Obviously there are some Christians who believe strongly in the triumphant return of Christ. The TV is full of them. However, they tend to think the May 21 prediction is nonsense, since Jesus himself says that no one knows the day and hour except the Father in heaven. But they believe it will happen eventually. Even mainline Protestants, who certainly don't emphasize such things, must believe in the second coming in some sense, since our liturgies are full of reference to it. In the Episcopal Church, Eucharistic Prayer A includes the congregational refrain "Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again." In fact, the liturgical season of Advent is specifically set aside for the preparation of Christ's coming, both as a baby at Christmas and also on the last day.
The earliest Christians, too, believed in the Second Coming. However, they thought it would happen in their lifetimes. St. Paul certainly did. That's why he advised against people marrying unless absolutely necessary. He thought we should focus on preparing ourselves spiritually for Christ. The gospel writers also thought it would happen sooner rather than later. Mark's gospel, in particular, really has to be read through the lens of one who thought that the second coming would be soon. There's lots of evidence for this. His gospel--the earliest--was written in AD 70, around the time of the destruction of the mighty Temple in Jerusalem. It was for Mark a sign of the approaching end times. Throughout his gospel, he uses the word 'immediately' often, emphasizing that there isn't much time to get his message out, or to be prepared. Thus, Mark avoids stories about Jesus' origins, such as the virgin birth, since for him that's so much less important than the future--he just wants to get to the substance of his gospel, sharing the Good News of the saving work of God in Christ. Finally and perhaps most interestingly, in Mark's original ending, there is no resurrection appearance, since he seems to believe that the resurrected Jesus will appear not on Easter morning, but on the last day when he comes again. He concludes his gospel by saying that the women who came to the tomb left terrified. Obviously, that didn't happen--or at least it hasn't yet.
The later gospels (Matthew and Luke use Mark as a model, but were written 10 to 20 years later) deal with the fact that Jesus hadn't come again as soon as expected by the Christians of Mark's era by telling us about Jesus' resurrection in more pictorial ways. Luke grapples with the fact that Jesus is not still physically on earth by describing his ascension into heaven. They write about the establishment of the church community and Luke describes the gift of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost, all to tide us over for the longer term until Jesus comes again. Even so, I don't think these later evangelists would have imagined we'd still be here 2,000 years later.
The toughest question is: what did Jesus himself think? Of that we can't really know, since each of the gospels is written from a post-resurrection, post-Temple destruction perspective. So, as a result, much of what we read, much of what Jesus says, is the gospel writers' attempts to craft a compelling story, rich with theological meaning, inspired by the events happening around them and most especially by their profound belief and conviction that Jesus is the Son of God who died on the cross and rose victoriously on Easter. It doesn't mean that what they write isn't true in a deep theological sense, even as it probably is isn't always historical fact. They believed this Gospel, this Good News, with every fiber of their being, and because they were confident that Jesus was the Son of God, they were also sure that he would come again, at some undetermined time.
However, what that means is that it is sometimes hard to discern what Jesus thought about such issues, or even *if* he thought about such issues. Presumably he did to some degree as it was a common first century concern, but we can't know for sure. Sometimes what Jesus says is really what the gospel writers say, inspired by their belief in Jesus as the Son of God. But sometimes it really is Jesus, too. Unfortunately, it can just be hard to figure out which is which.
Whatever is depicted in the gospels, I think that if and when Jesus comes again, it will not be a cataclysmic event for the world--with stars falling from the heavens and earthquakes and the like. Instead, I think it will be a reconciling event. Because I believe that Jesus came to bring peace, hope, and new, abundant life. There may well be judgment--either at the end of our lives or on the day of the second coming (whatever that may mean)--but in my imagination, anyway, we will do the judging of ourselves when we see from a new perspective the pain and hurt we have caused others. As we know, there's nothing more damning in the human experience that knowing how deeply we have hurt others. F. D. Maurice, the great nineteenth century Anglican theologian and my hero, described sin as “the sense of solitude, isolation, distinct responsibility.” He writes that one knows sin most fully when he realizes “how he has broken the silken chords that bind us to our fellows; how he has made himself alone, by not confessing that he was a brother, a son, a citizen."
But then, just as we grapple with that, we also have the opportunity to receive God's limitless grace, forgiveness, and love. Just because that's who God is and what God does. God doesn't force us to accept this love, of course. We can wallow in our guilt and pain and self-destructive ways if we want, but God certainly hopes we will choose the more life-giving path that is being offered us, and will wait on us for long as long as it takes. God will always be there holding out hands in love, waiting for us to drop whatever junk we may be carrying (guilt, pain, selfishness, whatever) so that we can reach back and be raised to new life.
None of this is a definitive answer, of course, but it's what I think. Maybe I'll be dreadfully wrong. But if I am, I'd rather be held accountable for being too loving and too forgiving than not loving enough.
F. D. Maurice (who plays a starring role in my dissertation) wrote the following in his controversial book The Theological Essays in 1852. I think it is just about the best assessment of what we should believe and hope for, both now and in the age to come: Enjoy your May 21, whatever happens at 6 pm. Jesus wants us to appreciate and embrace the gift of life. He wants us to abide in that abyss of love.
© The Rev. Matthew P. Cadwell