With all the uncertainty surrounding the 2012 phenomenon, it seems a little more fitting this year to actually focus on the second advent of Jesus Christ during... well... Advent. Virtually every Christian denomination believes in the return of Christ, although there’s disagreement on the details. Even Muslims believe that Jesus (Isa) will return to earth near the end of time (although Islam has very different beliefs than Christianity about who Jesus is.)
The Second Coming has fascinated believers since the first generation of Christians. Many of them believed that Jesus would return during the first century. No doubt there was much eschatological rethinking as the years went by, and Christ’s prohibition against date-setting likely began to be understood in a much broader sense.
The Nicene Creed, which was adopted by the first ecumenical council in 325 AD, clearly states a belief in a future return of Christ: "He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end."
The Bible, however, doesn’t give as many details as some of us would like concerning how and when that’s going to happen. Oh there’s a good bit of information there, but there are also a lot of dots to connect. And boy have people throughout history tried to connect them. Throughout church history, date-setters have shown up from time to time, predicting the days or years of Christ’s return, only to find themselves (and those who believed them) disappointed.
The most widely known occurrence of this in recent years was the prediction of May 21, 2011 by radio evangelist Harold Camping. Archbishop James Ussher in the 1650’s predicted 1997, and even 19th century Methodist theologian Adam Clarke speculated in his Bible commentary that 2015 might be the year. There have also been many other predictions.
Some Christians believe that Jesus will return to collect believers (an event commonly known as the Rapture), then return with them after a period of great tribulation to judge the world and to reign over it. Some believe the rapture will take place before this tribulation, some believe it will happen in the middle of it, and others predict it will happen at the end. (Of course, in order for that to work out, believers would be caught up to meet Jesus, then everyone would immediately come back down to earth. To me, that view doesn’t seem to make a lot of sense.) Other Christians don’t believe in a rapture, but rather in a single return of Christ at the end of the age.
Whatever you believe about an intervening rapture, the return of Christ appears to have at least four main characteristics, according to Scripture:
- We don’t know when it will be, and many people won’t see it coming. Matthew 24:44 says,”Therefore, you also should be prepared, because the Human One will come at a time you don’t know.” According to Matthew 24:36, “Nobody knows when that day or hour will come, not the heavenly angels and not the Son. Only the Father knows.” Date-setters over the years have done eschatological gymnastics and created all kinds of loopholes to explain why they really do know when Jesus will return. They’ve been wrong so far. (We don’t know yet about Adam Clarke. But, to be fair, he didn’t claim to be setting a rigid date when he wrote that.)
- It will be a worldwide event. “Every eye will see him, including those who pierced him, and all the tribes of the earth will mourn because of him,” according to Revelation 1:7. Matthew 24:30 says, “Then the sign of the Human One will appear in the sky. At that time all the tribes of the earth will be full of sadness, and they will see the Human One coming in the heavenly clouds with power and great splendor.” I sometimes try to imagine how this would play out if it happened today. A couple of hundred years ago, every eye seeing one event would have been hard to picture. Today we have satellite television, the internet, and mobile phones. People have the ability now to watch monumental events in real time.
- It will be instantaneous. No one knows exactly how it will all really unfold, but when it does, don't blink. It will be instantaneous. According to Matthew 24:27, “Just as the lightning flashes from the east to the west, so it will be with the coming of the Human One.”
- There will be clues that the time is getting closer. “There will be signs in the sun, moon, and stars. On the earth, there will be dismay among nations in their confusion over the roaring of the sea and surging waves. The planets and other heavenly bodies will be shaken, causing people to faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world. Then they will see the Human One coming on a cloud with power and great splendor. Now when these things begin to happen, stand up straight and raise your heads, because your redemption is near. (Luke 21:25-28)” This language is somewhat cryptic, and I caution anyone against using it to read too much into world events. Still, Jesus must’ve said it for a reason. So we watch, wonder, and wait.
Will we be the generation that witnesses the return of Jesus? I can't answer that. But whether we are or not, we're told to be prepared for it, because we never know what the next minute will bring—Christ could come back, or we could make an unexpected exit (either by rapture or the old fashioned way—by dying.) Either way, our perspectives are going to be radically different once it takes place.