This Sunday kicked off the beginning of Advent. While the season is generally seen as a time of preparing to celebrate Christ’s birth on Christmas, the focus historically was a time to focus on Jesus’ Second Coming.
The doctrine of Jesus’ Second Coming has traditionally been a major focus of Christian theology: it has been a driving force for missions, it was a source of hope for suffering Christians, it helped to frame Christian worship.
American evangelicals in particular have been shaped by discussion of Jesus’ return—apocalyptic expectation helped to shape the early fundamentalist movement more than 100 years ago. Baby Boomer evangelicalism has been especially focused on the End Times, from Hal Lindsey’s Late Great Planet Earth of the 70’s to the Left Behind novels of the 90’s.
But it seems increasingly rare to us to hear about the Second Coming these days. This week on Quick to Listen, we wanted to talk about why that might be and why a strong understanding of the Second Coming can serve us well as we navigate the pandemic and other crises.
Vince Bacote is associate professor of theology and director of the Center for Applied Christian Ethics at Wheaton College. He has been serving as a theology adviser for Christianity Today over the last year and is a contributor to our Advent devotional, “Living Hope,” which you can find on our website this week.
Bacote joined global media manager Morgan Lee and editorial director Ted Olsen to discuss why Christians aren’t talking about the Second Coming as much these days, how these conversations can serve us during the pandemic, and what responsibly talking about the End Times looks like.
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The transcript is edited by Bunmi Ishola
Highlights from Quick to Listen: Episode #241
One thing we’ve alluded to is the fact that the way that Christians talk about the second coming of Christ has changed. What have you observed in how we have been or have not been talking about his second coming?
Vincent Bacote: I think it's interesting to observe how the dominant narrative about Jesus’ return and the events connected to it have shifted, particularly since the late ’80s and early ’90s—maybe early on because of the influence of the Left Behind books, but even before that, I think it was already shifting. In fact, I think the Left Behind books existed because they were trying to recapture what you might call the eschatological imagination of people.
I remember when I got out of college—this is in the late ’80s—pretty much every preacher on the Christian radio station I listened to in Memphis, Tennessee had something to say about the end times and rapture type stuff. And at the time, I certainly thought that one of the most important things to get straight was your eschatology. I thought you had to figure out sort of where you stood with all of that.
There has been a change. And I think part of that is because of people who predicted that the end is going to come, and it didn't happen.
There seems to be some theological wrestling with end-times theology and expectation in the early church, and there seems to have been a lot of apocalyptic fervor with the Baby Boomers, but not so much with Gen-X or millennials. Is there a generational shift? And is this fervor something that comes back around in cycles?
Vincent Bacote: Probably one of the biggest reasons that can be associated with why we had all the emerging church movement, is that millennials and Gen X wanted to have a faith that was not just looking for Jesus to come back and then having a dissonant relationship with caring about life in the present.
And in a way, this coincides with what happened to the late ’90s where all of a sudden there seems to be an evangelical consensus about participation in politics and culture, rather than a suspicion toward politics and culture.
So you get more of an emphasis on paying attention to the worldly dimensions of faith. And Gen X and early millennials were saying we need to care as much about our personal piety as we do about things like poverty and the environment. And not just talking about abortion, for example, as a moral issue but as political concerns and as things that warranted attention. We need to care about what's around us rather than just talking about believing what's right and having an “us vs. them” mentality.
It was a shift to we the people who are waiting for Jesus to return or believe the rapture could happen at any moment, want people to know that we are loving to everyone and that we care about what goes on in this world. And we're not ignoring this world because we think Jesus is about to come back at any moment.
The tension though was that from the late ’90s and until at least that first decade, you do have the explosion of the Left Behind novels. But I think the irony, and what’s interesting, is people bought the Left Behind novels, but not because all of a sudden you a repopulation of young evangelicals thinking, “this is exactly how I'm going to talk about my eschatology.”
Part of it was an effort to re-popularize a dispensational eschatology because La Haye—who was the mastermind behind the plot, while Jerry Jenkins was the story crafter—started to see it diminished in its influence in the ’80s. It was losing its grip on being the dominant eschatological view among evangelicals, and he wanted to re-popularize that. And the books did re-popularized it enough for them to make tens of millions of dollars, but for all the money that it's made, I don’t know that it was successful when it comes to the footprint of eschatology with evangelicals.
And I think another part of that is, you get the proliferation of more media channels and other voices becoming popular that are not dispensational voices—whether they are mainstream voices like a T.D. Jakes or Joel Osteen or whether it's the way that people like Tim Keller and John Piper became popular—none of those are people that are talking about a dispensational framework for eschatology.
It sounds like conversations around end-times theology have not only shifted over the years but are not even much of a focus anymore at all. What have we lost by not having these types of conversations? What costs have we paid by not talking about this more?
Vincent Bacote: Well, I think part of it is the ways of talking about judgment. It's not a very popular thing to talk about—unless, of course, you want to virtue signal and condemn the people that disagree with you, in which case it's very popular to talk about—but aside from that, I think no one wants to be put in the place of being the judgmental person.
Among millennials and Gen Z, I think that is a popular disposition. People kind of have an allergy to that. I don't want to be the person that's a hater. I don't want to be the person that people always think if you're talking about Christianity, you're talking about hellfire and brimstone. I want to talk about the love of God. I want people to know that Christians care about them rather than Christians saying, “I'm right, you're wrong,” or “You're wrong. Enjoy burning while I enjoy being here with Jesus.” They don't want to do that.
Another factor to that though is the waning dominance of the dispensational narrative—which, by the way, it’s not that there aren't people who hold that view, it just doesn't dominate the airwaves like it used to. But if people are having something that's more like an amillennial view, generally amillennialists, aren't spending a lot of time talking about eschatology. Because you go about life as it waxes and wanes, and yes, you know that the final judgment is what's going to happen, but in the meantime, you focus on your faithfulness in the present.
And then you have someone like N.T. Wright, who has becomes a very prominent figure and contested figure among evangelicals. Part of what he did was critique the dispensational perspective and say that people need to stop talking about Christianity being about going to heaven when you die and you need to think about people who are living like Christians, caring about the present.
And with those who contest him, you get a magnification of attention on the questions on justification. And then there are these little larger conversations about atonement— whether it's people dealing with atonement and the question of violence or whether it's dealing with the atonement and the need to magnify penal substitutionary atonement and obscuring the other atonement metaphors.
So, I think those things took up a lot of bandwidth. And taking up that bandwidth is part of what put the attention to the return of Jesus on the backburner. Something that everybody goes, “Well, yeah, we believe that, but right now we’re going talk about this other stuff.”
So all of those things moved the attention away from talking about dispensationalism—which had a lot of content to it in terms of talking about the end—and now you're replacing a lot of that content with other conversations. So you just get more bandwidth for the other doctrines.
A lot of things have made people want to say, “Look, I know he's coming back in the end. Let's not give so much magnification to that.”
How do we think through the second coming of Jesus the person as returning as a judge and returning as reigning King? How should we think about the judge and the King, in the person of Jesus, working together? And not that we have to choose one or the other, but if we were to meditate on one aspect during Advent, which one should we put our attention on?
Vincent Bacote: My answer is yes, as in both.
I would say the King is the judge. You cannot escape all the language in passages like Philippians 2 (every knee is going to bow; every tongue is going to confess) and Matthew 25 (who’s going to be a sheep and the goats?). There's lots of language about the judge coming. But then, of course, what happens afterward?
I think the reason for focusing on the King is that on the one hand, Christians will be judged for what we do in this life, how we steward our lives, does it all get burned out like wood, hay, or stubble, or does it all come as fine jewels. But then there's the great white throne judgment as seen in Revelations. It's the final judgment, it’s a large moment, but it’s still just a moment because then there's the rest of the story there. That is the beginning of “ever after.”
So we have to be aware of the fact that you can't avoid the language of judgment, but once that judgment occurs, Jesus doesn't stop being the same King, but what you now have is, he reigns and those were his worship him, live with him in new heavens and new earth—or as I like to say, the renewed heavens and earth—and then you have eternity with him.
So to me, it makes sense to emphasize the King reigning forevermore, but I do think there is a kind of allergy to wanting to talk too much a judgment because of not wanting to be the people who are so sure of who's going to hell.
Can you talk about how Jesus talks about his return?
Vincent Bacote: You do have the language about his appearing, that of course, people interpret that in various ways. Whether you're talking about what happened in 2 Peter 3 or whether you're talking about the Olivette discourse or Matthew 24 and 25, you have the language about Jesus suddenly appearing.
And I think the text is not clear to us the text isn’t exactly what that exactly means. But somehow, everybody’s going to know. That, I think, is the one central reality. What is clear about this appearing is that this appearing carries judgment. But as Paul says in 1 Thessalonians 5, or even in the book of Joel, this Day of the Lord is judgment for those who live in darkness, but for those who live in the light, it's something that will not surprise you.
I mean, it will surprise you to the extent that you don't know when it's going to happen and then it finally does, but not surprised as in “I got caught being evil.” I'm surprised and now I'm happy this great thing is s happening. So it's a great appearing for those who belong to God and it is a judgment day for those that are not his. That's very, very clear.
And there is language, in 2 Peter 3, about things being burned up. And I think it's really important to be clear about this. It talks about the heavens and the clouds being burned up and everything in the earth being laid bare. And it is important that we talk about that kind of language and what's happening in this literally apocalyptic situation.
Apocalyptic just means revealing. It means his appearing and what comes along with his appearing. And what comes along with his appearing is the judgment from which no one can escape. That's the big point in 2 Peter 3. It’s that when this judgment comes and everything is laid bare, there’s nowhere to hide.
So you can say it is the bringing of justice towards the things that have gone wrong but also the vindication of those that are his.
There seems to be a range of focus on the end times based on cultural setting. The Black church, for instance, has a strong history of talking about God coming to set things right. And in global Christianity, there’s a missiological focus to get people saved before judgment. What are your thoughts on this, or what have you seen and observed?
Vincent Bacote: I do think, for some people, there is an inclination to not talk about judgment because when your life gets comfortable, you don't as readily long for Jesus to come and wrap everything up. Which I think is a failure of articulating eschatology as something other than escapism from whatever happens on earth.
You know that C.S. Lewis quote, “God finds our desires, not too strong, but too weak”? By way of analogy, our imagination about what it means for Jesus to show up is too dim rather than too clear. Because I think there's this idea that all the great things that I can experience in life—the best restaurants; if you’re married, the greatest sexual experiences; if you’re in business, the greatest success; the greatest cultural experiences—so many delights of earthly life that people want to have, they think, “I get enough of that before Jesus comes back.” As if what's coming with Jesus is really boring. When really, eternal life is the most maximal human experience in the created order rather than a diminished experience.
People think that it’s going to be boring because they don't understand the vision of this experience with God. And so in some ways, it's a dim vision of what it means to be before God. And it's a dim vision of what it means to be a fully transformed human in fellowship with God in this renewed heavens and earth.
I think that this diminished eschatological vision also plays a factor in people not talking about it because they fail to recognize how great God is and the greatness of what God has planned for those who are his when they are with him in the new heavens and the new earth.
Our vision is too dim.
In light of all the upheaval we’ve experienced in 2020, why do you think we should talk about the second coming more?
Vincent Bacote: It's really important to talk about the second coming because if we want to talk about the entirety of the Bible, the entire narrative of the Bible, you have to include that. That alone is reason to do that—to remind ourselves of the totality of what we believe.
Second, I think we miss the fact that it's not a new thing for the world to be disappointing and causing major distress. That goes back to Genesis 3. This is not a new thing. And what we understand is that this is not the end of the story. At the end of the story is when Jesus comes back. And we have to say that more. But it has to be said in a way that doesn't lead people to ignore the suffering and distress of the present but frames the discussion of the distress and pain that people experience in the present. And so we really have to recast in certain ways how we're talking about the second coming so that it isn't seen as escapism from the present. But then it actually compels us to have greater hope and faithfulness in the present.
We're talking about a part of theology that has historically invited lots of speculation—some of it reckless at times, and other times just very seemingly preposterous. What are some guidelines that you might suggest for us as if we're wanting to bring this up in conversation but not be runaway or throwaway in our remarks?
Vincent Bacote: The first thing is to remember what Jesus said to the apostles. And Jesus says, “It's not for you to know [when or how I’ll return]. But what you can know is that the Spirit's coming and you'll be my witnesses.”
And I think that that gives us direction right there, which is to give up the speculation. The Bible gives us things that will provide a sense that he's coming—like there being great wars—but we've had some big wars and he still hasn't returned. And I don't think that the point of us being told about those details is so that we know exactly when it's going to happen, but rather that we are to live with expectation regardless. And I think, rather than speculation, how do we help people to live with expectation?
Again, not expectation in a way that leads us to ignore the challenges of the present, but also to understand that to some degree, no matter how much we can improve things in the world, it will never be improved in a way that brings about the fullness of the kingdom of God until Jesus himself returns.
And perhaps if one is feeling inclined towards speculation and thinking about articulating their anticipation about the coming of Jesus, it's better to say, “How is that anticipation orienting me towards fidelity to God in the present as well as joyful expectation until he shows up?”