In recent decades, many Christians have taken pains to emphasize that faith in Christ is more than a mere “ticket” to eternal life. This has led to a renewed focus on the significance of faith in the here and now. At the same time, however, it can also cause us to downplay New Testament references to a hope grounded in a future event—Jesus’ second coming.
Chris Davis, pastor of Groveton Baptist Church in Alexandria, Virginia, was among those who avoid the topic of the Second Coming, out of embarrassment at the wild speculations and contentious debates that eschatology sometimes inspires. But in a season when hope was running thin, he returned to the theme and discovered afresh how it focuses our hopes and desires upon Jesus. This journey of rediscovery culminated in a new book, Bright Hope for Tomorrow: How Anticipating Jesus’ Return Gives Strength for Today.
J. Todd Billings, author of The End of the Christian Life and professor of theology at Western Theological Seminary in Holland, Michigan, spoke with Davis about his book.
Your book opens with a story. You had been a pastor for 10 years and experienced various health and family struggles. You and your wife were aching for a looming two-month Sabbatical. As you write, “Our daily goal was simply to make it to that day when the Sabbatical would set everything right.”
What happened when your sabbatical came? And what’s the significance of our tendency to look forward to some moment when everything, presumably, will be set right?
What happened was we took ourselves on sabbatical with us. Which meant that very little changed over those two months. I wish I knew why humans expect things to get better. I’d like to think that it is an ingrained sense that God is at work to make things new in the world. Yet just like we have extracted the person of Jesus from a Christian anthropology in our culture, I think, broadly, we have extracted Jesus from our hope.
Martin Luther King Jr. famously said that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice,” and he could say that as a Christian minister. But we now display that quote at his memorial here in Washington, DC, without any reference to Jesus. I think as human beings, for whatever philosophical reason, we have hope that things will get better without any real logic behind it.
Many Christians today are suspicious of hope set in the future. They’ve heard preachers contrast a faith concerned with the here and now and a faith concerned with the coming age. From that perspective, a future hope can seem irrelevant. So what does it look like for Christians to move beyond just saying they believe in Christ’s return with a shrug?
When it comes to Jesus’ return, we have a “don’t throw out the baby with the bathwater” issue. And that’s understandable. Eschatology is on the short list of areas where the church veers most egregiously into the bizarre. It becomes a circus, and also a sideshow, where we have made the set-dressing of the Second Coming more important than the main character, who is Jesus.
I’ve been guilty myself at times of throwing the baby out with the bathwater, and I appreciate why others feel the need to do the same. We don’t want to associate ourselves with the more bizarre understandings of the end times. My invitation in this book is to refocus on the person of Christ and to find a link between the already of his presence with us, by the Spirit, and the not yet of his return. I think it’s very possible to live in both aspects of the kingdom.
We should remember C. S. Lewis’s brilliant words, from Mere Christianity, that “the Christians who did most for the present world were just those who thought most of the next.”
Another barrier I see to Christians thinking about and hoping in Christ’s return is that the coming day of the Lord makes them really scared. How can we move from that place of fear toward a posture of hope?
At the risk of slipping into the “Jesus is my boyfriend” trope that many of us grew up with in youth group, I think the metaphor of an engagement that leads to a marriage is both biblical and helpful. It reminds us that the beginnings of a covenant relationship now will give way to a consummation that is far beyond what we can imagine in terms of joy, intimacy, belonging, and flourishing.
My wife and I lived 1,000 miles apart when we were engaged, and the difference between talking on the phone and actually being together is almost “not worth comparing,” to use Paul’s language in Romans [8:18]. So if we use today’s intimate communion with Christ by the Spirit as a baseline, and realize that being with Christ in person will be incalculably more glorious, then I think we can look forward to his return with deep and abiding hope.
You discuss four biblical images for Christ when he returns: the bridegroom, the warrior king, the judge, and the resurrected one. Which portrait did you find most surprising as you researched and wrote the book?
By far, it was the image of Jesus as the Judge. This was the chapter where I felt like, It’s time to take our lumps. It’s time to address the really challenging aspects of Jesus’ return.
But when you explore Paul’s anticipation of Jesus’ return as judge, you don’t find him dreading it. Instead, he welcomes it! We see this in his letters to the Corinthian church. The Corinthians had an adolescent, uninformed critique of their spiritual father, Paul. And it crushed him.
Yet Paul grounded his entire sense of approval in ministry on the moment when Jesus would judge him. In the context of being harshly criticized by his spiritual children, Paul eagerly anticipated the moment when Jesus would shine a light on all his motives and actions, and “then each will receive their praise from God,” as he says in 1 Corinthians 4:5.
That shocked me! And in the context of ministerial difficulty, that deeply encouraged me.
You frequently remind readers that when it comes to hope in Christ’s return, it’s “by the Spirit we taste this hope now.” In what ways do we need a renewed theology of the Spirit to embody hope for Christ’s return?
Many of us grew up with the language of Jesus living in our hearts. But this can cause us to forget that Jesus is in heaven and that the means by which Jesus does dwell in our hearts is through the Spirit. The Holy Spirit is indispensable to hope. Because it is by the Spirit that we taste the presence of Christ with us now, as the down payment, the first fruits, the guarantee of our final inheritance, which is being in the presence of Jesus at his return.
I say in the book that the explicit hope to which we look is inexpressible, glorious joy in our face-to-face communion with Jesus at his return. The Holy Spirit is the means by which we obtain tastes of that joy now.
One section of the book explores some ways we can cultivate hope for Christ’s return, as a church, through various rhythms and practices. These include gathering, fasting, and resting. Which of these do you think evangelicals, especially, need to recover today?
My guess is that, among these, the practices evangelicals do the least are fasting and Sabbath rest. For me, personally, when I practice Sabbath rest, I have to remind myself that I am resting to anticipate, at Jesus’ return, the redemption of work, the consummation of God’s rule, and our eternal delight in his presence.
At the same time, the New Testament is explicit in teaching that our rhythms of gathering are meant to have an eschatological flavor. In Hebrews 10:25, the church is described as “not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day”—that’s a capital D, for the Day of the Lord—“drawing near” (ESV). Just as we likely neglect fasting and Sabbath rest, we also neglect the aspect of gathering weekly on Sundays that includes pointing one another to our hope in Jesus’ return.
So, my desire would be that we recover disciplines that we have left by the wayside. Moreover, I want us to recover the intent of our gathering together, which is in part to remind one another, like Caleb, that if the Lord delights in us, he will deliver us (Num. 14:8).