At this time of the year, many ministers have the sneaking suspicion that they ought to launch out into eschatology, but they do not know where to begin. At no point does the Christian Gospel appear at first sight to be more dated, not to say incredible, than in its insistence on a Second Coming of Christ to earth. That is why, despite its prominence in the New Testament, this subject is largely neglected today.

And yet this Advent message can, I believe, be of the utmost importance in answering four quests of the human heart, four yearnings deep down in modern man. To neglect the Parousia is to miss a golden opportunity of speaking to man in terms he can understand.

The Quest For Purpose

It is unnecessary to underline the restlessness, the insecurity, the quest for meaning so characteristic of our generation. Why are we here? What should be our goals in life? What does it all add up to? These are questions that many are asking; and cynicism, Angst, and the current rebellion against moral standards are some of the results.

I wonder if we have not contributed somewhat to this climate of opinion by our unbiblical emphasis on the soul as opposed to the whole man, and on eternity as opposed to time. The Greeks thought of the spacetime continuum as a circle in which the soul is imprisoned until it escapes at death into the unlimited Beyond. History, in this view, is, of course, meaningless—“a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” This world is unimportant. The body is insignificant, a mere envelope for the immortal soul.

To the Hebrew, however, time was not a circle from which one escapes at death but a line, a line of past, present, and future, the line of God’s redemptive activity in history. Salvation is in time, not from time. What we do now affects then. The body matters to the Lord so much that he became incarnate. The world matters so much to him that he died for it and in it. There is a purpose to history; it is God’s purpose, and it will ultimately prevail. This world is moving on, not to chaos, but to Christ, to the final manifestation of him whose First Coming to the world forever settled its destiny. That is what the doctrine of the Second Coming asserts. It tells us that at the end of the road (and the road has an end; it is not circular) we do not go out like a candle; God steps in. God, who has already been along this road, who is even now in control of all the traffic, will one day rip aside the veil that hides him from the world’s eyes and show himself to be what we by faith already know him to be—ever present. It is perhaps significant that of the three New Testament words for the Advent, two literally mean “unveiling,” and the third meant “presence” before it meant “coming”! The Parousia is the open arrival of the One who is already present.

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This is the New Testament hope. It is tied to the straight line of time and is grounded in the historic life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. It sustains us now because it pierces through the veil to the present Lordship of Jesus, and it knows that such decisive, mighty action in the past and present must have a future consummation. It is rather like a game of chess after the critical move has been played. The game goes on, but it can have only one end. The future moves are determined by the past. The outcome is assured. So it is with God’s plan for the world. The really decisive events have taken place, and the future will reveal this. I believe that in this biblical doctrine of the Christian hope we have an intelligible answer to the modern quest for purpose in the world.

The Quest For Personal Identity

Ours is an age of mechanization, mass movements, giant mergers, and increasing automation. And man is in quest of personal identity. What is he worth? What does he matter? What is his destiny?

I believe that the Christian doctrine of the Parousia is intensely relevant to modern mass-produced man. It is God’s answer to a need that has never in the history of the world been so strongly felt as it is today. For Christianity asserts that the ultimate in the universe is love, that final truth is personal. This is no abstract ideal. This personal love has burst forth in the person of Jesus Christ—“I am the truth.” Once we have looked at Jesus, his selflessness, his concern for the needy, his self-sacrifice; once we have seen Jesus on a cross, bearing our sin, canceling our estrangement—we can no longer plead ignorance of the Ideal. It is not beyond us. It is in our very midst, in the man Christ Jesus. By that man we are judged. By that man we are saved. We are neither judged nor saved by one who is alien to us, but by one who perfectly understands, because he is a man like us—albeit man as he ought to be (therein lies the difference). And all through history ever since that life, man has been judged and man has been saved according to his reaction to the light manifested in the person of Jesus Christ.

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And what of the end? The major New Testament emphasis is that he will return. We shall meet him. Our destiny is to be conformed to his likeness. If we refuse, we shall find that the incarnate, crucified, exalted Jesus has to say to us, “I never knew you. Depart from me.” Even hell is determined by reference to Jesus. It is “everlasting destruction from the presence of the Lord.” Judgment and salvation are mediated through a man and will be consummated through a man. The coming man is no foreigner. He has been this way before. At the end we must meet him again. Or rather, he will meet us, as he has been doing—though incognito—down the streets of life.

Is not this message of personal love, the need for personal encounter, the emphasis on personal value, the either-or of personal acceptance and rejection of a judgment and a salvation which are alike personal—is not this a message we need to stress in our depersonalized age? It is one of the leading Advent themes.

A Quest For Realism

People are more than ever impatient, in this scientific age, of theories unsupported by hard facts. Is our doctrine of a returning Christ realistic in the twentieth century? Is the Christian optimism that “all will be well in the end” justifiable? Or is it to be consigned to the fairy-tale realm of “living happily ever after”?

There are, I believe, two solid grounds for assurance that this doctrine is realism, not escapism: the Resurrection and the Holy Spirit.

Jack Clemo in The Invading Gospel (pp. 138 f.) says: “The whole philosophy of Christian optimism is based on the literal resurrection of Christ, the fact that his triumph was part of his earthly and corporeal existence. When those feet last walked our earth they were not the feet of a Sufferer, a Man of Sorrows.… Truth did not forever stay on the scaffold. Truth came down from the scaffold, walked out of the tomb, and ate boiled fish.” This is precisely the ground Paul took before the Athenian intelligentsia: “God has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed, and of this he has given assurance to all men by raising him from the dead” (Acts 17:31, RSV). He argues from a past to a future certainty. The Resurrection is certain. So is the Parousia. They are respectively the midpoint and the end of the line of redemption history. Thus we can be sure that this talk of the Advent is realistic.

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Very well, one may say. This may be intellectually cogent, but what practical evidence can you show to back it up? The answer must be: the Holy Spirit. It is interesting to note that when the disciples asked him about the time of the end, Jesus warned them against speculation and pointed them instead to the age of the Holy Spirit, which was about to be inaugurated (Acts 1:6–8). For the Spirit is the foretaste of the coming of the Lord. Peter was quite right to apply to the experience of the apostles at Pentecost the prophecy of Joel concerning the coming of the Spirit in the last days. For the last chapter had begun. Admittedly, it is a long chapter, this period between Pentecost and the Parousia. But the important thing for us is that we have a fragment of the future age here and now, through the Holy Spirit. He is the earnest of the inheritance, the foretaste of heaven, the representative of Jesus in our midst. The presence of Christ by the Spirit in the Church is the guarantee we have both of the reality of the Resurrection and of the certainty of the Return. The work of the Spirit in convicting, converting, transforming, making new men of forgiven sinners—this is something utterly realistic to which we can point in support of our conviction that Jesus will return.

Thus two concrete evidences support our hope in the final consummation of all things: the Resurrection of Christ can face the most stringent concern for intellectual realism, and the Spirit of Christ can satisfy the most searching inquiry for empirical evidence.

A Quest For Relevance

Any theory that does not have practical results of immediate relevance is suspect today—naturally enough in an age in which scientific theory is translated into practice with the minimum of delay. So aware are some modern theologians of this trend that they no longer ask about a doctrine, “Is it true?,” but only, “Is it relevant?”

A great many Christians think this doctrine of the Advent irrelevant for practical purposes. It has not happened for nearly 2,000 years, despite the protestations of preachers. “Probably it will hold off for mylifetime!” So although it is a possibility to be reckoned with, it is so unlikely as to enable one safely to discount it.

It is instructive to see how the New Testament writers used this hope of the Advent. They never made it a subject for speculation; it was always a spur for Christian attitudes and Christian action. Here are three of the most common conclusions they drew.

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The most obvious practical consequence was a call for holiness. “… the coming of the Lord is at hand. Do not grumble …,” writes James (5:8 f.). John urges Christians to holy living “so that when he appears we may have confidence and not shrink from him in shame” (1 John 2:28). Peter concludes his discussion of the Advent with the question, “What sort of persons ought you to be in lives of holiness and godliness?” (2 Pet. 3:11b). This holiness does not mean escape from the world. On the contrary, it means involving oneself in the world at every possible point, pervading it with a new quality of life supplied by the Holy Spirit. God means us to exhibit in this sinful and transitory world the fragrant beauty of the age to come. He who has called us is holy. He who will come for us is holy. In the meantime, he has given us his Holy Spirit to work out in our lives something of his holy character.

It is much the same with evangelism. The Christian knows that the decisive acts in world history have been successfully carried through by Jesus; he knows that Jesus is even now Lord in the universe, albeit unrecognized and opposed; he knows that the day will come when Christ’s sovereignty will be conclusively manifested. This drives him to service in the cause of Christ. The Church is the only part within the total realm of Jesus that gladly and obediently recognizes his lordship. It is, therefore, the Church’s privilege and responsibility to seek, in the King’s name, to bring his rebel subjects into the same happy royal family. The present, then, is no trivial passage of time while we wait for the end to come; it is the time of grace, the time of the Spirit, the time of opportunity. The preaching of the Gospel is always and to every generation a sign of the end (Mark 13:10). For the Gospel concerns a Person whose first coming ushered in the last days and whose return will seal them; its proclamation issues from the command of this Person and is empowered by his Spirit. It is eschatological through and through.

Finally, the doctrine of the Advent, with its repeated call to “Watch,” teaches us the need for discernment, in a way that is obscured if we think only of a Second Coming. The New Testament does not isolate it like that. It does not speak of a Second Coming. The Parousia is not only a single datable event in future history any more than the Fall was in past history. Both are, in a sense, contemporary. The Christ who came and who will come, this same Christ is even now coming to us clay by day. He challenges us constantly and knocks for admission to our thinking and behavior. The parable of the sheep and the goats tells us plainly that Christ confronts us in and through our fellows who are in need, in prison, in famine. Do we not often fail to recognize him because we are looking for the wrong thing? In the days of his flesh, Jesus met people not as God, tout simple, but as man, their neighbor. And in their response to their neighbor, men made and evidenced their response to God. That is still God’s way. And that it is, is a merciful thing. We are not overwhelmed by the naked majesty of God but by his incognito are given room to make our response. At the same time, of course, it is a devastating thing. For we are judged, not by one alien to ourselves, but by our response to Christ’s challenge to us in and through our neighbors. This is not, of course, to subscribe to the heresy that all men are “in Christ” without knowing it; that is manifestly untrue to the New Testament. But it does surely mean that Christ challenges us to Christian action by confronting us with apparently secular needs and people. How we need to pray for discernment so that we may hear Christ speaking to us, coming at us, through the Negro family in the tenement, the lonely widower down the road, the troubled one in the newspaper headlines, the tramp at the door. At points like these Christ comes to us and knocks for admission. By the decisions we make in daily “secular” life we build up the characters that we shall eventually be. Whether we shall welcome him or shrink from him at his final coming will depend not a little on whether in the small choices of daily life we have learned to live with Jesus, to welcome Jesus, to learn from Jesus; or whether we have, for all our protestations of faith and obedience, excluded him from large areas of our lives and grown deaf to his knock. As now, so then. That is where the doctrine of the Coming of Christ touches us most nearly; that is where it is relevant to our ordinary living all day and every day. Should it not bring us in penitence and humility to ask him for that priceless gift of discernment, so that in all we do and behind all we meet we may see Jesus, and thus prepare ourselves and others for his final Coming?

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