In the early church one of the great differences between the Christian and the non-Christian world was the Christian “hope”. So non-Christians wanted to know a reason not for the Christians’ faith but for their hope. In his first letter, the apostle Peter had said that hope was the result and purpose of his readers being born again:
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead (1 Peter 1.3).
So he then can say:
…always [be] prepared to make a defence to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you, yet do it with gentleness and respect (1 Peter 3.15).
What then does the Bible teach about the Second Coming and is it reasonable to believe that it will happen?
The facts of the Second Coming of Christ.
1 Thessalonians 4.14-17 Paul writes this in his key passage regarding the Second Coming:
For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep.For this we declare to you by a word from the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord himself 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.”
And all that is why the Christian’s greatest hope is centred on the Second “Coming” (the Parousia in Greek) of Christ. That word, “Parousia”, is significant. For the word was something of a technical term in the first century. It was used for an official visit in person by an emperor to part of his empire. And it was the manifestation of his sovereignty where he visited. Of course, he was emperor all along. But now he was revealed with all sorts of razzamatazz and noise. And so the New Testament encourages us to look forward to the Second Coming of Christ using that analogy. The adoption of this word implies a revelation of God in and through the personal and cosmically powerful visitation to our world by Jesus, already the risen and reigning King of Kings and Lord of Lords. As John Stott says:
It can hardly be fortuitous that he [Paul] is writing this to the Thessalonians among whom, at least according to his critics, he defied Claudius Caesar’s decrees by announcing ‘that there is another king, Jesus’ (Acts 17.7). The Christian hope, however, is more than the expectation that the King is coming; it is also the belief that when he comes, the Christian dead will come with him and the Christian living will join them.
Is all this believable?
How can we believe all this? Can we give a reason for this hope that we have? Well, the simple answer to people in a very secular world asking questions is to echo Paul. We say it is believable “since we believe that Jesus died and rose again” (1 Thessalonians 4.14). That is the grounding for the Christian assurance in many claims. Granted that, it is entirely believable. But the questioner needs to be reassured that the Christian does not believe this is all simple description. For this revelation of Christ as the king of the universe is the closure of human history and existence as we know it. So analogies and symbolism have to be used to describe what will happen. Hence the appropriateness of likening the Second Coming of Jesus to the visit of the Emperor. It is as Calvin famously said five centuries ago about…
…modes of speaking that describe God to us in human terms. For because our weakness does not attain to his exalted state, the description of him that is given to us must be accommodated to our capacity so that we may understand it. Now the mode of accommodation is for him to represent himself to us not as he is in himself, but as he seems to us.
Surely D.W.B.Robinson, a former Archbishop of Sydney, was so right when he wrote in The Hope of Christ’s Coming:
Confidence in proclaiming the fact of Christ’s coming must be accompanied by caution in attempting to describe the event in detail. There are three reasons for this caution. First, because like the day of the Lord in the Old Testament this event transcends the limits of our present human experience, and literal interpretations too easily land us in absurdities. Secondly, because the Bible itself clothes its truths in figurative language more readily than we Westerners may suppose … [So] it would be dangerous to press Paul’s picture much beyond his main point, namely, that the faithful departed, far from missing the joy and triumph of the Lord’s coming, will in fact be found to be already members of his party, or at least higher up on the table of precedence than ourselves [who are still alive]. The third reason for caution is that, as the experience of the Jews shows, prophecy is rarely understood as to the nature of its actual occurrence until its fulfilment.
The bodily resurrection and the transformation of the universe
From the many statements and pictures in the New Testament seven at least clear truths emerge for us to be full of hope. One, Christ will return to this world of space and time and “every eye will see him” (Revelation 1.7). Two, his coming will bring human history to a close. Three, there will then be the bodily resurrection and judgment. Four, judgment will be seen to be “according to what they [people] had done” and “if anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire” (Revelation 20.12,15). Five, for the believer the resurrection of the body is a matter for great hope. Gone will be the limitations and sinful desires of “the body of sin” (Romans 6.6) or as in Romans 7.24 “this body of sin”. And the knowledge that we will one day be changed is an incentive to holy living, in the power of the Spirit by whom Christ has already been raised. Paul writes:
But our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself (Philippians 2.20-21).
Six, such a transformation explains why we have difficulty in describing what will happen. For it is all part of God’s new creation, the foretaste of which has been seen in the resurrection body of Christ.
Seven, the climax is when “the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a roar” (2 Peter 3.10). Peter had already spoken about “times of refreshing” and of God sending “the Christ appointed for you [Jewish people], Jesus, whom heaven must receive until the time for restoring all the things about which God spoke by the mouth of his holy prophets long ago” (Acts 3.21). Then Paul said this is when “the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God” (Romans 8.21). And, finally, John referred to it in his great vision:
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain any more, for the former things have passed away (Revelation 21.1-4).