"In that great gettin up morning, fair thee well, fair thee well"
Classic Negro Spiritual
One of the classic and foundational doctrines of Christianity is that of the return of Jesus to the Earth. In the 1970's, with the popularity of the Hal Lindsey's "The Late Great Planet Earth", speculation was high in the evangelical Christian world that Jesus' return was imminent. In the 1990's, we saw the highly popular "Left Behind" series of books and films that also sparked the imagination of the evangelical movement. Yet, today, I think that it may be one of the least considered doctrines in the daily lives of most Christians.
Anyone reading the New Testament will get a sense of the tension of the New Testament writers: The Kingdom of God has been initiated by Jesus, but it will not be consummated or completed until His return. There is an anticipation of what is described as the "blessed hope" and the "glorious appearing" of Jesus (II Thess 2:13). Jesus himself, speaks of returning "at the end of the age" in "glory" (Luke 21:27). Jesus refuses to give the time or date of his return, with the purpose that his followers should always live in the tension and the urgency that his return is imminent (Acts 1:7-8).
Despite the return of Jesus as a prominent theme in Christian theology, it remains a sidebar for most Christians. A curiosity of theology, but not a doctrine of influence in our daily lives. I would like to make the following observations in regards to why Jesus' return has diminished in importance:
1. Our biblical literacy is terrible. Most Christians have not learned about the second coming of Jesus from the Bible, but from far-fetched schemes developed in the last century based upon very sketchy interpretations of scripture. Dispensationalism, created in the late 19th century, which focuses on a unique, and questionable reading of the book of Daniel, and significant additions to New Testament theology that was not accepted by the early church, currently dominants evangelical folk religion. Poor interpretation results in a powerless, inaccurate doctrine.
2. Our Hope has shifted away from Jesus as the hope of the world. In the height of Christian liberalism in the late 19th century, most theologians believed in a post-millenial view of Jesus return. This is the view that the Church, through Jesus, will usher in the kingdom of God through its work and advocacy in the world. This belief was literally crushed in the early and mid-Twentieth centuries with the advent of two world wars. After which, the evangelical world became increasingly cynical of its role in changing the world. The concept of being raptured away to be with Jesus, instead of Jesus coming back to fully establish his kingdom in this world became the focus. No longer was Jesus the hope of the world, but only the hope of the church.
3. The sense of urgency has been diminished due to time. In the New Testament era, the words of Jesus return were fresh. It is clear that the early church felt that Jesus return was soon. When that did not come, the sense of urgency has greatly diminished. Interestingly, it is this relaxation in urgency that Jesus said would be the hallmark of when he would return.(Luke 21:34-36, I Peter 4:3-7).
4. We have taken a very narrow approach to salvation. In the Biblical narrative, Jesus' return represents a renewal for the entire world. It represents a new heaven, a new Earth, a new people, and a new creation entirely. The Bible says that "all creation groans" awaiting the completion that will be consummated by Jesus return (Romans 8:18-22). Jesus' coming is not about "saving us" but restoring the world to the purposes of its initial creation. This is a much bigger story than us "going to heaven".
5. We have been embarassed by the wacky end times obsessions of the past. Well intended Christians of the past have predicted dates, times, and events that surely signaled the coming of Jesus. Each time, we were disappointed and embarassed. This embarassment has led to a general disassociation with anything having to do with the return of Jesus and end times. A sure way to diminish your credibility in ministry is to appear to be a "end of the world" zealot. Therefore, ministries seeking credibility, have distanced themselves from this.
I want to suggest that the return of Jesus is our blessed hope. Jesus is the hope of the world. It is his return that completes that which was purposed in all of creation. That is truly the basis of our hope and the tension in which we live: The Kingdom initiated by Jesus, proclaimed and demonstrated in us through His spirit, but completed only by His return.
Let shout "Maranatha" with the early church which means "O Lord, Come!"
God bless you,
Pastor M Traylor