Monday, September 3, 2012

The Myth of Jesus' Return

            When Jesus walked from Galilee to Golgotha, he and his followers hoped that the end of the world was just around the corner. That is, they believed that God would one day soon tear open the heavens, come on down, judge both the living and the dead, and bring history as we know it to an end. Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place” (Mark 13:28-31).

            Of course, Jesus got it wrong. Perhaps sensing that Jesus’ words were a bit bold, years later the writer of the Gospel of Mark has Jesus temper hopes for his speedy return by having Jesus add, “But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father” (13:32).

            Nevertheless, the earliest Christians continued to hope that Jesus would soon return. To give one of the more humorous Biblical examples, the Apostle Paul wrote to the Corinthians concerning virgins considering marriage, “in view of the impending crisis, it is well for you to remain as you are . . . for the present form of this world is passing away” (1 Cor. 7:25-31). Unfortunately, his advice probably made for some very old bachelors and maidens. Jesus did not return in those virgins’ lifetimes.

            The last 150 years have seen a huge upsurge in predictions about the immanence of Jesus’ return. The largest wing of Christian Fundamentalism, Premillennial Dispensationalism, is committed to reading the Bible and newspaper headlines about the Middle-east as if they were secret codebooks that reveal how Jesus will return any minute now.

            Of course, all of such predictions, whether they are found in the Bible or are being made by TV preachers, are wrong. For all their Bible studies on Revelation and their adding and subtracting of millenniums to dates for the State of Israel; for all their book, TV and Christian radio warnings of the end-time battles at Armageddon or Aleppo, for all their Left Behind novels and YouTube movies of Jesus floating down from the clouds, so far, Jesus has not returned.

It is no wonder, really, that from day one Christians hoped for Jesus’ return. Life was tough. From job loss to imprisonment, from slavery to—in some cases—being fed to the lions, choosing Christianity meant choosing for membership in the bottom rung of society. So early Christians directed their hopes towards escape by means of a deus ex machina—the god who sometimes suddenly appeared on a crane at the end of Greek dramas to save the hero. Early Christians hoped for a similar sudden, liberating reappearance of Jesus.

            And many people still hope for Jesus to save them from the trials and tribulations of this world. In a way, we understand. Terrorism. Crime. Taxes. Deficits. The chaos of the Arab Spring, North Korea and Afghanistan. New public values when it comes to sex, being gay, abortion, and on and on—no wonder the world seems out of control to some people. They put their hope in a belief that Jesus will return on the clouds and save them from all this. Soon! Maybe this year!

            The trouble with putting your hope in a miraculous return of Jesus to earth is that instead of trying to do something here and now to make the world a better place, you are mightily tempted to wait for Jesus to do it for you. If Jesus is going to return to judge the world and cleanse it from all evil, then why should we bother to do anything ourselves? The kind of Christianity that focuses on Jesus’ return makes for a week-kneed Christianity that has no energy for social action, unless it is the sort of social action that calls sinners to repent and be saved before the Day of Judgment.

But all such hope for the future is vain, based on wishful readings of the Bible. Whatever mysterious way Divinity works with and among us to make the world a better place, it won’t be Jesus returning on the clouds that seals it. Like the story of Adam and Eve, Biblical texts about Jesus’ return, whether in the gospels or Revelation, are all written in the language of myth. They're important texts, full of meaning and insight, but they're nothing like history.

            So what ought we base our hope on? Well, according to 1 Corinthians 13:13, "And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.” What this text suggests is that we’ll never really understand hope until we understand that love is the greatest. Hope is love's legitimate child.

I don’t mean to be simplistic here. I’m offering a sort of “think global, act local” solution to our feelings of hopelessness. Our hope for overcoming this world’s woes is, naturally, partly rooted in the mysterious presence of God in and among us. But if God is present, much of the mystery of God has to do with how God inspires us against our baser instincts to nevertheless root our lives in love for neighbor. Whether you are a parent, a pastoral care worker, a money manager, a nurse, a CEO of a company that produces useful widgets, each of us can find ways appropriate to our position for putting our neighbors—our children, fellow church members, customers—in a better place tomorrow than today.

It is as the Apostle Paul said, more wisely than with his words of advice for virgins: “If I have prophetic powers, and understand all the mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing . . . Love never ends. But as for prophecies they will come to an end . . . for now we see in a mirror, dimly. And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.”

(For more on this theme, see the entry for June 4, 2011, "The End of the World." Feel free to leave a comment, too!)


  1. John, Am I understanding you correctly? The return of Jesus will not be an actual event we can look forward to in the future? What do you mean when you say talking about the return of Jesus was written in the language of myth? Always enjoy reading your blog.

    1. I wouldn't want to make the same mistake as so many others have made when it comes to Jesus' return--that is, getting it wrong. The way I see it, though, is that there is little warrant in scripture for believing in the return of a human Jesus to earth. Texts that suggest this scenario as something that will happen in the near future got it wrong. So I just don't see how we can run with this Biblical meme. But never say never. It would be a nice surprise.

  2. As a former parishioner of your's I often had an uncomfortable sense of affinity with the little boy in the crowd watching the emperor's new clothes spectacle, in the child's story. Clearly now, there is not much left there to see, or believe.

  3. I find it beneficial to discuss these matters, and I don't get overwhelmed with the fear of a new idea as exhibited by Anonymous. What do you feel that the 2nd coming of Jesus is all about? What should we be looking for in your opinion? How now should I live in anticipation?

  4. Jim, all good questions. They deserve another column. Sometime later this year, I'm sure! Thanks for asking.

  5. Are you suggesting that Paul's advice to the virgins was not very wise and perhaps not a word of wisdom inspired by God? Are you saying the story of Adam and Eve and the revealed story of Jesus' return are myths and nothing like history, past or anticipated? Did I read that correctly?

  6. John, your use of 1 Cor. 13 is strange given how clear Paul is in chapter 15 about the resurrection of Christ being necessarily true for our faith not to be in vain (1 Cor. 15:14). If we take Paul's discussion of the final resurrection to be "vain mythologizing" then why believe in the faith/way at all?

  7. Thanks John for talking about this. This debate is of course touchy as it connects to other subjects. It orbits around the question of Christian assertions regarding historical narratives. Did Jesus assert his imminent return, and by imminent we assume a matter of decades if not millennia? Did the apostles (and brother James) assume this? Did Paul? If jesus did, was he wrong? What are the implications of that?

    It also gets into the question of the assertion of a future resurrection narrative. Let's assume the historicity of Jesus' resurrection. Was that a strange historical anomaly or should we imagine, like Paul seems too that it is the first fruits of a general resurrection?

    Do we read these things through contemporary skepticism? Isn't 2k years enough to convince us Jesus was wrong and the Xian narrative assertions bankrupt? Even if we embrace skepticism on both ends and say "well maybe it could happen but we shouldn't embrace it sufficiently to alter contemporary behavior based on a weak theory?"

    I read you here as saying "embracing a future narrative of the second coming undermines activistic motivation to improve the present world situation."

    In evaluating that assumption I'd have to grant that some theological systems, such as dispensational communities that emphasize a lifeboat mentality to escape a disposable world certainly supports your thesis. However, I suspect if an apostle's creed assumption of the second coming is the majority Christian position throughout history, and if we can in fact see that work to better humanity's lot also runs strongly through the Christian tradition (generosity towards slaves and dispossessed in the Roman Empire, monastic hospitality throughout the middle ages, the abolition movement, etc.) It doesn't appear that embracing a second coming impairs Christian works of generosity, service and humanitarian betterment. If anything I'd suggest that contemporary dispensational world flight is a theological aboration.

    I also think the position you seem to suggest reveals the assumptions of the culture of powerful, western activism, that what really changes the world is the kind of power based, coercive activism. One's value in this world, the meaning of one's life is dependent upon their capacity to contribute to human betterment. Most of humanity has lacked this level of power or capacity. What does that say about their lives? Should the weak, infirm or poor in the world simply give up and relieve the planet of their carbon footprint? John's admonitions to the 7 churches in Asia Minor were pretty foolish. How might they imagine that in their poverty and suffering any good would come from belief or faithfulness?

    I'd assert an embrace of a historical, interventionist rescue actually motivates those who realize they, in the view of the world, have little to offer. That acts of small faithfulness are not overlooked or lost to the view of broad, sweeping history. That the maker of the universe sees shoveling the snow from the shut-in's steps and hears the prayers of the paralytic. That the casserole or cup of cold water given in Jesus' name is not lost to the decay of history.

    Of course if we find that a healthy anticipation of Jesus' return or the resurrection actually motivates people towards greater charity in our skeptical view this might suggest that we encourage people to believe it for pragmatic reasons, but if this is a trick, it won't work. if we imagine this opiate of the people somehow helps them, but it is still a drug, then we set ourselves up as a class of knowers above the ignorant herd of commoners. It only works if you really believe it.

    If skepticism cuts both ways, and we can afford to doubt all assertions, then why not embrace the better story and doubt some of our doubts. :)

    Thanks for putting the topic forward. pvk

    1. Paul, a couple of thoughts in response to your fine post. First, you ask, "Do we read these things through contemporary skepticism? Isn't 2k years enough to convince us Jesus was wrong and the Xian narrative assertions bankrupt?" My bottom line on this is that we need to stop asserting that the delay isn't a problem. Given the eschatological sense of living on pins and needles that you find throughout the NT, we can't go on after 2000 years of blithely saying things like, "well, maybe next year." (Camping was toast the next day! Though the popular press did give him two or three whacks at the thing!) The literal sense of scripture hasn't been borne out here, and we need to confront that, not gloss it over. And yes, that has broader implications for how we ought to read scripture and in what sense we might insist on it being authoritative.

      Jim Dekker, in an article in The Calvinist Contact, speculated that one issue that may be moving me out of the traditional CRC orbit, in particular, is a changing view of scripture's inspiration, authority, infallibility. He's right, and I don't know where that voyage will end. But I would not personally use words like inerrancy (never used that, actually, and wrote a Banner editorial to that effect) or infallibility to describe my position on scripture now. Maybe something closer to Barth's scripture contains (at least potentially) the Word of God.

      You are right in suggesting that it is especially the Premills (as Mouw pointed out in a fine book, years ago) who are prone to waiting for deus ex machina solutions to the troubles of this world rather than searching out activist solutions to our problems.

      I don't think that my activist assumptions work best just for powerful, activist Westerners. The path of caritas, of loving your neighbor wherever and whoever you are, is both overwhelmingly Biblical and open to all, poor or not. Though, sure, if we can leverage that due to our power and influence in the West, let's do it. (I preached, this past Sunday, to my UCC church, about the danger of the social gospel becoming a "works righteousness," ethic. Works are great. But so is grace. Grace flowers in gratitude).

      Someone else suggested that if I don't believe in a literal return of Jesus to judge the living and the dead, then I can't believe in the resurrection of Jesus. I don't think that follows at all. (Though I no longer think that getting the right propositions down in one's head about the resurrection is the, or even a key, indicator of whether one is a Jesus-follower). One could imagine many other scenarios, I think, for a final triumph of God on earth that doesn't include the sort of apocalyptic scenes we find in Revelation or in the small Gospel apocalypses. Anyway, the very nature of apocalyptic literature is not literal. That is something we have not been willing to come to grips with. No wonder, I suppose, when we also cannot come to grips with the non-literal nature of our origin myths in Genesis.

      Thanks again for the engaging comments.

    2. Again I appreciate your honesty to fess up to some of this stuff. Is there a problem here? Yes. More than one obviously.

      1. What was Jesus thinking? Did Jesus believe he'd float down sooner rather than later? No matter what peg you want to hang your authority/perspicuity index upon, mind reading Jesus via the Bible from this cultural, temporal distance is no small claim. We've got Mark 13:32 to kick around, but then we're into "what did he know and when did he know it" and secrets within the Trinity. Yikes. :)

      2. I think it's pretty safe to say that a good number of believers in the NT era (in Thessaloniki for example) certainly got the idea that it would be within their lifetimes. Where did they get that idea? We have Paul addressing the issue.

      At some point of course the church settled down on a position that expected a physical return while still making travel plans, having babies and saving for retirement.

      In the CRC of course we have our own flavor of a tradition, dropping "if the Lord tarries" and "Maranatha" as we go while for all intents and purposes living as if Jesus likely won't return while we or our institutions survive. This despite my fervent prayers as a boy asking if the Lord could return before I finished writing school assignments. I figured amidst the trumpet call my teachers relieve me of these obligations.

      I think it's helpful to ask "what kind of problem is this?"

      There's a credibility problem of course. If Jesus claimed to show, and/or the disciples expected (them being the best witnesses to Jesus perceived intent) him to show, a "no show" is not a good sign. This of course is grist for the doubting mill and I'd be lying if it didn't weigh on my scales either.

      A deeper "what kind of problem is this" question lurks for me with respect to Jesus as savior of our immediate urgencies. There are lots of promises about answered prayer, deliverances, and things in the gospels. I'd imagine many dying of hunger, war, abuse and calamity would welcome seeing Jesus on a white horse coming to deliver them.

      We should also note, that the canon also doesn't shirk from suffering, persecution and harm and God's ability to endure the temporal suffering and pleas his his faithful. The canon's approach to suffering is not cheap.

      I though Harold Camping's exegesis and billboard campaign to be the height of foolishness and folly, yet a part of me respected the man for his integrity. He was misguided by wanted to be faithful. He had the integrity to apologize and admit he was wrong after the fact.

      I picked up a regular attender at church because of his campaign, a young man who on the basis of believing the billboard thought he should address his relationship with God. We can judge him too as we tend to do.

      Again, there are levels to this. As leaders we can ask 1. should the 2k no-show induce us to change our position?

      If the earth is far older than we regarded previously, and it appears that the creator uses millions of years to furnish us with fossils and mammals that are easy to domesticate, 2k is merely a blip.

    3. If we ask 2. would it be better for the church to lay off the millenialism? I think recent church history might suggest that the posture of the CRC isn't a bad one. It's a rather modest position of sorts. We don't know the future, so let's be faithful as we go, keeping the tradition of Jesus' return alive, while loving God, our neighbors as our selves, and being stewards of this good earth.

      The question of the canonical record on whether Jesus should have asked for an extra cushion for his seat on the right hand of the Father is of course one of many. I don't see what exactly is to be gained by nudging the dial over from "we expect him but we don't know when" to "we don't think he's coming so we'd better work harder to fix the place up today."

      A lot of sin falls into the category of "God isn't showing up so we've got to clean up this mess." Miroslav Volf I think addresses these issues well in his writing that a healthy vision of God's justice actually affords postponing vengeance and reprisals by deferring to Yhwh, and I think a second coming is part of that picture. pvk

  8. John: You have motivated me to have another look at the biblical material regarding Jesus' glorious return. Mainly I want to see what the Gospel writers actually say that Jesus said.

    How does a Christian skeptic react to the constant harping by Christian from the dispensational leaning, that Jesus is coming soon, "is at the door", that kind of thing: here'a an idea. A friend of mine who has a significant following among evangelicals where I live, has an approach: each year on Jan. 1, he writes on his Facebook and blog that he proposes that Jesus will not come back in the new year. He also reminds them that he had said the same thing the previous year. I get a big kick out of the reactions he gets! But so far, he has been right every year!

  9. Very funny! Here's a prophet batting 1.000. Impressive!

    Compare the small Gospel apocalypses, side by side. Note the interesting differences. Note how the destruction of Jerusalem fits in! I think that is the elephant in those gospel accounts, and we don't have a very good handle on how it relates differently to the different accounts.

  10. Hi John,
    I don't know you personally - I had heard about your leaving the CRC because of doctrinal differences; I had no idea the differences were so profound.

    I think your "application" point is very important. The eschatological mindset of waiting for a deus ex machina and an escape from reality rather than getting busy with personal and world transformation is not faithfulness to the gospel. But then, neither is the mindset that we can't trust the testimony of Jesus, that he was wrong, and that his disciples put words in his mouth to cover it up.

    It seems more healthy to affirm that Jesus' own message was ambivalent, open to interpretation - like a lot of other things that Jesus said, for example regarding his identity - and that the apostles struggled to interpret his words over the coming decades. At first they thought he meant he would come quickly, and counseled their people accordingly, and later came to realize there would be a wait. And yes, we are still waiting, and we still struggle to interpret his words. Maybe that should make us humble rather than instill in us the kind of pride that makes us stand over the words of Jesus Christ and pronounce they are wrong.

    And just because one believes in a literal second coming of Christ, it doesn't follow that they have an escapist, non-transformational worldview. I believe in a literal second coming, but use that to motivate me as a missionary.

    The exhortations in the NT related to the second coming call for action - faith, mutual encouragement, purification of our lives, acts of love, to missionary service, etc. Paul turned the NT world upside down because he wanted to present his converts as an offering to Jesus at his return. Granted, the NT in general doesn't focus on societal transformation because the church was in survival mode at that point, but certainly the expectation was both to pray for the kingdom to come and to start previewing that kingdom and bringing it to being in our lives, homes, neighborhoods by our actions.

    I will pray for you, that the Lord will increase your faith in his words. I will be in Nicaragua this week with limited Internet access - and if the commenter above is the same Stephen Brauning I am thinking of, I will no doubt see him there - but I will gladly continue the conversation with you as I am able.

  11. As a civil society "activist" within the National and State level anti-corruption movement here in India, I find great hope in the work of God (that goes beyond parochial & limited activist agendas and the silence of so many people, on the other hand)towards effective change (my favorite which I wrote about; calling equals making things better within your sphere; because God calls some for the sake of others). Anyways, the way I get around a belief in Christ's return and the "delay" rests within the Pauline thought that "God is subjugating all things under Christ." Simply put, this takes time but his "imminent" return actually motivates me towards action, based on this particular hope.I am reminded of "negro" spirituals of the yonder that have been attested to as that which gave them hope to endure the hardships. It wasn't an escape; some songs were actual coded communications amongst the slaves. The boot slappers (rhythmic today) were ways miners in South Africa communicated with each other. I am unsure I grasp your line of thought; why one needs to throw the baby with the water.Language, as a word script yourself, is always nuanced towards making sense of our lives..

  12. Just another thought. I think the Bible provides a reasonable grand narrative for interpretation of life. Not exclusive (I live in India) but one which i engage with. Myths, the basic contention, are found everywhere, including family conversations around the dinner table. But myths also arise from core understanding. eg. Adam & Eve story. The return of Christ, filled with myths (perhaps chattering of teeth
    etc...)need not take away from what I see is a moral imperative of an account of the created order & human engagement within it. How do we view the Hitler's, Amins, and suicide bombers? For me the return of Christ (devoid all the fanciful language) allows for love demonstrated versus evil demonstrated to be reckoned with. To merely speak of love (which is the greatest) and ignore real evil (I see it in this anti-corruption process I am engaged with)is something John you might want to consider further... How best to balance these poles within humanity.. For me it is a final reckoning that gives hope to the oppressed & afflicted and demands justice of those who oppress...As an activist I derive this from such a vision because I an an "activist."

  13. I personally think that you, JS are just pissed b/c Zellers has sold out to Target - I mean what is this world coming to? Further, that this would happen before Jesus' return shows that there is really no heaven either. Heaven without Zellers?... just sayin'

    See, this is what happens when we take ourselves so [too]seriously - we find we can no longer justify propositions we held only as academic possibility - the ultimate result of our arrogance is absurdity - and when we are no longer able to defend that, madness...

  14. The scriptures are so clear about the return of Jesus. If one doesn't believe this I wonder what criteria is used to pick and choose scripture. You might as well throw out the whole bible!

  15. Anonymous: be careful what you wish for!


    1. Which Anonymous are you referring to?

  16. Have you all read the 1704 prophecy by Sir Isaac Newton, one of the greatest scientists of all time that the end of days will come in 2060?

    1. Yes. I wrote about it here:


What do you think?