One of the five principles necessary for Christian belief, according to the Conference of Conservative Protestants that met in Niagara Falls in 1896, was the physical, bodily return of Jesus (the other four being biblical inerrancy, the virgin birth, the divinity of Jesus and substitutionary atonement). These five beliefs have become central to Christian fundamentalism.
Most Christians today anticipate some kind of divine intervention to close human history as we know it and to begin something that looks very different than the way life on planet earth looks like now. Many of the early Christians connected the climax of this present age with the revelation of the resurrected Christ from heaven, which would result in the resurrection of all humanity. Paul called this Christ’s “coming” (Greek, parousia; see 1 Cor. 15:21-24, 1 Thess. 4:12-18).
Historical Jesus scholars are divided on what Jesus himself may have believed about the end of the present age. The Gospels, of course, consist of both original sayings/teachings of Jesus, as well as teachings and interpretations added by Christ’s followers in the process of oral transmission. Some scholars argue that the words attributed to Jesus about the “coming” of the Son of Man were added or reinterpreted by the church to refer to a divine intervention to conclude the present age, but were not words Jesus originally uttered. And so we get into the debate on whether Jesus was an apocalyptic prophet or a wise sage. Of course, he could have been both.
When the followers of Jesus became convinced that God had raised Jesus from the dead, they interpreted this as the beginning of the new creation. It’s easy to understand why they would have thought the end of the present age was near. It’s not nearly as easy to understand why Jesus himself may have thought so. And if Jesus did believe in an imminent intervention of God, it’s highly unlikely that he spoke about his own coming. He probably imagined God intervening in some way in conjunction with the work he was doing to bring in the anticipated kingdom of peace and justice.
The Hebrews began to form a belief in resurrection during the intertestamental period. Until then they spoke of sheol as the place of the dead. It was probably in most instances just a synonym for death itself. Then around the third century B.C.E. they began to intuit that there must be more to this life than this life. They began to postulate that those who have suffered unjustly and died prematurely will be vindicated. During this time apocalyptic language emerged as a way to talk about a final vindication, and the idea of a general resurrection became popular. This is why many of the early followers of Jesus believed the end was near after they became convinced that God raised Jesus from the dead. They considered Jesus’ resurrection the beginning of the resurrection of all humankind (see Matt 27:23-23; 1 Cor. 15:23-24).
The Apostle Paul was apparently convinced that Christ’s coming/parousia would happen soon. He told the unmarried in the church at Corinth it would be best if they stayed unmarried because the world as they knew it was about to end (see 1 Cor. 7:25-31). In Jesus’ discourse on the coming of the Son of Man, Jesus is purported as saying, “Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place” (Mark 13:30). Of course, that generation did indeed pass away and the coming of the Son of Man did not occur. And here we are two millennia later.
We could argue, “The early church got the timing wrong, but the event is still going to happen; they messed up on the when but not the what.” Maybe. But then again, if they got the timing wrong, maybe they misinterpreted the way God would bring in the kingdom. Personally, I am not looking for some kind of sensational “coming.” I believe the apocalyptic language of scripture (like Mark 13, par. Matt. 24, Luke 21) should be read poetically, symbolically and metaphorically, not literally.
I sometimes wish I could believe in some kind of divine intervention. It would sure be easier. I could then sit back and wait for Christ to come and clean up this mess. And that’s the problem with “Second Coming” theology. It encourages us to give up. We see massive systemic injustice in governments, economic systems and institutions of all types. How can we possibly effect change? How can we make a difference? How can we keep from destroying ourselves? It would be easy to give up and just wait it out — to say, “This earth is not my home.”
But the earth is our home and we are charged with taking care of it. We bear God’s image and since Jesus is the lens through which we see and understand that image, that means we are servants and compassionate caretakers of this wonderful planet and all contained herein. We are expected to pursue justice, do works of mercy, and walk humbly with God and one another.
At the end of Mark’s Gospel, the women who enter the tomb to anoint the body of Jesus encounter a young man dressed in white. He says, “Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified, has been raised. He is not here.” He instructs them to go tell Peter and the other disciples that the risen Christ will meet them in Galilee. Galilee is where it all started. It’s where they left their fishing nets, their occupations, even their families to follow Jesus. But when Jesus was arrested they fled. They denied and deserted him. Now the young man tells them that Jesus would meet them again in Galilee. And meet him they did. There they encountered a kind of “second coming.” There they experienced forgiveness. There they were given a new mission. There they encountered the unconditional love of the risen Christ. There they encountered the love and grace and “presence/parousia” of the cosmic Christ.
The risen Christ doesn’t need to return; he is already here. We can meet him. We can experience his forgiveness and unconditional love. We can participate with him in the work of the Spirit in the world. Christ is with us, among us, for us and in us. We are Christ’s body.
God is hidden in the world. God invites, woos, entices, draws and speaks in a still, small voice that is subtle and hardly perceptible. God does not coerce, control, or micro-manage our lives or any of the events and experiences on planet earth or in our universe. I don’t suspect that will change. The spiritual presence of the cosmic Christ is already here pervading this world and this universe. We just need eyes to see what is in front of our face.
I really like the way Brother David Steindl-Rast puts this in his book, Deeper than Words:
“My favorite lines about Christ’s ‘Second Coming’ are in the story ‘A Christmas Memory’ by Truman Capote. In this autobiographical piece of great delicacy, the author describes his last Christmas with the woman who brought him up. The author is 7 at the time, she is in her 60s, a childlike soul radiant with inner beauty. They are each other’s best friends. On Christmas Day, the two of them are lying in the grass, flying the kites they made as presents for each other. Suddenly the old woman experiences a moment of mystic insight. She admits that formerly she had imagined Christ at the Second Coming shining like the windows in a Baptist church, sunlight pouring through the colored glass. But now she realizes with utter surprise and delight that what she has always seen — what we always see all around us — is Christ in glory, here and now” (Deeper than Words: Living the Apostles’ Creed, p. 132-32).
We don’t need more Christians to believe in some end-time cataclysmic shake-up. What we desperately need right now is more Christians to see the possibilities of Christ in glory here and now. We don’t need more apocalyptic timetables and end-time scenarios. We need Christians to claim who they are in God and become the body of Christ — feeding the hungry, caring for the vulnerable, healing the wounded, liberating the oppressed and working for peace and restorative justice in this amazing world that is our home.