Reader’s Question: How should we understand the second coming of Christ?
In the Apostles’ Creed, the Church declares that the risen and ascended Christ will come to ‘judge the living and the dead’. The return of Christ at the end of time to judge the world and to bring the kingdom of God to consummation is clearly taught in Scripture and firmly grounded in the theological and liturgical traditions of the Church.
But Christ’s second coming has also been a subject of much speculation and controversy throughout the history of the Church. Christians of every stripe have discussed the time of Christ’s return as well as the manner of the parousia (Greek for ‘presence’ or ‘arrival’).
Space does not allow us to examine the many passages in the New Testament that refer to the return of the Lord Jesus. But here are a few passages that will hopefully show that this is a major theme in the Gospels as well as in the other books of the NT.
In his great Oliver Discourse, Jesus in discussing the end times speaks of his return thus: ‘Then will appear the sign of the Son of Man in heaven. And then all the peoples of the earth will mourn when they see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven, with power and great glory’ (Matthew 24:30).
Paul, in his letter to the Christians at Thessalonica, testifies that ‘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’ (1 Thessalonians 4:16). Writing to the Corinthian Christians, Paul assures them that God will ‘also keep you firm to the end, so that you will be blameless on that day of our Lord Jesus Christ’ (1 Corinthians 1:7).
The apostle Paul dealt with this topic in many of his letters (1 Corinthians 15:23; 1 Thessalonians 2:19; 3:13; 5:23; 2 Thessalonians 1:7-10; 2:1, 8; 1 Timothy 6:14; 2 Timothy 4:1, 8 and Titus 2:13). And in the rest of the NT, references of the second Advent of Christ can be found in Hebrews 9:28; James 5:7-8; 1 Peter 1:7, 13; 2 Peter 1:16; 3:4, 12; 1 John 2:28, and of course in Revelation.
Throughout the history of the Church, attempts were made intermittently to predict the date of Christ’s return. One of the most spectacular examples is the medieval theologian and monk, Joachim of Fiore, who asserted in 1190 that the Antichrist had already come. Joachim prophesied that Christ would return before 1205 to begin his millennial rule.
A number of passages in the NT may give the impression that the return of Christ is imminent when their contexts are ignored. For example, Jesus told his apostles as he sent them on their mission that ‘when they persecute you in one town, flee to the next, for truly, I say to you, you will not have gone through all the towns of Israel before the Son of Man comes’ (Matthew 10:23).
A superficial reading of this passage suggests that the parousia will take place within the lifetimes of Jesus’ disciples. This passage, however, must be read alongside what Matthew has to say about mission to the Gentiles, which will take place at the end of the age (Matthew 21:43; 24:14).
Seen in this way, the passage in fact urges its readers to look beyond the immediate mission of Jesus’ disciples to that of the Church. As the NT scholar G. D. Ladd has rightly argued, properly understood, Matthew 10:23 ‘says no more than the mission of Jesus’ disciples to Israel will last until the coming of the Son of Man’.
A close reading of the NT would reveal that it scrupulously discourages any speculation about the date and time of the return of Christ. In his Olivet Discourse, Jesus said: ‘But concerning that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father only’ (Matthew 24:36).
Writing to the Christians at Thessalonica who are disposed to think that the parousia would take place in their lifetimes, Paul stresses that ‘that day will surprise you like a thief’ (1 Thessalonians 5:4). Peter echoes this point when he writes: ‘But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a roar …’ (2 Peter 3:10).
Just as the timing of Christ’s return is a mystery, so is the manner of the Second Advent. Although the NT employs numerous imageries to depict the return of Christ, it unequivocally teaches that the parousia will be personal and physical. This is clearly indicated in passages such as Acts 1:11 where we are told that Jesus will return in the same manner as he had ascended into heaven.
Matthew also depicts the glorious return of Christ as visible, clear and unmistakable: ‘Then will appear in heaven the sign of the Son of Man, and then all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and glory’ (24:30).
In his book Is Jesus Coming Soon? Ralph Martin succinctly summarises the NT testimony concerning the manner of Christ’s return thus: ‘Christ’s coming will be personal, clearly manifest, unmistakable, and visible to all. It will not be hidden or invisibly “spiritual”; this will be the incarnate Son coming, not an invisible working of the Holy Spirit’.
The NT does not address the question how it is possible for Christ’s return to be physical (which means that it is confined to a particular location) and yet be visible to the whole world.
The purpose of the return of Christ is to judge the whole world (‘the living and the dead’, as the Apostles’ and Nicene creeds put it) and to bring God’s kingdom to consummation. Concerning this final judgement, the brilliant Roman Catholic theologian of the previous century, Romano Guardini, writes:
Men and things will appear in their true light, as they are, and every deception will vanish. The inner and most hidden nature, both good and evil, will appear plainly, with all trappings stripped away. Every being will attain to what is the truth.