The Second Coming
Armageddon. Antichrist. Rapture. Left Behind. These phrases are popular these days. A war breaks out in the Middle East and suddenly prophecy experts say the end is near. Books are written and dates are set. Fiction books and movie series bring in millions of dollars and generate media hype. But what exactly does Scripture teach us about the coming of Christ?
There is no question that the New Testament writings teach that Christ will return. "This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven" (Acts 1:11). Yet this promise of Christ’s return in Acts 1 is prefaced by a discussion between the disciples and the resurrected Jesus. The disciples ask Jesus, "Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?" Jesus replies, "It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority" (Acts 1:7). There are repeated warnings in the New Testament against speculating about the time of Christ’s return. Yet every century since Jesus has seen apocalyptic groups or persons calculating the time of Christ’s return and the culmination of history. (See Further Reading)
There Has Been A Delay
Not only does the New Testament warn against such speculations and date-fixing, it also indicates in various ways that the coming of Christ may be later than first expected. One must always live a life that is worthy of the gospel and not worry about the time of Christ’s return.
A brief survey of some of the parables and sayings of Jesus in the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) will clearly show that by the time the gospels were written there was already an awareness among early Christians that the return of Christ has been delayed.
The Gospel of Mark, which is taken by a vast majority of scholars to be the earliest gospel, was probably written shortly before Roman armies destroyed Jerusalem and the Temple in AD 70. In chapter 13, known as the eschatological discourse of Jesus, Mark reports what Jesus had predicted about the Temple some 40 years earlier. Of particular significance for us is the repeated warning that the war between the Romans and the Jews and the terrible conditions surrounding the destruction of the Temple and of Jerusalem must not be taken to be the apocalyptic end of the world. "When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is still to come… This is but the beginning of the birth pangs" (Mark 13:7-8). A bit later in the chapter, we find this astonishing saying of Jesus: "But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father" (Mark 13:32). This is an astonishing saying because by the time Mark wrote his gospel, Mark and his Christian community would have viewed the resurrected Jesus as the exalted Christ who would surely have knowledge of when and how the course of history would wind down. But Mark still gives us this saying that states that not even Jesus Christ, the Son of God, knows the day of the hour.
Matthew and Luke, who used Mark to write their gospels, stress even more strongly than Mark that Christ’s coming has been delayed. Matthew attaches several parables to the eschatological discourse of Mark that he incorporated into his gospel. At the end of chapter 24 we find the parable of the good and wicked slave. The wicked slave says to himself, "My master is delayed." Instead of fulfilling his responsibilities like the good slave, "he begins to beat his fellow slaves, and eats and drinks with drunkards." The master of that slave will return "on a day when he does not expect him and at an hour that he does not know." The outcome will be that the master "will cut him in pieces and put him with the hypocrites, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth" (Matt 24:46-51).
In the following chapter Matthew attaches three more parables, all of which spell out how we are to act while we are waiting for Christ whose coming has been delayed. In the parable of the Ten Virgins (Matt 25:1-13) we learn that "the bridegroom was delayed." The wise virgins had brought extra oil whereas the foolish ones ran out of oil as they waited for the bridegroom. While they went to buy more oil the bridegroom came and the door was shut. Matthew is admonishing his Christian group to count on some delay in the return of Christ and remain vigilant in their Christian life.
But how does one wait for the coming of Christ? The next two parables in Matthew 25 spell out the answer. The parable of the Talents urges Christians to invest what has been entrusted to them and not let it sit idle. The final parable, the Sheep and Goats, which is a parable of the final judgment, makes it even clearer what that investment is all about. It means to feed the hungry, give a drink to the thirsty, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, take care of the sick and visit the imprisoned. Jesus the judge will say to those who have done these acts of compassion, "Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me." The delay in Christ’s coming must be taken as a God-given opportunity to minister to needy people in Christ’s name.
Luke also makes it clear in various ways that there has been a delay in the coming of Christ. The reason Jesus tells one of his parables is that "he was near Jerusalem, and because they supposed that the kingdom of God was to appear immediately" (Luke 19:11). The parable of the Pounds, which is similar to Matthew’s parable of the Talents, makes the point that the kingdom of God may not appear immediately. One must be ready for the long haul and be prepared to render faithful service in the world in the time that God has granted his people.
The Gospel of John does not include anything like the eschatological discourse of the Synoptic Gospels. Instead, John gives us the farewell discourse of Jesus just before the passion narrative. In the farewell discourse Jesus does speak of his coming back, but there is no talk of the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven as in the Synoptic Gospels.
In John Jesus speaks of going away and preparing a place for his disciples and returning to take them where he himself is (John 14:3). But it is not quite clear what the coming again is. Even though the passage above seems to refer to what we call "the second coming," a few verses later in 14:18-19 Jesus says, "I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you. In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me; because I live, you also will live" (14:18-19). Here the reference seems to be to his post-resurrection appearances to his disciples. That gives us a clue that the unrealized future eschatology of the Synoptics becomes a much more realized eschatology in John.
This is not to say that there is no future eschatology in John. But somehow the future coming of Jesus, and his post-resurrection presence with his disciples, the coming of the Holy Spirit, and God’s presence among his disciples have been blended into a single event. The disciples in John are not urged to watch and pray and be ready for the unknown day or hour, as in the Synoptics. In some sense the return of Jesus has already taken place. To understand this theological move one must read the whole Gospel, or at least chapters 14-16. But this brief quote from chapter 14:16-18, 23 will illustrate the point:
And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever. This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you. I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you… Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them.
A careful study of the writings of the apostle Paul likewise demonstrates that Paul himself shifted his position from his earlier expectation of the imminent return of Christ to one of awareness that there might be a delay. In his earliest letter, 1 Thessalonians, Paul includes himself among those who would be alive when the Lord returns. He states first that those who have died in the Lord will be resurrected, and then adds: "Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up in the clouds together with them to meet the Lord in the air; and so we will be with the Lord forever" (4:17). In 1 Corinthians15:51 he says, "We will not all die, but we will be changed."
In his later letters, however, Paul seems to consider the possibility that he might not be alive when the Lord returns. In Philippians 1:20-21 he says, "Christ will be exalted now as always in my body, whether by life or by death. For to me, living is Christ and dying is gain." Paul still believed that the coming of was near (Philip 4:5), but he reckoned with the possibility that it may be beyond his own lifetime.
In Romans, another of Paul’s later writings and something of a theological summary of his preaching, Paul says hardly anything about the return of Christ. His whole emphasis is on the transforming power of Christ in the lives of believers in the present life. However, toward the end of the letter he makes this statement: "Besides this, you know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; the night is far gone, the day is near. Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light" (13:11-12). Here Paul is aware that some time has passed and that salvation, i.e. the final consummation of salvation at the return of Christ, is nearer "than when we became believers."
The clearest example that early Christians in the later decades of the first century had to deal with the issue of the delay of Christ’s return is 2 Peter 3:4. Scoffers were asking, "Where is the promise of his coming? For ever since our ancestors died, all things continue as they were from the beginning of creation!" The answer that the letter provides for such scoffing is that "with the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day. The Lord is not slow about his promise, as some think of slowness, but is patient with you, not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance" (3:8-9).
In subsequent centuries the church realized that the Second Coming was not going to be as imminent as first-century Christians thought and developed its theology and practice in ways that made provision for future generations of people. With the exception of fringe groups and their apocalyptic fervor, the mainstream of Christianity no longer thought that the coming of Christ was any time soon. So it began to build schools for the education of the young, hospitals for the sick, cathedrals for worshipers, and ecclesiastical structures to carry on the work of the church.
The Articles of Faith of the Church of the Nazarene include the following statement on the Second Coming whose wording for the most part is taken from 1 Thessalonians 4:16-17 (Article XV):
A succinct statement about the Second Coming is also in the Agreed Statement of Belief as follows: "We believe… that our Lord will return, the dead will be raised and the final judgment will take place." It is clear that the Church of the Nazarene does not adopt an official position on the various theories of the end that have preoccupied so-called prophecy experts.
Not only does the New Testament grapple with the theological implications of the delay of Christ’s return, but it also envisions it in ways that are contrary to popular views current among many Christians today. Rapture theology is the most popular view among evangelical and fundamentalist Christians. But is it consistent with New Testament theology (see The Rapture: Truth or Speculation?)?
Several New Testament texts are often used erroneously as support for rapture theology. The most significant of these is 1 Thessalonians 4:14-17:
For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have died. For this we declare to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will by no means precede those who have died. For the Lord himself, with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call and with the sound of God’s trumpet, will descend from heaven, and the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up in the clouds together with them to meet the Lord in the air; and so we will be with the Lord forever.
Several things in this text are worth noting. Take, for example, the phrase "the coming of the Lord," particularly the word "coming." The Greek word for it is parousia, which was used in Greek culture to refer to the arrival of a king or some other dignitary into a city. Thus the word means "coming" in the sense of an auspicious arrival or presence. Yet, curiously, most rapture theologies do not seriously reckon with the idea here that Christ will return to earth. In the minds of many Christians, Jesus comes in a heavenly phenomenon and snatches believers out of the world to meet him in mid-air without Jesus ever making it to earth, contrary to the customary use of parousia for a king who comes to a city on an official visit. Since Paul uses the word parousia, let its full meaning determine how we understand the coming of Christ. Paul’s point is that Christ will come to earth, and not simply halt in mid-air and snatch Christians out of the world.
In keeping with that meaning, the previous statement that "through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have died" is also worth pondering. The Greek word for "bring" literally means "lead." The idea here is that God will lead the dead in Christ in the procession of Christ’s coming to earth.
Still another significant point in this text is the statement that we who are alive at the coming of Christ will be caught up in the clouds together with the resurrected believers to meet the Lord in the air. Two words are particularly important here—"caught up" and "meet." The Greek word for "caught up" is translated rapiemur in the Latin Vulgate, giving rise to the English word "rapture." The other word, "meet," fits perfectly the context of a king paying an official visit to a city. It was customary in that time that a group of prominent citizens would go out of the city to meet the arriving king and accompany him as he and his entourage entered the city in a pompous ceremony. Thus the purpose of the so-called "rapture" is to be with the Lord as he returns to earth.
So what is the point? Simply this, that the purpose of the Second Coming is to fulfill all of God’s purposes for this world. It is not God’s purpose to take Christians out and destroy the earth.
Several passages in the gospels have also been used as support for rapture theology, even though in the different contexts in which these passages occur it is clear that they are not about rapture at all. In Matthew 24:40-41 (and its parallel in Luke 17:34-35) Jesus says, "Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left." It is not clear that "taken" means rapture. The context of this saying is the flood in Noah’s time when people were "eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark, and they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away, so too will be the coming of the Son of Man" (Matt 24:38-39). It is too much of a jump to conclude from the statement that one will be taken and one will be left that it is a reference to rapture.
According to Mark 13:27 (and its parallel in Matt 24:31), when the Son of Man comes in clouds with great power and glory, "he will send out the angels, and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven." Again, does this gathering mean rapture? Not likely. The reference is rather to several Old Testament texts about the gathering of exiled Israel (see Deut 30:4; Isa 11:11-12; 27:12; Ezek 39:27). But when Christ returns it is not simply exiled Israel that is gathered, but all of God’s elect from all nations are gathered to be part of the kingdom of God on earth.
In the same way, in Matthew 13:41-43, which is an interpretation of the parable of the Wheat and Weeds, the focus is on the culmination of the kingdom of God on earth. Jesus says,
"The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will collect out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all evildoers, and they will throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father."
If there is going to be a rapture, it is the evildoers who are "raptured" and thrown into the furnace of fire!
The proponents of rapture theology invariably include themselves among those who will be raptured to glory and the rest of the world will be "left behind." But Matthew has a stern warning for this kind of presumption. In the Sermon on the Mount he quotes Jesus saying,
Not everyone who says to me, "Lord, Lord," will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven. On that day many will say to me, "Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many deeds of power in your name?" Then I will declare to them, "I never knew you; go away from me, you evildoers" (Matt 7:21-23).
If those who prophesy, cast out demons and perform miracles are not necessarily doing the will of God, what exactly is the will of God? Matthew again has a clear answer, which may be unsettling for many Christians. In the parable of Sheep and Goats alluded to earlier, Matthew tells us that there will be some surprises at the final judgment, both for the righteous and the unrighteous. In fact, those who thought they were righteous will end up in the outer darkness, and those who thought they had not done any righteous deed for Christ will end up inheriting the kingdom of God.
What then is righteousness that counts with Jesus? It is giving food to the hungry, giving something to drink to the thirsty, welcoming the stranger, clothing the naked, taking care of the sick, and visiting the one in prison. "Truly I tell you," Jesus says, "just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me" (Matt 25:40). Conversely, those who thought they were destined for eternal bliss will be surprised to find out that they would be consigned to "the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels." Why? Because they did not do these acts of mercy for "the least of these." So then, what counts with Jesus is not the gift of prophecy, exorcism or powerful miracles. It is meeting the human needs of disenfranchised people. (See Further Reading)
How Will It All End?
Apocalypticists, millenarians, and many fundamentalist Christians of our time have envisioned a fiery, cataclysmic destruction of the world. The righteous few, who of course are made up of one’s own group, will escape and the rest of the world will be doomed in a holocaust! I suppose they find support for this scenario in such a biblical text as 2 Peter 3:10, 12 (NRSV):
But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a loud noise, and the elements will be dissolved with fire, and the earth and everything that is done on it will be disclosed… the heavens will be set ablaze and dissolved, and the elements will melt with fire.
The wording of this text is dubious at best. The manuscript evidence for the crucial word which the NRSV translates "disclosed" is not decisive. In many English versions the word is "burned up," which is based on an alternate manuscript evidence. The NIV adopts the translation "laid bare," which is pretty much the same as NRSV’s "disclosed." Therefore it is rather precarious to base a vision of how things will end up on such an uncertain text, when in fact there are many other biblical texts that point in an entirely different direction.
To begin with, God makes a covenant with Noah after the flood, affirming God’s commitment to earth. God says,
"I will never again curse the ground because of humankind, for the inclination of the human heart is evil from youth; nor will I ever again destroy every living creature as I have done. As long as the earth endures, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night, shall not cease" (Gen 8:21-22).
Several prophets of the Old Testament envisioned a restored Israel in a renewed world. Isaiah’s memorable vision for the world comes to us in these picturesque images:
The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them. The cow and the bear shall graze, their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder's den. They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain; for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the LORD as the waters cover the sea (Isa 11:6-9).
In exilic and postexilic times, Second and Third Isaiah (Isaiah 40-55 and 56-66 respectively) continue Isaiah’s tradition of a transformed and renewed Israel in a new world. Second Isaiah envisions God in this new world making his servant Israel a light to the nations: "I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth" (49:6; cf. 42:6).
Third Isaiah articulates in the following words a similar vision of the whole world to becoming the people of God:
Do not let the foreigner joined to the LORD say, "The LORD will surely separate me from his people"; and do not let the eunuch say, "I am just a dry tree." For thus says the LORD: "To the eunuchs who keep my sabbaths, who choose the things that please me and hold fast my covenant, I will give, in my house and within my walls, a monument and a name better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name that shall not be cut off. And the foreigners who join themselves to the LORD, to minister to him, to love the name of the LORD, and to be his servants, all who keep the sabbath, and do not profane it, and hold fast my covenant—these I will bring to my holy mountain, and make them joyful in my house of prayer; their burnt offerings and their sacrifices will be accepted on my altar; for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples." Thus says the Lord GOD, who gathers the outcasts of Israel, "I will gather others to them besides those already gathered" (56:3-8).
In the last two chapters, Third Isaiah speaks of God creating "new heavens and a new earth" that will "remain before me," that is, will endure forever (65:17; 66:22). Just as in the beginning God created the heavens and the earth (Gen 1:1), so also in the end God will bring about a new creation. Thus God does not destroy but redeems, renews and restores his creation.
This theme is picked up in the New Testament in various ways and in a number of places. For example, Matthew 19:28 speaks of "the renewal of all things." Paul also speaks of this restoration of all creation in a variety of settings. His most noteworthy statement is in Romans 8:19-21:
For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.
In the same vein, Paul articulates his vision of the consummation of the drama of salvation in 1 Corinthians 15:24-28 in these words:
Then comes the end, when he [Christ] hands over the kingdom to God the Father, after he has destroyed every ruler and every authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death. For "God has put all things in subjection under his feet." But when it says, "All things are put in subjection," it is plain that this does not include the one who put all things in subjection under him. When all things are subjected to him, then the Son himself will also be subjected to the one who put all things in subjection under him, so that God may be all in all.
Everything that is contrary to God’s purposes and destructive of creation is overcome through the power of Christ’s resurrection so that in the end God is "all in all." Again, the point is that God does not destroy but redeems and renews humanity and all of creation.
We must now look again at the text in 2 Peter alluded to earlier. After stating that "the heavens will be set ablaze and dissolved, and the elements will melt with fire," the author goes on to say, "We wait for new heavens and a new earth, where righteousness is at home" (3:13), echoing the words of Isaiah 65:17 and 66:22. Even though in apocalyptic literature fire plays a prominent role in the destruction of the world, in 2 Peter the end is not destruction but transformation.
Reflecting the two Isaiah passages about the new heavens and new earth even more closely than 2 Peter is Revelation 21. Here the apocalyptic vision reaches its climax. John sees "a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more" (21:1). In this new creation there is no sea, the old symbol of chaos and turbulence. Furthermore, the new Jerusalem, the dwelling place of God, comes down from heaven as a bride adorned for her husband. This is a clear indication that the new Jerusalem is the church, the bride of Jesus Christ. A loud voice says, "See, the home of God is among mortals" (v. 3).
There is no rapture in the book of Revelation. The church not taken out of the world and the earth destroyed. Instead, God comes down to dwell on earth. The church is in the world. This is a new heaven and a new earth because the older separation between heaven as the dwelling place of God and the earth as the dwelling place of human beings is transcended by God’s redemptive work in history. Now the earth becomes the dwelling place of God. There is no need for temple because God’s presence is no longer localized in a place but is pervasive (v. 22). There is no need for sun or moon because the glory of God is everywhere. Nations and kings continue to exist in the world, but now they conduct their work in the light of God’s glory (vv. 23-24). The gates of the city will never be shut because there is no longer any enmity or threat (v. 25).
I must confess that this picture of the end is much more appealing and hopeful than rapture theology can ever be. Rapture does not fit with the spirit of the Bible. The picture I get from the Bible is that God in the end will bring his kingdom fully and completely to earth. Affirming a fervent hope that some day Christ will return and the kingdom of God will be fully realized in the world ought to energize God’s people to work toward that end, or as 2 Peter puts it,
"What sort of persons ought you to be in leading lives of holiness and godliness, waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God… Therefore, beloved, while you are waiting for these things, strive to be found by him at peace, without spot or blemish; and regard the patience of our Lord as salvation" (3:11-15).
When writers and preachers make such a big fuss about the Second Coming and the end of the world, they are forgetting something much more important. They are in effect minimizing the First Coming. In a real sense the world ended some two thousand years ago in Jesus. Something decisive happened for humanity and for our relationship with God in the life, death and resurrection of Christ. The New Testament is much more concerned with what it means to be crucified with Christ than with being glorified when he comes again.
For Further Reading:
On the History of Millenarian and Adventist Movements:
An excellent overview of these movements is in The Encyclopedia of Apocalypticism (ed. John Collins, Bernard McGinn, and Stephen Stein; 3 vols; New York: Continuum, 1998). A brief treatment of the subject is in The Second Coming: A Wesleyan Approach to the Doctrine of Last Things (ed. H. Ray Dunning; Kansas City: Beacon Hill Press, 1995).
On the Rapture:
For further reading and study along these lines one can profitably consult Robert Jewett’s book, Jesus Against the Rapture (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1979).