The following is an edited version of an earlier Coloured Supplement. With regard to the "challenge" of the Second Coming and the "Final Judgment" including the judgment of believers see the sermon "Expecting His Return" (on Luke 19.11-27) preached by David Holloway on Sunday 27 November 2005 (9.30am/11.15am) - www.church.org.uk.
Christians recite in the Apostles' Creed, "He [Jesus] will come again to judge the living and the dead." This is a source of great hope for those who believe in Jesus Christ, but for non-believers it is a momentous challenge.
Christ, it is true, comes in a sense for every Christian at death. The Creed, however, speaks of a day when he will come publicly and at the end of history. However, because the biblical teaching on the "last things" has given rise to a number of strange ideas, many now neglect what the Bible teaches about the return of Christ. One respected theologian has complained over "the setting aside of the duty to preach the Second Coming and to stir the Church's longing in the Holy Spirit for that coming, a setting aside of duty largely caused by fear of its abuse." But the early Christians were so different. They were noted for their "waiting" confidently for the Second Coming of Jesus Christ.
Is it Believable?
If you ask, "what did their contemporaries notice most about the early Christians?" the Apostle Paul gives you a very clear answer. He writes to the Thessalonian church that people were telling ...
"... how you [the Christians in Thessalonica] turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God, and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead - Jesus, who rescues us from the coming wrath" (1 Thess 1.9-10).
These Christians were noted for two things. On the one hand they were known as people who served the true God and not false gods - presumably by seeking to be obedient to him both privately and publicly. On the other hand they were known as people who were "waiting for his Son from heaven".
Is such a "return", however, believable today in the 21st century? To answer that we must always distinguish what is believable from what is imaginable. Much that cannot be imagined can be believed. Certainly what is unimaginable to one generation is fully believable in the next. That has been true in recent times of space travel, of computerization, and of nanotechnology. Undoubtedly, even for believers, Christ's Second Coming has always been unimaginable in some ways. But our imagination cannot determine what is possible with God. Isaiah says in the Old Testament:
"'As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts,' declares the Lord" (Isaiah 55.9).
So what is to be believed about the Second Coming? One thing is this: at present Jesus, by his Holy Spirit, is invisibly present to millions and at the same time. But at some point in the future, when he comes again, in some way he will make himself visibly present to everybody. And the New Testament is emphatic that this will happen. The Second Coming of Jesus Christ is referred to about 300 times (on average once in every 15 verses) in the New Testament. That contrasts with the fact that Holy Communion is mentioned only on four clear occasions!
What Will it be Like?
How, then, are we to begin to imagine the Second Coming? One clue is given in the narrative of the Acts of the Apostles where it describes the Ascension of Jesus. We are told that "two men dressed in white" (presumably some sort of an angelic presence) said this, Acts 1.11:
"Men of Galilee," they said, "why do you stand here looking into the sky? This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven."
"But isn't all this only mythology?" someone asks. "No one can believe the Ascension today. Therefore, if the Second Coming is in some way a reversal of the Ascension, it, too, is only mythology." But why should the Ascension be only "mythology"? The early Christians certainly believed that Jesus had really ascended. Peter writes about Jesus as the one ...
"who has gone into heaven and is at God's right hand - with angels, authorities and powers in submission to him" (1 Pet 3.22).
How could such a belief come about without the event recorded in Acts 1.9? That says:
"he [Jesus] was taken up before their very eyes, and a cloud hid him from their sight."
Nor, as some say, is that verse necessarily implying a "three-decker" universe. It is not at all clear that the New Testament authors were tying themselves to any particular cosmology. For example, Paul once spoke of being "caught up to the third heaven" when he was describing a visionary experience (2 Cor 12.2). But this was not a journey to another place in a distant part of the universe. Rather, in the context of the passage, it was a translation to a different order of existence.
The Ascension cannot be so easily dismissed. As a former Archbishop of Canterbury and distinguished biblical scholar, Michael Ramsey, put it: "there is nothing incredible in an event whereby Jesus assured the disciples that the [Resurrection] appearances were ended and that his sovereignty and his presence must henceforth be sought in new ways."
The Ascension seems to have been a decisive and deliberate withdrawal by Jesus from human sight; and there was something gradual about it. It was not like the sudden disappearance of Christ on the Emmaus Road. Some would find that easier to believe. As C.S.Lewis put it:
"if the spectators say they saw first a short vertical movement and then a vague luminosity (that is what 'cloud' presumably means here as it certainly does in the account of the Transfiguration) and then nothing - have we any reason to object?"
And "clouds", of course, feature in the Second Coming of Jesus.
The "cloud" in the Bible was often a symbol of the divine presence. In the days of Moses a "cloud" was above the tent of meeting. It was a visible sign to Israel that the glory of the Lord was there (Ex 40.34). Also a "cloud" featured in the transfiguration of Jesus: "a cloud appeared and enveloped them, and a voice came from the cloud: 'This is my Son, whom I love. Listen to him!'" (Mk 9.7). So when Jesus described his own Second Coming as a "coming in clouds with great power and glory" (Mk 13.26), it would have been understood as referring to his own divine glory.
However, the Second Coming of Jesus will be more than just a "reversal" of the Ascension. The Ascension was private and seen just by Jesus' disciples. The Second Coming will be, as we have said, public. Revelation 1.7 says:
"he is coming with the clouds, and every eye will see him, even those who pierced him."
And the Second Coming will not only be public and visible but also triumphant. The Greek word in the New Testament often used for the Second Coming is Parousia. That was an official term for the visit of a person of high rank, especially a king or emperor, visiting a province. Such a "picture" may well be behind "the trumpet" mentioned several times in the New Testament:
"We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed - in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed" (1 Cor 15.51).
The trumpet suggests the heralding of a royal visitor or the noise that would go with a royal welcome. "But how helpful is this? There can't, surely, be a literal trumpet" asks another critic.
It needs to be remembered that this is "picture language" (or, more precisely, it is using analogies). We simply have to use picture language to talk not only about the Second Coming but also about the related subjects of life after death, judgment, Heaven and Hell. But that does not mean that what is referred to, or what stands behind that picture language, is not real and true.
Our human language and human concepts are designed for this world of space and time. To describe what happened at, before or beyond "the beginning" or "the end" requires such language (or analogies). That does not mean, however, we are describing a fantasy.
This language is describing something that is real. Christians have always been aware of that. So Augustine of Hippo (354 - 430 AD) writing about the fact that Christ is now seated at God's right hand in Heaven, says of this "sitting", "the expression indicates not a posture of the members, but judicial power, which majesty never fails to possess."
Augustine would never have been in doubt as to what Christ was now really doing. He knew that Christ was sitting at the right hand of God. Yes, he knew that he was using picture language. But he knew that this was a true fact and a reality.
It is the same with the Second Coming. Some picture language is required such as the "trumpet" and the "shout". But that does not affect the reality referred to. The reality of a situation or an event is not affected by the kind of language used to describe it. To be hesitant about the reality of what is claimed when using picture language is something like asking someone "what happens at dawn?" and they then reply: "I don't know; all I can do is use pre-Copernican picture language and say 'the sun rises.'"
That is not being clever. It is showing that someone does not know how to use language. What happens in the morning, is that the sun does rise. There is an objective event that happens for everyone in a given area. We may think that this pre-Copernican picture language can be misunderstood. Today we say that the earth goes round the sun and not vice-versa. But as we know, this picture language is usually capable of communicating, given our limitations - namely that we are on earth and not out in space.
Of course, we will have to wait for Christ's return before we see in detail in what ways the biblical picture language has been appropriate. Until then we simply have to allow it to capture our imaginations, while never forgetting that it is referring to a reality and an actual future event.
So Christ has promised to return. Therefore, we should not be embarrassed about taking his promise seriously. Jesus said:
"If I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am" (John 14.3).
This is a personal return. Whatever else it may or may not be, there will be a relationship established between Christ and all true believers; and salvation will be completed. It will be comparable to two parties meeting and "seeing" each other. It will not just be a "spiritual" event. So Paul says: "When Christ, who is your life, appears, then you also will appear with him in glory" (Col 3.4). Nor will Jesus only end history, raise the dead and judge the world. His Second Coming will also result in a reconstructed universe. Again Paul writes:
"I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us. The creation waits in eager expectation for the sons of God to be revealed. For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God" (Rom 8.18-21).
What, however, is to happen between now and Christ's Second Coming? The New Testament talks about a range of happenings that can be embodied more than once. Nor do we have single identifiable dates, except possibly the fall of Jerusalem in 70 AD (Lk 21.20). Among other things, and most importantly, Jesus says there will be the preaching of the gospel in the Gentile world (Mat 24:14). He also says there will be false prophets, false Christs and antichrists (Mat 24:5). And Paul says somehow Jews will be brought to faith in Christ (Rom 11:25-29); on the other hand there will be difficult times for believers, including the appearance of "the man of lawlessness":
"Don't let anyone deceive you in any way, for that day will not come until the rebellion occurs and the man of lawlessness is revealed, the man doomed to destruction" (2 Thess 2.3).
None of this, however, gives us grounds for predicting when events will happen and certainly not the date of Christ's return. Jesus said: "No one knows about that day or hour, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father" (Mk 13.32).
Down the Centuries
Down the centuries Christians have said various things about this period between the two comings of Jesus. In the first century Jesus made it clear that he would return, but his coming could be delayed; so Christians might die first. That caused problems for some. The New Testament talks about "scoffers" who will say, "Where is this 'coming' he promised? Ever since our fathers died, everything goes on as it has since the beginning of creation" (2 Pet 3.4). The New Testament reply to that criticism was: "But do not forget this one thing, dear friends: With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day. The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance" (2 Pet 3.8-9). God's time frame is not ours.
Then in the second and third centuries there were varied views among Christians about this period. Some straightforwardly believed in a final climax to world history with a general resurrection and judgment. Others spoke of an earthly reign of Jesus Christ for a 1000 years first (the "millennium" referred to in the book of Revelation chapter 20); this millennium would follow the Second Coming and happen before the "end".
In the fourth century Augustine argued that it made more sense of the Bible to interpret the "millennium" as already having begun. He thus equated the "millennium" with the whole age of the church. He believed, too, that the verses in Revelation that spoke of further manifestations of evil would be fulfilled at the close of the millennium. This Augustinian teaching then became mainstream.
Jumping the centuries to the 16th century, many of the Reformers believed that they were in the middle of a manifestation of evil and the final conflict because of their fight against the Pope. Some saw him as the "Anti-Christ". Since then others have been identified as the Anti-Christ – in modern times murderous dictators like Hitler, Stalin, and Pol-Pot. But it probably will never be possible to identify categorically any given historical figure as the Anti-Christ. Rather figures in history may need to be seen as embodying the symbolism of the book of Revelation. It is always an open question at any given time as to whether a contemporary Godless, anti-Christian tyrant who is persecuting the faithful is only a precursor to the final Anti-Christ or the Anti-Christ himself.
Whatever is going to happen between the two Comings of Christ, the response Christians should have to the fact of Christ's return is simple. It is to watch. Here is Jesus teaching in Mark 13.32-37:
"No one knows about that day or hour, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. Be on guard! Be alert ! You do not know when that time will come It's like a man going away: He leaves his house and puts his servants in charge, each with his assigned task, and tells the one at the door to keep watch. Therefore keep watch because you do not know when the owner of the house will come back - whether in the evening, or at midnight, or when the rooster crows, or at dawn. If he comes suddenly, do not let him find you sleeping. What I say to you, I say to everyone: 'Watch!'"
Nor does "watching" mean just waiting and doing nothing. First, we need to trust and follow Jesus Christ. Then there is clearly the need to watch out for opportunities of evangelism and service; but also, says Jesus, to watch out for temptation: "Watch and pray so that you will not fall into temptation" (Mk 14.38). We should, indeed, live each day as if it were our last. If Christ returns and we are unprepared, he taught it would be a fearful disaster (Mat 24.36-51) (the return of Christ for those who are alive will have the same significance as death has for those who die before it happens). So Lord Shaftesbury in the 19th century tried consciously to remember the return of Christ everyday. It did not lead to an other-worldliness. Rather it was a motive for his remarkable humanitarian work. For him it helped in living a "holy and godly life". So let Peter have the last word:
"the day of the Lord will come like a thief. The heavens will disappear with a roar; the elements will be destroyed by fire, and the earth and everything in it will be laid bare. Since everything will be destroyed in this way, what kind of people ought you to be? You ought to live holy and godly lives" (2 Pet 3.10-11).