Not the Second Coming

A man with a conviction is a hard man to change. Tell him you disagree and he turns away. Show him facts or figures and he questions your sources. Appeal to logic and he fails to see your point. . . . Suppose that he is presented with evidence, unequivocal and undeniable evidence, that his belief is wrong: what will happen? The individual will frequently emerge, not only unshaken, but even more convinced of the truth of his beliefs than ever before. Leon Festinger, When Prophecy Fails

When you are a Seventh-day Adventist—as I am—there are times when you must make firm, if infrequent, denials of the imminent Second Coming. This is not easy since one of the two main tenets of the faith, encapsulized in the name of the movement, is belief in the return of Christ in a bodily form with all the holy angels at the last trump, shortly before the final Judgement. Even to raise the subject can be unseemly for some, like hiccups during prayer or refusing the mint Jello at the church potluck.

But deny it we must, for no one, not even Christ, knows the day nor the hour. And that’s just as well, because if we did we’d put everything off to the last minute, like students writing a research paper the night before it’s due. Come the morning the student turns it in, but by the afternoon he can’t tell you three salient points from it because he plagiarized most of it from the Internet.

Through the millenia since the Jesus movement took off in Palestine, many have looked for the imminent return of Christ triumphant. The disciples did so and it caused sharp dissent among them. Paul admonished groups of Christians throughout the empire to be ready for the Lord’s return and described the order of ascension: first the dead in Christ will arise and then the living. “After you, Lazarus!”

When the social fabric wears thin and times are hard people look for salvation, even if they have to manufacture it. In the 1500s the city of Munster was besieged by troops after the Anabaptists holding it threatened to execute all Lutherans and Catholics unfortunate enough to remain within after resisting orders to leave their goods behind and get out. The Anabaptists, lead by a charismatic figure named Matthys, were ready to set up a millenarian community as they awaited the soon return of Christ. Having roused the peasants in the surrounding countryside, the Anabaptist insurgents led them out to the field of battle where they were met by a standing army with artillery. Despite a rainbow in the sky, which was taken as a token of divine favor on the crusade, the Prince’s troops fell upon the ragtag army, whereupon the peasants vanished into the mist and the Anabaptists perished by the thousands. European history is dotted with these social revolutions, many of them ending violently, all of them beginning in desperate need.

If it’s true that every age believes it is the last one then our present age is certainly no different. Still, it comes as a jolt to hear that the world will end May 21, 2011 at 6 pm. Families are divided over this: parents convinced of the truth of the prophecy, children not at all sure. And there is much merriment and scoffing among the disbelievers. After-rapture looting parties are announced on FaceBook and two enterprising young men have set up a business to care for pets left behind when their owners are taken. Apparently that settles the argument about pets being in heaven.

The believing but selectively doubtful among us have some choices to make. One is to join up—even at the last minute—look with pity and sorrow on the scoffers, and prepare to ride out the convulsions of Earth’s last hours. When Monday morning dawns without ascension over the weekend, do true believers call in sick? Having committed all to the cause how do you regroup in the wake of undeniable failure? Some in this group will see it as a temporary setback, a miscalculation of time and events—even a test. If this were a bowling tournament they’d keep setting up the pins even though they’re rolling strikes, one after the other.

Another option is to stand on the sidelines and make fun of these pathetic cases. They are such easy targets because they represent a way of thinking and acting that reeks of the supernatural, the mysterious, and the ineffable. To those who sit in the seat of the scornful, there is nothing so inexplicable as a belief in the transcendent because it jams up the bandwidth they’ve devoted to zombies, vampires, and the commercialized writhings of Lady Gaga.

But if you’re not a joiner and you’d rather not scoff, what remains to be done? Because if you have hope at all in some eventual recasting of this old Earth then it must show up in your life, even from moment to moment, since real hope in God’s future—not a facile optimism—changes how you live in the present. “I hope in Thee for us,” said Gabriel Marcel, a phrase that neatly unites the vertical God-ward axis with the horizontal human one.

To be an Adventist means to live gratefully upon this earth, but to know that “I still haven’t found what I’m looking for.” All else is diversion, but I shall know it when I see it, for I shall know as I am known.

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