Christians who have just celebrated the coming of Jesus into the world also must find a way to understand what might be meant by the "Second Coming" of Christ. (The link I've given you here will offer a fairly literalistic view from people who almost certainly would describe themselves as evangelical or theologically conservative.)
I suspect that if you were to ask most traditional Christians, some would say they believe that the risen Christ will, without warning, show up on earth again to take charge. And they will quote various passages of the New Testament to support their view. Others would dismiss the idea altogether, perhaps even suggesting it's a tool of fear to keep people on the straight and narrow. Still others would take the idea seriously but would suggest that it means some kind of mysterious culimination of history that God has planned for humanity.
I have tended to gravitate toward the latter view, though I will acknowledge that I'm not a scholar of what the church calls the parousia, or Second Coming. (The link in the previous sentence will give you a Catholic view.)
But I was fascinated the other day to read a description of the views on this subject of one of the most noted Christian theologians of our era, Jurgen Moltmann. I'm part of a listserv of people who care about the work of Moltmann. And here's what one of the members wrote:
"These are critical issues, as they go to the heart of the Christian hope: its foundation, and the epistemological basis of Moltmann's theology.
"I would add just one or two comments.
"First, the so-called 'second' coming of Jesus must be understood in the light of his 'first' coming. There is actually no New Testament basis for the idea that the 'parousia' is a second coming. It is his coming, the coming of Jesus Christ. The question is, then, whether his expected return is another, or a second, coming, or is it to be understood as the outworking of his 'first' coming. I am sure Moltmann holds to the latter idea: the parousia envisaged by the New Testament is not another coming. It is the happening to histor(y) future of what has been revealed in histor(y) past, in the death and resurrection of Jesus.
"In the Theology of Hope, Moltmann writes in these terms, on pages 212 to 224. The anticipated fulfillment of all things, in the 'final' coming of the Kingdom of God is described (following Barth) in terms of the unveiling of what is already the reality of the Christ event. Moltmann refers to the 'inner necessity' of that event, which is now running its course through human history, and the history of the world.
"What is vital here is the recognition that God does not live within time. All of history is present to God. Jesus has been raised into what is for us the future reality of God's reign. This is yet to be revealed to us, in the 'end' of time, when God will be all in all. It is in this sense that it is the same Jesus who will 'come again': he will be revealed to 'all flesh' and his kingdom will be without
end. This is not so much something that will happen to him as to us, to history. In another sense, it has already happened to history: but it has yet to work itself out in time. It is on this basis, then, that Moltmann argues in 'The Way of Jesus Christ' that apocalyptic becomes eschatology. (Another listserv member) is right to say that there has to be an apocalyptic 'end': this is Scriptural. Jesus himself taught this. But Moltmann's argument is that Jesus' suffering is apocalyptical.
"This is the apocalypse, through which the eschaton comes. Through cross to resurrection, God transforms the apocalypse into good news. This is the gospel the Evangelists proclaim. Finally: as I have wrestled to comprehend this, I have asked myself how he knows this. On what basis can such statements be made? He contends that 'verification' of this assertion (which I am saying is the very heart of the Gospel) is 'pending': in other words, this is something we will know as we live into it. Faith means discipleship: living into the reality of Christ's coming. 'The way of Jesus Christ' p.222 & 223."
Well, if you are a Christian and have ever wondered how you are to understand a doctrine of the Second Coming, perhaps Moltmann here offers you new possibilities. But it seems to me that the important question about any such theological exploration is what, if anything, it has to do with the way we live here and now. If it makes no difference to that, you're wasting your time even thinking about it.
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THIS YEAR'S TOP RELIGION STORIES
What were the major religion stories of 2008 in the U.S.? Kevin Eckstrom, who leads Religion News Service, has the answers here, if you missed it in Saturday's Faith section. Would your list be different?
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IS RELIGION LOSING ITS GRIP?
A Gallup survey finds Americans think religion is losing its influence in our culture. There are so many thousands of ways to measure that, it makes me skeptical about any results purporting to show either an up or a down.
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P.S.: To raise funds for three foreign mission projects, Atonement Lutheran Church of Overland Park, Kan., is having a dinner Jan. 10. Tickets are $18. A speaker will be author Shant Kenderian, who has written 1001 Nights in Iraq. For more details, click here and scroll down to the "Upcoming" list.