I am not an apocalyptic oriented Christian for many reasons. Primarily, putting much time, hope and energy into any miraculous future expectation is a distraction from focusing on practical daily discipleship.
First generation Christians certainly expected Jesus to come again soon, perhaps to meet their messianic expectations of a powerful reign on Earth and/or to trigger a resurrection of the dead and a rapture of living believers. Those with such expectations often refer to awaiting "the second coming."
In some of the apostle Paul's earliest New Testament letters, he emphasized the imminence of Jesus returning during his generation: "We will not all die, but we will be changed... For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed" (I Corinthians 15:51 - 52).
In First Thessalonians, probably the earliest New Testament book, Paul predicted: Jesus "will descend from heaven, and the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive ... will be caught up in the clouds together with them ... [to] be with the Lord forever" (I Thessalonians4:16 - 18).
Yet, even in this context of imminent expectancy, Paul sternly warned against simply waiting around for it: "Anyone unwilling to work should not eat. For we hear that some of you are living in idleness, mere busybodies, not doing any work" (II Thessalonians 3:10 - 11).
New Testament passages are not of one accord on this front. For example, the Gospel of Mark (earliest of the four canonical gospels) summarizes Jesus' teaching and public ministry with Jesus saying: "The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent, and believe in the good news" (Mark 1:14 - 15). Jesus appears to have said "follow me" (e.g., Mark 1:17), meaning follow his teachings and life-model as disciples, more than he asked anyone to wait.
Further, in Mark 13, Jesus addressed the impending Roman destruction of the temple in Jerusalem (Mark 1-8, which occurred in 70 AD/CE) and his coming in "power and glory" (Mark 26). Importantly, Jesus emphasized: "Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place" (Mark 30). What about one of the thieves crucified beside Jesus who asked Jesus to remember him in the kingdom? Jesus responded: "Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise." (Luke 23:43).
Jesus has already come twice: his birth and his resurrection, which Christians annually commemorate during Christmas and Easter, respectively. As I recall from elementary school, one plus one equals two. Personally, I expect a heaven beyond this mortal life. Although I have no experience with it and am grateful to be alive, my expectation is akin to the thief on the cross and similar to a light switch. I expect the lights to go out at death and then quickly come on again as we go to God, transitioning to a brighter, eternal spiritual life.
The early Christians hoping for yet another coming of Jesus might reflect unrealized expectations of a messiah to deliver the Jews from Roman oppression, hoping and expecting a powerful, militaristic anointed one from God. Even Jesus' closest group of followers did not appear to fully "get it" during his lifetime. Instead of power, prestige and miraculous events, God prioritizes (as he did in Judaism before Jesus) love, peace, and the pursuit of justice for the oppressed.
I do not think Jesus returning should be a divisive issue. "Another coming," while not my expectation, is essentially irrelevant. We as Christians, along with persons in other authentic faith traditions and anyone else interested in meaningful living, should focus on what we are doing daily now.
In the striking parable of the great judgment (Matthew 25:31-46), Jesus says God's blessing is on those who feed the hungry, provide water for the thirsty, welcome strangers, provide clothing for the needy, care for the sick, and visit prisoners" (Matthew 34-40). These are all things we can choose to actively do now, living as agents of the kingdom in this life. Even Paul, with his common first Christian generation expectation of what would be a third coming, prioritizes the importance of how we live now, imploring his readers to live their "life in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ" (Philippians 1:27) and elsewhere insisting that "the only thing that counts is faith made effective through love" (Galatians 5:6).
Amidst disagreements and ambiguities about any expected future miraculous event, it is most certain that Jesus called people to follow his teachings and example of love and the pursuit of justice for the poor and others in need in this life, day-to-day. His emphasis is above and beyond any doctrinal disputes over future events.
What are we doing now, including in this unexpected pandemic season? Let's not wait.
Walt Shelton is a part-time professor at Baylor Law School, where he has taught for 30 years, and an environmental attorney in Austin. He leads faith and life related discussion groups in association with The Church at Highland Park in Austin. His book, ’The Daily Practice of Life: Practical Reflections Toward Meaningful Living’ is available on his website, waltshelton.com.