Summary: Sermon about the Second Coming and popular misconceptions about what this means.
When I was in my early teens, I went to a film evening put on by our local branch of Youth for Christ and watched A Thief in the Night and A Distant Thunder. These were the first two of a series of ‘end times’ films that dealt with the second coming of the Christ, the rapture and the great tribulation.
A Thief in the Night tells the story of Patty, who is presented as being a nominal Christian who has not fully committed herself to Jesus. One day, her husband and millions of other people suddenly disappear, and Patty realises not only was this the rapture she had heard about, but as someone who was not a ‘proper’ Christian, she had been left behind. A totalitarian regime is set up, and everyone is required to receive the mark of the beast on the back of their hands or on their foreheads. Those who resist are rounded up and arrested. Patty tries to avoid the authorities but is eventually captured. She escapes but is cornered and falls from a bridge, seemingly to her death, but she wakes up. It was all a nightmare. She turns on the radio, and to her horror, she listens to a report of the rapture. Her nightmare has really only just begun.
At the beginning of A Distant Thunder, Patty is facing execution for refusing the mark. The film then traces the life of her and her friends during the great tribulation and their capture and it finishes with Patty having to choose between the mark and the guillotine.
I was terrified by those films. I couldn’t sleep properly for weeks afterwards. I would lie awake at night, worrying that, like Patty, I might not be a ‘proper’ Christian and that I would be left behind. In fact, seeing these films would have contributed to me leaving the Church several years later. I could follow a faith based on the God of love I had grown up believing in, but I could not subscribe to a religion that kept its followers in line through the strategic use of terror.
After many years, God brought me back to the Church, and I have since learned the concept of a rapture followed by a great tribulation is a modern idea that takes the fantastic events described in Revelation, throws in a bit of 1 Thessalonians and parts of the gospels, and mixes it all up with the apocalyptic second half of the book of Daniel. Although it originated with American Puritans in the 1600s, belief in a coming rapture that would be followed by a great tribulation did not really take off until the 1970s. Films like A Thief in the Night and A Distant Thunder helped popularise it, and there are churches today, especially in North America, that teach the end is nigh, and a new world order is ready to take over.
I consider the second coming to be the hardest doctrine of the Church to understand, and it doesn’t help that different passages of scripture that describe it have very different contexts. We can’t just mix them all together like some over enthusiastic fusion chef. While scriptural references to the second coming do indeed tell of Jesus meeting with his people, trying to amalgamate it with a great tribulation is just wrong. While there is a great tribulation in the Book of Revelation, this almost certainly refers to the persecution suffered by the early Church at the hands of the Romans, and not to any future events.
When Jesus spoke of the coming of the Son of Man on the occasion recorded in today’s gospel reading, his audience would have immediately related this to the Jewish concept of the Day of the Lord, which is described throughout the Older Testament as being the day God would intervene in the affairs of the world. However, the Day of the Lord would be preceded by various tumults on the Earth, in the heavens and amongst human affairs. So, it is important to note that when Jesus spoke of celestial portents, he was using images his audience would have immediately understood. Interestingly, events like those Jesus warned of took place in the Roman world in the not too distant future: Laodicea was devastated by an earthquake; Pompeii and Herculaneum were destroyed by the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius; and there was a major famine in the empire.
Theologians can be roughly divided into three broad camps when it comes to their understandings of the second coming and end times. Firstly there is the futurist position, which is that God’s Kingdom will unexpectedly intervene in human affairs at some stage in the future. Then there is the realised position, which is that God’s Kingdom has already been fully realised through the coming of the Christ. Then there is the inaugurated position, which is that the God’s Kingdom has already begun to manifest itself in human affairs, but its full extent is yet to be realised. This position currently has the most support amongst Newer Testament scholars, and I personally consider it makes the most sense. Human history was radically altered by the incarnation of the Christ two thousand years ago, but it is obvious when we look at the state of the world today, that the God’s involvement with us is clearly not finished yet. Christ has died, Christ is risen but Christ will come again.