In 1 Thessalonians 4, Paul expresses a belief that Christ’s Second Coming is radically imminent—so imminent, in fact, that he fully expects to be among the living when Jesus returns. “Then we who are alive, who are left,” he says in verse 16, “will be caught up in the clouds together with [the risen dead] to meet the Lord in the air.” We who are alive, he says. We. The implication is clear: it is coming, and it is coming soon. It could be any day now.
There is a part of me that can relate to Paul. As a child, I was taught that the Second Coming was just around the corner. My parents stockpiled enough food to last an entire year in preparation for Armageddon. I have vivid memories of playing in the unfinished basement of our home in one of the poorer communities of the Salt Lake Valley, the cement walls lined with 2-liter soda bottles that had been refilled with water, an oversize second-hand freezer stuffed with meat, makeshift shelves overflowing with home-canned peaches, pears, tomatoes, and applesauce. People spoke in hushed tones about what we would do when society collapsed so completely that we’d have to walk the 2,000 miles back over the same plains our forbearers crossed to the prophesied gathering place in Jackson County, Missouri—there to await the arrival of Jesus Christ himself for a great General Conference with all the Latter-day Saints.
There is an urgency to life when the Second Coming is imminent. It requires vigilance, constant attention. For the Lord will come like a thief in the night—and if you’re not among those who are waiting and ready, you’ll be destroyed suddenly, as labor pains come upon a pregnant woman, and there will be no escape (1 Thess 5:2-3). The images of destruction were full of fire and chaos. They terrified me.
When I left Mormonism, I tucked those images away. They didn’t make sense anymore, so I put them alongside the rest of my collection of half-examined beliefs from my childhood, fragments of ideas that I guess I haven’t discarded altogether but that no longer seem to fit. Most of the time, I forget they’re even there. But every once in a while, something–like reading Paul or, recently, a chapter on apocalyptic vulnerability in Brian Blount’s Invasion of the Dead: Preaching Resurrection–will bring them surging back, and I’ll realize that I’m still not sure what to do with them, and that perhaps I’d better spend some time figuring it out.
My gut response to this style of rhetoric is visceral. The idea that we’re living on the edge of some kind of new age, that Christ’s return is at hand, and that we are not yet transformed fully, conjures the ultra-literal, fear-filled expectations of my youth. In my reaction against those teachings, I think I’d more or less embraced the notion that eternal life is now, that we are living in the new age if we have eyes to see it, that the Parousia is a metaphor for connection to God, not something that means actual dead bodies rising from the grave.
But lately I’ve begun to question that. If the gospel is to have teeth, it seems to me that the actual, literal resurrection of Christ—and the actual, literal defeat of death that it signals—is necessary. It is, as Blount puts it, “about breaking free of this entire world and cosmos from the grip of powers hostile to us and to God” (61). It is shocking, radical, ridiculous. It flips the world entirely on its head, overthrowing the created order as we know it, and ushering in some kind of new reality that I can scarcely picture. It is, as Blount says, the apocalypse itself (62).
When I hear myself saying this, I’m not sure what to do. I am immediately plunged back into the imagery of my childhood, with its fire and destruction, terror and violence. Can the coming of Christ possibly be good news? Can resurrection mean anything other than fear? It seems safer over here, where bodies stay in the ground where they belong and anything that says otherwise is a beautiful, but benign, symbol. But do beautiful but benign symbols revolutionize the world? Or does it take the actual, literal triumph of God over death and sin to do that?
And then it occurs to me that perhaps the biggest problem with the teaching I was raised with is that it emphasizes resurrection, and the Second Coming of Christ, without the cross. Mormons quite famously have rejected the cross; they do not use it anywhere. When you ask them why, they will say, “We have the Living Christ, not the dead one.” While they believe in an atonement where Jesus experienced each person’s individual sins and pains in order to satisfy the demands of justice (something they say happened in the Garden of Gethsemane), the cross is barely a blip on the radar. He could have died any other way and it wouldn’t have mattered, so long as he suffered in the Garden and rose again. After all, who wants to think of the humiliation, agony, and defeat of the cross when you can jump immediately Easter morning, and especially the glory of a triumphant militarized return? In the Mormon cosmos, death isn’t real. We don’t face it, we don’t acknowledge it. We gloss right over it. So the return of Christ is more of the same, in a framework of unrelenting continued existence, where we alone must “work out our salvation with fear and trembling” (Phil 2:12) and experience judgment of our worthiness based on our works. It is a fire that no person could withstand.
And that seems to me to be the difference, the great paradox: in denying death, we deny ourselves the experience of being born again. The cross is the acknowledgment of death’s power. It is real. It is not a symbol. It is not a momentary transition. It is our reality, and when we’re honest, we see that we experience it every single day. As Blount says, “Our cosmic condition is completely characterized by death” and it is only our hubris that allows us to pretend that we are alive (51).
But in the resurrection, after Christ has descended into death itself, he destroys it. Then the cross becomes “the turning point in the war between the ages” (Blount 55), the “liberating invasion” of God’s power (58). It is precisely because of the reality of death that the resurrection is so powerful. Blount says that we must see the cross through the lens of resurrection (59), and I don’t disagree; but as someone who has seen resurrection without the lens of the cross, I believe it is absolutely imperative that we never separate them. For the cross without resurrection is nothing special, just more death; but the resurrection without the cross is a blazing fire of judgment that lacks the brokenhearted compassion of grace.
I am still not entirely sure what to think about the imminence of Christ’s return. People have been waiting for 2000 years now and death seems to be getting along just fine. But the urgency of expectation that I experienced as a child and that Paul expresses in 1 Thessalonians, is, perhaps, a gift. It is hope that we are on the precipice of something new. We will die, but we will yet live. God has come and is yet coming. We don’t know when, but perhaps it is in this space of anticipation that we are called to live.