Among white, evangelical Christians in the United States, 58 percent believe that Jesus Christ will return to Earth by the year 2050, according to a 2010 Pew Research survey. If you think that's a fringe position, Pew says that 41 percent of all Americans (not just evangelicals) believe that the Second Coming is not only real, but that it's going to happen by 2050 — in other words, in their lifetime.
What modern Christians may not know is that countless other generations have believed that the world was ending in their lifetimes and that Christ's return was therefore imminent. Indeed, Matthew 16:28 ends with Jesus saying to his disciples, "There be some standing here, which shall not taste of death, till they see the Son of man coming in his kingdom." (There are differing interpretations on what this passage really means.)
The Second Coming refers to a host of biblical prophecies foretelling Jesus Christ's triumphant return to Earth to defeat the forces of evil and establish a 1,000-year reign of peace before the Final Judgment of all mankind. The doctrine of the Second Coming forms the bedrock of Christian eschatology, a word that means the study of the "last things," otherwise known as the "end times."
While Christians from various denominations might share a general belief in the Second Coming, there are significant disagreements over the details, says Richard Kyle, an emeritus professor of religion at Tabor College in Hillsboro, Kansas, and author of "Apocalyptic Fever: End-Time Prophecies in Modern America."
"Some would say that 'spiritually speaking,' Christ has already come," says Kyle. "Others would say no, he's going to come physically at a particular point in time. Then there are differences about when and how and everything in between."
Seven Years of Tribulation, 1,000 Years of Peace
The book of Revelation in the New Testament is the main source of prophecies concerning the Second Coming, but it's not the only apocalyptic text in the Bible (an "apocalypse" is a divinely revealed vision of things to come). Jesus and his fellow Jews would have also been familiar with the book of Daniel, the most apocalyptic text in the Hebrew Bible (known to Christians as the Old Testament). The modern Christian conception of the Second Coming is a combination of snippets from Daniel, Revelation and Jesus' own prophecies of the last days as recorded in the Gospel of Matthew.
From Daniel, it's understood that the Messiah will only come after a seven-year period of "tribulation." In Matthew, Jesus describes this tumultuous period as being dominated by "wars and rumors of wars," plus "famines, and pestilences and earthquakes, in divers (sic) places." The "Antichrist" will also make himself known halfway through the period of tribulation, a false prophet who, according to Jesus, "shall come in my name, saying, I am Christ; and shall deceive many."
Attempts to identify the Antichrist have always been a big part of predicting the timing of the Second Coming.
"Anytime you get a highly undesirable figure in history, obviously the Hitlers and the Mussolinis, they're at least seen as servants of the Antichrist," says Kyle. "The Antichrist is a sneaky guy who comes across as being OK, but halfway through this seven-year tribulation, he shows his true colors."
When Jesus finally returns, according to Revelation, he and his army of angels will defeat the Antichrist and lock up Satan for 1,000 years. During that 1,000-year period of peace, known as the Millennium (from the Latin mille for "thousand"), Christ himself will rule on Earth in the "Golden Age" of peace and prosperity long awaited by the Jews. After the Millennium, Satan will be released for one final fruitless rebellion before the Final Judgment.
Does the Bible Give a Time Frame for the Second Coming?
The biggest sticking point in Christian eschatology is the timing of the Second Coming. Specifically, will Christ return to Earth before the Millennium or after it? Those who believe that Jesus will come back before the Millennium and personally reign over the 1,000 years of peace are called "premillennialists." Those who believe Christ will only come back after his Church has created a Golden Age on Earth are called "postmillennialists."
In the Bible, when the Apostles ask about the timing of Christ's return, Jesus famously answers, "No one knows about that day or hour, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father" (Matthew 24:36). That hasn't stopped generations of Christians from guessing, though.
Kyle says that for the first century after Jesus' crucifixion, resurrection and ascension to heaven, most Christians were premillennialists who believed that his Second Coming was close at hand.
"They had a hard time believing they were going to die before Christ's return," says Kyle.
Even as the promised day failed to appear, early Christian writers like Clement of Rome and Tertullian held to the premillennial belief that Jesus would return in person to conquer evil and reign as the prophesied "King of Kings." Gradually, though, that belief faded and a new interpretation of the timing of the Second Coming was popularized by the fourth-century theologian Augustine of Hippo.
In his best-known work, "The City of God," Augustine argued that the Millennium had already begun (postmillennialism), or more accurately, says Kyle, that the 1,000-year reign of Christ was a "spiritual kingdom" rather than a physical kingdom. Some theologians call Augustine's approach "amillennialism" because it ditches a literal reading of Revelation, Daniel and Matthew, and interprets the prophecies as figurative language describing how Christ works through his Earthly Church to prepare the world for His triumphant return.
"Through the Middle Ages, the Church saw itself as fulfilling much of [these millennial prophecies]," says Kyle. "The Church was seen as working out God's will on Earth."
Premillennialism Makes a Big Comeback
Augustine's symbolic reading of the Second Coming ruled the Church for nearly 1,500 years, but then came a 19th-century preacher named John Nelson Darby. The Irish reformer was convinced that the Church was in ruins and that the end times were upon us. In his literal reading of the Bible's apocalyptic texts, Darby found that God's creation was divided into seven distinct ages or "dispensations," the final one being the Millennium.
Darby taught a fiery premillennial doctrine that Christ would undoubtedly return in person to vanquish the Antichrist, bind Satan and reign over his Earthly kingdom for 1,000 years. But first, the righteous and faithful would be "caught up" to heaven during the "Rapture," an event prophesied in the New Testament book of 1 Thessalonians 4:15-17. Darby's creative interpretation of the Second Coming and end of days became known as "premillennial dispensationalism" and eventually came to rule the apocalyptic worldview of evangelical Christianity.
"The Late Great Planet Earth" was a bestselling book in 1970 that popularized Darby's system for a new generation of Christians. The book, written by Hal Lindsey, was one of the first to link biblical prophecies of the Second Coming explicitly to current world events like the Cold War and the restoration of the Jewish state of Israel.
More than 35 million copies of "The Late Great Planet Earth" have been sold, a strong indication of the ongoing urgency and resonance of the Second Coming with modern Christians. The bestselling "Left Behind" series by Jerry B. Jenkins, which fictionalized the Rapture in our day, is further proof that the Second Coming is alive and well in the Christian imagination.