Mr. Herhold is pastor of Resurrection Lutheran Church in San Bruno, California.
This article appeared in the Christian Century April 21, 1982, p. 470. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.
Will our attention to Jesus’ return cause us to become indifferent to the care of the earth and to our sister and brother in need?
A friend who wrote his master’s thesis on Paul Tillich was examined for ordination by a group of conservative Lutherans. For more than two hours he seemed to dance around such questions as the virgin birth and Jesus’ miracles. Finally one exasperated building contractor blurted out: “Mr. Johnson, did Jesus walk on water or did he not? No trick answers!”
Every Sunday many of us confess that we believe that Jesus “will come again to judge the living and the dead.” But what in the world do these words mean? When we say them, are we expressing anything more than a pious hope? Or might these words, quaint as they seem, be the most significant ones we can say?
No doubt it will seem like a trick answer to suggest that there is another question to answer before we consider how Jesus might return, which is “Do we human beings have a future?”
We all have fears about the future. Today Franklin Roosevelt would have to revise his words, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” He spoke to a prenuclear age that had not yet discovered how to destroy life on earth wholesale. In 1933 we still had to go about killing people retail, with old-fashioned weapons.
George Kennan, author of the postwar “containment” policy toward the Soviet Union, recently wrote:
“We have gone on piling weapon upon weapon, missile upon missile, new levels of destructiveness upon old ones. We have done this helplessly, almost involuntarily . . . like men in a dream, like lemmings heading for the sea.” He says that the number of nuclear weapons has now reached “levels of redundancy of such grotesque dimensions as to defy rational understanding.”
Almost as disquieting as the threat of destruction itself is our feeling of helplessness and hopelessness. Protest marches, breaking and entering missile plants and damaging nose cones often seem futile. Little, it appears, can change the human race’s suicidal course. Americans seem committed to the philosophy “Better dead than red,” while Russians suffer from their own paranoia.
The nuclear paste is out of the tube. When we compare the massive technology of destruction with our paltry knowledge of peacemaking, the answer to whether or not we human beings have a future appears to be a rather convincing No. One possibility is that there is not a trick answer, but that the world itself is a trick. Someone said, “If there is a heaven and I get there, I am going to march right up to God and tell him: ‘You must have been kidding!’ ” But what if there is no heaven or hell and no cosmic complaint department? These who face this possibility and still live creative and contributory lives are surely saints without portfolio.
Another possibility is to rejoice with those who rejoice that the end is near. Despite all the predictions that have so far fallen short of the mark, many people insist that Jesus will return at any moment. The pre- and post-millennialists are all but selling tickets for an Apocalyptic Super Bowl. Hal Lindsey in The Late Great Planet Earth even calls in data from an oil company to support the return of Jesus:
Jesus’ feet will first touch the earth where they left the earth, on the Mount of Olives. The mountain will split in two with a great earthquake the instant Jesus’ foot touches it. The giant crevice which results will run east and west through the center of the mountain. It will go east to the north tip of the Dead Sea and west to the Mediterranean Sea (Zech. 14).
It was reported to me that an oil company doing seismic studies of this area in quest of oil discovered a gigantic fault running east and west precisely through the center, of the Mount of Olives. The fault is so severe that it could split at any time. It is awaiting the foot [p. 163].
We may reject Lindsay’s “foot eschatology,” but we still have a deep hope that creation and history have a destination and a fulfillment. We may dismiss the notion of Jesus coming like John Wayne, but if Jesus isn’t coming, who is? Our hope is in God alone. Nevertheless, this affirmation does not end our questioning, nor our speculation.
The real problem is not whether or not Jesus can return. We are Christians because we believe that God came to us in a special way in the First Advent. If he did it once, he can do it again. The problem is not so much mechanical as it is moral. If God has made a terrible bargain with himself not to override our human freedom, then on what basis does he decide when and how to send the Prince of Peace again? The catch-22 is that only Jesus can save us, but in order to do this, he seemingly has to save us from facing the consequences of our sin and disobedience. How does he save us without rewarding our irresponsibility, like a father giving his son a new car after he has totaled his old one?
Whatever God does, it will be an act of pure grace. After all our sin and rebellion, justice hardly demands that Jesus return to establish a “new heaven and a new earth where righteousness dwells.” But love, as only God is capable of loving, can “justify” such an action.
Jesus’ return is also God’s way of vindicating himself over the forces of evil, which have plagued us since the human race began. Only by returning can Jesus finish the work he began on the cross. The job is not done; evil has not been finally crushed. “It is finished” must be understood in light of the continuing battle with the demonic The cross was the beginning of the end, but the final triumph of Christus Victor is yet to come.
The doctrine, of the Second Advent goes to the heart of our understanding of God and how he deals with us. If we bomb-sick humans have painted ourselves into a corner, consider where this leaves God. For eons he brooded and labored over his creation until he produced human beings, with whom he could have fellowship. He gave to us the power to “satisfy the desire of every living thing”; instead, we are now bending all of our efforts toward destroying every living thing. We have the power to incinerate in an hour everything he took billions of years to create!
When I hold my first grandchild in my arms, I long to believe that she will grow up to have children of her own. But the odds seem against it. Clearly we need a miracle if we are to survive. God works his miracles through people, by sending his son, or his daughter.
Jesus’ return could mean the end of God’s agony and ecstasy in his grand experiment with human freedom. Have we now come to the place where we no longer choose good over evil and God must choose it for us? There is only one thing worse than my children leaving home and encountering all the risk and pain of being on their own, and that is for them not to leave home. The Second Advent means that we shall all return “home.” There is a great comfort in this, but there is also a great lament. Might we yet, with God’s hidden, hand guiding us, beat our swords into plowshares or even defuse our bombs? Whether Jesus returns in a day or in a thousand years, unless we are about peacemaking, everything else is moot.
The return of Jesus at this present time means that God has triumphed at last, but it could also mean that we human beings have failed. I find myself praying both that Jesus will come soon and that he will give us a little more time. But we have already been given more time than we imagine. When we consider Murphy’s Law (if anything can go wrong, it will), it seems it is only by God’s grace that we haven’t pressed the button for more than 36 years.
Then there is the old tension between present possibilities and future promises. If we believe that Jesus may return soon, there is a temptation to ease up on the struggle for peace and justice. One Lutheran seminarian recently warned a class on eschatology, “Be careful about preaching the imminent return of Jesus to a suburban congregation; they already know enough ways to avoid peace and justice issues.” Karl Marx’s word about religion as an opiate is not easily dismissed. Still, New Testament references to Jesus’ return are accompanied by injunctions to be found faithfully serving our neighbors (i.e., Matthew 24 and 25).
It is impossible to preach the First Advent and its consequences without reference to the Second Advent. In fact, the First Advent insists upon a Second Advent because clearly God has not yet finished the job. Without the Second Advent, we have to ask ourselves why Jesus bothered coming the first time. If he is not coming again, he has only set us up for a false hope, which is more cruel than no hope at all. But Jesus’ Second Advent is God’s victory over the death of the universe, just as the resurrection of Jesus is God’s victory over our personal death.
I don’t wish to give the building contractor any trick answers, but I offer the following for his consideration:
1. We Christians differ in our understanding of Jesus’ return, but we are united in the belief that the future is ultimately in the hands of God. We believe that “nothing in all creation can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” If we believe that we have a future with God, we can believe in the Second Advent, whether it takes place on this earth or on a new earth.
2. If we could say Yes to Jesus walking on water or landing on the Mount of Olives, would this actually strengthen our faith that we have a future with God? Perhaps it would for some, while for others of us it raises more questions than it answers. But faith is not dependent upon prior understanding. Some of us have to settle for believing that Jesus will return without having the foggiest notion of how he will come.
3. More important than how Jesus will return is what we do with this belief. If it causes us to become indifferent to the care of the earth and to our sister and brother in need, then we have already denied what Jesus’ return means. It is ironic to pray for Jesus’ return and then to ignore him as he comes to us every day in the “least of these.” Better to turn our attention to where he has already told us he is -- with the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick and the imprisoned -- than to spend our days looking for him in the sky.
St. Paul frequently, mentions the future, but never resolves its mystery. He deals best with such matters by quoting Isaiah:
No eye has seen, nor ear heard nor the heart of man conceived, what God has prepared for those who love him [I Cor. 2:9].