I’m standing on the balcony of a high-rise building overlooking Sydney’s famous harbour. To my left is the city's billowing white Opera House. In front of me is the Sydney Harbour Bridge with its high half-moon arch. Below me are thousands and thousands of people. It’s almost midnight on New Year’s Eve and Sydney is putting on a show to remember!
This is so loud! There are more than 7 tonnes of explosives out there—52 boats carrying 11,000 containers of fireworks. The sky is alive with 25,000 shooting comets and 100,000 individual fireworks. Talk about power! I can feel it.
It’s a great show. But I think for a minute: if this is impressive, imagine the second coming! Like these fireworks the soon return of Jesus will be real and it will be loud but it will also be the most spectacular event in earth’s history. And every single person on earth will see it.
But some people are going to be very surprised. Why? Because there is widespread confusion over if, or how, Jesus will return. And these different views aren’t just out there in society. Increasingly, they are creeping into our Church.
The Jews are waiting earnestly for the first coming of the Messiah. One of the great Jewish philosophers stated: “I firmly believe in the coming of the Messiah; and although He may tarry, I daily hope for His coming."1
Many Buddhists, Hindus and Muslims also believe in the coming of a supernatural being.
Buddhist tradition teaches that soon the oceans will recede and Maitreya will descend to bring his spiritual truth, wisdom and blessings. Some Hindu sects teach Vishnu will incarnate himself as Kalki. He’ll appear in the clouds with a sword in his hand and riding on a white horse. He’ll defeat evil then introduce 1000 years of peace.
The Quran alludes to the return of Jesus. The “prophet” Jesus will descend somewhere in the Middle East—maybe to the great mosque in Damascus, maybe Mecca or maybe even the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem. But there’s one aspect that all Muslims are united on: Jesus will appear on planet earth.
So what about the Christian faith? Most Christians believe in the second coming of Jesus. But ideas about how He will return differ markedly.
If you walk into the Sistine Chapel the Catholic view of the second coming is right before your eyes. Michelangelo’s fresco, “The Last Judgement”, has at its centre a powerful, muscular Jesus. Mary is by His side. He’s surrounded by the saints. Mind you the second coming doesn’t look like a happy event for them. A group of angels is blowing trumpets to raise the dead. Gabriel holds the thin book of the saved. The enormous book of the lost is held by another angel.
Those coming up from their graves on the right side of Jesus are taken by angels towards heaven. Some are being pulled up by their rosary beads—it’s not going to be a comfortable trip! The people on the left side of Jesus are on their way to everlasting hell. We can see angels pushing them down while the demons are scratching away pulling them towards the fire. Borrowing from pagan mythology, Michelangelo depicts the doomed being ferried across in a boat with a demonic figure beating the reluctant sinners into hell.
When we look at this amazing fresco, we see an event primarily about judgement. It is awesome. It is powerful. But it is far from joyous.
Protestants have a bewildering array of beliefs about the second coming but the view that is becoming more popular is the secret rapture—a two-staged second coming. The first stage is when the righteous are whisked away to heaven. This is followed by a seven-year tribulation. Then Jesus arrives in all His splendour and sets up His kingdom on planet earth.
It makes for excellent book sales and a few profitable movies. But does any of this square with the Bible? Not one bit. In the Bible the second coming certainly isn’t secret. This is how the Bible describes it:
“Look, He is coming with the clouds,” and “every eye will see Him . . .” (Revelation 1:7).
So we know Jesus will come personally, visibly and globally—literally “every eye will see Him”. What else does the Bible say?
“Then the sign of the Son of Man will appear in heaven, and then all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory. And He will send His angels with a great sound of a trumpet, and they will gather together His elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other” (Matthew 24:30,31).
Jesus will return with power and great glory. Much better than fireworks on New Year's Eve! It will be like lightning zapping across the sky from east to west. The angels will gather all of God’s people together. One people in one place at one time.
Maybe the most famous text on the second coming states:
“For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of an archangel, and with the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And thus we shall always be with the Lord” (1 Thessalonians 4:16,17).
At the second coming Jesus will raise the righteous from the dead. Then all of us will meet Jesus in the sky. This second coming is the greatest event in the history of humanity.
That’s why the message of the second coming is the central focus of the mission of the Seventh-day Adventist Church. For me that’s what I live for. It’s what makes my heart beat.
Tragically, there’s a flip side to the second coming. I can imagine the lips of Jesus quivering when He said, “the tribes of the earth will mourn” when they see Him.
One of the most famous paintings of all time is “The Scream” by Edvard Munch. I went to Norway to see this haunting masterpiece. Munch wrote on the frame of "The Scream", “my friends walked on, and I stood there trembling with anxiety—and I sensed an infinite scream passing through nature.” Munch wasn’t talking about the second coming but I think he captured a hint of the gut-wrenching reality the lost will experience.
Ellen White, in The Great Controversy, says the wails and screams of the wicked will be so horrendous they will be heard above the sound of the elements. This, at a time when the earth is, according to Scripture, in a state of almost unimaginable convulsions.
When I read these words they haunt me. Why are we so indifferent when the stakes are so astonishingly high? There's the beauty of eternal life—of complete love and peace with our Father in Heaven—or the anguish of missing out on everything for nothing. As Seventh-day Adventists we need to do whatever we can to save every soul for the kingdom so they’ll never go through this experience.
One night I had a dream. In this dream I was alive at the second coming. I’d seen Jesus return and was on my way to heaven. So that was a good start.
On the way to heaven we were zipping past the planets and it came time for the Sabbath. Jesus stopped us and we sat down at a massive table to have a special Sabbath lunch.
This was not just a Sabbath potluck lunch—this was the greatest feast imaginable. Everything looked tantalising and delicious.
As I sat down I began to look at the people surrounding me. I spoke to the person seated next to me and asked him what his name was. He said, “I’m Martin Luther.” Really? “I’ve been to the place where you lived, where you preached, where you nailed up the 95 Theses,” I replied excitedly. “Tell me more of your story!”
So Martin Luther began telling me story after story. I just soaked it all in.
I then turned to the person on the other side of me and said, “what’s your name?” “I’m John Huss,” he replied. “Wow! I saw where you were burnt at the stake. You’re a hero of mine. Tell me how you had the courage to die for Jesus. What went through your mind as they were lighting the fires beneath you?”
Once again he thrilled me with his stories.
I then looked at the person on the opposite side of the table. I said, “what’s your name?”
“I’m John the Baptist.”
“No! Really? Jesus said you were the greatest man who ever lived. You gave everything for Jesus!”
Then I looked at the man directly opposite me. He didn’t look very impressive so I said to him casually, “who are you?” To my amazement he replied, “I’m the apostle Paul.”
I couldn’t believe my ears. “Tell me about some of your missionary trips. What was it like to be shipwrecked? Beaten? Pelted with stones?”
I was so enthralled with these men and their stories and then Paul looked straight at me. He asked, “what’s your name?”
“I’m Neale,” I replied, knowing full well this would mean nothing to any of them.
Then Paul looked me in the eyes and said, “tell me Neale—what have you ever done for Jesus?”
I got such a shock that I woke up in a cold sweat. Why? Because I realised how selfish my life was. My time, my resources, my focus were all on myself—not on Christ. It was obvious; I wasn’t ready for Jesus to come. It wasn’t a matter of what I had or hadn’t done. That was just the symptom. The issue was this: for me Jesus was a segment of my life. For people like Luther, Huss, John the Baptist and Paul, Jesus was their life. For me Jesus would return as an Acquaintance. For those men He would return as a Friend.
That dream helped me wake up to my woeful spiritual condition. I surrendered my entire life to God and chose to live for Jesus with every fibre of my being. That night I accepted Jesus as my Lord, Saviour and best Friend. Today my driving passion is to ensure Christ’s sacrifice was not for naught. I want every single person on this planet in heaven. I don’t want anyone to miss out. Because I know that each and every one is of inestimable value.
I now long for the second coming of Jesus. I long for the day when we look up and say, “Lo, this is our God. We have waited for Him and He will save us.”
1. Moses ben Maimonides, 13 Articles of Faith
Neale Schofield is CEO of Adventist Media Network. This piece was presented during morning worship at the 2015 General Conference Session in San Antonio, Texas.