The Second Coming

As we rapidly approach the onset of the second millennium, are we as Christians to believe that the Parousia, or second coming of Christ, is imminent? If so, are we living in the "end times?" One of the most persistent misinterpretations of scripture is that of Jesus's eschatology—the teachings about the end of the current worldview. The fact is simply that the death of Christ represented the end of the Old Covenant; that is, the end of the old worldview shared by all of Israel.

Much has been theorized in recent scholarship concerning Jesus's status as an eschatological prophet. Most scholars have (correctly) concluded that Jesus had no cause to proclaim that the end of the universe was imminent, and have therefore (incorrectly) judged all of His eschatological sayings to be fanciful creations of the early Church. Apologists have not fared well in defending against this position, for the scriptures are quite clear in that Jesus expected a cataclysmic change in the current world order, and expected it before the end of His own generation (Mt 24:34 and parallels). This prophecy has even spawned legends of a "Wandering Jew" who, as a last surviving remnant of Jesus's generation, is fated to wander the Earth immortally until these things are fulfilled.

Probably the single greatest failure in the study of Jesus's eschatology is the failure to place his words within the context of first-century Palestine. In our modern world, we cannot possibly grasp the effect of his proclamations upon his contemporary Jews whose religion, nation, and complete identity were centered around Abraham's covenant and the Temple cult in Jerusalem. The New Covenant, whereby the Temple was made unnecessary through Christ, did not simply signify an easier means of achieving salvation. For the Jews, it was the ultimate apocalypse; it meant Israel, by not accepting Jesus as their savior, would be forsaken for the final time, and would be given over to the Gentiles. It meant the cataclysmic end to their worldview. And in accordance with Jesus's warnings of literal destruction, Jerusalem was finally overrun by the Roman armies and the Temple destroyed in 70 C.E.—before Christ's generation had passed away.

At this point, it is appropriate to analyze in some detail the words of Jesus in Matthew chapter 24 (and parallels):

24:29 `And immediately after the tribulation of those days, the sun shall be darkened, and the moon shall not give her light, and the stars shall fall from the heaven, and the powers of the heavens shall be shaken; 30 and then shall appear the sign of the Son of Man in the heaven; and then shall all the tribes of the earth smite the breast, and they shall see the Son of Man coming upon the clouds of the heaven, with power and much glory; 31 and he shall send his messengers with a great sound of a trumpet, and they shall gather together his chosen from the four winds, from the ends of the heavens unto the ends thereof. 32 `And from the fig-tree learn ye the simile: When already its branch may have become tender, and the leaves it may put forth, ye know that summer [is] nigh, 33 so also ye, when ye may see all these, ye know that it is nigh—at the doors. 34 Verily I say to you, this generation may not pass away till all these may come to pass. 35 The heaven and the earth shall pass away, but my words shall not pass away.' (YLT)

Within the gospel traditions, this passage is the single most important source for the Church traditions of the Parousia. It borrows heavily from the apocalyptic imagery seen in Isaiah, Jeremiah, Zechariah and particularly Daniel. Jesus placed great emphasis upon his role as the Danielic "Son of Man," who was never understood to be a harbinger of doom, but rather the symbol of vindication for God's true people and the defeat of His enemies. The shocking aspect of Jesus's interpretation was that the enemy was discovered to be Israel herself, while God's true people would in fact be the Gentiles and all the races of the world! Thus the tribes of Israel shall mourn (24:30), while the true followers of God shall escape the catastrophe of Jerusalem's fall (24:15-16). Jesus's advice to flee the destruction would be of little use if the end of the space-time continuum had arrived. In fact, the imagery of cosmic upheaval was consistently used throughout OT prophecy in reference to military catastrophe. Thus there is no reason to presume that the words in verse 35 ("heaven and earth shall pass away") are anything more than a comparative observation that Christ's words are eternal, whereas Heaven and Earth are not.

In view of all this, the traditional interpretation of 24:30 would thus lead one to expect Christ's "second coming" at the time of the Temple's destruction. But the Greek word for "coming" (erchomenon) may just as accurately be translated as "going." In Daniel 7, from which Jesus quotes, the Son of Man "comes" up to Heaven, vindicated for his suffering. Also, the Greek of 24:33 (often incorrectly translated as "He is near") is more accurately rendered in the Lukan parallel (Lk 21:31) as "the kingdom of God is near." Thus, God's kingdom was inaugurated at the time of Christ's resurrection, and his "messengers" (disciples) were then to go forth and "gather His chosen"—the people of the New Covenant.

When taken in context, it is crystal clear that these teachings about the Parousia refer simply to the resurrection and ascension of Christ, and the prophecies about the "end times" were fulfilled by the final destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem in 70 C.E. This is not to imply that we will never face judgement, or that we cannot look forward to an eternal afterlife in the direct presence of God. But there is no cause to assume these things will occur at a definitive point in our future, our even in our perceived timeline. It is simply quite foolish to await the return of Christ when Jesus is with us now and has been all along, in the light of God's kingdom under the New Covenant.

Geoff Trowbridge, 5/97 (rev. 6/97)

For similar views on millenialism and the Apocalypse, read It's ALL Over by Frank Daniels, the Preterist Archive of Realized Eschatology by Todd Dennis, or the Anti-Rapture Page by Bob Mahlstedt.

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