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

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.