CHRISTIAN THEOLOGY: The Second Coming of Christ

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NOTE: The article has the basics of what the Bible has to say on the Second Coming of Christ, but also within the article are other linked articles on eschatological subjects that go deeper on those areas. 

Second Coming of Christ. The doctrine that Jesus Christ, who left earth and ascended to the Father, will one day again return to earth.

The Fact of the Second Coming. This belief is based upon several portions of Scripture. Jesus himself in his great discourse on last things (Matt. 24 and 25) spoke of his return, both in parables and in more direct teaching. He promised the disciples that he was going to prepare a place for his followers and would one day come again to receive them to himself, that they might be together forever (John 14:3). The angels at the time of the ascension told the disciples that the Lord would come again in the same manner in which he had gone away (Acts 1:11). The return of Christ was part of the kerygma (3:21). It is mentioned in Paul’s writings, especially the letters to the Thessalonians (1 Thess. 1:10; 2:19; 3:13; 4:15–17; 2 Thess. 1:7). Other references include 1 Corinthians 15:23; Philippians 3:20; Colossians 3:4; 2 Timothy 4:8; Titus 2:13; and Hebrews 9:28.

The second coming is a topic of progressive revelation. While there are allusions in the OT to the second coming, they are not clear and explicit, and consequently the Jewish rabbis found the messianic references apparently contradictory. On the one hand, they seemed to depict the coming of the Messiah as triumphant and powerful. On the other hand, this Messiah appeared as the suffering servant (Isa. 53, etc.). What were actually two comings had been collapsed into one through the foreshortening effect of the time perspective. Only in the NT is the revelation clear enough for the two to be distinguished, in large part because of the first had already occurred. Yet even here, the references to the second coming are often found within genres that are not completely clear, making interpretation difficult.

THE CREATION DAYS OF GENESIS gift of prophecy

If the fact of the second coming is clearly revealed in Scripture, the time of it certainly is not. Jesus himself confessed that even he, during the period of his earthly incarnation, did not know the time of his return. This was not even known by the angels, but only by the Father in heaven (Matt. 24:36). At no point do the prophecies give any specific dating for the return of Christ, although there are indications of signs to be watched for. In response to an inquiry from his disciples as to whether he would at that time restore the kingdom to Israel, Jesus seemed to indicate in a more general way that this information about times and seasons was not for his disciples to know (Acts 1:6–7). With the end of the twentieth century, there has come a renewed interest in attempting to date the Lord’s return. Some, believing that creation took place about 4000 b.c. and that the text “with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day” (2 Pet. 3:8) applies to this matter, expected the third millennium a.d. to be the biblical millennium, with the Lord’s return at the very close of the twentieth century.

The Nature of the Second Coming. The second coming will be personal and bodily. Some maintain that the coming of Christ was fulfilled by the promised coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. On these grounds, when Jesus said, “We will come to him” (John 14:23), he was referring to a presence that would be mediated by the Holy Spirit. Others see Jesus’ statement in Matthew 16:28 as being fulfilled at his resurrection. Others generalize the reference somewhat, maintaining that Jesus’ statement, “I am with you always, even to the very end of the age” (28:20), gives us the sense in which the coming of Christ is fulfilled. Another reference cited is Revelation 3:20, where Jesus says, “I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door. I will come in and eat with him, and he with me.” This would make the second coming of Christ virtually equivalent to conversion. Yet a different twist is given by the Jehovah’s Witnesses, who teach that Jesus has already returned, in 1914, but not visibly. Rather, he began to reign on his heavenly throne.

CHRISTIAN THEOLOGY: Who Is Jesus Christ?

There seems little doubt, however, upon examining the biblical data, that Jesus’ return will be personal and bodily, and thus perceivable and unmistakable. This is seen in the circumstances attaching to it in the predictions of the second coming. Jesus seemed to suggest that his coming would be spectacularly visible and unmistakable when he warned against those who would say that he was present “in the desert” or “in the inner rooms.” They were not to be believed, for “as lightning that comes from the east is visible even in the west, so will be the coming of the Son of Man” (Matt. 24:26–27). The Son of Man would be seen “coming on the clouds of the sky, with power and great glory” (v. 30). Paul’s description of the second coming includes similarly unmistakable circumstances: “For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first” (1 Thess. 4:16). Finally, the two men dressed in white (angels?) at the ascension said, “This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven” (Acts 1:11). Since this ascension was bodily, personal, and visible, it seems reasonable to assume that the return will be similar.

Explaining the Doctrine of the Last Things Identifying the AntiChrist second coming Cover

Terms for the Second Coming. Several NT terms represent the event.

Parousia. The most frequently used term is parousia, meaning “presence, coming, or arrival.” It is used in 1 Thessalonians 4:15 to designate Christ’s coming to raise the righteous dead and catch believers up to be with him. This coming will also result in the destruction of the man of lawlessness, the antichrist (2 Thess. 2:8). It will not be a secret event; it will be a glorious outshining. Paul prays for God to strengthen the hearts of believers, so that they may be “blameless and holy in the presence of our God and Father when our Lord Jesus comes with all his holy ones” (1 Thess. 3:13).

Apocalypse. This word means literally “revelation.” Paul speaks of waiting for “our Lord Jesus Christ to be revealed” (1 Cor. 1:7). It appears from 2 Thessalonians 1:6–7 and 1 Peter 4:13 that this will be a time of relief from great trial and will produce great rejoicing on the part of believers.

Epiphany. This word means “manifestation.” This will be a coming of Christ at the end of the tribulation. It will involve judgment upon the world and slaying of the man of lawlessness. Believers place their hope in this and keep the commandments of Christ, waiting for the rewards to be received at that time (1 Tim. 6:14; 2 Tim. 4:8). It is the completion of their salvation (Titus 2:13–14).

The Purpose of the Second Coming. The purpose of Christ’s second coming is the establishment, in the fullest sense, of the kingdom of God. The kingdom does not primarily mean a realm, characterized by a geographically bound domain, so much as it means reign. Wherever Christ reigns in the hearts of people, there is a kingdom. It is both present and future. In one very real sense, it came with the coming of Christ the first time. In another sense, however, it is yet future. Although Christ was a king when he came the first time, relatively very few accepted him as that. The time is coming when “every knee should bow, … and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Phil. 2:10–11). That will involve joyous celebration by Christians, but also reluctant submission by unbelievers. Even the devil, the beast, and the false prophet will be thrown into the lake of fire (Rev. 20:10). It is significant that in his great message on the last things, in Matthew 24 and 25, Jesus refers to himself as the Son of Man until he comes to 25:34. Having said that the Son of Man will come in his glory, and his angels with him, and will sit on his throne, he then begins to refer to himself in verse 34 as the King. He again uses the expression “the King” in verse 40. He does not again use the term Son of Man of himself until he returns to the discussion of the past and immediate future, in 26:2: “The Passover is two days away—and the Son of Man will be handed over to be crucified.” Thus the setting of the second coming is one in which the kingdom is prominent, for it is the fulfillment of the kingdom.

Preparation for the Second Coming. It is apparent, particularly from Jesus’ teaching about the second coming, that it has great practical import. For Jesus did not simply affirm the event as something about to occur. He also emphasized the appropriate behavior in the light of this fact. Many of Jesus’ parables were associated with this great fact. Three responses are particularly related to this impending event.

Watchfulness is urged. Because no one knows the time of Jesus’ coming, it is essential that one be alert to the possibility at any time (Matt. 24:42). He will come at an hour when he is not expected (v. 44). The wicked servant who assumed that it would be a long time until the master’s return did not conduct himself appropriately (vv. 45–51).

What Does the Bible Really Teach About the Antichrist?

If watching is to protect one against the error of assuming that the second coming will be a long time off, waiting is the precaution against the opposite error, believing that it must necessarily be soon. So the five foolish virgins apparently were not prepared for a long wait (Matt. 25:1–13), and they fell asleep. When the bridegroom finally came, their supply of oil was depleted. While they went out and bought oil, the bridegroom came and entered, and they were left out. Peter tells of scoffers who in the last days, because such a long time has elapsed, will say, “Where is this ‘coming’ he promised? Ever since our fathers died, everything goes on as it has since the beginning of creation” (2 Pet. 3:3–4). Thus, it is necessary not only to be watchful but to sustain that watchfulness in the face of apparently negative indications.

What Does the Bible Really Teach About the Man of Lawlessness?

Finally, the follower of the Lord is to be working in view of the certain fact of his return. The parable of the talents (Matt. 25:14–30) makes this especially clear. The master gave five talents to one servant, two to another, one to a third. The first two servants put to work what had been entrusted to them, thus doubling these resources, but the third merely hid away what he had received, preserving but not increasing it. When the master returned after a long time, he spoke words of commendation to the first two servants and gave them even greater responsibility. He rebuked and punished the wicked servant, however, terming him lazy. It is clear that watchful waiting is not to be idleness. Paul’s words to the Thessalonians (2 Thess. 3:6–13) underscore this.

While it is clear that we have not been told, and thus will not know, the time of the Lord’s return in an absolute sense, there are some indicators in Scripture that may enable us to ask about the relative time, that is, when it will occur in relation to two other important future events.

Has the End of All Things Drawn Close?

Millennial Views. These deal with the question of the relationship of Christ’s return to the thousand-year period of which John writes in Revelation 20:4–6.

Amillennialism. This view does not expect any earthly reign of Christ between his return and the final judgment. It maintains that the thousand years are symbolic, either of the completeness of Christ’s reign when he returns, or of the condition of believers during the intermediate state between death and resurrection. Amillennialists note that the thousand years are mentioned in only one passage, and that in a highly symbolical book.

Postmillennialism. This is the view that through the successful preaching of the gospel, the reign of God will gradually become complete upon earth, evil will cease, and peace will come. At the end of this period, which is not necessarily exactly a thousand years, Christ will return. The parables such as the mustard seed and the leaven, which depict the kingdom as growing progressively larger, are cited by this view.

Premillennialism. This holds that Christ will return at the beginning of the millennium and will resurrect dead believers; they, together with believers still alive at Christ’s coming, will reign with him on earth. At the end of this period of time there will be a brief flareup of evil, followed by the resurrection of unbelievers, and the final judgment. This view rests heavily upon the contention that the two resurrections in Revelation 20, being described in identical fashion, must both be bodily; and upon OT passages such as the description of the lion and the lamb lying down together, which must occur within this period.

What Does the Bible Really Say About the Final Judgment?

Tribulational Views. These relate the time of the second coming to the great tribulation of Matthew 24.

Pretribulationism. This holds that Christ will come for the saints to remove them from the world (the rapture) before the seven years of tribulation, returning with the saints at the end of the tribulation.

Posttribulationism. This teaches that the church will not be removed from the world, but will go through the tribulation, although preserved within it.

Midtribulationism. The church will go through the first three and a half years (the tribulation) but will be removed before the great tribulation (or wrath of God).

What Does the Bible Really Teach About Eschatology [“End Times”]?

Other Issues. The Second Coming—One Phase or Two? Some theologians, especially dispensationalists, see two phases or stages to the second coming. The first, basically a secret coming, is to remove the church before the tribulation. The second phase, at the end of the tribulation, is Christ’s triumphant return to set up his earthly millennial kingdom. They base this upon a distinction among parousia, epiphany, and apocalypse. Others find this distinction artificial and believe there will be simply one return, at the end of the tribulation.

Imminence of Second Coming. Some teach that the second coming could occur at any moment. No additional prophecies remain to be fulfilled. They believe that the injunctions, “Watch, you do not know the time,” require this.

What Does the Bible Really Say About the Rapture?

Others speak of imminence in a more general way. They note that at the time Jesus spoke the words they could not mean that he could come at any time, since certain events, such as the aging and infirmity of Peter (John 21:18), the fall of Jerusalem, and the destruction of the temple, had to occur first. They argue that if the words could not denote any-moment imminency when spoken, they do not require that meaning now. Thus, the second coming may be very near, but certain events, such as the tribulation (which may not require a full seven calendar years), would have to occur first.

Conclusion. The doctrine of the second coming is sometimes made a topic of quarreling among Christians. It is instead, as Paul indicated, an encouragement to hope and comfort (1 Thess. 4:18).

 By M. J. Erickson

Bibliography. G. C. Berkouwer, Return of Christ; C. A. Blaising and D. L. Bock, Progressive Dispensationalism; R. G. Clouse, ed., Meaning of the Millennium; A. A. Hoekema, Bible and the Future; G. E. Ladd, Blessed Hope; Crucial Questions about the Kingdom of God; R. Pache, Return of Jesus Christ; D. Pentecost, Things to Come; A. Reese, Coming Advent of Christ; S. Travis, I Believe in the Second Coming of Jesus. Walter A. Elwell, Evangelical Dictionary of Theology: Second Edition (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2001), 1080–1083.

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