One of the five principles necessary for Christian belief according to the Conference of Conservative Protestants that met in Niagara Falls in 1896 was the physical, bodily return of Jesus (the other four being biblical inerrancy, the virgin birth, the divinity of Jesus, and substitutionary atonement). These five beliefs have become central to Christian evangelicalism.
Many Christians today, even more progressive types, anticipate some kind of divine intervention to close human history as we know it and to begin something that looks very different than life on planet earth looks like now. Many of the early Christians connected the climax of this present age with the revelation of the resurrected Christ from heaven, which would result in the resurrection of all humanity. Paul called this Christ’s “coming” (see 1 Cor. 15:21-24, 1 Thess. 4:12-18).
Of course, these early Christians just as confidently believed that this “coming” (Greek, parousia) would happen soon. For example, Paul told the unmarried in the church at Corinth it would be best if they stayed unmarried because the world as they knew was about to end (see 1 Cor. 7:25-31). In Jesus’ discourse on the coming of the Son of Man, Jesus is purported as saying, “Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place” (Mark 13:30). Of course, that generation did indeed pass away and the coming of the Son of Man did not occur. And here we are two millennia later.
Many Christians say, “The early church got the timing wrong, but the event is still going to happen; they messed up on the when but not the what.” Maybe so, but then maybe not. I am not looking for some kind of sensational “coming.” I believe the apocalyptic language of scripture (like Mark 13, par. Matt. 24, Luke 21) should be read poetically, symbolically, and metaphorically, not literally.
I sometimes wish I could believe in a divine intervention to end human history as we know it. Because it’s hard to imagine religious institutions and religious faith as they now exist doing much to make a difference in our world. In fact, one could argue that religion in general and Christianity in particular are about as likely to make things worse as better.
As a species we are probably not past adolescence in our moral and spiritual evolution. Terrorist groups are on the rise. Massive systemic injustice abounds in governments, economic systems, and institutions of all types. One has to wonder if we will survive as a species. I sometimes wish I could believe in some kind of divine intervention. It would sure be easier. I could then sit back and wait for Christ to come and clean up this mess.
God is hidden in the world. God invites, woos, entices, draws, and speaks in a still, small voice that is subtle and hardly perceptible. God does not coerce, control, or micro-manage our lives or any of the events and experiences on planet earth or in our universe. I don’t suspect that will change.
So what can Christians who interpret apocalyptic language symbolically draw out of it? For me there are two big truths. First, apocalyptic language points to some kind of ultimate vindication and redemption that means life beyond this life. If this life is all there is, then neither justice nor love are vindicated. Biblical apocalyptic scenarios are about future vindication.
The Hebrews began to form a belief in resurrection during the intertestamental period. Until then they spoke of sheol as the place of the dead. It was probably in most instances just a synonym for death itself. Then around the third century B.C.E. they began to intuit that there must be more to this life than this life. That those who have suffered unjustly and died prematurely will be vindicated. During this time apocalyptic language emerged as a way to talk about a final vindication, and the idea of a general resurrection became popular. This is why many of the early followers of Jesus believed the end was near after they became convinced that God raised Jesus from the dead. They considered Jesus’ resurrection the beginning of the resurrection of all humankind (see Matt 27:23-23; 1 Cor. 15:23-24).
I, too, believe that there must be more. That all wrongs will be put right. That all things broken will be healed. That all things estranged and alienated will be reconciled. My Christian faith gives me that hope and nurtures trust that God’s love will prevail preserving our conscious existence into the future. Now, I can’t begin to imagine what that might actually look like or be like so I don’t even try. I trust that it will be good.
The second big truth is this. While I am not looking for some miraculous intervention from heaven I very much believe God is working in our world to transform our world.
So while I am not looking for Jesus to personally return in some bodily form, I am convinced that the spiritual presence of the cosmic Christ is already here pervading this world and this universe. We just need eyes to see what is in front of our face.
I really like the way Brother David Steindl-Rast puts this in his book Deeper than Words (by the way, in this book he interprets and appropriates the Apostles Creed metaphorically and spiritually providing a wonderful example of how Christians can approach the scriptures in the same manner),
My favorite lines about Christ’s “Second Coming” are in the story “A Christmas Memory” by Truman Capote. In this autobiographical piece of great delicacy, the author describes his last Christmas with the woman who brought him up. The author is seven at the time, she is in her sixties, a childlike soul radiant with inner beauty. They are each other’s best friends. On Christmas Day, the two of them are lying in the grass, flying the kites they made as presents for each other. Suddenly the old woman experiences a moment of mystic insight. She admits that formerly she had imagined Christ at the Second Coming shining like the windows in a Baptist church, sunlight pouring through the colored glass. But now she realizes with utter surprise and delight that what she has always seen – what we always see all around us – is Christ in glory, here and now” (Deeper than Words: Living the Apostles’ Creed, p. 132-32).
We don’t need more Christians to believe in some end-time cataclysmic shake-up. What we desperately need right now is more Christians to see the possibilities of Christ in glory here and now, to claim who they are in God and become the body of Christ – feeding the hungry, caring for the vulnerable, healing the wounded, liberating the oppressed, and working for peace and restorative justice in the world.
(This piece was first published at the Unfundamentalist Christians blog)