Each issue carries an imprimatur from
the Archdiocese of Cincinnati. Reprinting prohibited
When He Comes Again
The traditional profession of faith we Catholics and other Christians recite every
Sunday concludes the section devoted to Jesus with these words: “He will come
again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end.”
This faith statement concerns the Second Coming of Christ and his role in the Last
Judgment and in the eternal Kingdom of God.
The first coming of Christ involved Jesus’ birth, life and death in the land
of Israel some 2,000 years ago. Through the Gospels we can learn a good deal about
the historical Jesus. The result is that we can know as much—if not more—about
Jesus as we know about almost any other figure from antiquity.
The Second Coming of Christ, however, is different. It is still to come, and
it will involve the end of this age or world as we know it. This topic is the domain
of prophets, not of historians, who generally deal with the past and assume
that it was much like the present. Nevertheless, historical study can at least tell
us what people in the past imagined the future would be like, and in particular
what early Christians believed about the Second Coming of Jesus and his place
in the end times.
Eschatology and apocalypse
Eschatology is the study of the “last
things.” In the context of ancient
Judaism and Christianity, eschatology
concerned the end of human history,
the resurrection of the dead, the
Last Judgment and subsequent rewards
and punishments. The early Christians
believed the risen Jesus would play
a pivotal role when these events take
place. This led to belief in the Second
Coming of Christ.
Eschatology is often the theme
of many apocalypses. An apocalypse
(derived from the Greek word for
“revelation”) is a narrative or story
that describes a revelation about the
future or the heavenly realm. It can
take the form of a dream or a vision.
There is often an angel who helps the
visionary to interpret the experience.
Many apocalypses claim to describe
the future course of history and the
unfolding of eschatological events.
Images of Hope
Two books in the Bible are generally
regarded as apocalypses: Daniel and
Revelation. The Old Testament book
of Daniel consists of reports about
dreams and visions that gave hope and
encouragement to Jews in the second
century B.C. They were undergoing
severe persecution at the hands of
the Syrian king Antiochus IV Epiphanes.
The message of Daniel was this: Hold
on, stay faithful and wait for God’s
help. Then the Kingdom of God will
be made manifest to all creation, and
the wise and righteous will shine “like
the stars forever and ever” (12:1-3).
The Book of Revelation also arose
in a time of persecution. In the late
first century A.D., Christians in western
Asia Minor (present-day Turkey) were
being forced to participate in rituals
honoring the Roman emperor as a
god. The visions granted to John and
recorded in Revelation take as their
starting point John’s experience of
the risen Jesus. They describe in
various ways how the enemies of God’s
people will be overcome and how in
the New Jerusalem the Lamb of God,
the risen Jesus, will reign in glory with
his heavenly Father. Both Daniel and
Revelation emerged from situations
of oppression and suffering. Both
provided images of hope about the
future and reasons for remaining
faithful in the present.
The glorious Son of Man
In the seventh chapter of Daniel we
see an imaginative and influential
portrayal of divine judgment, where
the prophet is allowed a glimpse of the
heavenly court complete with a number
of thrones. God, described as the
“Ancient One,” takes his place on the
most glorious throne of all. All the
heavenly beings are gathered “in
judgment, and the books were opened”
(7:10). These books presumably contain
the records of the deeds of those who
are to be judged.
In this case the one to be judged is
the wicked persecutor of Israel in the
second century B.C., King Antiochus IV,
along with other enemies of God’s
people. In the midst of the court
session, Daniel sees one “like a
human being” (probably the angel
Michael) approaching the Ancient One.
In response, the Ancient One gives
the angel “dominion and glory and
A more literal translation of “like a
human being” is “a son of man,” meant
to describe any human person and, in
a sense, applicable to every one of us.
However, the context of this chapter in
which “son of man” occurs endows it
with the sense of a glorious being who
is at home in the heavenly court and
the recipient of “dominion and glory
and kingship” from God.
Jesus and the Last Judgment
When early Christians thought of the risen
Jesus as the Son of Man, they envisioned
him not so much as an ordinary human
being as they did the one raised from the
dead, exalted to the heavens and worshiped
as “our Lord Jesus Christ.” And they
associated him with the Last Judgment (for
which resurrection was a precondition).
This idea of a worldwide Last
Judgment—one that will mark the end of
human history as we know it and involve
rewards for the righteous and punishments
for the wicked—developed from the Old
Testament theme of the “day of the
Lord.” Prophets such as Amos sought to
console the oppressed Jews by focusing on
a time when the God of Israel will punish
the wicked within his people and/or the
enemies of Israel (see 5:18-20).
The Second Coming of Jesus Christ
The Second Coming of Christ is sometimes
called the “Parousia.” The Greek
word parousia means “presence,”
“arrival,” “advent” or “coming.” It
originally described the arrival of a king
or high government official at a village
or town for some kind of inspection.
But parousia took on new meaning for
early Christians. They used the word to
describe the role they envisioned for
the risen Jesus at the Last Judgment
and the events surrounding it.
Again, a look at the earliest document
in the New Testament—Paul’s first letter
to the Thessalonians—written in 51 A.D.—shows that belief in the Second Coming of
Jesus was part of Christian faith from earliest
days. Paul regarded the Thessalonians
as a special source of hope for himself
“before our Lord Jesus at his coming” (3:19).
In his scenario for the end of this age
and the Last Judgment, Paul assigned a
prominent role to the risen Jesus and
envisioned eternal life as being with him
forever (see 4:13-18). He also warned
that “the day of the Lord will come
like a thief in the night” (5:2), that is,
suddenly and when it is least expected.
For Paul and the early Christians, the
Second Coming was certain. But since no one knows the exact time, we should be
prepared for it always.
Our Lord, come!
Early Christians looked forward to the
Second Coming of Christ as a stage in
the fulfillment of their hopes for eternal
life in the Kingdom of God. They even
devised a short prayer in Aramaic,
Maranatha, which means “Our Lord,
come!” This prayer appears in Aramaic
at the end of 1 Corinthians (16:22) and
in Greek translation in Revelation 22:20.
The use of Aramaic, the language of
Jesus, suggests that the prayer originated
very early in the history of the Christian
movement. Its occurrence at the end of
two New Testament books, among other
prayers and greetings, suggests that it
was well known and widely accepted.
The Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke
contain apocalyptic sermons in which Jesus
outlines the events leading up to his
Second Coming and the fullness of God’s
Kingdom. These discourses contain many
features and themes found in Daniel and
Revelation, as well as in other Jewish
apocalypses not contained in the Bible.
These apocalyptic accounts in the
Gospels insist that while these future
events will take place, no one except
the Father knows their precise time.
As with Paul their constant message is:
Always be prepared. Live as if the Last
Judgment were to occur in the next
moment. Then you will have no need
to fear that judgment.
The Last Judgment
These Gospel accounts also give a
prominent position to the glorious Son
of Man. The imagery comes from Daniel,
where the one “like a son of man” (7:13)
is given “dominion and glory and kingship”
(7:14). However, it is clear that the
Gospel writers identified the glorious
Son of Man as the risen Jesus and
viewed his role in these future events
as his Second Coming.
The climax of the apocalyptic
discourse in Matthew is the judgment
scene in 25:31-46. In it, the glorious
Son of Man—the risen Jesus—serves
as the judge of “all the nations.” His
task is to separate the righteous (the
sheep) from the wicked (the goats).
The criteria that the glorious Son
of Man uses in judging are deeds of
kindness to “the least.” Those deeds
include the traditional works of mercy:
feeding the hungry, giving drink to the
thirsty, welcoming the stranger, clothing
the naked, caring for the sick and
visiting the imprisoned. Those who
have done these deeds to “the least”
will get to enjoy eternal life with God
and the Son of Man, while those who
neglected them will face eternal punishment.
And in these scenes of handing
out rewards and punishments, the one who passes judgment is the glorious Son
of Man, the risen Christ.
Will these future events happen in
exactly this way? The truth is, we don’t
know. It is very much the prerogative of
God to bring about the fullness of the
Kingdom when and how God sees fit.
However, Christians can be sure that
whatever the exact sequence of events
may be, the glorious risen Christ as
“the firstborn of the dead” (Rv 1:5) will
have a prominent position in them.
This conviction, of course, flows from
faith and hope, not from history.
Thy kingdom come
Jesus taught us all to pray for the
coming of the fullness of God’s Kingdom
with the Lord’s Prayer. In this prayer
he gives us a vision of the future when
all creation will celebrate the holiness
of God and do God’s will perfectly. He
urges us to ask for divine help and guidance
in the midst of the events that will
lead to the fullness of God’s Kingdom.
He teaches us to pray, “Thy kingdom
come.” He advises us to look forward to
that blessed day not as something to be
feared but rather as something to be
welcomed: “Now when these things begin
to take place, stand up and raise your
heads, because your redemption is drawing
near” (Lk 21:28). Our Christian response
can and should be the early Christian
prayer: Maranatha. “Our Lord, come!”
How do you envision the
Second Coming of Christ and
the Final Judgment? Do you
fear it or welcome it? How does
your relationship with God
affect your vision of the end
of the world?
Should we read the visions of
the end times in Daniel and
the Book of Revelation as
literal descriptions of what is
to come or as purely symbolic
messages of hope?
How are you preparing for the
Second Coming? What more
can you do for “the least” to
ensure your place among the
sheep and enjoyment of
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