The book of Acts, written sometime between 70 and 80 A.D. records Jesus' ascension into heaven. After he had departed two men in white, angels we suppose, told the apostles that Jesus would return in the same way. Since then Christians have expected the return of Christ, but they do it with varying degrees of expectancy. Some think that it will be soon, others do not, and the rest, the group in which I find myself, don't know and don't speculate. Indeed, the date of the second coming becomes less relevant as one grows older. As I point out to various fervent people who come to my door asking whether I believe in the end of the world, I am sixty two now, so unless the return of Christ/end of the world happens in the next thirty years or so, I am not bothered.
Most of those who speculate about the end of the world and the second coming of Christ overlook one saying of Jesus just before he ascended, "It is not for you to know the times and seasons that the Father has appointed by his own authority." [Acts 1:7] Yet this has not stopped Christians seeking clues. St Paul speculated about the return of Christ in 1Thessalonians 4:13-18, when he imagined that this would be a dramatic event when the saints would be taken up to meet Christ in the upper air. Paul was imagining the scene in terms of Jewish eschatological expectation. [Eschatology is the theology of the last things: death, judgment, hell and heaven.] It is this image that has given rise to the belief held by certain Protestant/evangelical groups that there will be a rapture, when the saints will be taken to Christ and the unsaved left for a period, during which there will be tribulations, after which some of those remaining will be saved. Belief in the rapture is found among biblical literalists, but those who see the Bible as containing some symbolic elements, are not as likely to take up this belief. I am not a biblical literalist, so I do not commit myself to belief in the rapture. But I do not deny it.
Others pore over the Book of Revelations, sometimes known as the Apocalypse, looking for clues as to the end. The trouble is that this book was written in deeply symbolic language dealing with the major problems faced by the church in its time.The infamous term 666 is a code for the Roman emperor. Certainly the writer expected that the vicious persecution being suffered by the church in his time would presage an imminent return of Christ, but this did not happen, and soon Christians were beginning to realise that the long yearned-for return would not be soon.
Some people imagined that there would be a millenium before the end of the world, in which Christ would rule a wonderful earth of all the saved. But even this is the subject of disagreement. Premillenialists believe that it has not happened yet; post millenialists believe that it has already ocurred in the church; and the two are at loggerheads. It must be said that this conflict is within the evangelical movement, as it has not raised its head in Catholicism or Orthodoxy.
At times throughout history people have tried to discover the Bible code that will reveal the dates of the return of Christ, but no such code has been found, as it does not exist. As we recall, Jesus said that we were not to know the times and dates, so why would God have included them in a code? Predictions of the date of the second coming of Christ have always failed, so it seems that attempts to decode the book of Revelations always fail.
Jesus said that there would be wars and rumours of wars before the end, but when has there been an age without war? Christians would be persecuted before Christ returns, but there has rarely been a historical period when this is not happening. Today Christians are the world's most persecuted group, but this is not new.So nothing can be concluded about the second coming of Christ from the state of affairs at present
What is the wisest path for a Christan? It is to accept that Jesus will come again, but that we do not when or how. We must in the meantime go on working and living well, aware that our personal death is more likely to be before the return of Christ than not. I will finish on a personal anecdote. In 1991 I was awaiting my year seven class one morning when some children burst in very excited. They had heard that the world was going to end at 9:20 a.m, a man on the television had said so. My response was "It is either is going to end, or it isn't. If it doesn't end, you will need your exams; and if it does, this is Religious Education, so you will be needing it in twenty minutes. So either way, let's get working."
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