Christian Fundamentalism touts belief in the second coming of Christ as one of five fundamentals of Christian faith. It is part of the Nicene Creed (4th century), which confesses that "Jesus Christ...is coming again with glory to judge living and dead." The earliest use of the expression "second coming of Christ" occurs in Justin Martyr (2nd century), Dialogue with Trypho 14, and the writer of Hebrews (9:28) also expects that "Christ...will appear a second time..."
The hope of a future coming of Christ is part of the earliest extant Christian text (1st Thessalonians 1:10; 3:13; 4:13-5:11), where the event is referred to as "his [God's] son from heaven," "the coming of the Lord Jesus," "the day of the Lord." There is also evidence that the earliest Christians prayed for his coming. Paul concludes a letter with what is thought to be a prayer of early Aramaic Christians: marana tha, "our Lord come" (1 Corinthians 16:22). The latest writing (ca 150) in the New Testament also warns that "the day of the Lord will come like a thief," and describes the event as "the coming of the day of God" (2nd Peter 3:9-13). Hence a future return of (the Lord Jesus) Christ is a belief shared by virtually all the early Christians.
It is questionable, however, whether the earliest gospel (Mark) shares the belief in a second coming of Christ. In Mark Jesus never says "I am coming again," or I will come a second time." Instead in the Gospel of Mark it appears that Jesus anticipated a future coming of "a son of man" (8:38-9:1, 13:24-27, 14:60-64). He speaks in these passages of the coming son of man in the third person as though he were someone other than himself. Other statements in Mark refer to the son of man as a contemporary figure who suffers, is betrayed, is killed, and rises from the dead (9:9. 12. 31; 10:33. 45; 14:21. 41). These events, identifying Jesus as the son of man, clearly reflect the faith of the early church (e.g., 1 Corinthians 15:1-5; Acts 2:22-24). The question is, however, did these sayings originate with Jesus, or are they faith statements of the church retrofitted into the career of Jesus to justify the church's belief that the coming son of man was Jesus? There exists no saying of Jesus in which he unambiguously promises to return sometime in the future.
Nevertheless, virtually all scholars accept that Jesus referred to himself as "son of man" (e.g., Mark 2:10.27- 28; Q, Luke 9:58 =Matt 8:20), but what does the expression mean? In what sense did he use it of himself? In my last blog I indicated its meaning (loosely construed) was something like "man of the people"—i.e., "a common human being," as the expression is used in Mark 3:28 ("sons of men"), meaning "human beings."
There are three different senses in which the term "son of man" is used in Hebrew Bible: Job 25:4-6 describes an insignificant human creature; Psalm 8:3-6 describes a human being a little lower than God; Daniel 7:13-14 describes an apocalyptic figure of the end time. The early church understood the term "son of man" (an Aramaic expression for "I") as a claim to be the apocalyptic figure of Daniel 7:13-14.
Mark 2:10 was rejected by the Jesus Seminar as a Christian formulation giving Jesus the present authority of the coming apocalyptic figure. They accepted Mark 2:27-28 as a genuine saying of Jesus. This saying is the only surviving son of man saying in the gospel of Mark that likely originated with Jesus. If the Sabbath was made for human beings (Mark 3:27), then a human being (i.e., the "son of man" in the sense of Job 25:4-6) rules over the Sabbath as he was ordained to rule over the earth (Gen 1:26-30; spoken to Adam). It is not a messianic claim, but rather a logical argument that dissolves Sabbath rules.
It seems probable to me that Jesus anticipated the imminent appearing of an apocalyptic figure other than himself (Mark 8:38-9:1; 13:24-27), and the early church identified this figure (i.e., the son of man from Daniel 7:13-14) as Jesus. How could such a thing happen? It likely occurred among his early followers under the influence of Judean messianic expectations and their reading of Hebrew Bible as a book of prophecy. Such a situation is actually depicted in John 2:13-22, where an incident in the Judean temple during the public career of Jesus (2:13-20) is understood differently after the death of Jesus by his followers; they came to the new understanding by reading Hebrew Bible like a book of prophecy (John 2:21-22).
In the synoptic tradition, however, there is no future coming of the Lord Jesus Christ—at least, not in so many words. The synoptic gospels describe a future coming of a "son of man." The early church in the main abandoned "son of man" language, and identified the resurrected Christ as the figure of a future apocalypse.
Will there be a second coming of Christ as the early Christians expected, and modern Christians believe? It depends. I regard the belief that Jesus is coming again as a "faith fact." That is to say, it is a fact if you believe it to be so—nevertheless one should always remember that believing a thing to be so does not make it so.
Charles W. Hedrick
Missouri State University
Marion Soards, "Parousia," 646-47 in Mercer Dictionary of the Bible (1990).