my spirit upon all flesh; and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, your young men shall see visions” (Joel 2:28). Again, if we assume that is something that will happen only after the Savior comes again, then it is still in the future for us. But if we consider that when the Church was restored, the gift of the Holy Ghost was once again available to its members and revelation began to be poured out upon the people, then that too was just a few short years away from its fulfillment.

In summary, Moroni wasn’t just talking about things that we are still awaiting. Some things were, as Elijah put it, truly “at the doors” (D&C 110:16).

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2. In our day and age, we perceive time and deal with the passage of time much differently than most other generations did. In this day, time is so intertwined in our daily lives that we rarely even think about the concept of time itself. Here are some examples of that:

  • • Unlike our ancestors of ages past, our measurement of time is very precise. Some Olympic events are measured down to a thousandth of a second. Atomic clocks can measure a millionth of a second. We constantly measure our lives in hours, minutes, and occasionally even seconds, whereas centuries ago, people measured their time in days, weeks, seasons, and years.
  • • Because of that, our lives are filled with devices that track time for us. They are almost omnipresent. The next time we change to or from daylight saving time, count the number of clocks that must be adjusted to reflect that time change. We are usually not aware of how much our lives are influenced by time.
  • • But millions, even billions, of people have lived—and still do!—using only the sun, the moon, and the stars to mark the passage of time.

A good example of different views of time is found in King Benjamin’s final sermon. Quoting the words of an angel, Benjamin told his people that “the time cometh, and is not far distant, that with power, the Lord . . . shall come down from heaven among the children of men. . . . And he shall rise . . . from the dead” (Mosiah 3:5, 10). King Benjamin was speaking in 124 B.C., which means that Christ’s birth was still over a century away. And the visit of the resurrected Christ to the Nephites was still 158 years in the future! This difference in our perception of time is a reality that we have to take into account.

3. Time is a constant, but our perception of time is relative and can vary from one moment to another. Here’s a simple example of this fact. A person—let’s call her Sally—gets a twenty-minute break twice each day during her eight-hour shift at her workplace. After a while, she notices how quickly that time passes. Barely has she sat down, it seems, when her break time is over. Then one day she has an idea. She finds a place to sit where there is a wall clock right above her. As she rests, she frequently glances up at the time, and to her surprise, the time seems to pass much more slowly. She knows that it actually doesn’t, but it feels like it does, and so thereafter that is where she takes her breaks.

Though we may not consciously think of this phenomenon, we have all experienced it. For example, when we are under a tight deadline on an important task, we are dismayed at how rapidly time races by. On the other hand, when we are anxiously waiting for something important to happen, we may feel that the hours are dragging on. Older people often say things like, “That was twenty years ago now, but it seems just like yesterday.” Often, two individuals going through the same experience will perceive the passage of time very differently—for example, a boy and girl on their first date.

4. We are taught that God does not experience or perceive time in the same way humans do. We don’t fully understand how this is possible, but there are several scriptures that teach that God perceives time differently than we do. A question was once put to Joseph Smith about time: “Is not the reckoning of God’s time, angel’s time, prophet’s time, and man’s time, according to the planet on which they reside?” What Joseph said about God and time is intriguing: “The angels . . . reside in the presence of God, on a globe like a sea of glass and fire, where all things for their glory are manifest, past, present, and future, and are continually before the Lord” (D&C 130:4, 6–7).

In the presence of God all things are manifest (which means “made clear”), including what is past, present, and future, and are continually before the Lord. That is a mind-blowing concept, for in this life, time comes to us in a linear fashion. We can remember the past and imagine the future, but we can only experience the present. And that moment we call “the present” is always, inexorably moving forward. But what Joseph taught seems to suggest that God is above the timeline, not on it. Thus He can look “down” on us and see our past, our present, and our future simultaneously. This would explain one of His divine attributes, that He is an all-knowing Being. Understanding that concept is very difficult for us, for we are what might be called “time blind.” Therefore, we need to be cautious about making sweeping generalizations about time as we perceive it.

This idea about God and time is confirmed in other scriptures. When Alma was teaching Corianton—the son who had committed fornication while serving as a missionary—he made this statement: “All is as one day with God, and time only is measured unto men” (Alma 40:8).

In the opening verses of one of the revelations the Savior gave through Joseph Smith, the Savior described Himself in various ways—Lord God, Jesus Christ, the Great I AM, Alpha and Omega—and then He said that He was “the same which looked upon the wide expanse of eternity, and all the seraphic hosts of heaven, before the world was made; the same which knoweth all things, for all things are present before mine eyes” (D&C 38:1–2).

“Present” is an interesting word because it has two definitions. One is related to space. In that sense, to be present means to be “here.” But the word is also related to time, and in that sense it means “now.” Could it be that both meanings of present were meant in this statement by the Savior, that all things are here to Him and all time is now to Him?

That is a mind-boggling concept, but it is interesting that Albert Einstein proposed a similar idea in his theory of relativity. He said that as a person begins to accelerate until he or she approaches the speed of light, two things happen. All space begins to contract until it becomes “here” to that person, and all time begins to contract until it becomes “now” to that person. Trying to comprehend how that is possible is enough to give us a headache, but physicists have confirmed Einstein’s theory. And that seems to confirm what the scriptures teach us about God and time.

Earth Time, Kolob Time, and God's Time

In his second general epistle to the early members of the Church, Peter wrote: “Be not ignorant of this one thing, that one day is with the Lord as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day” (2 Peter 3:8). The world has puzzled over that statement ever since.

Fortunately, as is often the case, we are given clarifying information in modern scripture. Through the Urim and Thummim, Abraham was taught that Kolob is a celestial body that God said was “near unto me” (Abraham 3:3). Abraham was also taught that one revolution of Kolob (its orbit, we presume) was “a day unto the Lord, after his manner or reckoning,” but was “one thousand years” in our time reckoning (Abraham 3:4). This not only confirms what Peter said but enlightens us further on its meaning.

So why does this matter to us in this discussion on how soon the coming of the Son of Man will be? Because it gives us another perspective—God’s perspective—on time. We now know that it is not only our perception of time that influences how we experience it, but also where we are in space—another thing Einstein postulated. More importantly, we now have a precise comparison of our time and God’s time. So with that, let’s do some mathematical conversions from the “Lord’s time” to “our time.”

  • • If one of the Lord’s “days” is 1,000 of our years, then one of his “weeks” would be 7,000 of our years. (This idea of the earth existing for only a “week” is found in the book of Revelation, which will be discussed in the next chapter.)
  • • On that same scale, our coming Millennium would last for only one of the Lord’s days. This gives more meaning to a phrase from one of our hymns: “Beautiful, bright Millennial day” (Hymns, no. 52). It also helps us better understand why the Millennium is sometimes called the “Day of the Lord” (see, for example, 2 Nephi 12:2; D&C 2:1; 43:20) and why the Lord could say that He is coming “tomorrow” (D&C 64:24).
  • • On that same scale, one “hour” of the Lord’s time would be 41.7 years of our time on earth.
  • • One “minute” of the Lord’s time would be 254 of our “days,” or about two-thirds of a year.

With those comparisons, let us now make some extrapolations between our time and God’s time. Hopefully, this will change how we think of words such as “soon,” “quickly,” “nigh,” and so on. As noted above, most of these phrases are found in revelations that were given almost 200 years ago, which is several complete “lifetimes” for us. But consider this:

  • • The current lifespan of a person in the United States is about seventy-nine years. In the Lord’s time, that’s not quite two hours.
  • • If we use Kolob time, 200 of our years—the time since these revelations were given—is only 2.9% of the total time of the earth’s 7,000 years of existence.
  • • If a family had a daughter serving an eighteen-month mission, and she had only 2.9% of her time left, she would be home in fifteen days. We would not think it odd if the mother said that her daughter would be home “very soon.”
  • • If a person were serving a twenty-year term of service in the military and would be released in seven more months (2.9% of the total time), it would not surprise us if he or she referred to the required time of enlistment as being “nearly over.”

Summary and Conclusions

While this is all very interesting, I hope it gives us a new perspective on the scriptural use of “time” terminology. As noted, there are some who ask a different question. It goes something like this: “Every generation since the time of Christ has had people who were absolutely certain that Christ would come in their day. Here we are, two thousand years later, and we still hear that same claim. What hard evidence do we have that we’re not just like all the others and that His coming is not still five or six hundred years in the future?”

It is a good question. And before answering it, we need to make one thing clear. We are not suggesting that the Second Coming could happen any day now—or even next year. There are still too many things left to be done. However, the pace of prophetic fulfillment is increasing, and our prophets, seers, and revelators keep reminding us that the time for preparation is here.

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Image titleOriginally published in 1971, The Coming of the Lord, by Gerald N. Lund, became an instant bestseller and has remained continuously in print for nearly fifty years. Now this trusted resource has been fully updated and rewritten to reflect the latest prophetic teachings and a grow­ing sense of urgency as the Lord hastens His work. The Second Coming of the Lord is available now at DeseretBook.com.

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