Any religion’s popularity depends on the rewards it promises. While people are interested in the immediate benefits of this life, they are mostly interested in the future, the hope their religion brings, and how solid it is.
Most non-Christian religions and even Christian denominations promise salvation through death, a metapsychic sublimation into the “other realm,” or an ascension to Heaven (if you’ve been good enough, of course, otherwise you go to Hell or to Purgatory, for now). Authentic Christian hope, however, is not spiritualist (based on a ghostly survival of the soul), but creationist—based on the resurrection of the body at the Parousia (the second coming of Christ).
Therefore, for true Christians, the doctrine of the second coming of Jesus has always been the supreme expression of faith and hope, because the resurrection is the only way to salvation, and without it, the sacrifice of the Lord Jesus Christ for the deliverance of sinners would be almost in vain. For this reason, a review of the main Christian currents that have promoted a belief in the near coming of Christ is necessary and particularly instructive.
It is no secret that the hope of the church is eschatological. Confessing faith in Christ as God and resurrected Saviour, the Christian Creed affirms Christians’ only hope: “He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end.” Unfortunately, the statement remained a simple dogmatic relic, without any practical or, at least, homiletical importance in the historical churches. What could be the cause?
The faith of the first centuries in the second coming of Jesus
First, the church waited for the second coming of Christ (Greek term Parousía, Latin term Adventus) to take place in that first apostolic generation, at some point after the fall of Jerusalem (year 70), according to the prophetic scenario described by Jesus in Matthew 24. Still, Jesus had disclosed that the promise of the creation of the kingdom in that generation was conditional on the evangelisation of all peoples and that the day and the hour of the Parousia had not been revealed even to angels or the Son of God (Matthew 24:14, 34-36). However, He did indicate the signs of His coming, so that every Christian can keep his or her hope alive, while serving God with the entrusted “talents.”
Jesus had foreseen a delay in His return, as indicated by His speaking of the Parousia in the parable of the ten virgins (Matthew 25). It was revealed to the apostle Peter as well that there would be a delay because “in the last days,” losing their faith along with their patience, “scoffers will come, scoffing and following their own evil desires,” justifying themselves with sarcasm: “Where is this ‘coming’ he promised? Ever since our ancestors died, everything goes on as it has since the beginning of creation” (2 Peter 3:4).
In the same passage, Peter then reflects on the purpose of God’s patience, talks about the generation of the flood (a favourite theme of Jesus and Peter), and then he shows that the time of the Parousia is conditioned by the preparation of the church. The apostle’s conclusion is that just as the Parousia can be delayed, in God’s desire to save as many people as possible (2 Peter 3:8-9), so it can be hastened by the attitude of the church (2 Peter 3:11, 12).
In the next generation, at the end of the century (year 95), it was necessary for the Lord Jesus Christ Himself to give John the Revelation which, on the one hand, reaffirmed that “the time is near” (Revelation 1:3; 22:10) and that Jesus will come “soon” (Revelation 3:11; 22:7, 12, 20). On the other hand it conveyed, through prophetic visions and coded expressions, new discoveries about the future, about persecutions, about God’s providence, assuming and explaining at the same time the prophecies of Daniel and Jesus.
Thus, the prophecies of Daniel—as they were explained by Jesus and the apostles, including in the Book of Revelation—remained the guiding light of the church in the new age it had entered but also in the following ages, when the symptom of the “bridegroom” who “was a long time in coming” would become chronic. After the death of the apostles, anti-Christian persecutions kept alive the hope of Parousia until the (political) salvation brought by Constantine the Great.
The mutilations of the Parousia: a history that repeats itself
There have always been distortions of the Christian doctrine of the Parousia, so the apostles needed to intervene and correct them. We learn from Paul’s epistles that, since the beginning of Christianity, there had been preachers who claimed that the Parousia had already taken place and, together with it, the resurrection of the dead (2 Thessalonians 2:1, 2; 2 Timothy 2:18). This belief betrays an allegorical or spiritualised interpretation, which purports that Jesus returned unseen. Instead, Jesus and His apostles made it clear that the event would be radiant, catastrophic, and universal.
Gnostic spiritualism also had a negative influence on the church in the early centuries, especially through Marcion, Origen, and Augustine. Spiritualism dressed as Christianity increasingly distracted attention from the glorious bodily coming of Christ, which brings with it immortality by resurrection, and reduced the Christian hope to the ascension of the soul to Heaven after death. All of a sudden, the final judgement, the coming of Jesus, and the resurrection of the righteous were no longer necessary, even if they remained in the creed, because it was said that immediately after death we are judged and assigned to Heaven or Hell. This belief then became dominant in Christianity, especially with the mass conversion of pagans, and has remained the preference of spiritualism to this day.
Another cause of discouraging Parousian zeal was the association of this fundamentally Christian hope with unorthodox excess, causing the church to become more and more reluctant and sometimes even hostile to the idea. In Phrygia, between the years 135 and 177, the New Prophecy took shape, a populist and millenarian-charismatic movement initiated by Montanus (a former pagan priest converted to Christianity) together with two women, Maximilla and Prisca. They spoke in ecstasy, with their speech needing translation, asserting their spiritual gift above the synodal authority of the “psychic” (carnal) church and even above the Holy Scriptures.
Montanism emphasised strict fasting, forbade remarriage and, through its radical attitude towards the compromises specific to the periods of persecution, invited martyrdom. The Montanist wave flooded the church, from Asia Minor to Africa, Gaul and Italy, retreating only after the 500s. While the zonal synods and most bishops condemned Montanism as false or demonic prophecy, others, such as Tertullian of Carthage, considered it a revival of apostolic Christianity or were at least reserved and undecided (e.g. Eleuterus of Rome). This new prophetism consisted of the belief that Parousia was near, since the 6,000th anniversary of the Creation was approaching, and that soon the heavenly Jerusalem would descend in Phrygia to inaugurate the thousand-year kingdom of Christ—the apocalyptic millennium.
Part of the inspiration of the Montanists was found in Revelation, which had already appeared before the year 100. Consequently, Revelation was discredited by association with Montanism. However, no human error or even a consistent serious mutilation of the Gospel can stifle Christians’ only hope based on the Holy Scriptures and the promises of the Saviour.
Florin Lăiu is a former Bible professor at the Theological Seminary of the Adventus University in Romania where he worked for 28 years, specialising in biblical languages, biblical exegesis, apocalyptic and biblical translation. Now retired, he is an Adventist apologetic, poetry and music enthusiast, author of articles and books, husband, father of four, and grandfather of six.