Many Christians believe what is known as the apocalypse: a future time when chaos falls upon the earth and some people are carried away to heaven while others are stuck living with the mess because they didn’t do enough to assure their soul would be raptured. It is most commonly believed that this will all take place during the second coming of Christ; when he makes good on his alleged threat to separate the good from the bad. I would argue that this theory is based on an inaccurate, “literal” translation of the Bible.
The phrase, “second coming,” isn’t found in the New Testament. It’s a concept that came about through misunderstanding what biblical writers were referring to when they wrote such things as, “I will come again and will take you to myself (John 14:3b).” The book of Revelation is full of this “second coming” type of language. And, what we need to remember is that the book of Revelation comes from the Greek word “apokalypsis,” which literally translates as “revelation.” It reveals the dreams and visions of its authors. The book consists of three different types of literary genre, one of them being apocalyptic literature. The main body of apocalyptic literature lies outside the Bible in writings that were not given full canonical status (the early church process of determining which writings were inspired and authoritative, thus including them in the scriptures). Apocalyptic writings are mysterious. They usually involve the work of angels and promote a supernatural world. The focus of these writings is the last of times or the end of the world as we know it. Again, they are dreams and visions; quite literally pseudonymous revelations of ancient heroes. They involve both pessimistic disclosure of the world to come, and optimistic assurance for the favored few. This tends to give people a sense of assurance or hope that their future will be okay. These images and symbols meant something to early readers, and they provide comfort to current followers, so we need to keep them within that context.
The myths and folk tales of ages past are not to be confused with the ministry of Jesus Christ. Second-coming theology places Jesus outside of the world experience. He wasn’t here, then he came, then he left, but he’s coming again. This is gnostic understanding where Jesus drops by the world from time to time. But, as a believer in both the birth and resurrection of Jesus, I realize that the Greek term used for “coming” in relation to Jesus, was formed from para and ousia, which literally means “being alongside.” Jesus is of this world, he’s part of it, and therefore, what apocalyptic literature points to is present day reality. We live in a cataclysmic world. Jesus was born and resurrected in a cataclysmic world – apocalypse is already happening – we certainly don’t have to look far to see the destruction and chaos we, ourselves, afford the world.
Realized eschatology is the theory that the “end times” depicted in scripture is not addressing the future, but instead, the legacy of Jesus’ ministry; his ministry isn’t about the end of the world and how and when it will happen, but rather, it’s a rebirth of the world. We find in the life and ministry of Christ a charge for even present-day disciples to transform the world. Second-coming language calls for faithful followers, not that we might have a leg-up in some afterlife, but that we might live in the midst of chaos… as Jesus did. Jesus is nearby alright. He’s here when we choose to keep him alive – fighting for the oppressed, feeding the hungry, welcoming the stranger, giving life to those who know death.