The following is excerts of an email converstation from the message on Christ’s second coming given in November 2007
I enjoyed your talk on Sunday night, especially your approach on such a difficult topic as the second coming. Of course, it also was the topic of discussion at growth group this week. It’s been awhile since I’ve thought about His second coming, but my discussion group teased out some personal thoughts I wish to share. No, this not my opinion of when or how Christ come, but something deeper and much more intellectually satisfying, at least for me. And, I thought I take the time to write it out and share it with you as food for thought. I wonder if you see the same thing and in doing so, perhaps the challenges created by sectors of the Church in its propagation of the subject. I say this will all sensitivity to those with good intentions, but may have been misguided.
Perhaps the only way I can begin is with an analogy to the 20th century. At the turn of the previous century, Marx wrote that religion was the opium of the people. In doing so, he unleashed social orders that were the most brutal in all recorded history. The hard core secularism of the last century, a belief that man was no longer accountable to God but to himself, was the bloodiest century by order of magnitude. Hundreds of millions of people were killed by their own kind in a single century, significantly more than the entire history of all recorded religious wars! In hind sight, the past century taught us that the opium of people is that man can do whatever he wants in this life without consequences in the life to come. This belief was much more destructive then even Marx could have imagined religion or capitalism could have been. When the Imago Dei (image of God) lost its proper anchoring point at the beginning of the last century, all hell broke loose (Hitler, Mau, and Stalin to name a few).
So what has this to do with the second coming? The brutality of last century was not unlike the brutality in the time in which Christ lived. The underbelly of the Pax Romana (the peace of Rome or Roman globalization of the time) was the cross. Probably, when Jesus was in his early teens, he may have witnessed what Josephus describes as the crackdown on Jewish Zealots when, in a single day, the Romans nailed a 1000 of his Jewish brothers to crosses outside the wall of Jerusalem. Even the Nazi Germans would have been pleased with the Roman efficiency. Certainly, there was not a Jewish family in the region who was not touch by this atrocity, including Christ. But atrocities were not exclusively Roman. Even the Jewish leaders and their prevailing law, Judaism, were oppressive to not only those at the fringe of their society (ie Samaritans, half breeds who didn’t recognize their temple), but to their own evoking a type of Hindu law of karma where the good are bless and the bad, cursed by God (i.e. sinners, the sick, etc). Jesus, in his message of the time, the gospel, brings the Imago Dei back to its proper anchoring point. Simply put, for the Jews, it was to love the Romans, their mortal enemies (i.e. sermon on the mount, healing of the centurion’s son …) which required them to forgive the unforgivable. In addition, it was to recognize the atrocities committed by their own law that marginalized their own people (“which is it easier to say, your sins are forgiven or rise up and walk”). The gospel attracted and confuse so many because it asked a simple question, “if I, made in the image of God, can be forgiven by God without condition, what does that mean about my responsibility to other people of all races and circumstances?” In the “terrible petition” that Augustine describes the Lord’s Prayer, forgiveness is contingent on forgiveness. Grace for grace, “Forgive us our debts, as we forgive those indebted to us.” Unconditional forgiveness is the gospel, in the widest sense, and what liberates man from himself and God, but man to man, especially at the bottom of social structures. As James, the brother of Jesus who was close to him and could say that the measure of, “pure and undefiled religion is to visit the orphan and the widowed in their affliction…”
I would suggest that it is against the backdrop of the underbelly of the Pax Romana, its atrocities committed under Roman imperialism as well as the Jewish state’s treatment of race and social status that we understand the primary message of the 2nd coming. The gospel is countermeasures or counterculture to the conventional wisdom of the time and especially today. However, the “teeth” of the gospel is the second coming. That all men will account to Christ and be measured against the standard of the gospel is the tipping point of our commitment to faith and the gospel. The call of the gospel for all nations to accept, forgive and serve all men made in the image of God carries with it the warning of accountability. For the persecuted Christians in the 1st century, this would bring comfort and hope, that what they endured is not in vain, but serves a just purpose. The image and metaphor of the NT would have been highly relevant to any believer condemned under Stalin’s Gulag as it would have been under Nero after the great fire in Rome. Stalin and Nero will be accountable. Hitler will be accountable, and the many monsters of history whether at the commanding heights of the world stage or in their own cities and homes. The gospel trumps the brutally of imperialism and the evil that temps all of us.
However, the travesty today of the modern evangelical Christian and the relevance of our gospel to the world, especially to the secular world, is that we’ve lost this early understanding and confuse the NT allegory, metaphor and use of apocryphal literature to describing the second coming. Instead, we’ve trumped up themes of rapture, pre, mid and post tribulation as fear mongering (i.e. Hal Lindsey) to promote men to “convert” to Christ, or what Reinhold Niebuhr calls, half the gospel. And, as well meaning as we are, our common conversations are unable to go much deeper and lack a real world appeal outside of our own circles. The 2nd coming points to the gospel, the call to accept, forgive and serve because God first forgives without merit. The gospel’s call to forgive takes us further in our understanding of society with its mooring point in transcendent value that all men are created in the image of God and, what is done to the least of men, is done to God himself. It points to what James describes as pure religion at the lowest levels of society. I wish this was the focal point of the today’s evangelical discussion of eschatology, a moving away from the fusion of early Greek philosophical thought (i.e. at Constantinople in the 4 century), and current Biblical literalism with early Christian/Jewish metaphor and analogy. Instead, I hope we can return to historical literalism (i.e. Walter Kaiser) – what it meant by the text at that time in its context. In this way, I find the discussion much more satisfying and appealing to the wider audience, especially given the performance of secularism in the last century.
I like the story told of Congressman Dave Crockett in his opposition to Manifest Destiny and the removal of the Cherokee Indians in the 1830’s. Speaking to his fellow congressman, he warns them, “Your history, your treaties, and you statutes will confront you. The human heart will be consulted – the moral sense of all mankind will speak out fearlessly and you will stand condemned by the law of God … You many not live to hear it, but there will be no refuge for you in the grave.” Dave Crockett understood the meaning of the second coming. Unfortunately, it cost him his reelection.