The opening verses of the Acts of the Apostles relate that Jesus, having appeared to his followers 40 days after his resurrection, ascended body and soul into heaven.
Before ascending, Jesus commissioned his followers to make disciples of all the nations and promised to return and restore the kingdom of Israel.
Churches in the Western liturgical tradition commemorate this event as the Feast of the Ascension, and this year it falls on May 24. Though not all churches observe the feast officially, all anticipate Jesus’ second coming as the fulfillment of the promises of the Bible.
Some Christians speculate that the end of the world will be brought on by man-made causes, such as nuclear war. Most, however, place the cause more directly in the hands of a sovereign God.
The Bible depicts Jesus, returning on a white horse, triumphantly calling home the faithful and stamping out evil forever.
The Rev. Andy Stoddard, pastor of Ripley First United Methodist Church, said his denomination doesn’t get too specific about how Jesus’ second coming will happen. Stoddard said Calvinists generally look to the sermons of John Wesley as well as to their Anglican heritage, because “we don’t have a clear doctrine on it.”
“You ask us what we believe about the second coming, and I can say, without a doubt, that it certainly will happen,” said Stoddard, laughing. Like most mainline Protestants, Stoddard believes Jesus’ return will be a single, public event, one that will bring a definitive end to history.
“That’s it, everybody out of the pool,” said the Rev. R.C. Kreitenstein, pastor of Holy Trinity Lutheran Church in Tupelo, Missouri Synod. He said just as Jesus ascended body and soul into heaven, so the faithful, the living as well as those long since dead, will assume a “flesh and blood and soul” existence in the hereafter.
“We’ll be transformed, perfect vessels to receive God’s love,” said Kreitenstein, adding that although some Lutheran theologians speak of creation being perfected and God establishing his kingdom on earth, most see the second coming as a once-and-for-all event.
This position is sometimes referred to as “amillennialism,” and it holds that the scriptural passages that refer to the end times, especially those in the Book of Revelation, are highly symbolic.
“Revelation isn’t a clear book,” said Kreitenstein, adding that Lutherans “don’t base our doctrine on such symbolic, hard to interpret passages but on those that are much more clear.”
The Rev. Mark Kuiper, pastor of Lawndale Presbyterian Church (PCA), said most Christians in the Reformed traditions believe similarly to the mainline churches.
“Most of us hold the amillennial position, but the ‘preterist’ position is also gaining wider acceptance, which sees the symbolism and the prophecy in the Book of Revelation as not just referring to the future but to the past as well, the events in the biblical world, such as the fall of Jerusalem,” said Kupier.
Many evangelical Christians, including most Southern Baptists, have a different take. Theirs is a much more literal interpretation of scripture, sometimes referred to as “dispensationalism.”
A central text is 1 Thes. 4: 16-18 where Jesus descends from heaven and those who have died in Christ are the first to rise. Then, the faithful “who remain alive will be taken up in the clouds … to meet the Lord in the air.”
This is the basis for what’s known as “the rapture,” when Jesus will gather the saved into heaven and the unsaved, as the title of the popular fiction series indicates, will be “Left Behind.” They’ll undergo a seven-year period of tribulation, as depicted in Matt. 24: 15-18, that precedes Jesus’ millennial kingdom on earth.
The Rev. Jason Clouse, pastor of Valley Grove Baptist Church in Pontotoc County, said some passages from scripture are clearly meant to be read symbolically, but those dealing with the rapture aren’t among them.
“I know there’s a lot of discussion – even controversy – over this, but all we can do is fall back on what the Bible says,” said Clouse, adding that Rev. 7 is another scripture he uses to teach about the second coming.
“When God inspired John, on the island of Patmos, to write these words, I think it’s clear that he meant this to be actual, literal events,” said Clouse.
The Rev. Scott Nowlin, pastor of New Life Fellowship in Tupelo, said most Pentecostals also believe in the rapture, which they sometimes call the “catching away.” He said it’s a slippery slope to interpret the Bible symbolically.
“Revelation 22: 18-19 says that anyone who adds anything or cuts anything from these prophecies risks their salvation,” said Nowlin. Citing 2 Peter 3:12, he said Pentecostals believe they can hasten the second coming by evangelizing.
“Jesus said that when the gospel had been preached to every creature the end would be near,” said Nowlin. He said he knows the rapture may sound absurd to some Christians, and there will always be scoffers, in 2 Peter 3: 3, but he’s confident that God’s word means what it says.
Kuiper said like all Christians he’s concerned about the end times and Jesus’ return, but he doesn’t let it dominate his theological outlook. He fears that sometimes Christians concentrate so much on the yet-to-come that they ignore the here-and-now.
“There’s so much more scripture that deals with living today,” said Kuiper. “People can become terribly confused and can spend a lot of time memorizing charts and picking dates when the world is lost and hurting.”
Stoddard agreed. “I’m not sure how good a job the church is doing with preaching hope, right now,” said Stoddard. On Ascension Sunday he plans to preach about his ongoing series of “How much is enough?” “How much money is enough? How much grace is enough?” asked Stoddard. “How much time is enough? None of us knows. Jesus will come like a thief in the night.”
Nowlin, although he holds that only one, literal interpretation of the second coming is true, said people should familiarize themselves with all that’s out there. “Obviously people who take this seriously will want to study all the different views to decide what they believe,” said Nowlin, adding that believers shouldn’t see the subject as gloom and doom.
“The second coming, the ‘great hope’ as it says in Titus 2: 13, is all meant to encourage us,” said Nowlin. “It’s about the ultimate triumph of Christ and his church, the triumph of the fallen earth and fallen man through Jesus Christ.”
Contact Daily Journal religion editor Galen Holley at 678-1510 firstname.lastname@example.org
Galen Holley/NEMS Daily Journal