He Will Return
The dead in Christ will rise first.
Then we who are alive who are left,
will be caught up together with them in the clouds
to meet the Lord in the air.
Thus we shall always be with the Lord.
I Thessalonians 4:15–17
The anticipation of blessedness in the presence of the Lord remains real even if we should, like the beloved departed of Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians, be among those who have already fallen asleep when He returns. For it is Paul’s great point that there will be no disadvantage to those departed for they will be awakened by the same trumpet that calls those who are alive into Christ’s presence.
Faith that Christ will return in glory, while it is the bedrock of Christian hope, has always been a troublesome truth. Jesus in His own words had promised that He would return, and the Christians in the churches of Paul and John expected the fulfillment of that promise within the generation of those who had heard the words of the Sermon on the Mount. Despite long delay, the Church has never abandoned the conviction that He will return, and indeed as William Buckley once observed, the authenticity of the Christian religion depends on something that has not happened yet. The parable of the wise and foolish virgins is one of several that warn believers to be prepared day by day (Matt 25:1-13), among them the parable of the talents, which also frames the adventure of grace in the context of the landlord’s certain return (Matt 25:14-30) . The warning that Christ’s return will be like the coming of a thief in the night, sudden and when we least expect it, will be a commonplace of early Church life (I Thess 5:2, II Peter 3:10).
Why the Church has so stubbornly held on to the belief that Jesus will return is surely related to the confidence that His first promise to the disciples had been fulfilled promptly and powerfully. What Jesus expected His death to accomplish was the coming of the Holy Spirit who would make of His disciples a kingdom of the elect, the Church. “I came to cast fire on the earth and would that it were already kindled” (Luke 12:49). The author of John explains that when Jesus promised that living water would flow from the hearts of believers, “He was speaking about the Spirit, whom those who believed in Him were later to receive. For the Spirit had not yet been given, because Jesus had not yet been glorified.” And again in John, “It is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away the counselor will not come to you” (John 16:17). The death and resurrection of Jesus purchased the coming of the Holy Spirit that will make possible the participation in Christ called sacraments, holy-makers. Jesus said in the upper room, “I tell you that I shall not drink of the fruit of the vine until I drink it new with you in my father’s kingdom.” That kingdom is the kingdom of the new heart, and since Pentecost day He has presided as king and savior at every celebration of His death and resurrection.
Because Christians know that Christ’s first promise has been fulfilled, it is impossible not to believe His second, which is that He will come again in glory, and to persist in this faith although since the first century this second promise has been deemed impossible by the world. In Peter’s Second Letter (3:4) there are already those who ask, “Where is the promise of His coming? For ever since the fathers fell asleep all things have continued as they were from the beginning of creation.” The Apostle gives no simple answer. Peter’s first premise is that the world is not its own, but exists by the Word of God. Just as Noah’s world was judged by its Creator with the flood, in a similar way the world that now is will be judged by fire. God’s time is not our own; with Him one day is as a thousand years and a thousand years a day. And there is this divine generosity; the lord is not slow but is forbearing toward you, not wishing that any should perish but that all should reach repentance. Meanwhile we live looking forward to the new heaven and a new earth in which righteousness dwells (II Peter3:13, Revelation 20:1–4), itself the reality beyond the bright shadows of this present world.
Every age lays different burdens on faith. What was a simple doubt in the first century, based upon the observation that the world just seems to go along its path, had become in the twenty-first a dogma of imagination encouraging the belief that the world, the historical process we know will go on forever. This is the atheism of the times which cannot imagine that the great god that is this present world should ease to exist. In a sense we should be warned off this conclusion by familiar scientific commonplaces. The world is running down and our sun is dying. But this depressing conviction has nothing to do with the finitude of the present order but rather stokes and fires the attempt to colonize another planet, representing an anxiety that has nothing to do with the Sunday profession, “He will come again in glory and of His Kingdom there will be no end.” That profession, although it reflects the great confidence of Christians, also presupposes this most fundamental fact: this world itself is a creature, depending for its existence moment by moment upon the sustaining will of God. There have been and always will be reasonable speculations as to when Christ will return. Our Lord himself said that the end would come after the Gospel had been preached to all nations (Mathew 24:14). Theologians had speculated that the end would come when the number of fallen angels had been made good by the equal number of the elect. But in fact we do not know. Jesus gave a list of signs that did not presage His return, political crises, “nation rising against nation,” false prophecy, disturbances of nature, for His second advent will not be conditioned by anything in our history but will be like lightning shining suddenly from east to west (Matthew 24:6–8,23–28).
So the Church is left with is Spirit-given faith in Christ’s second great promise, that He will come again. We can do no better. In the lifetime of Saint Thomas Aquinas the question about the eternity of the world was a popular topic. Saint Thomas was unable to find an argument that would prove the world was either finite or infinite and concluded that the return of Christ was to be held as an article of faith, The Christian conviction that this world has an end and therefore a meaning does not rest on philosophy but on the kind of knowledge of the heart that will ever elude the philosophers. It is not possible that Christ who gave us His spirit, His sacraments, and put in our hearts the supernatural virtue of hope, will not be with us at the close of the day, whether He comes to us with the trumpet of God and the archangel’s voice or we, accompanied by angels, go to meet him.