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Does Christ Return Invisibly?

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Does Christ Return Invisibly?

Answers to Jehovah’s Witnesses #17
Robert M. Bowman Jr.

Summary: Jehovah’s Witnesses are taught that Jesus Christ is never returning personally or bodily to the earth. What Christians commonly call the “second coming” of Christ, according to the Watchtower doctrine, is his invisible presence in a spiritual, figurative sense.

This article is one of a series of articles explaining in detail the doctrines of Jehovah’s Witnesses and showing why those teachings are not in harmony with the facts and teachings of the Bible. For an overview, see our article on what Jehovah’s Witnesses believe.

What the Watchtower Teaches

Arguably, the central doctrine of the Jehovah’s Witness religion is its teaching that Christ became invisibly “present” in 1914. The traditional Christian belief, as stated in the early confessions known as the Apostles Creed and the Nicene Creed, is that Christ “will come again to judge the living and the dead.” In contrast, the Watchtower Society teaches that Christ will never return or come to the earth literally, personally, or bodily. Instead, what Christians think of as the Second Coming actually began in 1914 as an invisible “presence” in which Christ began ruling in heaven as king over the whole earth:

Since 1914 we have been living in the period of Christ’s pa·rou·siʹa, or presence. Although his presence as King of God’s Kingdom is invisible, it is obvious from the fulfillment of prophecies.1

As the Watchtower has pointed out repeatedly, its founder Charles Taze Russell taught that the Second Coming was actually a period of Christ’s invisible presence: “In the 1870’s Charles Taze Russell and his fellow unsectarian students of the inspired Scriptures discerned that the second coming of Christ would be invisible to human eyes, in the spirit, and that this coming would begin the period known as his ‘presence,’ or pa·rou·siʹa (Greek).”2 An article published in 1993 asserted confidently that this invisible presence was already underway:

He is present invisibly to ‘go subduing in the midst of his enemies,’ actively ruling as King to fulfill this prophetic command. (Psalm 110:2) For some 79 years, humans on earth have been experiencing the effects of Christ’s invisible royal presence.3

According to current Watchtower doctrine, Christ does not actually come personally to the earth, not even at the final judgment:

He does not need to move physically in order to “come.” Rather, he “comes” in the sense of turning his attention to mankind or to his followers, often for judgment. Thus, in 1914 he “came” to begin his presence as enthroned King. (Matthew 16:28; 17:1; Acts 1:11) In 1918 he “came” as messenger of the covenant and began judging those claiming to serve Jehovah. (Malachi 3:1-3; 1 Peter 4:17) At Armageddon, he will “come” to execute judgment on Jehovah’s enemies.4

Note well that the Watchtower’s position is not that Christ is on the earth but in an invisible form or mode. In their view, Christ is not on the earth at all but is simply in heaven as a spiritual being. Thus, his “presence” is not only invisible, but it is also figurative. Jesus is never actually coming back to the earth.

In this article, we will examine the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ doctrine that the Second Coming of Christ should be understood as an invisible presence of Christ with reference to his beginning to rule over the whole earth as king. In our next article in this series, we will examine the Watchtower’s chronological system by which it interprets the Bible to teach that Christ’s rule as king over the whole earth began in 1914.

Parousia: Coming or Presence?

The main argument that Jehovah’s Witnesses are taught in support of the doctrine that Christ’s second coming is an invisible event in heaven concerns the Greek word παρουσία (parousia), which two of the quotations we gave earlier mentioned. This word is found 24 times in the New Testament, most of these about Christ (Matt. 24:3, 27, 37, 39; 1 Cor. 15:23; 1 Thess. 2:19; 3:13; 4:15; 5:23; 2 Thess. 2:1, 8; James 5:7, 8; 2 Peter 1:16; 3:4, 12; 1 John 2:28). One occurrence refers to the future emergence of “the lawless one” (1 Thess. 2:9, see 2:8), while six are about mundane matters concerning human beings (1 Cor. 16:17; 2 Cor. 7:6, 7; 10:10; Phil. 1:26; 2:12). In virtually all English versions, this word is translated “coming” except in two places (2 Cor. 10:10; Phil. 2:12), where it is rightly translated “presence.” In the New World Translation (NWT), on the other hand, it is translated “presence” uniformly in all 24 occurrences. The Watchtower has made this understanding of the word parousia the cornerstone of its argument for an invisible “presence” of Christ.

In a way, this translational debate could be regarded as moot. The Watchtower has admitted that being present requires coming or arriving: “While Jesus’ presence of necessity implies his arrival at the place where he is present, the translation of pa·rou·siʹa by “coming” places all the emphasis on the arrival and obscures the subsequent presence that follows the arrival.”5 This complaint about obscuring the “presence that follows the arrival” is strange, since usually when we speak of someone “coming” we understand that the person is going to remain present at least for a period of time.

Although the word parousia is rightly translated “presence” in a couple of places in the New Testament (2 Cor. 10:10; Phil. 2:12), in most if not all of its other occurrences, and all of those referring to Christ in the future, it is better translated “coming” or even “arrival” (as is done in nearly all modern English versions). For more than a century biblical scholarship has recognized a specific use of the word parousia of direct relevance to the future parousia of Christ in the New Testament. In the early twentieth century, Adolf Deissmann discussed the “light from new texts” shed on the New Testament use of the word parousia: “From the Ptolemaic period down into the 2nd cent. A.D. we are able to trace the word in the East as a technical expression for the arrival or the visit of the king or the emperor.”6 This use of parousia as a technical term for the arrival or visit of a royal figure is affirmed in all of the standard lexical reference works (which list and define the words in the Greek New Testament).7

Oddly enough, the Watchtower Society has mentioned this usage in some of its publications, because the authors thought doing so supported their emphasis on parousia as denoting a person’s presence and not just his arrival. For example, one Watchtower publication observed: “Other lexicons explain that pa·rou·siʹa denotes ‘the visit of a ruler.’ Hence, it is not just the moment of arrival, but a presence extending from the arrival onward.”8

This technical usage of parousia to refer to a royal figure’s visit clearly fits the context of its use in the New Testament for Christ’s future return. Jesus will be “coming” as the Son of Man (Matt. 24:27, 37, 39), the figure in Daniel’s prophecy who receives “an everlasting dominion” and a “kingdom…that shall never be destroyed” (Dan. 7:13-14). According to Paul, after Christ’s parousia, “he delivers the kingdom to God the Father” after reigning until all opposing authorities are destroyed (1 Cor. 15:23-24). Peter spoke of “the power and coming [parousia] of our Lord Jesus Christ,” since he and the other apostles had been “eyewitnesses of his majesty” (2 Peter 1:16).

Parousia: Long Period or Sudden Event?

Jehovah’s Witnesses view the parousia as a long period (now more than a century, since they claim it began in 1914) of relatively normal life leading up to the cataclysmic divine judgment. During the parousia, only the spiritually awake (the Witnesses themselves) are aware of it, while for everyone else it is business as usual until the very end. This theory of an unnoticed parousia depends on some peculiarities in the Watchtower’s interpretation of the Olivet Discourse, Jesus’ speech about the future destruction of the Jerusalem temple and the end of the age. Specifically, their interpretation depends on their handling of the verses in Matthew 24 that use the word parousia (which does not appear anywhere in the Gospels outside that chapter).

The “sign” of his parousia (Matt. 24:3). According to Matthew, Jesus’ disciples asked him, “Tell us, when will these things be, and what will be the sign of your coming [parousia] and of the end of the age?” (Matt. 24:3). The Watchtower Society interprets this “sign” for which the disciples asked as something that would enable them to recognize that Jesus was present even though they could not see him personally. “Undoubtedly, the pa·rou·siʹa is not literally visible to human eyes. If it were, why would Jesus spend so much time, as we shall see, giving his followers a sign to help them to discern this presence?”9 This argument assumes that the “sign” for which the disciples asked, and which Jesus offered, referred to one or more events or facts that would be evident during the period of Christ’s “presence.” However, the parallel accounts of the disciples’ question in Mark and Luke flatly contradict this interpretation:

“…what will be the sign when all these things are about to be accomplished?” (Mark 13:4).

“…what will be the sign when these things are about to take place?” (Luke 21:7).

This is one of several places where the Watchtower’s interpretation of the Olivet Discourse fails to consider all three of the Gospel accounts and other related passages (Matt. 24-25; Mark 13; Luke 21:5-36; see also Matt. 10:17-22, 39; Luke 12:35-48; 17:22-37).10 In both Mark and Luke, it is explicit that the “sign” the disciples requested was to be an indicator that the events about which Jesus warned were “about to” occur. Thus, the sign was to precede the events in question, not to be taking place while the events were supposedly unfolding in heaven and unseen on the earth.

The lightning and the parousia (Matt. 24:27). In the second occurrence of parousia in Matthew 24, Jesus drew an analogy between his future parousia and lightning:

“So, if they say to you, ‘Look, he is in the wilderness,’ do not go out. If they say, ‘Look, he is in the inner rooms,’ do not believe it. For as the lightning comes from the east and shines as far as the west, so will be the coming of the Son of Man” (Matt. 24:26-27).

The commonsense meaning of Jesus’ statement here is that when the Son of Man comes, there will be no need for anyone to announce the fact because it will be obvious to all. The Watchtower’s interpretation of this verse turns the meaning of Jesus’ saying upside down: The Son of Man’s invisible presence will not be hidden because Jehovah’s Witnesses will be out engaged in spreading the message:

On the contrary, there would be nothing to hide about Jesus’ having come as King, at the beginning of his royal presence. As Jesus foretold, in a global way, lightnings of Bible truth continue to flash over broad areas from eastern parts to western parts. Truly, as modern light bearers, Jehovah’s Witnesses prove to be “a light of the nations, that [Jehovah’s] salvation may come to be to the extremity of the earth.”​—Isaiah 49:6.11

Here is an example of the Watchtower’s bad habit of reading itself into the Bible. It is the sudden and glorious coming of the Son of Man himself that is represented by the imagery of lightning, as Luke’s wording makes even clearer:

“For as the lightning flashes and lights up the sky from one side to the other, so will the Son of Man be in his day” (Luke 17:24).

The days of Noah and the parousia (Matt. 24:37-39). The last two occurrences of the word parousia in Matthew 24 appear in a passage in which Jesus used Noah and the flood as an analogy:

For as were the days of Noah, so will be the coming [parousia] of the Son of Man. For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day when Noah entered the ark, and they were unaware until the flood came and swept them all away, so will be the coming [parousia] of the Son of Man. (Matt. 24:37-39)

The Watchtower argues that in these verses, Jesus compared the period of his parousia to the time of Noah leading up to the Flood. “We may recall that Jesus, when paralleling his presence with ‘the days of Noah,’ states that in Noah’s time the people ‘took no note” until watery destruction came upon them, and “so the presence of the Son of man will be.’”12 The argument here assumes that Jesus was directly comparing the parousia to the period before the Flood rather than to the Flood itself.

Jesus did not use the expression “the days of Noah” to refer to a period within Noah’s lifetime that led up to the Flood. If one were to make the parousia a specific period parallel to “the days of Noah,” then one would need to treat “the days of Noah” as a period of hundreds of years including his entire lifetime both before and after the Flood. Clearly, that was not Jesus’ point. Rather, his point was that “the coming of the Son of Man” will take people by surprise in the same way that the Flood took people by surprise (Matt. 24:39-44; see also the parallel passage in Luke 17:26-30).

Christ’s Coming: Visible or Invisible?

The main basis, theologically, for the Watchtower’s denial of a literal second coming of Christ is its doctrine that Jesus was not raised physically from the dead. According to Jehovah’s Witnesses, Christ gave up his human life forever as the “ransom” price and therefore could not take back embodied human life in his resurrection. Since he now lives as an angelic spirit creature in heaven, he will not be coming back personally, bodily, or visibly to the earth. In two earlier installments in this series, we showed that the Bible did not teach the Watchtower’s interpretation of Christ’s death as a ransom and that the Bible clearly teaches that Jesus rose from the dead with immortality in a glorified human body.13

Even if the Jehovah’s Witnesses were right in thinking that Jesus did not rise from the dead in a human body, this premise would not prove that he was not returning visibly to the earth. After all, the Watchtower admits that Christ appeared multiple times to his disciples in visible, human form, albeit supposedly in a temporary body materialized only for the occasion.

“The world will see me no more” (John 14:19). To buttress its doctrine that the world would never see Christ even at the end of the age, the Watchtower cites John 14:19, which the NWT translates as follows:

In a little while the world will see me no more,
but you will see me, because I live and you will live.

The Watchtower Society explains, “Jesus had promised his apostles that he would come again and take them to heaven to be with him. They could see him because they would be spirit creatures as he is. But the world would not see him again.”14 This interpretation depends on punctuating John 14:19 with a comma before the word “because,” so that Jesus’ statement, “I live and you will live” explains why they will be able to see him and the world will not: both he and they will live as spirits in heaven, where they will be able to see one another. However, the NWT rendering of John 14:19 is highly unusual. Almost all English versions have a period or semicolon before the word “because” and read something very close to the following:

Yet a little while and the world will see me no more, but you will see me.
Because I live, you also will live. (ESV)

One reason why this translation should be accepted is that in the immediately preceding verse Jesus had told his disciples, “I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you” (John 14:18, emphasis added). Jesus’ statement here clearly refers to his coming to them after his resurrection (see also John 20:19, 26), not their going to him in heaven in the distant future. In addition, Jesus told them that they would see him in “a little while,” which again points to his resurrection appearances to them.

Thus, Jesus’ point in John 14:19 was that his resurrection appearances would not be public events. He was not saying that he would never return to the earth.

“This Jesus…will come in the same way” (Acts 1:9-11). One of the most troubling passages for the Watchtower’s doctrine that Christ will never return to the earth is Luke’s account of Jesus’ ascension:

And when he had said these things, as they were looking on, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. And while they were gazing into heaven as he went, behold, two men stood by them in white robes, and said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into heaven? This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.” (Acts 1:9-11)

Watchtower publications have addressed this problem passage multiple times, most recently in the study notes to Acts in the online study edition of the NWT. It explains that “Jesus’ manner of departure was not observed by the world in general. Only the apostles were aware that Jesus left the vicinity of the earth to return to his Father in heaven.”15

The Watchtower’s explanation here simply will not work. The angels were commenting on the way that Jesus would return, not who would “observe” his return. In order to understand the angels’ statement properly, we must let the immediate context inform us as to what the “way” or manner of Christ’s departure meant. Nothing is said about the size of the group or the limitations as to who was able to observe what happened. (Indeed, only the apostles saw Jesus ascend, but the text makes nothing of this fact.) Rather, what is said is that Christ “was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight” (Acts 1:9). This is the “way” that Jesus went, and therefore the way that he “will come” will be the same in reverse: 

  • Christ went “into heaven”; he will “come” out of heaven.
  • Christ was taken up; he will be sent down.
  • He was taken on a cloud when he left; he will come on a cloud when he returns.
  • He was taken out of human sight; he will return to human sight.

“The Lord himself will descend from heaven” (1 Thess. 4:15-17). Perhaps the best-known reference to Christ’s second coming in Paul’s epistles is found in 1 Thessalonians:

For this we declare to you by a word from the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming [parousia] of the Lord, will not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord himself [autos] will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord. (1 Thess. 4:15-17, emphasis added)

Paul says quite explicitly that the Lord (which of course is Jesus) “will descend from heaven” (v. 16). While it is theoretically possible for the Bible to use such language figuratively, there is no reason to think it is doing so here. Indeed, Paul is quite emphatic on this point, since he says that “the Lord himself” will come down, adding the pronoun “himself” (Greek, autos) for emphasis. The point is that the Lord will not be “coming down” through messengers or agents but will be coming down personally.

Paul’s description of the Lord’s descent reflects the ancient cultural practice of a ruler approaching a city in triumph and being met by a delegation that then accompanies him into the city. As we explained earlier, the very term parousia, which Paul uses here, was a technical term that referred to a king or other ruler making an official visit. The approach of the royal figure would typically be announced with trumpet fanfare, as Paul states will occur when the Lord comes. Paul then says that we who are still alive at that time will “meet the Lord in the air,” which in the context of a triumphal entry pictures believers meeting the Lord as he descends in order to accompany him to the earth, just as a delegation from a city would do for an approaching king.16

“Christ…will appear a second time” (Heb. 9:28). The final text we will consider is in the book of Hebrews:

Otherwise, He would have needed to suffer often since the foundation of the world; but now once at the consummation of the ages He has been manifested to put away sin by the sacrifice of Himself. And inasmuch as it is appointed for men to die once and after this comes judgment, so Christ also, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time for salvation without reference to sin, to those who eagerly await Him. (Heb. 9:26-28 NASB, emphasis added)

The meaning of this passage is straightforward enough. Christ “has been manifested” (pephanerōtai) once to atone for sin, and he “will appear” (ophthēsetai) a second time to bring the salvation to us that he paid for in his first coming. Christ’s first “manifestation,” of course, was in person, bodily, and visible. His second “appearing” will also be in person, bodily, and visible. He will be seen (ophthēsetai is a passive future form of the Greek horaō, to see). The words “a second time” make it clear that this future appearance will be akin to the manifestation that preceded it. Thus, contrary to Watchtower doctrine, this passage explicitly teaches the idea of two comings of Jesus Christ.



1. “The Messiah! God’s Means of Salvation,” Watchtower, Dec. 15, 2009, 24.

2. Man’s Salvation Out of World Distress at Hand! (Watchtower, 1975), 287.

3. “Shedding Light on Christ’s Presence,” Watchtower, May 1, 1993, 11.

4. “‘The Faithful Slave’ Passes the Test!” Watchtower, March 1, 2004, 18.

5. “Presence,” in Insight on the Scriptures (Watchtower, 1988, 2015, 2018), 2:676. This entry in the Society’s Bible dictionary is their most extensive treatment of the meaning of parousia.

6. Adolf Deissmann, Light from the Ancient East: The New Testament Illustrated by Recently Discovered Texts of the Graeco-Roman World, 2nd ed., trans. Lionel R. M. Strachan (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1910), 372 (see 372–78).

7. Most recently, “παρουσία, etc.,” in New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology and Exegesis, 2nd ed., revising ed. Moisés Silva (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2014), 3:648 (647–57).

8. “Jesus’ Coming or Presence—Which?” Watchtower, Aug. 15, 1996, 11; see also “The Messiah’s Presence and His Rule,” Watchtower, Oct. 1, 1992, 16.

9. “The Messiah’s Presence and His Rule,” 16.

10. For a table comparing these passages in parallel columns, see Robert M. Bowman Jr., “Olivet Discourse and Parallels,”

11. “Shedding Light on Christ’s Presence,” 12.

12. “Presence,” in Insight on the Scriptures, 2:678.

13. Robert M. Bowman Jr., “Is Jesus’ death a ‘corresponding ransom’?” and “Was Christ raised as an angelic spirit?” These are parts 14 and 15 in this series, Answers to Jehovah’s Witnesses.

14. “Return of Christ,” in Reasoning from the Scriptures (Watchtower, 1985, 1989), 341.

15. “Acts Study Notes—Chapter 1,” in New World Translation of the Holy Scriptures (Study Edition) (Watchtower, 2015, 2020), at Acts 1:11.

16. See Robert M. Bowman Jr., “Is Jesus Michael the Archangel?” in this series for more on 1 Thessalonians 4.