Jesus is coming!

Detail, Icon of Christ Pantocrator. Photo: Adam Jan Figel/Shutterstock

Over the centuries, many Christians have predicted the second coming of Christ and, consequently, the end of the world. So far, none of these predictions have been correct; Jesus has not yet returned. 

Jesus himself, speaking of the end times, said, “Of that day and hour no one knows” (Matthew 24:36). But this has not prevented successive generations from looking for clues in the Scriptures as to his return, especially in the books of Daniel, Ezekiel, and Revelation. 

No single Christian denomination has been the source of predictions of the second coming (also known as the parousia, from the Greek for “arrival”). Christians, as early as the fourth century, projected the coming of the last days, but the Church never offered official affirmation.

Various historical events were seen as confirming signs of the parousia. The conclusion of the first millennium (A.D. 1000) and the 14th-century plague known as the Black Death brought concern for the arrival of the world’s end. After the Reformation, numerous Protestant leaders preached that Jesus would soon return. 

Photo: Renata Sedmakova/Shutterstock

In the 19th century, the New York preacher William Miller promoted the belief that Christ would return by Oct. 22, 1844. His prediction grew into a national movement with the publication of dozens of periodicals advancing his views. His followers, known as Millerites, promoted the impending second coming to help the world prepare, but when the predicted date came and went without Jesus’ return, disappointment followed. 

Though the second coming did not occur as thought, the Millerite movement paved the way for the Adventists, a religious tradition that remains attentive to prophesy and the return of Christ. 

Based on a reading of Revelation 20, Adventists believe that Jesus will return to usher in a 1,000-year reign in which those who are saved will be taken up to live with God and those who do not follow him will remain on earth. This understanding is shared at least in part by Anabaptists and Jehovah’s Witnesses. Many Christians, however, do not take these passages about the 1,000-year reign literally. 

In its teachings on the parousia, the Catholic Church does not offer a projected date or many specifics about the end. Nor does it teach that the Book of Revelation provides a literal description.

The Catholic Church does not offer a projected date or many specifics about the end.

At the same time, the Church acknowledges we are living in the “last days.” Since the Ascension of the Lord, we are living in the final stage of human history. The earliest members of the Church believed that Jesus would return in their lifetimes; successive generations, however, were more likely to acknowledge the imprecision of Jesus’ “soon” return (see Revelation 22:7, 20) and the reality that “with the Lord one day is like a thousand years and a thousand years like one day” (2 Peter 3:8).

Because time is a human construct and God is not bound by it, Jesus’ return is not a calculable event. However, God has revealed that the end will be preceded by persecution, war, earthquake, and famine, and a final trial that will shake the faith of many believers. After this, Jesus, as we pray in the Creed, will come “to judge the living and the dead.” All will be brought to light. Goodness will finally and definitely triumph over evil (see the Catechism of the Catholic Church, 668–679).

“The Last Judgment” by John Martin (1789–1854). Photo: Tate Images/Public Domain

The “when” and “how” of Jesus’ return are less important than the spiritual lessons that his second coming can teach believers. The fourth-century deacon, St. Ephrem, reflected on the end times and the need for vigilance while awaiting Jesus’ return. 

St. Ephrem wrote that each age believes that Christ will come back in their lifetime, but it is better for us not to know when so that we can continue to watch and pray: “He promised that he would come but did not say when he would come, and so all generations and ages await him eagerly” (Commentary on the Diatessaron). 

Though the timing of his return is not sure, we can draw spiritual profit from considering the parousia. The season of Advent, in particular, focuses on the coming of Christ, not just through the Incarnation when Jesus took on flesh in the womb of Mary, but his anticipated return. As believers, we are to embrace a perspective of watchfulness and spiritual preparation, heeding the Lord’s command: “What I say to you, I say to all: ‘Watch!’” (Mark 13:37).  

All generations and ages await him eagerly.

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