Rethinking the Second Coming of Christ

1248, 1306, 1689, 1792, 1836, 1844, 1914, 1936, 1960, 1974, 1981, 1988, 1989, 1992, 1994, 2011.

Do you have any idea what these dates have in common?

They all represent the times in which people predicted that the second coming of Christ would occur.

According to a 2006 survey by Pew Research Forum, 79% of Christians in the USA say they believe the return of Christ will happen someday. 20% say it will happen in their lifetime. 34% say the world situation will grow worse before He returns.

Rapture Fever

Many Christians, especially those who live in America, are obsessed with the second coming of Christ. Various interpretations surrounding the when, where, and how of this incredible event have spawned endless divisions among Jesus’ followers. In fact, some Christians are so fixated on the second coming of Christ that they haven’t given sufficient time to understand His first coming.

In our book, Jesus: A Theography, Leonard Sweet and I explore the return of Christ in a way that transcends classic interpretations. Rather than enter into the eschatological wars that have raged over the last two hundred years, we focus our attention on how the First (Old) and Second (New) Testaments harmonize in telling us what God has in store for the future as it concerns His Son.

As I’ve sketched out elsewhere, God’s intention from the beginning was to bring heaven and earth together. It was to expand the garden of Eden to the rest of the world. Consequently, God’s intention is centered upon earth. God loves the earth and regards it highly. After God created the earth, the Bible says, “God saw everything that He had made, and indeed it was very good.” Contrary to what many believe, Scripture teaches that the earth will exist forever.

Although the Bible speaks of a new heaven and a new earth, the foundation of the earth will never pass away. The Lord is not going to do away with the world of space, time, and matter. Instead, God is going to renovate the earth, judge all things by fire, and burn up certain of its elements.

Some have mistakenly embraced the notion that God hates this dirty little planet and has promised to rescue His people out of it before He trashes it. But Scripture teaches no such thing. Indeed, Scripture repeatedly warns that “the world” is evil. But the Greek words translated “world” in these passages do not refer to the earth, but to the world system (kosmos) or the present age (aion) that is marked by the corruptions of sin.

The Bible makes clear that this present age is evil, that the world system is headed up by satan, and that God will judge the world system in the end. But it teaches with equal force that the earth itself is precious to God, who has wonderful plans for it. Because the world presently stands under the defilement of sin, God’s people are strangers and pilgrims to it. We are told that our citizenship is in the heavens, and we are not to be attached to that which is earthly. This present age and the world system are temporal and will pass away.

At the same time, the new creation has arrived with the resurrection of Jesus. While we are not from this world (the world system), we are certainly for the world (the earth and the people who populate it)—just as Jesus was not from this world but for it. The kingdom of God is certainly for the world, as Jesus prayed:  “Your kingdom come. Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”

The Appearance of Jesus

Some scholars believe that Jesus never talked about His second coming. For them texts like Mark 13, Matthew 24, Luke 17, and Luke 21 all speak  about Jesus’ vindication in AD 70 when the temple of Jerusalem was destroyed.

The coming of Christ will also be an apokalypsis, an “unveiling” or “disclosure.” The power and glory that are now his by virtue of his exaltation and heavenly session must be disclosed to the world.

—George E. Ladd

Other scholars believe these texts have a dual meaning. One layer of prophecy speaks of what happened in AD 70, while another layer speaks of what will happen in the future when Jesus returns to earth.

We are not going to weigh in on this debate. It is both technical and complicated, and if properly treated, it would demand an entire book of its own. Instead, we will list some of what the First and Second Testaments have to say about the Lord’s return with great consistency—when the personal presence of Jesus Christ within God’s new creation will occur:

• God will remake heaven and earth completely, affirming the goodness of the original creation and ending its corruption and finality.

• Jesus will reappear and usher in the age to come.

• When Jesus appears, those Christians who are still alive will be changed, transformed, so that their mortal bodies will become incorruptible, like Christ’s glorified, resurrected body.

• When Jesus appears, the resurrection will occur. All who have died in Christ will rise again from the dead and take on a body of immortality, just like Jesus’ glorified, resurrected body.

• The day the resurrection occurs is also called “the last day” (or “the latter day) and “the day of the Lord,” and it will come unexpectedly.

• The coming of Christ in glory, which will usher forth the resurrected, glorified bodies of the redeemed, is the Christian’s hope.

• The resurrection will occur on the “day of redemption” when our bodies will be redeemed, as well as the earth itself.

• Both the “just” and the “unjust” will rise again. And Jesus will judge both.

• The Lord will be revealed from heaven and return with thousands of His holy ones to judge the earth and show Himself to be King over all.

• In texts such as 1 Thessalonians 4, Paul used imagery from the story of Moses coming down from Mount Sinai with the Law. The trumpet sounds and a loud voice is heard. Paul also drew on the imagery of Daniel 7, in which God’s people were vindicated over their pagan enemies by being raised up to sit with God in glory.

• Jesus Christ is the omega point of creation. Upon His return, Jesus will defeat the last enemy, death. He will transform the world as the Judge. He will sum up and subdue all things to Himself. Finally, He will hand the kingdom back over to His Father, and God will become all and all.

C. S. Lewis has summed it up this way: “Unlike His first coming, Jesus’ second coming will be with power and splendour. The Bible states that everyone will see Him, and everyone will appear before Him in judgement. Simply put, He will confront every person and pronounce his or her destiny.”

The return of Christ is presented by the Second Testament authors with various rich metaphors. One is the new creation being born from the womb of the old creation. Another is the marriage of the new heavens and the new earth. Another is the kingdom of God triumphing over and swallowing up all other kingdoms.

Still another is drawn from the Roman imperial world of Caesar.The Greek word parousia is one example. When Caesar was away on a journey and he returned, his royal appearing—his imperial return to the city—was called the parousia. Caesar’s followers would go out to meet him and welcome him back to the city.

Paul used this exact language and imagery when he spoke of Christ’s return in 1 Thessalonians 4. Paul talked about meeting the Lord in the air, and how God will bring with Jesus those who have died with Him.

Putting all of the texts together on the subject, the scenario of Christ’s return perfectly fits how the Romans and Greeks understood the word parousia. Jesus will appear, the resurrection will occur, and those Christians who are alive will be transformed “in the twinkling of an eye” and meet Jesus in the air. They will then escort Him down from heaven to the newly recreated earth.

The parousia (“bodily presence,” “appearance,” “revelation,” or “unveiling”) of Jesus on earth draws all of the promises, prophecies, and unfulfilled events in both First and Second Testaments into a whole. They all come rushing together in this amazing event—an event that Luke called the “restoration of all things”—and “heaven must receive” Jesus until it occurs.

In this connection, the First Testament writers would often prophesy an event in the space of a few paragraphs, all of which have elements in them that occur thousands of years apart. So the two-part coming of Jesus, His appearance in the first century and His second coming (which hasn’t occurred yet) are stated as if they are a single event.

God’s eternal community has dawned, is dawning, and will one day arrive in its fullness. The God who has reconciled us to himself through Christ will one day bring us into full participation in the grand eschatological community of his divine reign.

—Stanley Grenz

Jesus’ Second Coming

In Scripture, the word salvation means “deliverance” and includes three tenses: we were saved (justification = salvation from the penalty of sin); we are being saved (sanctification = salvation from the power of sin); and we will be saved (glorification = salvation from the presence of sin). Salvation, then, is Jesus Christ: Christ as our righteousness (past); Christ as our sanctification (present); Christ as our hope of glory (future). The latter will occur when Jesus “will appear a second time.”

In this way, Jesus will complete what He began at His first appearing. He will end the exile. He will complete the exodus. He will bring His people and His good creation into its full rest. He will bring forth peace, justice, and prosperity to the entire world.

If we know nothing else about biblical prophecy, we know this: the fulfillment fleshes out the details. Christ’s first coming contained many surprises, even among those who studied the prophecies of the First Testament. We believe the same will be true for His second coming. It will contain surprises for even the most learned biblical scholars. In this regard, we agree with Karl Barth, who said, “We can’t fathom the Second Advent of Jesus Christ, and we stammer when we try to speak of it.”

In Philippians 3:20, Paul told the believers in Philippi that their “citizenship is in heaven.” The meaning is not that their destination was heaven. Philippi was a Roman colony. Most of the Philippians were Roman citizens.

Their destiny, therefore, was not Rome. The function of a Roman colony was to bring the culture of Rome to the city of Philippi. Thus Paul’s word to the Philippian Christians was this: “Bring the culture of the heavens to earth.”

So our calling as disciples is to labor for the kingdom of God by announcing in the power of the Holy Spirit that Jesus of Nazareth is Savior and Lord in both word and deed, praying and living that God’s will be done on earth as it is in heaven, and holding in our hearts the words of Paul and John:

“Maranatha . . . Come, Lord Jesus!”

The above is an excerpt from chapter 16 of Jesus: A Theography, “The Return of the King.” That chapter is the only place where I’ve ever addressed the issue of Christ’s second advent in any detail. The endnotes in the chapter contain documentation and sources. Those endnotes are removed from this article.  

The chapter covers the following: 

* The recent origins of the pretribulational two-stage return of Jesus. (Interestingly, no Christian had this view before the 1800s.)

* The consistent use of “The Day of the Lord” from Old to New Testaments.

* The Feasts of Israel and how they foreshadow Christ’s first and second coming.

* What the Bible says will happen when Jesus returns.

* How the second coming of Christ affects your life today. 

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Comments

  1. William says

    Thank you for sharing your perspective with grace. I haven’t read Jesus: A Theology yet and am looking forward to it. I have come to a place where I am OK with my limited capacity to know what The Lord will do. But in striving to mature in faith, Jesus’s final recorded words in Rev 22:18 – 19 conclude the issue for me.

    For [fn] I testify to everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: If anyone adds to these things, God will add [fn] to him the plagues that are written in this book;
    and if anyone takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God shall take away [fn] his part from the Book [fn] of Life, from the holy city, and from the things which are written in this book.

    and I love the writer’s response in ending the book: “The grace of our Lord Jesus Chris be with you all. Amen

  2. Bud Baker says

    God stuff Frank. If one simply reads the NT without someone telling them about the 2 stage coming of the Lord, they would never come away with that belief. Jesus will make all things right in the heavens and the earth that is the fulfillment of the Kingdom of God. Even so come Lord Jesus.

  3. says

    Let’s look at loss control: “If anyone causes one of these little ones (Christians) to stumble, they would be better off to have had a millstone hung around his neck and cast into the sea.”
    Four possible outcomes:
    1. you teach a secret rapture and you are right
    2. You teach no secret rapture and you are right
    3. You teach a secret rapture and you are wrong
    4. you teach no secret rapture and you are wrong

    In 1 & 2, you are okay by God.
    In 4, people will get ready for the worst and instead are suddenly snatched away to heaven. Everyone will get a good laugh about it.
    In 3, you have given people a false hope of no tribulation so they didn’t prepare. After all, only those going to hell will stick around. And Tribulation comes upon them with a vengeance. “So I’m one of those who wasn’t saved and is destined to hell…” They start living like hell, because they lost their chance. And when you get to the throne, you have to face God’s wrath. Are you that certain?

  4. Phyllis says

    I’ve read many different views on the Millenium (literal thousand years on earth). I have trouble figuring out exactly where it would fit into the scriptural accounts of the end times. If possible, I would surely appreciate a brief word on this subject.

  5. says

    Great post Frank, enjoyed it and agree with it.

    I believe Matthew 24:37 also shows that the rapture theory has it totally backwards. “As it was in the days of Noah” means that when His judgement is complete, the unbelievers will be the ones removed from the earth, and the God’s people will be the ones to inherit it.

  6. Andrew D says

    I’m experiencing cognitive dissonance here. One of the authors of Pagan Christianity, a work which reasonably and cogently attacks church practices that have roots as far back as the second century and maybe the first century, takes issue with a Christian doctrine that was not (hypothetically) rediscovered until the 1800’s? Do I have that right? What difference does the 1800’s date of strong pretribulational teaching make? The obvious answer, especially from someone who likes to stir up the pot as much as Mr. Viola, is that it shouldn’t matter one bit. And it doesn’t. It’s either true or it isn’t. God gives light on the scriptures particularly pertinent to the time. As we approach the Second Coming of Christ in an historic sense (it’s always been imminent chronologically), it would only make sense that more light is shed on this topic through His servants. I think peer pressure within the “academic” community has a lot to do with what view one holds, or whether one even discloses that view.

    • says

      Andrew: Did you even read Pagan Christianity?

      1. The argument of the book is NOT that practices that came after the apostles are wrong. We never make that case. In fact, we contradict that thinking numerous times w/ examples.

      2. The practices of the early church ARE verified by the earliest Christian documents, including the NT documents.

      3. The pretrib teaching, by contrast, cannot be found in the NT or any early other church document.

      I trust that clears up your “congnitive dissonance” issue. ;-)

      • MIke says

        Frank: Correct me if I am wrong, but you have been pretty consistent in your works addressing the idea that several new, unique aspects of church, worship, and Biblical interpretation came out of “movements” in the 19th and early 20th centuries. I cannot point to a specific example right now as I have read about five of your works since last May, but your posting above seems consistent with your thoughts on such matters.

      • pete says

        Frank,

        I would have to disagree with the idea that this teaching of the Pre-Tribulation Rapture is only as old as the 1800s. First, we have the Scripture itself in which Paul teaches the mystery (the 2nd Coming wasn’t a mystery) of the Rapture of the Church, to the churches in Thessalonika and Corinth. Secondly, we have a basic premise that God delivers His own before He pours out His wrath (Enoch, Noah, Lot) Even Abraham asked God that question (Gen 18) and Peter confirms it (2 Peter 2:9). Third, we have the other passages of scripture, NONE of which teach that we should be prepared to endure the 70th week of Daniel, but rather, teach the opposite: John 14:1-3; 1 Thess 1:10, 5:9; 2 Thess 2:1-3, 7-8; Titus 2:13; Rev 3:10….you’d think if Christians were going to have to endure the WORST time in human history, that Christ and the Apostles would have had much to say on this. Fourth, we do have Early Church Fathers who spoke on this: Irenaeus did in Against Heresies 5.29; Cyprian, in the Treatise of Cyprian; Ephriam the Syrian in his On the Last Times, 2 did…so its disengenous to think that this was all concocted in the 18th century, and shows a serious lack of scholarship.

        • says

          The problem here is that you’re interpreting the NT with the 2-state coming and then using the NT as a proof text. This is circular reasoning. Please provide the exact quote from Cyprian and the exact reference as well as the one from Against Heresies. I’m familiar with the Ephraim text, but that’s disputed. Thus your comment that it “shows a serious lack of scholarship” doesn’t follow. The book I referenced is a superb piece of scholarship with all the research documented. And it’s yet to be disputed. Also, N.T. Wright, who is regarded as the foremost NT scholar in the world, has done a lot of work on the NT texts that are routinely taken as a secret rapture and refuted it quite successfully. While “The Left Behind” series makes great fiction, it cannot be supported by the NT or church history.

  7. Antonio says

    Frank, thank you very much for another great read. However, I have a question for you that will clear up a misunderstanding that I have. #1 Does 1 Thessalonians speaks of the catching away of the saints to go be with The Lord forever? # 2 after the catching away of the saints, then begains the 7 years tribulation period. # 3 after the 7 year tribulation period then comes the second coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.

    • says

      You’re proposing a very recent doctrine that you’ve heard – a 2-stage return of Christ. Read the full chapter in our book and you’ll see where we come out on this view and why.

  8. says

    Frank, great article! I agree that we definitely need to hold our theories about just how things are going to unfold in the end days very loosely. That being said, it seems like there are certain specifics in the Scripture, and they were given for our hope, not to foster an “escapist” mentality. The main message is to keep trusting and keep serving Him. And to believe that we will “ever be with the Lord”, and to “comfort one another with these words” (1 Thess. 4:17-18.)

  9. says

    Thank you, Frank! I knew that the ancient Jewish view saw the “last days” beginning with the resurrection (of which Jesus was first), and that we have been living in the last days since the first advent of Christ. But I have always had a difficult time reconciling the idea of the second advent of Christ would be a one-time event (free from the pre-mill, pre-trib, dispensational view). Your explanation of “parousia” and how Paul used this word/imagery helped connect the dots.

  10. says

    Hi Frank,

    I like your post. I’ve bought “Jesus, a Theography”, and I am going to read it. I must say that I find the whole pre-trib rapture theory troublesome, but I am in contact with many people that believe in it. But I also had my spiritual growth in a church that believed more in the way you describe in this post. So I am still not completely sure about how to interpret the eschatological texts in the Bible.

    I know about the coming up of the dispensational thoughts around 1830. However, according to http://www.pre-trib.org this thought was already present before that time, especially in the 1600s. So that seems to contradict your statement that no Christian had this view before the 1800s.

    • says

      In “Jesus: A Theography,” we have the documentation and reference the key book on the subject. The view was first proposed by JN Darby who got it from a woman who had a vision. But even if someone believes it began in the 1600s, that’s 1600 years after the NT. So the big point remains. It’s a post-biblical doctrine.

  11. Nancy says

    Frank, I haven’t read your book, Jesus A Theography, and I would probably get the answer to my question if I did. May I ask what eschatological view you adhere to? Don’t worry I’ll love you just the same if we disagree:). I’ve studied them all and can’t really make a commitment and so far feel comfortable with that. I’d love to be raptured tomorrow however.

  12. Rod says

    Frank,
    Thanks for posting this and for taking us to the field of sacred cows; I really thought you were going to tip a few over. i for one appreciate your deference and restraint. Where others tend to press points and divide the family, your softer sell is refreshing and thought provoking.

    May we all have eyes to see as the LORD Jesus continually unveils Himself and my we discover and display HIM in His fullness now and forever.

    rod

  13. Mike W says

    Frank, this is the most useful perspective I’ve seen in 50 years. It is consistent with scripture, and it makes sense. The spirit within me agrees with the spirit within you!

  14. GregA says

    Let me add another date: 2029 — that would be (assuming that accuracy that Christ was crucified at age 33, and that he was born, according to our current calendar, in 4 BC) exactly 2000 years since his death and resurrection, and the beginning of the new covenant age of grace.

  15. says

    This is right along my thinking. I grew up under the teach of suffer while here on earth, bear it with patience because Jesus is going to pluck you away soon. Just wait, no reason to grow. If you believe then you are bound for eternal bliss. Now I believe we are to mature, grow in skills which are mainly centered around building His Kingdom. I use to ask the Baptist, “If we do what Jesus told us to do, ‘go into all the world and make disciples’, and we made everyone a disciple, would He still destroy the world?”

  16. says

    Very nice post from a very insightful book. The “rapture focus” you reference is just as you say. I have thought how it overlooks the character of God. The idea that Jesus will come and help us escape out the back door while the devil kicks in the front door is ludicrous. He’s King of Kings! We live in His Kingdom even now…..let’s live this “Kingdom Coming On Earth As In Heaven”. We have the power of the resurrection after all IN US.

    Thanks for the insight as usual.

  17. Teenie Drumm says

    What a refreshing read. I do have the book to refer to if needed. Interesting on how it brings out the fact that then so called tribulation didn’t show up before the 1800s. I first met Jesus during the early 70’s hippie movement in remote Alaska. We actually built bomb shelters.
    Blessings

  18. John William Keirsey says

    Frank, I like your studies, and this is a healthy one. Bringing the two testaments together the way you do is encouraging and instructive.

  19. Pamela Christian says

    Yes, and Amen! This is how I’ve always considered the return of our Lord and the status of this world. The world system is corrupt but the world God made is beautiful, stunning and beyond compare. Imagine how much more it will be when evil is removed. “Help us Lord to work with you in removing evil, one soul at a time as we share the Gospel of Jesus Christ.”

  20. Jeff says

    Good post. I always joke that I am an ‘all’ millennialist: it ‘all’ works out in the end. While raised in a denomination that preaches the dispensational view of two returns, once at the rapture and then to reign a 1000 years, I pretty much realized that much of that was more imagination than scriptural. I now adhere more to Hank Hannegraff’s view (See his book, The Apocalypse Code). Either way, no point in arguing over it for the most part except to defend against those trying to use their interpretation in world politics or set up false dates for profit. It will ‘all’ work out to God’s glory.

    • Eric Allen says

      Similarly, I have used the term, “pan-millenialist,” where it will all “pan out in the end!” :-)

  21. Michael McLean says

    After close to twenty years of study, here is the sum of my knowledge of the Lord’s second coming:

    1. He is coming back
    2. Nobody knows when
    3. I’m supposed to live like it will happen today

    I think your statement that so many Christians become obsessed with the second coming that they neglect the first coming is so very true. So many people become so obsessed with studying the second coming that they forget that we’re supposed to be about helping our friends and neighbors be prepared for it.

  22. says

    Ever since my Seminary days (late 1960’s) I have held the view that there is something to learn from each of the classic views: premil, postmil, amil. The position of our Seminary, influenced by British scholarship, was large a-mil. Six months ago I gave myself to thoroughly re-visiting my eschatology. One of the exponents I most agreed with, I believe on biblical grounds, was Anthony Hoekema.

    As I think of my own conclusions after all these years I think Frank is spot-on. I will be posting this post on to my family members and friends in many places. Thanks Frank.

  23. says

    Jesus Christ and His Kingdom…what or who was, and is, and is to come. regardless of the stage or progression, or revelation, one element is true, it is founded in Love, Justice, and Grace.

  24. says

    Great post Frank. I love that you focus on a straightforward reading of the scriptures, rather than focusing on speculations that divide us. I also appreciate that you convey God’s desire and intention in the whole matter, which conveys hope and joy rather than fear.

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