He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end. – The Nicene Creed
With the words of the Nicene or Apostles‘ creeds, the church confesses its faith in Jesus Christ, God’s son, our Lord, who was crucified and buried, but who rose again and ascended into heaven. And then we confess our belief that he will will come again “to judge the living and the dead.” We go on to confess our belief in the future resurrection and the life of the age to come.
Christ’s coming in glory to reign openly, establish justice and transform all creation is a core element of the orthodox Christian faith.
The word which Matthew, Paul, James, Peter and John all use to describe Jesus’ coming is parousia, or “presence.” At several points in the New Testament, we see that the delay in Jesus’ parousia was a problem – or maybe you would want to call it an issue – with which the early church had to grapple.
If Jesus’ delayed return was a problem for the first generation of Christians, it must surely be a problem for us. Except that it’s not, not really. We’re still waiting for Jesus’ return (well, some of us are), but I’d wager that Jesus’ delay doesn’t bother most Christians – at least western Christians – in the way that it bothered the early church.
Some of my progressive brothers and sisters see the promised parousia as a mythological remnant of a bygone era, a time when people really believed in supernatural kinds of things. Whatever future awaits humanity, they believe, it will take place be right here on planet earth in the same physical form in which it exists today. Any improvements in the human condition which God brings about (assuming they believe in a real god) will just emerge in the social realm, either in society-at-large or within the alternative “kin-dom” of the enlightened.
But even orthodox Christians who can say the creed without crossing their fingers still live as if Christ’s appearing doesn’t matter. They may believe Christ will come again, but they don’t want him to come today. If anything, the parousia is something to fear rather than to long for.
So that’s one way to deal with the problem of Christ’s delay: ignore it, because it doesn’t really matter. But that’s a vastly different form of Christianity than that preached and believed by the first Christians. The earliest Christian prayer in the Bible is a petition for Christ’s coming (“Maranatha, 1 Corinthians 16:22). Throughout the ages, Christians have pleaded, “Thy kingdom come,” as they prayed the words of the Lord’s Prayer.
The hope for Christ’s parousia may make no practical difference in the lives of many Christians today, but it was a central element in the faith that have received from the apostles.
For United Methodists, Christ’s “return to judge all men at the last day” is found in Article 3 of the Articles of Religion, one of our church’s unalterable doctrinal standards.