Richard Carrier notes in On the Historicity of Jesus (p560) how Paul never speaks of a ‘second coming’, prompting me to look at all the predictions of Christ’s future arrival in the New Testament. Here’s a selection of verses, some of them supposedly the words of Jesus himself, where this coming is ‘prophesied’:
And then they will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory (Mark 13.26).
You will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power, and coming with the clouds of heaven (Mark 14.62).
For as the lightning comes from the east and shines as far as the west, so will be the coming of the Son of Man (Matthew 24.27).
For as the days of Noah were, so will be the coming of the Son of Man… they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away, so too will be the coming of the Son of Man (Matthew 24. 37, 39)
When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all his angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of glory. (Matthew 25.31).
You also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect (Luke 12.40).
For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God (1 Thessalonians 4.16).
Now may the God of peace himself sanctify you completely, and may your whole spirit and soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. (1 Thessalonians 5.23).
For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes (1 Corinthians 11.26).
Be patient, therefore, brothers, until the coming of the Lord… Establish your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is at hand (James 5.7-8).
Waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Saviour Jesus Christ (Titus 2.13).
Behold, he is coming with the clouds, and every eye will see him, even those who pierced him, and all tribes of the earth will wail on account of him (Revelation 1.7).
Behold, I am coming soon, bringing my recompense with me, to repay everyone for what he has done (Revelation 22.12).
Isn’t this strange? None of them refer to Christ’s arrival as a ‘return’ or ‘second coming’. You’d be hard pushed to find any such ‘prophecy’ in the New Testament*. His appearance here on Earth is described as the coming of a celestial being. Even Jesus is made to talk about the manifestation of such a figure, taken by Christians to mean his own future self, as if he’s talking about someone else: the Son of Man, who hasn’t yet appeared but will do so in the near future. It’s as if the gospels’ fictional Jesus is being made to predict the arrival of the ‘real’, celestial Jesus.
More importantly, the Son of Man and Paul’s version of the same figure, the Christ, are spoken of as ‘coming’ or ‘descending’, not ‘returning’ or coming again. It’s as if Paul, the writers of the synoptic gospels, John of Patmos and other first-century Christians* didn’t believe that the Christ had already visited the Earth. They talk instead as if he’s about to arrive for the very first time. When he does, they believed, he would be coming as an avenging angel, rescuing those who believe in him – as a celestial being who carried out his salvific work in the heavenly realms (1 Corinthians 15, Galatians 1.11-12 etc) – and slaughtering those who don’t. This is the apocalypse – the revealing or uncovering of the heavenly Christ for the very first time.
That Jesus will ‘return’ or make a second coming is an assumption made by later believers on the basis of verses like those above. In fact, they say no such thing. The earliest Christians wrote as if they didn’t believe their envisaged hero had ever been on Earth. For them, his one and only arrival was still to come.
* An exception appears to be Hebrews 9.28 which says, ‘so Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to deal with sin but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him’. Hebrews, however, regards the Christ only as a supernatural high priest, operating in the heavenly realms. This second appearance then can only refer to this character, who is not conceived as having had any existence here on Earth.