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The Second Coming:

An Event in Ancient History

 

Steve Jones

Atlanta, Georgia

 

Multitudes were bracing for the end as the clock ticked toward 2000. In the forecast were computer crashes threatening to send the planet back to the law of the jungle.

The Middle East was continuing its instability, amplifying the drumming hoof-beats of the Four Horsemen. Biblical chronologists, accordingly, set to work "proving" the imminent coming of Jesus Christ in the clouds. The gleams of his return were on the horizon, ready to break into the full light of day once we left the 20th century.

The same thing happened 1000 years ago. As the calendar was getting set to shift into quadruple digits, people’s lives went into upheaval. For many, the impending millennium brought about opposite extremes. Some became devout, preparing for what they believed was the Second Coming. Others turned to last-ditch debauchery, fearing the world would end before they had their full measure of fun.

But the world passed the year 1000 and sped into the 1300s, when end-of-the-age fervor seized people afresh. The black death swept through Europe, wiping out a third of the population. War raged, including the demoralizing Hundred Years’ War. Christians were bewildered as three men rose up, all claiming to be the pope. The end appeared to be at hand for sure this time.

Since then, the end has been predicted again and again. Most notably, the Millerite movement drew people to sell their goods and ascend a mountaintop, waiting for Jesus to return in 1844. The event became known as the Great Disappointment. The Watchtower organization has set dates with embarrassing regularity. In 1988, a Texas author wrote a book listing "88 Reasons Jesus Will Come in 1988." Bible teacher Jack Van Impe recently got involved in date-setting. The date, of course, passed without the Parousia.

 

Initial Considerations

 

Likewise, the year 2000 came and went uneventfully. This should surprise no one, because there was nothing special about the year 2000. For all practical purposes, the new millennium commenced in the mid-1990s. If Jesus was born around 4 or 6 B.C., as scholars believe, we passed into the new millennium during the 1990s. It is purely arbitrary, an invention of our own calendar system.

The numbers we attach to our years are relatively meaningless, especially from the standpoint of the ancient Scriptures. But Bible students still unearth the "clear evidence"— cross-referencing this, that, and the other Bible verses. The same kind of digging gave us dates of 1844, 1979 and 1988 — each of which was most certainly the right one.

Another thing we should consider when approaching this topic is that the term "end of the world" is not really a biblical statement. A lexicon or concordance will reveal that the Greek word "aeon" is better translated "age." References in the King James Bible to the "end of the world" convey a false impression. Unfortunately, the Bible reader cannot help but see the rotating Earth perishing in a cosmic inferno. But the authors of Scripture wrote about the end of an age, not of the globe. They rarely, if ever, spoke globally.

Also, the word "earth," which appears so often in the New Testament, literally means "land." The authors of Scripture had a small portion of the Middle East — not the planet itself — under consideration. When we read about calamity coming "upon the earth," it’s coming "upon the land." It need not be falling upon Southeast Asia or the Americas for the statement to fulfill its meaning.

 

The Imminent Return

 

What may be the most daunting evidence against the view of Jesus coming anytime in the future is this: The event was supposed to happen within the lifetime of Jesus’ hearers, at least some of them. They would live to see the Parousia. Within a short span, Christ was to come in the clouds for judgment. Jesus, Peter, Paul, John, James all taught this. If anything in the New Testament is near undeniable, it is that the early disciples believed they were close to the end. It was "at hand" and "at the doors."

Some Christians scoff at this. They may see it as an impious belief. But there is nothing impious about following the evidence wherever it leads. Let the Scriptures speak for themselves. Here are no fewer than 20 texts that support the idea that the New Testament authors believed they were in the "last days" before the imminent coming of the Lord (emphases mine): 

1. "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand." (Matt. 3:2)

2. "But whenever they persecute you in this city, flee to the next; for truly I say to you [a group of early missionaries], you shall not finish going through the cities of Israel, until the Son of Man comes." (Matt. 10:23)

3. "For the Son of Man is going to come in the glory of His Father with His angels; and will then recompense every man according to his deeds. Truly I say to you, there are some of those who are standing here who shall not taste of death until they see the Son of Man coming in His kingdom." (Matt. 16:27)

4. "Truly I say to you, not one stone here [of the temple then standing] shall be left on another … But immediately after the tribulation of those days, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will fall …" (Matt. 24:2, 29)

5. "Truly I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things take place." (Matt. 24:34, concerning Christ’s coming in the clouds)

6. "The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near …" (Mark 1:15)

7. "But keep on the alert at all times, praying in order that you may have strength to escape all these things that are about to take place, and to stand before the Son of Man." (Luke 21:36)

8. "… they [Old Testament stories of judgment] were written for our instruction, upon whom the ends of the ages have come." (1 Cor. 10:11)

9. "… the Lord is at hand." (Phil. 4:5)

10. "God … in these last days has spoken to us through His son …" (Heb. 1:1, 2)

11. "For yet in a very little while, he who is coming will come and will not delay." (Heb. 10:37)

12. "You, too, be patient; strengthen your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is at hand." (James 5:8)

13. "The end of all things is at hand; therefore, be of sound judgment and sober spirit for the purpose of prayer." (1 Pet. 4:7)

14. "For it is time for judgment to begin with the household of God …" (1 Pet. 4:17)

15. "Children, it is the last hour; and just as you heard that antichrist is coming, even now many antichrists have arisen; from this we know that it is the last hour." (1 John 2:18)

16. "The Revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave Him to show to His bond-servants the things that must shortly take place …" (Rev. 1:1)

17. "Because you [the church of Philadelphia] have kept the word of my perseverance, I also will keep you from the hour of testing, that hour which is about to come upon the whole world, to test those who dwell upon the earth. I am coming quickly …" (Rev. 3:10, 11)

18. "… the Lord, the God of the spirits of the prophets, sent His angel to show to His bond-servants things which must shortly take place, and behold, I am coming quickly." (Rev. 22:6, 7)

19. "And he said to me, ‘Do not seal up the words of the prophecy of this book, for the time is near.’" (Rev. 22:10 — Compare with Dan. 12:4, when the time was not near.)

20. "He who testifies these things says, ‘Yes, I am coming quickly.’" (Rev. 22:20)

These texts leave scant doubt the early Christians believed Christ was coming soon, probably in their lifetime. Not that Jesus could come soon, but that he was coming soon. This, I maintain, is an honest assessment of the evidence.

Opponents of this view often attempt to soften the time indicators by telling us such terms are "elastic," that a thing remote to us is near to God. This is supposedly the meaning of 2 Pet. 3:8: ".. with the Lord one day is like a thousand years and a thousand years is like a day." But such reasoning destroys the meaning of words. If something "at hand" can be thousands of years off, language ceases to be meaningful.

Besides, such words retain their meanings elsewhere in the Bible. In Matt. 5:25, Jesus says, "Come to terms quickly with your accuser." The word "quickly" is the same one used in Rev. 22:20: "Surely I come quickly." In John 7:2, we read that "the Festival of Booths was near." The words "near" and "quickly" mean exactly what we would expect them to.

The prophets used time statements according to their normal sense. In Jer. 29:28, we read this about the prophesied captivity in Babylon: "It will be a long time; build houses and live in them, and plant gardens and eat what they produce." The 70-year captivity of God’s people would be long. Even, in prophetic time, 70 years is a long time.

 

The Figurative Coming of Christ

 

So what does this all mean? Were the early Christians mistaken about the coming of Jesus? The answer is, only if they were expecting a rapture, literal resurrection and supernatural fire from heaven. Many certainly did. Paul himself seemed to be looking for a rapture of believers into the air (1 Thes. 4:16, 17). The book of 1 Peter speaks of a burning up of heaven and earth. This was a view fairly common in first century Judaism.

Jesus, of course, did not come in the clouds at that time. He did not have to do so to fulfill the meaning of his end-of-the-age discourses. We can view the pictures of Christ descending in glory in a way similar to Jehovah in the Old Testament "riding on a swift cloud into Egypt." (Isa. 19:1) It is a figure of judgment, swift and certain. Figures appear in Old Testament prophecy that are similar to the language surrounding the Second Coming. In Isa. 34, we see cataclysmic events accompanying the fall of Idumea: the heavens being dissolved and rolling together as a scroll (v. 4), the Lord’s sword falling in judgment (v. 5), streams turning into pitch (v. 9). [1]

None of these things happened literally. They are representations of nature convulsing at the fall of a nation. The fall of Idumea is described in end-of-the-world metaphors, not unlike the language of Revelation or of Jesus’ Olivet Discourse. Such was the apocalyptic, extreme speech of the Hebrew prophets.

Did such a swift calamity occur within the lifetimes of Jesus’ hearers? It certainly did. In A.D. 70, Titus of Rome obliterated Jerusalem and the Temple. It was a horrific event. A million people perished miserably. It was a time of great tribulation, the passing of an age. Second Temple Judaism (not to be confused with today’s Judaism) had come to an abrupt end. For Christians, it could only mean that the Old Covenant had passed away completely. [2]

This was an epoch-making event, one of staggering religious import. It was appropriate that Jesus should describe it in such terms. If the fall of petty Idumea could be described cosmically, how much more Jerusalem, the geographic center of the Old Covenant faith? [3]

That event having transpired, there remains no reason to expect a physical descent of Christ from the heavens any time in the future. Besides, the literal idea of Messiah coming in the clouds is based on an old cosmology. The ancient Hebrews believed in a flat earth with four corners. Above it was the vault of heaven. Under such an arrangement, we might understand a descent of Christ from heaven that would be visible to all people. But with our modern understanding of the universe and a round Earth, it makes no sense.

 

Objections

 

Some may deem it the height of impiety to deny a future, bodily, literal coming of Christ as a conquering king. I understand this, and respect the fact that most Christians hold a view contrary to this “full-preterist” position. However, there are some considerations that many never make when formulating their understanding of “last things.” Among them are:

1. By believing that Jesus will literally come and conquer the world with iron-rod might, we inadvertently side with a view that led to his crucifixion. It is generally agreed that the Jews who called for our Lord’s death had a view of Messiah as a conquering king, one who would shatter the Roman oppressors and compel all to bow the knee to Yahweh. When Jesus introduced instead a kingdom of love, nonviolence and sacrifice, they rejected him. Many of today’s Christian futurists hold the same error — they await a conquering hero. The only difference is this: They believe that, while he came the first time in meekness, he will be the forceful ruling Messiah at some future date.

2. By demanding that prophetic statements of falling stars, the moon turning to blood and other celestial events be realized literally, we deny the reality of symbolically fulfilled prophecy. Much Old Testament prophecy about the coming of Christ into the world came to pass in non-literal ways. Was Jesus’ name literally called Emmanuel? Did Rachel really weep for her children when Herod slaughtered the children? Was Jesus’ heel bruised by a serpent? Did he literally bruise a serpent’s head? True, some prophecies were realized literally, such as Messiah riding on a donkey’s colt. But even here the original prophecy has many elements that were not. Besides this, Jesus told us, “The words I speak to you, they are spirit and they are life.” Isn’t spiritual language often clothed with figures and symbolism, rather than stark literalism?

3. By maintaining that Jesus may come back tomorrow, burn everything up and start over again with a reign of righteousness, we unwittingly stifle initiative to improve the lives of our fellow men. The social gospel’s greatest enemy in the church is the highly apocalyptic interpretation of the Second Coming. Some advocates of that view have even said such things as, “You don’t polish brass on a sinking ship.” They have a point. If Jesus is ready to come back and fix everything, why should we try to fix things now? If “it’s all going to burn,” what is the use of spending ourselves to uplift humanity, relieve the oppressed, challenge injustice?

4. By presenting the Second Coming as a literal, future event, we diminish our credibility in the midst of an increasingly skeptical society. I realize that some might say I am accommodating the unbelieving tendencies of sinful men. But I maintain that we do no service to the gospel message when we tack onto it a scenario that, to the average American, must resemble science fiction. I mean no disrespect here. But I don’t know that we can really bring multitudes into the church if we demand they believe this: Someday you may be sitting on your patio, looking up at the sky, and it will rend with a great noise as all the angelic hosts descend to earth with Jesus; all around you, dead people will appear and Christians will begin to fly up into the sky to meet Jesus. Does this tend to engender faith or, on the contrary, the notion that Christians believe highly improbable doctrines?

Others will complain that a symbolic interpretation of the Second Coming does not give us a tidy enough system of eschatology. Where does everything fit in? What do we do with the resurrection of the dead, the Judgment, the reign of peace and righteousness or other elements of the "end times?"

The answer, which will fail to satisfy many, is that not all truth yields a comprehensive "system" that answers all the questions. It is possible to believe in a "broad brush" principle without having to explain how all of the details relate to it. All systems of eschatology have weaknesses, and this one is no exception. But it does justice to many foundational themes of Scripture, and that is good enough for many of us.

 

Conclusion

 

Such a view should destroy no one’s faith. While it may raise questions about the literal interpretation of the Bible or a supernatural Second Coming, it does nothing to wipe away such beliefs as immortality and the final triumph of goodness. These are at the foundation of religious life. They are bound up with the faithfulness of God himself. No view of "last things" should disrupt them.

And so, as the hysteria continues about the "end times," we ought to be aware that such sentiment has come and gone over the centuries. Jesus’ coming to end the age took place in its essence historically, under the figure of falling stars and other disturbances in the heavens. It was not a literal or physical event.

The Apocalypse marked the demise of a religious institution. There is no compelling reason to expect it to happen literally in our future. Certainly not so long — so many, many centuries — after the prophetic announcement, "Behold, I come quickly."

 

Footnotes:

[1] Adam Clarke, himself a futurist, concedes the use of this apocalyptic language. In a note on Isa. 24:23, he quotes the great scientist, Sir Isaac Newton: "The figurative language of the prophets is taken from the analogy between the world natural and an empire or kingdom considered as the world’s politic … Great earthquakes, and the shaking of kingdoms, so as to distract and overthrow them; the creating of new heaven and earth, and the passing away of an old one, or the beginning and end of a world for the rise and ruin of a body politic thereby … setting of the sun, moon and stars, darkening of the sun, turning the moon into blood, and falling of the stars, for the ceasing of a kingdom. (Clarke’s Commentaries, New York: Eaton and Mains, n.d., Vol. IV, p. 115.)

[2] One difficulty with this view is that only a minority of scholars believe the New Testament was penned in its entirety before A.D. 70. But they have some powerful arguments concerning the internal evidence of the writings, arguments that go beyond the scope of this article.

[3] Some may object that it is anti-Semitic to define the Second Coming as the destruction of Old Covenant Judaism. This is a valid objection, one that I do not take lightly. Ultimately, however, the prophecies of Jesus against Jerusalem are no more anti-Semitic than the Old Testament prophecies against her (which are many). They are all calls to repentance, a holding out of God's grace to a people in need of it. Why the city's demise had to come with such violence is a mystery known only to God. This is but a portion of the larger problem of evil in world, a problem for which there is no easy answer.

 


© 2005 American Unitarian Conference