By George Clifford
Some years ago, a large poster outside St. Paul’s Cathedral in London proclaimed, “Christ Is Coming!” Right below that poster another sign requested, “Please do not obstruct these gates.”
Whether it’s listening to an Advent sermon, responding during the Eucharist prayer that Christ will come again! or snickering at naïve fundamentalist Left Behind aficionados, the theme of Jesus’ second coming is woven through much Christian theology, liturgy, and practice, especially during Advent. Yet most of us give little thought to what we believe about Jesus’ returning, perhaps beyond harboring a suspicion that snickering at other Christians, no matter how misguided they may be, is probably unkind.
Generally, thinking about eschatology (the study of end times) divides into four camps. First, there are the alleged literalists. These Christians claim to accept Biblical teachings about the end of history at face value. God’s word describes how, perhaps even when, God will bring history to its appointed destiny. Although this approach dominates popular thinking (as evidenced by Left Behind series’ bestselling status), a literal reading is anything but simple or straightforward. For almost two millennia, predictions of when Jesus will return have formed a cottage industry among Christians. Literalists also vehemently debate how to understand the Bible’s eschatological teachings among themselves – perhaps because few other people are interested!
Second, some Christians argue for a realized eschatology, i.e., Christians experience the future return of Christ (aka his second coming) in the sacraments and sacramentals. This view’s popularity perhaps peaked in the first half of the twentieth century. Post-Holocaust theologians have challenged Christians who advocate a realized eschatology to explain how this interpretation provides justice for the victims of radical evil.
The third camp is the most common among Episcopalians. These Christians rarely think about Jesus’ returning, mindlessly participate in the liturgy week after week without considering the words that they are saying, and view Advent as the inescapable annual prelude to the all-important, heavily secularized holy day of Christmas. This approach simply ignores the uncomfortable if perhaps incomprehensible Bible passages that may (or not, depending upon one’s views) reference the culmination of time and Jesus’ return.
The fourth camp consists of Christians who want to remain firmly grounded in science while taking the Biblical witness seriously and acknowledging the critical role of hope for energizing human endeavors. Creation – contrary to what many of us might wish – is dynamic, not static. Change is endemic, pervasive, and inescapable. If you share my belief that God created the cosmos, then we reasonably believe that creation’s constant change is indeed evolution, not an unguided series of random events, of which there are certainly a great many, but also evolution, albeit slowly and unevenly, toward a new and better future. Unfortunately, we humans lack both the wisdom and knowledge to discern the specifics of that future, or the process by which it is coming into being. Believing that God is bringing (or luring, in the language of process theology) creation into the future of God’s choosing honors the essence of the Biblical witness while recognizing that the Bible’s human authors wrote from a very time and culturally bound point of view, using concepts, language, and symbolism appropriate to that context.
Teilhard de Chardin wrote:
Although we too often forget this, what we call evolution develops only in virtue of a certain internal preference for survival (or, if you prefer to put it so, self-survival) which in man takes on a markedly psychic appearance, in the form of a zest for life. Ultimately, it is that and that alone which underlies and supports the whole complex of biophysical energies whose operation, acting experimentally, conditions anthropogenesis.
In view of that fact, what would happen if one day we should see that the universe is so hermetically closed in upon itself that there is no possible way of our emerging from it – either because we are forced indefinitely to go round and round inside it, or (which comes to the same thing) because we are doomed to a total death? Immediately and without further ado, I believe – just like miners who find that the gallery is blocked ahead of them – we would lose the heart to act, and man’s impetus would be radically checked and ‘deflated’ for ever, by this fundamental discouragement and loss of zest. (Teilhard de Chardin, Science and Christ, tr. by René Hague (New York: Harper & Row, 1968), pp. 212-213 cited in John B. Cobb, Jr., and David Ray Griffin, Process Theology (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1976), p. 111)
Advent invites us to affirm and celebrate our zest for life.
The link between Advent and Christmas reminds us that God, working in and through the cosmos, acts in ways consistent with God’s revelation in Jesus. Apocalypticists, millenarians, eschatologists, and all of the other Christians who assert that the Bible (as if it were a deck of Tarot cards!) reveals the details of God’s impending acts err grievously when they portray Jesus returning to live by the sword that he had previously rejected:
Revelation is not portraying Jesus returning to earth in the future, having repented of his naive gospel ways and having converted to Caesar’s “realistic” Greco-Roman methods instead. He hasn’t gotten discouraged about Caesar seeming to get the upper hand after his resurrection and on that basis concluded that it’s best to live by the sword after all (Matt. 26:52). Jesus hasn’t abandoned the way of peace (Luke 19:42) and concluded the way of Pilate is better, mandating that his disciples should fight after all (John 18:36). He hasn’t had second thoughts about all that talk about forgiveness (Matt. 18:21–22) and concluded that on the 78th offense (or 491st, depending on interpretation), you should pull out your sword and hack off your offender’s head rather than turn the other cheek (Matt. 5:39). (Brian D. McLaren, A New Kind of Christianity: Ten Questions That Are Transforming the Faith (New York: Harper Collins, 2010), p. 125)
So, in good faith I unabashedly affirm, in Advent and during the rest of the year, Christ will come again! I also hope that well-meaning but profoundly misguided Christians will stop blocking the gates, i.e., that they will discard their biblical ignorance, their naïve thinking that Jesus has already returned, and their liturgical and theological inattentiveness. The real hope of Advent is that God, in God’s way and God’s time, is bringing to completion what God began in Jesus, a hope that animates and empowers God’s people with a genuine zest for life. So this Advent, please do not obstruct these gates; instead, let’s proclaim the one who is life itself.
George Clifford is an ethicist and Priest Associate at the Church of the Nativity, Raleigh, NC. He retired from the Navy after serving as a chaplain for twenty-four years, has written Charting a Theological Confluence: Theology and Interfaith Relations and Forging Swords into Plows: A Twenty-First Century Christian Perspective on War, and blogs at Ethical Musings.