Sunday, March 06, 2011

Looking for the Second Coming - Part One

One of the foundational beliefs of the Christian church is that Jesus Christ, whose birth we celebrate during this Christmas season, will return to earth at some future time.  The Apostles’ Creed, which derives from early baptismal confessions, states this belief succinctly: “He [that is, Jesus] will come again to judge the living and the dead.”  The Nicene Creed, dating from 325 C.E., elaborates this statement: “He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end.”
This belief is supported by sayings of Jesus, as recorded in the gospels.  For example, in Matthew 16:27-28 we read, “For the Son of Man is to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay everyone for what has been done.  Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.”  Here and elsewhere, when Jesus uses the term “Son of Man,” it is generally understood that he is referring to himself.
The second coming of Christ was also an essential part of the Apostle Paul’s message to early Christians.  He wrote to the church in Corinth, “for as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ.  But each in his own order: Christ the first fruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ.”  (I Corinthians 15:22-23)  And Paul’s letters to the church at Thessalonica describe in detail his understanding of the second coming.  (See I and II Thessalonians)
The timing of the second coming was a matter of intense speculation from earliest times.  Though Jesus himself had warned, “But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father…” (Matthew 24:36), there are clear indications in the Christian scriptures that many first century Christians understood that Christ’s return was immanent.  As decades passed, however, and the hoped-for day did not arrive, loosely linked communities of believers gradually coalesced into the institutional church. 
Beginning around the year 950 C.E. a few preachers began to proclaim that the Anti-Christ would appear on January 1, 1000, and that the last judgment would follow soon after.  The death of Louis V, the last Carolingian King, in 987 and the return of Halley’s Comet in 989 were taken as signs that the end was approaching.  Some report that the hysteria reached a peak in December 999, when many sold all their belongings and distributed the proceeds to the poor, the incarcerated were set free from prisons, and hoards of pilgrims headed for Jerusalem.  The calendar page turned over, however, and nothing happened.  Nor is there agreement among historians as to just how widespread these beliefs were.  The vast majority of the European populace at the time were illiterate peasants with no understanding of calendar time.  End times panic may have been limited to those locations where learned monks pored over their esoteric calculations.
As we approach our own time, the continuing longing for the Second Coming can be exemplified by two eighteenth century figures.  Emanual Swedenborg, after a long career in which he made substantial contributions in a number of sciences, turned his attention to religion.  His central claim was that the Second Coming of the Lord Jesus had been revealed to him through a series of visions. Believing that God had directed him to explain to humanity the spiritual meaning of the scriptures, Swedenborg wrote and published thirty volumes of Bible interpretation.  For Swedenborg and the New Church movement founded on his writings, the second coming was entirely spiritualized and had already taken place in the spiritual world in the year 1757.  There would be no physical return of Christ to earth and no end of the age.  Never a large group, today the New Church has at most 25 to 30 thousand adherents worldwide.
In contrast to the intellectual and prolific author Swedenborg is Mother Ann Lee, the illiterate but highly charismatic leader of The United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Coming, more commonly known as The Shakers.  Her visions and intense piety convinced others, and then herself, that she embodied the second coming of Christ.  Persecuted in England, Lee and a small group of followers made their way to America just before the Revolution began.  At their height immediately before the Civil War they numbered about 6,000, living in 19 communities spread from Maine to Kentucky.  Today a handful of elderly Shaker sisters remain in Sabbathday Lake Community in Maine.
In 1835 William Miller, a Baptist minister from Vermont, published his predictions, calculated from passages in the book of Daniel, that Christ would return and the world would end in 1843 or 1844.  Heavily promoted by Joshua V. Himes, a minister of the Christian Connection in Boston, Miller embarked on an extensive lecture tour, persuading thousands of his theory.  After October 22, 1844 – the final date set by Miller – had passed uneventfully, most of his followers abandoned him.  The resulting bitterness and disillusionment is referred to as the Great Disappointment.
A remnant, however, retained what were termed Adventist beliefs, adopting also the practice of Sabbath Day worship from the influence of Seventh Day Baptists.  Miller died in 1849, but the movement continued in fragmented form until it was rejuvenated by the visions and writings of Ellen G. Harmon White.  As of 2005 the Seventh-day Adventist Church claimed 12 million baptized members and about 25 million adherents worldwide.  It continues to be a prime source of end-times prophecies and predictions, as does the Jehovah’s Witnesses, a movement that arose in the last decades of the nineteenth century.
In recent decades focus on the Second Coming and end-times prophecy has dominated the attention of a significant number of Christian believers.  A survey of current millenialist beliefs will be the subject of my next post.

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