It will surprise about no one, I expect, that I loathe those Left Behind novels, the serial fiction that imagines the Rapture (while simultaneously imagining it is in any way a Christian reading of revelation).
Besides the terrible theology of the books, the films are guilty of reviving Kirk Cameron’s acting career, a sin by itself for which the authors should be left behind to perdition.
Even though the books are wrong in their interpretation of scripture, they are-surprisingly to you perhaps- appropriate to this Advent season.
At the end of the Great Thanksgiving, the prayer I pray over the Eucharist, it says: ‘By this meal, make us one in Christ and one in ministry to all the world until Christ comes back and we feast at his heavenly banquet.’
Whether we know it or not, every time we share communion we’re praying for Jesus to come back.
The direction of our hope is not our departure, it’s his return.
A major theme of our Christian hope centers on the ‘parousia’ (the second coming) of Christ. It’s this second coming that Revelation prays for when it says ‘Come, Lord Jesus’ (22.20).
Traditionally, the season of Advent- the season before Christmas- is about the parousia, the second coming of Christ, not the first.
This is why the assigned scripture for Advent worship is so often taken from Old Testament apocalyptic passages and harsh passages from John the Baptist.
To many modern Christians, a hope in Christ’s return seems antiquated and irrational. Too many Christians do not know what to make of this hope if it’s not to be cast in the fantastical way contemporary apocalypticism paints it.
But as theologian David Tracy rightly warns: ‘Without the hope of the Second Coming, Christianity can settle down into a religion that no longer has a profound sense of the not-yet, and thereby no longer has a profound sense of God’s very hiddeness in history.’ To lose hope in the Second Coming, in other words, is to accommodate the faith to the world’s status quo.
It’s to grow complacent with the way things are and lose our faithful restlessness with what can be because it will be.
So if it’s an important hope, as Tracy suggests, what does it have to teach us? The doctrine of the Second Coming first of all grounds Christian hope as hope in someone.
We don’t hope to ‘go to heaven’ when we die if what we mean by that is a vague, billowy by-and-by. Confronted by the problems of the world, we don’t hope in abstractions or concepts like justice or freedom or peace. We hope in Jesus. Our hope for things like peace and justice and freedom only find their coherence in our hope for Jesus’ reign.
The doctrine of the Second Coming means our hope for the future is not an unknown hope. The future is not totally unknown to us. Because the future is Jesus’ return, we’ve already seen it in Jesus’ life and death.
If Jesus is the fullness of God revealed in the flesh, then there is nothing about the future we haven’t been given glimpses of in the Gospels. The future will not be at odds with the forgiveness, grace and mercy already shown to us in Christ.
The doctrine of the Second Coming affirms that God’s final purposes will be consistent with what God has already done. Jesus Christ, who was perfectly faithful unto the Cross, will not abandon us or creation in the future.
We need not fear judgment because the Judge is the Crucified Jesus.
And that Judge has already been judged in our place.