When Christ Returns

Considering how recently we celebrated Christmas, I am sure that we’re all familiar with the circumstances surrounding the first advent of Jesus Christ.

We know that Jesus was conceived through the power of the Holy Spirit and born of a virgin named Mary. We know that Mary and her fiance, Joseph, traveled to Bethlehem to participate in a Roman census. We know that Jesus was born in that little town of Bethlehem and that his first crib was actually a manger. We know that Jesus grew up, preached the kingdom of God, and died a slave’s death on a cross. And we know that he rose to life again, walked out of the tomb he had been laid in, and ascended back to the Father’s side where he is interceding for us even now.

Because these events happened thousands of years ago, Christianity is a religion that requires us to look back in remembrance if we are to grasp it -- thus, we tell and retell the old Christmas story, we preach and teach ancient words, and we read a Bible whose primary events occurred in times and cultures that were radically different from ours. To paraphrase the great philosopher Soren Kierkegaard, we understand the Christian faith only by looking backwards.

But Christ’s first advent was not his only advent. He is coming again. And because he is going to return, we are to be a people who not only look back in remembrance, but who also look forward in anticipation.

The bodily return of Jesus Christ is one of the foundational beliefs of the Christian faith. In the words of the Apostles’ Creed, we believe that Jesus will “return to judge the living and the dead.” While there is great debate about when Christ will return, no orthodox Christian doubts the essential claim that Christ will return with unrivaled power (1 Thessalonians 4:16). The question that now remains is this: what will Christ accomplish at his long awaited arrival?

Judgment, Fire, and Fury

One day, the storehouses of God’s patience and forbearance will run out -- and in the words of the poet Tania Runyan, the stars will sizzle like Epsom salts and our chances with time and space will be lost forever.

In other words, one of the instruments that Christ will wield at his second coming is the sword of judgment and wrath. God will avenge the blood of those who were martyred for their faith, and unleash a fury of fire that will consume his adversaries (Revelation 16:6, Hebrews 10:26-30). That day will be great and fearful -- it will be a day reeking of sweat and dread, a day where people will beg the mountains to fall upon them and hide them from the wrath of God (Revelation 6:15-16). This harrowing vision of Christ’s return often makes us squirm a bit, and it is frequently overlooked in our more modern contexts, but it is an inescapable piece of the second advent.

On one hand, this terrifying day of judgment will actually resolve an age-old question, a question often posed by the ancient prophets: why has God not dealt definitively with the grave injustices of the world (Habakkuk 1:2-4)? At the present hour, God is granting all people the time to turn back to him from their sin and idol-worship (2 Peter 3:9) -- but when the clock strikes midnight, he will bring every hidden and unpunished evil into floodlight of vengeance. God will judge all sin that was not confessed and laid down before the Son -- and thus, God will at long last answer our desperate cries for justice.

And on the other hand, to know and behold this vision of God’s unbridled fury also serves to remind us of what we have been saved from. Wrath is the natural end of all human beings apart from Christ, the just fate of a corrupted and hateful race -- but for those of us who confess that Christ is the Lord, for those of us who smash our idols to dust with his help, we have a rock-solid assurance: God has not destined us for wrath, but to receive salvation through Jesus Christ (1 Thessalonians 5:9).  

Salvation, Glory, and Life

But as things currently are in this life, it can often be difficult to taste and see the fruit of salvation. We hear tall tales of the “abundant life” promised to those who believe, but the abundant life that we actually experience seems galaxies away from the abundant life that we expect. We expect unshakable financial security, but what we experience is a sudden job loss and an unexpected leak in the roof that will cost thousands of dollars to repair; we expect perfect health, but what we experience is cancerous tumors and heart attacks and neverending migraines; we expect an always happy family, but what we experience is the unavoidable reality of human dysfunction. Where is the blessed kingdom of God that we were promised?

In this way, the final vision of salvation is often like a newly planted seed, always growing, but hidden beneath the soil for a time. If you look beneath the surface, you’ll see it -- and more than that, if you’re keeping your eyes wide open, you’ll also find that there are indeed shoots of life springing up above the surface in the some of the most unlikely places: a church that rallies around a financially struggling family, doctors and nurses who go the extra mile to care for their patients, and family members who confess their wrongs to one another and take the hard (and good) path of reconciliation.

But when Christ returns, nothing about God’s kingdom will be hidden any longer. Where there were once thorns, cypress trees will suddenly tower; where there were once briers, myrtle trees will bloom in royal splendor; the very mountains themselves will break out into the song they have waited millenia to sing (Isaiah 55:12-13). The vision of salvation seen throughout all of Scripture will finally come true in all of its fullness.

So we who walk by faith in Christ eagerly await his return. It will not be a day of mourning for us, but a day of unmatched rejoicing. We will finally enter into what G.K. Chesterton called the place older than Eden and the city stronger than Rome, the liberated creation where we finally are at home.

And so it is that the second advent of Christ both draws us in and sends us out: it draws us in to a deeper love for God and a stronger hope for the future, and it sends us out to proclaim the gospel so that those who are destined for wrath might instead receive salvation.

So while we wait for that blessed day, let us be a people who join with the saints in praying, “Come, Lord Jesus,” and let us be a people who sing with great hope and love, “When he shall come with trumpet sound, oh may I then in him be found!”