The Second Coming
Not the fireworks you expect
As a former Christian, I look forward eagerly to the return of Jesus. It really is high time. And for those of us who rarely enjoy the cameraderie of the pew (how well-named is that: on a misty, musty late November morn – such as today – that environment can be olfactorily stupefying), we rarely take time to reflect on the meaning of this event of all events, this most momentous of occasions that forms the focus of life for a billion Christians. Understandably, we ex-Christians and simple, unwashed non-Christians are somewhat less occupied with this promised return, but even we must admit that it will be a great thing when it occurs. To my knowledge, no person has yet actually returned after departing this life, and it is the uniqueness of the coming spectacle that piques even our jaded interest. So let us take a few minutes to consider some aspects of this phenomenon: first the promised great event itself, next the state and readiness of His flock, and finally some thoughts on orphaned flocks in general: what happens when the Great Man is gone?
As we all know, Jesus Christ is coming again. But where? And when? A little fresh scriptural exegesis throws new light on the puzzle. Related thoughts on founders and followers.
1. The Return of Jesus
Our only source of information about the coming great event is, of course, the last book in the Christian Bible: the Revelation of John, known more ominously to Catholics as the "Apocalypse". From this book, being a letter from a 'John' to seven Turkish churches, comes the entire business of the second coming; from this letter we have garnered all the facts at our disposal, and anything beyond this is guesswork. (We're assuming John's is not guesswork; he reports it as a dream.) Here's how John describes the event itself (references are to chapter:verse in "Revelation"):
After lengthy wars, diseases, and other troubles, where God kills millions for unspecified reasons, Christ reappears under these conditions:
- It will be cloudy. 1:7
- Everyone will see Him (though not necessarily at 'The Coming'), but not everyone will be happy about it. 1:7
That's it. Those are all the facts that John shares with us. Sure, he has a lot of symbolic description, like the "Word of God" riding a white horse in a robe dipped in blood, calling to the birds to come and eat the flesh of the kings that he's about to kill, but the short list above gives the total physical description of the actual reappearance of Jesus. And of those, in all fairness, we have to say that point no.1 is the only guide we can use to help us look for the happy day.
So, we are to look for a cloudy day. Given this paucity of detailed information about The Coming, I must conclude that those who preach a spectacular arrival in the sky are fantasizing. Better, I think, to learn from the last (i.e., the first) time God's son visited us. He was, as we remember, born of a young woman in Bethlehem, apparently not on a cloudy day, since the "three wise men" were able to follow their star to his cradle. But Jesus did not get anointed as the Son of God until he visited the baptizer John at the Jordan river, in or about his 30th year. And here we have some helpful text: In the gospel of Mark, 1:10, we read (New English Version), "And when he came up out of the water, immediately he saw the heavens being torn open and the Spirit descending..." Voilà! The heavens were "torn open." A cloudy day! (Would there be a need to tear open a clear sky?) There we have it, then: the Son of God is always revealed on a cloudy day. This is new, I believe, and undoubtedly significant.
Returning again to past practice, there seems to be no reason to doubt that God's manner of inserting himself on Earth will again be of the natural type. A young woman somewhere will give birth (or has given birth) to a child. Probably not Jewish this time, and probably not named 'Jesus'. Perhaps Norwegian, perhaps named Lisa. Perhaps he/she is already here, working as a bus driver or a plumber. (It was a carpenter last time, you remember.) It could be you, dear reader. Who knows? One thing is certain: The returnee will not be recognized by Christian churches, and his/her efforts to bring sanity and decency to the world will earn the world's united opprobrium (probably led by the Pope), much as the original Jesus experienced. The returned Christ will bring wars between the faiths, and will not win the Nobel Peace Prize.
2. Christians and Jesus
It is obvious to anyone familiar with today's Christianity that the Christian churches would only acknowledge a returned Christ if he arrives in a blaze of glory and trumpets from the sky. A thirty-something Oslo bus driver or Nairobi plumber claiming she is Christ wouldn't have a chance, even if she is. She would fail to get an audience with the Pope (actually, she would steer clear of the Pope), and would quite likely wind up in an asylum. In other words, the churches that preach their longing for the returning Christ would certainly deny the same Christ when he/she arrived. Not one of them would have accepted the thirty year old ragged-looking carpenter, Jesus, as the Messiah if they had been in Israel in his time. Just as back then, they are looking for someone glorious and powerful, not humble and poor. (Here's a bit of leaked information: This may be difficult to believe, but although the Second Coming is the most critical future event of all Christian denominations, not one has established a committee to determine how one is to recognize the true Christ when he/she comes! It's really as if they don't care. Or it's that they've given up, realizing that it's impossible – they'll never recognize their Redeemer!)
Christian churches of almost all stripes (but especially some that I don't need to name) have grown fond of riches and the trappings of power and authority. Their connection with the humble first century carpenter of Galilee (see 'related essays' above) has totally vanished. They are self-serving, self-satisfied, and collectively among the world's prime hypocrites, not to say, in many cases, criminals. Surely the right thing to do for Christians who still find an admirable model in Jesus of Nazareth is to abandon the Popes, cardinals, bishops and other glory-hogs to their fate, and return to the godly, simple man in whom they claim to place their faith.
3. Founders and founderers
Christianity, in which the innovative message of a worthy founder has been systematically twisted and stiffened by centuries of less worthy followers into an ugly parody, unrecognizable in style and content, is but an example of a common theme. The same pattern is not only seen in every established religion, it recurs in philosophical schools and systems ("a philosopher who subscribes to a school or system is no longer a philosopher" – HPL), in political doctrine, even in the sciences. Charles Darwin has suffered for a century from complete misunderstandings of his contribution (how grotesque is the appellation "social Darwinism" which he would totally reject...). The very different economic theories of Karl Marx and John Maynard Keynes have both been stultified and misused by foolish followers. The early and unfinished efforts toward democracy by the American 'founding fathers' have been cast in sacred stone by unimaginative later generations. John Dewey's brilliant understandings in education have been turned into a monster by incompetent education politicians. And on it goes.
It appears to be a rule that innovative initiators of ideas are followed by generations of dullards who codify innovation into dogma, and turn brilliance into slavish obedience to rules of construction. This leads to plausible arguments both for and against innovation. For, because we regularly need to break out of the deathly drudge of the dullards, and against, because new ideas, if they take root, will invariably be subject to dogmatization, taking us down yet another path to officially correct thought.
These are not new ideas. (Well, with the exception of the cloudy day.) But they need to be repeated from time to time. I will close with a quote from Bertrand Russell, writing in 1920 of the effect of followers' dogmatization and fanaticism based on an original thinker's ideas; from his book, "The Practice and Theory of Bolshevism".
The principles of the Sermon on the Mount are admirable, but their effect upon average human nature was very different from what was intended. Those who followed Christ did not learn to love their enemies or to turn the other cheek. They learned instead to use the Inquisition and the stake, to subject the human intellect to the yoke of an ignorant and intolerant priesthood, to degrade art and extinguish science for a thousand years. These were the inevitable results, not of the teaching, but of fanatical belief in the teaching.
Ninety years later, these words are just as true, just as relevant, and just as instructive.
© 2010 H. Paul Lillebo