One hundred years ago, Christians anticipated this century with the unbridled optimism that echoed their slogans: "ever onward and upward," "the evangelization of the world in our generation," "the absoluteness of Christianity." A new journal launched by some broad-minded believers in 1900 was dubbed The Christian Century. In those days, talk about the imminent return of Jesus Christ was relegated to fringe movements and fiery fundamentalists who seemed out of sync with the spirit of the times.

Now, at the end of an era of unparalleled brutality and moral meltdown, perhaps the most un-Christian century since Jesus' time, we are awash in a sea of apocalypticism. End-times hysteria rules the airwaves and repeatedly surfaces as a distinctive feature of such bizarre and deadly tragedies as the Branch Davidian killings in Waco, the recent subway attack in Tokyo, and the even more recent carnage in Oklahoma City.

Yet evangelical Christians, beset by unfulfilled prophecies and extremist predictions, tend to shy away from any serious engagement with the doctrine of the second coming of Christ. That would be a real loss, for the "blessed hope" of Jesus' return in glory is a vital wellspring of biblical faith. To guard against this understandable reaction to end-times discussions, we need to remember three things:

First, date setters and place namers have been with us since Jesus first promised, "If I go away, I will come back." Based on special revelations they had received, second-century Montanists were sure that Jesus would come back to Pepuza, a village in the Phrygian region of Asia Minor. During the Reformation, the radical prophet Hans Hut predicted the return of Christ for Pentecost 1528 and set about gathering 144,000 elect ...

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