What is the Second Coming?

What is the Second Coming? Michelangelo’s image of Christ giving judgment at the second coming. Photo: CNS/Nancy Wiechec.

Advent is characterised by hope, waiting and anticipation. Broken into two halves, the first half of Advent looks forward to the Second Coming of Christ, while the latter half anticipates his coming in the form of an infant 2000 years ago to Bethlehem, which culminates of course in our celebration of that event: Christmas.

As such, Advent is a good time to question that most mysterious of events that I breezed past: the Second Coming of Christ. Upon hearing that phrase, images of faithful, believing Christians being snatched up to heaven in pillars of light may come to mind, while those who didn’t take up Christ on his offer are left to fight it out below here on earth to the bitter end.

You might have that image because that’s largely how the Second Coming has been portrayed in movies and on TV in recent decades – conflated with the evangelical notion of the “rapture”, which is essentially the situation I’ve described above. But all of the talk in the Church around the Second Coming at this time of year might have you questioning that picture. So what is it? And perhaps more importantly: when is it?

Since the Ascension of Christ, the Church teaches that God’s plan has entered into its fulfilment, and that we’re already, constantly, at “the last hour” as the Catechism puts it. Even today, we’re living through the final age of the world, and its renewal is underway alongside, unfortunately, continuing evil. Anyone with eyes to see notices that despite Christ’s victory over sin and death on the cross, both sin and death have continued through to the present moment.

Reign on earth

Though present in his Church now, we understand that Christ’s reign on earth is still yet to be fulfilled. Put plainly, we know God has won, but we’re seeing the slow, and often painful, working out of that victory in real time today. This is why, during Advent and throughout the year, Christians pray maranatha (‘Our Lord, come’)  to hasten God’s return, that the definitive victory over the evil sources of our misery might be achieved.

Scripture reminds us time and again that it is not for us to know “times or seasons which the Father has fixed by his own authority” – this is to say, nobody knows when Christ is going to come again. It could be this evening, as you read, or it could be another 2,000 years from now. As St Paul says in his first letter to the Thessalonians, “the day of the Lord will come life a thief in the night”. While this may seem like an awfully long and drawn out process to us, from God’s perspective, “one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day”. St Peter says in his second letter in the Bible that the reason for the apparent delay from our perspective is because God doesn’t wish anyone to perish, but rather is allowing everyone an opportunity to repent – to come to know and love him.

But what will the day be like whenever God finally arrives? The Church will have to pass through a “final trial” before then, that will shake the faith of many, and will have to weather the “deception of the antichrist”. If that language seems obscure and unintelligible to you, you’re not alone. The Church’s teachings regarding the “end times” are largely based around the book of Revelation and the words of Christ himself in the gospels, which have provided plenty of food for debate for thousands of years.

As with heaven, as discussed last week, no one knows precisely what the end of the world will look like, nor the trials that will precede it. We’ve certainly caught glimpses of it in the Roman persecution of Christians in the early Church, or in the world-shaking, cataclysmic conflict of World War Two, which saw many tempted to ally themselves with Hitler, who was presented as something of a demi-god.

These events fit the pattern of the apocalypse, but are not the definitive, final event we speak of when we speak of the Second Coming and the true end of history. As the Catechism says, “the kingdom will be fulfilled, then, not by a historic triumph of the Church through a progressive ascendency, but only by God’s victory over the final unleashing of evil”.

That victory will come in the form of the “Last Judgement”, the definitive end of time, when Christ himself will pass judgement on our deeds and our hearts. This is the form that the Church says the end of the world will take. As to what it will look or be like though – it’s another one of the uncertainties that we must bear with in this “final age”.