Should we “water down” the doctrine of the Second Coming?

Read time: 9 minutes

The Second Coming of Jesus is a classic Christian doctrine. The Nicene Creed says that Jesus is seated at the right hand of the Father and “will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead”. The Basis of faith of the Evangelical Alliance in the UK affirms belief in the “personal and visible return of Jesus Christ to fulfil the purposes of God, who will raise all people to judgement, bring eternal life to the redeemed and eternal condemnation to the lost, and establish a new heaven and new earth”.

Doctrine and the Bible

The doctrine, as expressed in these sample statements, is intended to be a consolidation and summary of New Testament teaching that may not originally have been presented in precise “doctrinal” form. But we don’t have to look very hard to see how problematic it is to reduce the biblical material in this way. Some brief observations…

1. The line from the Nicene Creed echoes biblical language, but none of the three passages that speak of Jesus judging the living and the dead directly links this with a “coming” from heaven to earth (Acts 10:42; 2 Tim. 4:1; 1 Pet. 4:5).

2. The Evangelical Alliance statement is ambiguously constructed. Jesus will return to “fulfil the purposes of God”, which is not biblical language. But is it Jesus or God who will raise people to judgment, bring eternal life and condemnation, and establish a new heaven? Presumably God. But in that case, what does Jesus actually do at his coming? What purpose does he fulfil? The wording of the statement rather suggests that we don’t really know why everything must end with a personal and visible Second Coming of Jesus.

3. Both statements assume that the Second Coming will coincide with the final renewal of heaven and earth. This is curious in view of the fact that none of the “coming” statements in the New Testament speaks about the renewal of creation, and the renewal or remaking of creation statements do not connect the event with the coming of the Son of Man.

In fact, at the end of Revelation the coming of Jesus to “tread the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God” (Rev. 19:15) is separated from the cosmic dénouement by the symbolic thousand year period of Christ’s reign with the martyrs. In this clearest apocalyptic account of a final resurrection of all the dead, judgment, and renewal of all things, nothing is said about Jesus coming on the clouds of heaven. The New Testament treats these as two quite different events, and there’s a reason for it. We should hesitate to join together what God has put asunder.

The people of God has stopped telling the dense, prophetically inspired story of its engagement with the God of history and instead lines up in ranks reciting its beliefs, like school children running through the 9x table.

4. If you’re wondering about the sheep and goats judgment, when the Son of Man would come in his glory to judge the nations (Matt. 25:31-46), this was not a comprehensive final judgment. It was a limited judgment of the peoples of the Greek-Roman world, within a limited timeframe, according to how they had responded to the presence of Jesus’ suffering emissaries.

5. Most seriously, these creedal statements provide us with a severely eroded narrative setting for the doctrine of the second coming. According to the Nicene Creed, Jesus was eternally begotten, he came down from heaven, he was incarnate by the Virgin Mary, he was crucified, died, was buried, rose again, ascended into heaven, is seated at the right hand of God, and will come again in glory. This is construed as a story of universal salvation (“For us and for our salvation…”). There is no reference to the story of Israel; you wouldn’t even know that Jesus was a Jew. Nothing is said about kingdom until after the coming in glory, when presumably it is to be understood in post-historical terms. But as we shall see, these are just the parts of the story that explain the coming of the Son of Man motif.

The Evangelical Alliance Basis of faith has abandoned even the skeletal narrative format of the creed and has reduced the material to bullet-point affirmations of belief—we believe in this, and this, and this. The order barely matters. Again, no reference is made to Abraham, Israel, exile, kingdom of God, or Rome. This is biblical faith stripped of history.

So scripture has been reduced to a thin narrative of salvation, and then further to an inventory of propositions to be believed and ticked off. The problem is not propositionalism as such; it is what has got lost in the process. The people of God has stopped telling the dense, prophetically inspired story of its engagement with the God of history and instead lines up in ranks reciting its beliefs, like school children running through the 9x table. Belief in God has become belief in beliefs.

Belief for belief’s sake

This is apparent from the wording of the Evangelical Alliance doctrine, which suggests that it is not scripture but modern controversies that have given the statement its particular shape. The words “personal and visible” are less a summary of scripture than a polemical response to scepticism. This is an affirmation of belief against scientific rationalism and theological liberalism.

In this respect, evangelicalism is still fighting old battles; it has failed to move on. At issue is not the content of the doctrine but the practice of belief as a boundary marker that separates the conservative church from an apostate liberal church and the rest of secular society. So when it is suggested—for example, by scholars such as G.B. Caird—that the language of Jesus’ “coming” or parousia or “manifestation” actually had reference to events or circumstances within the course of history, we worry that we are watering down the doctrine, lowering the bar of belief, and thus blurring the boundary between church and world. This is why dogmatic theology remains at odds with historical interpretation—it is not meaning that is at stake but belief.

The historical meaning of the coming of the Son of Man

In the New Testament, before it becomes anything like a formal dogma, the vision of the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven, with associated motifs, constitutes the climax to a carefully devised prophetic narrative arising out of the immediate historical experience of Jesus’ disciples and the churches.

Jesus and the apostolic communities in the pagan world appealed to Daniel 7 in different ways. In Daniel’s vision the figure in human form seen coming on the clouds of heaven to the throne of God, set up on earth, represents those Jews who remained faithful to the covenant during the persecutions of Antiochus Epiphanes (cf. Dan. 7:26-27). Judgment is given in favour of the son of man figure—that is, in their favour—and he receives “dominion and glory and a kingdom”, etc. Yes, this interpretation is contested, but it seems to me to be by far the best reading of the passage.

The “meaning” of the vision, therefore, is that when Israel comes under intense pressure to abandon true worship of YHWH, when indeed many within Israel become apostate (cf. Dan. 11:32), God will act decisively to defeat the pagan oppressor, judge rebellious Israel, and establish a new government, in which “the kingdom and the dominion and the greatness of the kingdoms under the whole heaven shall be given to the people of the saints of the Most High” (Dan. 7:27).

There is no end-of-the-world here, no transformation of the cosmos, no new heaven and new earth. We simply have a profound and enduring political realignment of the ancient world. The dominant pagan empire will be defeated. Other regional powers will continue to exist in diminished form (Dan. 7:12). The nations will no longer be subject to unrighteous empires but will instead serve and be ruled by righteous Israel.

Jesus made limited use of this powerful visionary narrative for his own purposes. He was not especially interested in the fate of the dominant empire or the realignment of the nations. The narrative of pagan oppression remained operative, but his focus was on the vindication of the persecuted righteous over against the wicked and disloyal in Israel at the climax of the envisaged period of eschatological crisis. The key text is his statement to the Jewish Council at his trial: “you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power, and coming with the clouds of heaven” (Mk. 14:62).

For the churches in the Greek-Roman world, naturally, the clash with pagan imperialism figured much more prominently in their apocalyptic calculations. The eventual public vindication of the suffering communities of believers was still at the forefront—including the vindication of those who would die before the revelation of Christ to the nations (cf. 1 Thess. 4:14-17). But from this point of view vindication would mean not only that the leaders of Israel had got it wrong; the controlling hierarchies of the pagan world had also got it wrong. So “by the appearance of his parousia“ the Lord Jesus would bring to nothing the blasphemous, Nero-like opponent of YHWH (2 Thess. 2:8).

A thickened sense of history

The anticipated coming of Jesus was not an isolated thing-to-be-believed. It was an integral part of these ancient narratives. It was meaningless apart from the story of faithful witness culminating first in judgment on Israel and then in the overthrow of pagan empire and the establishment of a new righteous government in the region. We can take it out of that historical context and make it a metaphor for something else—like the metaphor of “crossing the Rubicon”. But we can hardly pretend that this sort of abstraction constitutes a legitimate summary of biblical teaching.

The narrative-historical context has become invisible to the modern believer, who is simply left to wonder whether Jesus might return out of the blue, for no apparent reason, at some arbitrary point in the future, perhaps tomorrow. The best that we can do with the doctrine is use it as a poker to stir up the embers of faith, to generate a little evangelistic fervour. And while we are pointlessly speculating whether Jesus might be coming back soon, we are not doing what the prophets and Jesus and the apostles consistently did, which was to ask about how God was managing the historical existence of his people.

If this sort of reconsideration appears to be a watering down of the doctrine of the Second Coming, it is at the same time a reinvigoration and reinforcement of something that, in my view, is much more profoundly biblical—the historical consciousness of the people of God.

In any case, I see no real loss. If we disconnect the coming of the Son of Man from the renewal of creation, we keep the conclusion to the cosmic narrative but we gain a coherent and compelling account of how prophetic hope worked—and was fulfilled—in the real world of the New Testament church. The watering down of the “doctrine” is more than compensated for by the “thickening” of our sense of history.

It is emphatically not a diminution of the apocalyptic motif of the “coming” or parousia of Jesus to say that it had reference primarily to the vindication of his disciples during the period of massive historical upheaval that would culminate in the confession of Jesus as Lord by the nations of the Roman Empire.

peter wilkinson | Tue, 01/09/2018 - 17:18 | Permalink

Andrew — your argument is tightly constructed, but misses other key passages about the return/second coming of Jesus, such as Acts 1:9-11. What do you make of this passage which says Jesus will return “in the same way as you have seen him go”?

“While they beheld he was taken up” (“he was taken up before their very eyes” — NIV); “And while they looked steadfastly toward heaven as he went up” (They were looking intently up into the sky as he was going” — NIV).

“This same Jesus which is taken up from you into heaven shall so come in like manner as you have seen him go into heaven” (“This same Jesus, who has been taken from your into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven” — NIV).

Isn’t this literal description rather than apocalyptic metaphor?

No mention of judgment here, either apocalyptic in history or final, but a distinct impression of a reappearing on earth, visibly and in person.

@peter wilkinson:

Peter, if I may reply — I realize you asked Andrew not me for an answer — but here are my thoughts on it.

First, assuming we do take Acts 1:9-11 literally and not as you say apocalyptic metaphor, the text doesn’t quite make the leaps most people think it does. The actual Greek is hon tropon, which literally is “in which manner” not as the NIV says “in the same way.” You may not think that matters much, but a quick look at other uses of this phrase reveals that it was indeed used in metaphors, by Jesus himself no less. In Matt. 23:37, Jesus said he wanted to gather Israel hon tropon (in like manner) as a hen gathers her chicks. So, Jesus wanted to take all the Israelites and put them literally under his wing? This phrase does not demand exacting precision, it just demands there be some sort of similarity that can be connected.

Second, and to that point, the text itself only indicates Jesus was lifted up, but not for how long or how high, and a cloud taking Jesus from their presence. It is assumed he was seen visibly and personally all the way up into the atmosphere, but that is not stated nor implied by the text. For all we know, the cloud enveloped him within inches off the ground and he disappeared as the cloud moved upwards in to the heavens.

Third, coming on clouds was precisely what Jesus told the Sanhedrin they would see in their lifetimes, so this solidly connects a cloud coming with the destruction of Jerusalem.

Fourth, cloud coming were a critically important piece of OT historical national/military judgments. In Isa. 19:1, Yahweh rode on clouds to come in judgment against Egypt. In Psalm 18 David depicts his rather earthy victory over Saul as God coming in clouds and on cherubim to rescue him. Clouds surround the throne of God (Psa 97:2). Clouds are the chariots of God (Psa 104:3). This is important, since all the times God was carried by clouds in judgment in the OT, no one saw him. And it’s especially important, since Jesus said his parousia would be “in the glory of the Father” (Matt 16:27-28; cf. 24:30).

And fifth, clouds are what covered the tabernacle by day in the wilderness journey, what enveloped the Temple at it’s inauguration, and what Ezekiel saw in the new temple (which I see as the body of Christ, the new temple creation in the NT), making clouds an important theological cue to the glory of Yahweh within the temple worship cultus. This all being said, I see no reason to disconnect Acts 1:9-11 from the judgment coming on the temple 40 years from when the angel told the disciples; nor, to make it demand a literal, visible, bodily coming on a literal cumulus cloud. All that is interposed on the text by millennia of simplistic creedal demands, just as Andrew stated.

@Jerel Kratt:

I accidentally omitted one other point I wanted to make. If we do take Acts 1:9-11 literally, and “in like manner” meant “exactly the same way,” then literally his coming would be somewhere in over Jerusalem with only a handful of people witnessing it.

@Jerel Kratt:

Thanks for this, Jerel. I’ll post a response later in the week. I hope you don’t mind that I added some paragraphs to your long comment.

@Andrew Perriman:

You’re welcome, Andrew.

Did my “long” (gee I didn’t think it was that long?) comment not have paragraph breaks? It did on my end when I posted it.

@Jerel Kratt:

It was longer than your second comment. Sometimes paragraphs disappear, depending on how you enter the text.

@Jerel Kratt:

Jerel — your points are taken, but while “clouds” in many contexts can be taken to represent by metaphor the glory of God’s presence, metaphor isn’t always implied, and I don’t think it is here. There is the cloud which guided Israel through the desert, and whether you take that as literal history or mythical history, the cloud is clearly meant to be something that could be physically seen, or it could not have been followed.

“In like manner” need not mean “in exactly the same way”, but in Acts 1:9, if the cloud is physical and not metaphorical, which the context seems to require as the disciples saw it visibly, then the return of Jesus “in like manner” is more literal than metaphorical.

Your afterthought, to which this response is appended, points to a common belief that Jesus will in fact return to the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem, but in the light of Matthew 24:30, this event will be witnessed not by a few but by many.

I’m just the messenger!

@peter wilkinson:

Hi Peter.

I appreciate the comment. But I think you misunderstood me. I wasn’t arguing that the cloud itself was metaphorical, it seems that something was actually seen (and not seen) by the apostles; whatever that was that took Jesus away from them. I was more arguing that (1) Jesus doesn’t need to be visibly and personally seen in cloud as it was going up — it was the cloud they saw, not Jesus; Jesus himself disappeared from their view; and (2) there is theological and historical import here, connecting to OT judgments and the specific language of his coming being like that of his Father’s, which was not of an actual person in a cloud but of military invasion; and (3) that elsewhere Jesus spoke of his coming in clouds within that generation.

What’s striking to me is that (as Andrew has argued elsewhere) Jesus only spoke of his parousia within 40 years upon apostate Jerusalem and the Temple cultus; you can’t find in the gospels any “coming” other than this one.

Now, one can make arguments from Revelation that Christ comes again at the Gog/Magog event at the end of the millennium, positing that the parousia in Rev 19 precedes the millennium (though Rev 20 only says fire comes from heaven, implying that neither God nor Jesus “come” at this end of the millennium event), making there be two major parousia events; or one can say that the resurrection of 1 Cor 15 is still future and therefore since the dead are raised “at his coming” then there must be a “third” coming of Christ at that point; or as full preterism says, both the parousia, resurrection of the dead, and end of the millennium happened at AD70; but whichever view one takes, it would seem rather odd (and incredible too) that Luke would be writing to Theopolis an orderly historical account of Jesus and never once in the gospel mention any coming other than at AD70, then write this blurb about Jesus coming and now they and everyone else are supposed to see that as the end of time coming?

@peter wilkinson:

Peter forgive me one more time. I realize I am long winded… I get to writing and love pouring out details of my thoughts. Hopefully that’s not a bad thing.

I reread your reply to me again, and then wondered if you examined the passages in Matthew I quoted regarding Jesus’ coming and clouds. Specifically, Matt 16:27-28, which posits his coming (a) in the glory of the father, (b) with his angels, (c) to repay every man, (d) before all of the disciples there listening died, (e) and in his kingdom. Then Matt 24 posits the coming of Jesus (a) at the end of the age, (b) when the temple is destroyed, (c) on clouds of the heavens, (d) with power and great glory, (e) with his angels, (f) to gather the elect, (g) before their generation passed away.

When you say the clouds don’t represent the glory of the father, I don’t think that works. The clouds can still be literal (to whatever extent we believe Josephus, he records witnesses seeing chariots in clouds in the sky above the temple during the siege; or it could just be the clouds of dust by the Roman armies), but I think the connection of Jesus’ coming in clouds and in the glory of the father (and the OT reveals what meaning God coming on clouds had) is solid.

@Jerel Kratt:

I think it is also worth considering that “Come” (from erchomai) in Acts 1:11 could just as easily have been translated “arrive”, and that it requires a referent to determine the destination. It has been assumed by most theologians that it is a return “in like manner”. But Daniel 7 show the arrival in heaven, on a cloud, before a session-like event that begins his reign. The would have happened immediately after the experience of the Apostles in Acts 1:11, so that there is no textual reason why the ascension and session couldn’t have fulfilled everything the angels described. If Daniel 7 is not what the Apostles had in mind then it might also have just as easily been Psa 110. Either way (or both) immediately after the ascension we hear the Apostles start speaking of Christ arriving in heaven to reign. He would come again in judgement, but I think it is probably a mistake to conflate the idea of arriving on the same cloud he left on with later proving his living presence on the throne in heaven (probably the proper way to understand parousia) through judgement on his enemies.

@Douglas Wilkinson:

Thanks for all your comments Jerel. Looking again at Acts 1:9-11, it does seem as if the disciples are simply being told that one day Jesus will return to earth. It may not be exactly like his departure, for some of the reasons given.

Even Matthew 24 isn’t quite as sewn up as you suggest, with the apparently clear expectation that as false Christs will appear (on earth), so Jesus will appear. The destruction of the temple, while included in a continuum of events, does not quite fit within this particular line of the discourse. If we insist on unitary meaning we are likely to suppress meanings which may not fit with a particular reading.

With regard to Daniel 7:13 etc (yet more clouds, and an LXX erchomenai, though not a parousia), there are all sorts of problems squeezing that prophecy into a fulfilment at the destruction of the temple. For sure Matthew 24:30 echoes the language of Daniel, but the Matthew passage doesn’t specifically describe the destruction of the temple at that point in Matthew 24, and it would be odd if a triumph of God and the saints were reflected in that single event. I think it gets even further from the sense of Acts 1:9-11 to say that it echoes Daniel 7:13.

@peter wilkinson:

Peter thanks again for the reply. Sorry for my delay in responding. Regarding erchomai in Acts 1:11 and connecting with Daniel, that was Douglas’s comment not mine, and I’m inclined to agree with you that Acts 1 erchomai isn’t Jesus’ ascension. Regarding Matt 24, I do disagree, and do think that this was a very important Victory of God and of the saints. There’s been much scholarly print about that so I won’t take the time to write it out; but I think the time statement of “this generation shall not pass away before all these things take place” is a very straightforward statement. Whether we wish to accept that all those things happened by the fall of the Temple, and what implications it might have for the church, is the question.

Jim Poulos | Tue, 06/12/2018 - 18:40 | Permalink

I am submitting this to see is there is a connection.

I am currently reading R.T. Frances’ commentary on Matthew and am very impressed by how well he articulates.

Reading his comments on Chapter 24 & 25 particularly Jesus is answer the Two (emphasis 2) questions His disciples asked in 24:3. The first question is about the destruction of Jerusalem. The second about the ‘2nd coming,’ (the Parousia). It is very hard to argue with his conclusions.

Andrew, I see you are very versed in this topic, particularly N.T. Wright’s material. R.T. France would hold and in determinant time of in-between period involving an imminent return of Christ, after 70 A.D., which would conflict with Dr. Wright’s understanding.

I’m curious.
Thanks you, Jim Poulos

1. None of the three passages that you cite excludes a literal understanding of the Second Coming. In fact 2 Tim. 4:1 rather supports it, with its phrase “his appearing and his kingdom”. And, of course there is a whole host of loci that support directly the Second Coming: just one to represent them all, Acts 1:10-11.

2. Just a couple of verses will do:

I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom  (2 Tim 4:1)

For the Father judges no one, but has given all judgment to the Son (John 5:22)

3. How about 2 Peter 3? (Of course you may try to deny that the Lord spoken of there is the Lord Jesus Christ, or simply dismiss it all as “apocalyptic frenzy” …)

4. You are suggesting that Matthew wanted to present, at Matt 25:31-46, “a limited judgment of the peoples of the Greek-Roman world”. You will have to provide a convincing argument for that.

5. You cite the Nicene Creed, which can be dated precisely (325 CE in the basic version; 381 CE in the “beefed up” version). If you find it all way too metaphysical (I do) you may want to take seriously the Old Roman Symbol (2nd century), where the verse “whence He will come to judge the living and the dead” does not allow to distinguish between a presumed “judgment of the nations” and a “final judgment”.

[Andrew] In Daniel’s vision the figure in human form seen coming on the clouds of heaven to the throne of God, set up on earth, represents those Jews who remained faithful to the covenant during the persecutions of Antiochus Epiphanes (cf. Dan. 7:26-27).

This is not just “watering down”, this is a diminutive attempt at rationalizing away the self-identification of Jesus with the Danielic Son of Man.

There is no way you can hold together (a) Jesus’ prophecy about himself as Son of Man, (b) the “judgment” on the pagan Greek-Roman world, (c) the uninterrupted faithfulness of the Jews to the covenant up to today, (d) and the relevance of the Scripture for our present situation, if you dismiss the Second Coming (“water down” is your euphemism for the same).

Great stuff. Thanks.

Have you done one yet linking the apostate Jewish leadership to the “enemies made his footstool”?