“He will come again to judge the living and the dead”: in this way, the Apostles' Creed summarizes the Christian hope that God will complete his purpose for the world in a final, triumphant coming of Christ. The parallel terms “first coming” and “second coming” (suggested in Heb. 9.26–28) highlight the theological connection between these two chief moments of Christ's work.

The prophets had declared that God's purpose in history would reach its goal in a future period of blessing under God's rule, a rule that would be righteous, peaceful, universal, and permanent (Isa. 11.2–5; 60; 65–66; Mic. 4.3–4). Often God was said to exercise his rule through an earthly king descended from David (Isa. 9.6–7; Zech. 9.9–10).

Jesus taught that this longed‐for time of salvation had dawned, the kingdom of God had drawn near (Mark 1.15). The promises were now being fulfilled in him, and his possession of God's spirit, his miracles and exorcisms were evidence of this (Matt. 11.2–6; 12.28). Yet God's kingdom had not fully arrived. For although through his ministry the blessings of God were experienced with a new immediacy, still death and suffering and the ambiguities of life remained for his followers. The complete realization of the kingdom was in the future. Thus he taught his disciples to pray, “Your kingdom come” (Luke 11.2; see Lord's Prayer), and proclaimed that the coming of the Son of man would mark the dividing line between the present course of history and the full realization of God's kingdom (Mark 13.26).

The so‐called apocalyptic discourse of Mark 13 (and the related passages in Matt. 24; Luke 17.22–37; 21) warns of the sufferings and conflicts that Jesus' followers should expect before his final coming as Son of man. Both here (Mark 13.30) and elsewhere (Rom. 13.11–12; 1 Pet. 4.7) the nearness of Christ's coming is stressed. But there is also an expectation that certain events must take place before the end comes (Mark 13.10; 2 Thess. 2.2–8), and an insistence that the date cannot be predicted (Mark 13.32–33; Luke 17.20; Acts 1.7). So the statements about nearness are best understood as vivid assertions of the certainty that God's purpose, begun in Christ's first coming, will be completed in his second coming.

Similarly, the New Testament writers are more concerned with the purpose of Christ's coming than with its manner, which is variously described. Christ will come to complete the work of rescuing humankind, which began with his first coming (Heb. 9.26–28). He will come to pass judgment on the whole human race (Matt. 25.31–46; 1 Cor. 4.5), to welcome into his presence those who have lived by trust in him (Mark 13.27), while those who have rejected him will find themselves shut out (2 Thess 1.7–10). Thus his coming will mark his final conquest over evil (1 Cor. 15.24–25), and the realization of his kingdom of peace, righteousness, and love. This is described as “new heavens and a new earth, where righteousness is at home” (2 Pet. 3.13; cf. Rev. 21.3–4).

Not all interpreters take the New Testament's message of the second coming at face value. Some argue that Jesus' sayings about the coming of the Son of man are not authentic to him, or that he intended them as symbols of God's triumph rather than as promises of an actual future coming; in that case, the hope of the early Christians would be based on a misunderstanding of Jesus' teaching. Others argue that since the expectation of Christ's coming within a generation of his lifetime did not materialize, it must be interpreted symbolically to mean that Christ “comes to me” in my decision for him and his rule. In contrast, some understand all references to the second coming quite literally, and believe the passages about “the signs of the times” (e.g. Mark 13) enable its timing to be calculated precisely. In any case, it is possible to affirm the basic structure of Christian hope, with its emphasis on the second coming as the goal and fulfillment of God's past work in Christ, without committing oneself to any precise view about its nature or when it will be.

See also Biblical Theology, article on New Testament; Maranatha; Parousia


Stephen H. Travis