Why a Second Coming?

February 22, 2007 | 25 comments
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It might seem that there are few Hegelians in the world today. Even in French philosophy, where Hegel had considerable influence via Alexandre Kojéve, few philosophers today would call themselves by his name. Nevertheless, there remains one large group who are, in an important sense, Hegelians. It isn’t that they have adopted his understanding, but that his work reflected the metaphysical structure of theirs. For traditional Christians, revelation came to an end with the First Coming of Jesus Christ. For them, nothing of ultimate importance remains to be known, so history has come to an end except as the repetition of what has already come into being, a central Hegelian claim. One can ask, however, if history, the revelation of all that is ultimately important, came to an end with the First Coming, what need is there for a second? If God’s revelation of himself in human history was complete 2,000 years ago, why expect him to reveal himself again? Though Christianity understands itself as a philosophy of hope, for what does it hope? Do we await any grace that has not already been given?

In contrast, the Mormon view seems radically unHegelian: Abraham was promised the kingdom to come; Jesus announced that the kingdom had arrived; through Joseph Smith it was revealed that the kingdom’s arrival was incomplete and that it withdrew. Theology, the account of God, remains incomplete; paradoxically, the appearance of the Godhead to Joseph Smith signaled that the Godhead yet remains a mystery. More remains to be known; history does not come to an end until the Second Coming.

Of course traditional Christians have reasonable responses. For example, a theologian in the Christian tradition might say that though everything has been revealed, the meaning of what has been revealed remains to be worked out. In particular the political and ethical meaning of the Coming of the Son of God continues to come into being. The saint rather than the theologian is the most appropriate model for a Christian (Jean-Yves Lacoste, Experience and the Absolute 134), so the First Coming is not yet complete. In other words, she might say that the First Coming was the anti-type (the figure) of all Christian experience, and that anti-type must be enacted in Christian life and experience, something that happens only through conversion. Thus, a traditional Christian could answer that though it is theologically true that history came to an end with the First Coming, it comes to an existential end only in the lives of individual persons as they are converted. Prior to conversion, existential history continues.

I like that response, and I am sure there are others. However, even with such a response the question remains, “Why a Second Coming?” Does our present enact a past in which everything was given or does the future invest the present with meaning? Is true Christianity defined by its look back to the event of the cross and resurrection or by its look forward to the event of the Second Coming announced by Moroni’s trumpet? I wonder whether this question gets at the core of the difference between traditional Christians and Mormon Christians.

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25 Responses to Why a Second Coming?

  1. Last Lemming on February 22, 2007 at 1:39 pm

    I tend to think of the Second Coming in terms similar to those being discussed by Nate in his “Intelligences and Zion” threads. The First Coming is relevent to liberalism, that is “human beings as autonomous, rights bearing individuals.” The atonement, accomplished at the time of the First Coming, allows us as individuals to be foregiven of our sins and return to God’s presence. It does not, however, make the establishment of Zion and the ultimate exaltation of mankind inevitable. We could all end up ministering angels in the lowest degree of the Celestial Kingdom. So the Second Coming is necessary to fulfill the communitarian ends of Mormonism–the establishment of Zion. And yes, I think this does get to the core of our differences with traditional Christians.

  2. Janet on February 22, 2007 at 5:06 pm

    Not that this has anything to do with your point, but my most impassioned fit during grad school occurred during and shortly after reading Kojeve’s gloss on Hegelian identity theory. The very idea that one becomes a subject by playing identity-joust with some other person, who then must be object-slave drove me absolutely nutty. I went to class and railed, babbling about contingent subjectivity and how Hegel was clearly Satan and Derrida still needed to “get over it” and what the bleeping heaven was wrong with these people. I share this because I know you are a philosophy professor and by the end of class mine wanted to objectify me with a swift blow from a heavy object. Still makes it hard for me to get at any of the useful Hegelian stuff. (Sorry for threadjacking; just the memory gets me all empassioned.)

  3. Janet on February 22, 2007 at 5:17 pm

    More to your point, eschatology (evangelical and LDS) has always struck me as a dodge ’round Gethsemane in its attempt to focus on mass events rather than individual conversion, which according to Alma 5 is cyclical in nature. Which is why I adore the point you cull from Lacoste–or to quote Alan Keele, “every death is the second coming.” So is every conversion. Maybe. Plus, doesn’t ritual–especially in the temple–foreground the idea that the past and the future don’t just run in a forward line? That we’re more like the old god Janus, with two faces? I ama quite fond of LL’s idea about communitarian ends, but I’m not sure it’s unique to LDS theology.

    Ok, I’m actually rather intimidated by T&S sometimes inasmuch as it reminds me of the old fear that at some point my professors will all stand up, point at me, and yell “fraud”! So I shall shut up now.

  4. Russell Arben Fox on February 22, 2007 at 5:29 pm

    Jim,

    “For example, a theologian in the Christian tradition might say that though everything has been revealed, the meaning of what has been revealed remains to be worked out. In particular the political and ethical meaning of the Coming of the Son of God continues to come into being. The saint rather than the theologian is the most appropriate model for a Christian…so the First Coming is not yet complete.”

    I would assume this gets at Augustine’s description of the church as a nunc stans, a present which neither initiates nor concludes the history of the world which is being worked out in the midst of the two cities of God and man. The church may be called the bridegroom, but it’s not really a bridegroom–not fully, not completely–until the bride arrives. The church should think about and act within the world, but mostly it has to wait, saintlike for its own completion.

    Janet,

    “Which is why I adore the point you cull from Lacoste–or to quote Alan Keele, ‘every death is the second coming.'”

    That is a fascinating line; I can’t quite grasp what it’s getting at, but I know there’s something there. I’m not familiar with Lacoste at all (and never took a class from Alan), so could you explain a little bit more at what you mean, Janet? I’m assuming the idea is to tie the death and subsequent judgment of an individual to Christ’s “finishing” work?

  5. tj on February 22, 2007 at 5:50 pm

    i enjoy reading the thoughts of you all. since i have a brain with little logic i am impressed with people that can put words on paper and do it well.
    thinking is good
    t

  6. mlu on February 22, 2007 at 6:10 pm

    The second coming seems a type for such a common pattern in life: we are given something but we don’t understand it and so can’t hold it. But we remember and think about it as we go through our experiences. It provides an “end state” that conditions our desires, which conditions our learning. We begin in Eden but can’t stay there. We fall in love but can’t’ maintain that state.

    I’ve always thought the Second Coming was needed because we didn’t understand well enough the first time to get to the kingdom of heaven. It isn’t so much that Christ needst to bring further knowledge as that we needed to try and fail for a long time to understand, really, what that kingdom is. Or as T. S. Eliot put it so much better: “. . .and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”

  7. Jim F. on February 22, 2007 at 6:11 pm

    last lemming: I hadn’t thought about the contrast you pose, but I like it. Thank you. Does your understanding of the relation of the First and the Second Coming parallel that of Augustine, or is it different?

    Janet: Sorry to have reminded you of such a traumatic experience. You were right, I think, to object to Kojeve turning Hegel’s point into a historical, psychological.

    Like Russell, I don’t understand the connection you see between Lacoste’s remark about the saint rather than the theologian being the model for the Christian and Keele’s remark about death being a Second Coming. But I’d like to know more, so please explain.

    If you are afraid of being discovered as a fraud, then you must be an academic. Any academic who doesn’t have that fear is a charlatan. I experience that fear every time I post something philosophical on T&S or present a paper at a conference or submit something to a journal.

    Russell: For me the Augustinian answer is the best Christian answer outside the LDS tradition (and one that can be appropriated by us). Nevertheless, I don’t see very much of it in contemporary Christian writing. Am I, perhaps, not looking in the right places?

    tj: You needn’t be impressed. Thinking is good, but mostly it consists in learning the vocabulary that people use in a particular region of thought and practicing thinking in that region. You may not have thought much about academic theology, but I will bet a considerable amount that there are things you have thought about and that you are an expert on. Putting pen to paper is a valuable kind of thinking, but it is hardly the only kind.

  8. Jim F. on February 22, 2007 at 6:13 pm

    mlu: It looks like we were posting at the same time. Thanks for what you say. Do we not understand the revelation of God given at the First Coming because it was not complete, because it was overwhelming, because . . . ?

  9. Keith on February 22, 2007 at 6:24 pm

    “Is true Christianity defined by its look back to the event of the cross and resurrection or by its look forward to the event of the Second Coming announced by Moroni’s trumpet? I wonder whether this question gets at the core of the difference between traditional Christians and Mormon Christians.”

    Perhaps I’ll have time to write more later, but I have a couple questions for now. Is this an either/or fallacy? I might put this first part way: Is true Christianity defined ONLY by its look back to the event of the cross and resurrection . . . . Additionally, I wonder if an “and ALSO by its look forward” might not send us in a helpful direction.

    What differences between traditional Christians and Mormon Christians are you pointing to? Is this one difference in a cluster of differences, or do you see this as the fundamental difference?

  10. Janet on February 22, 2007 at 8:06 pm

    Here’s my attempt at explicating semi-inchoate thoughts I turfed onto Alan Keele earlier:

    Every death is the second coming because you come to God for the second time (or not, if things don’t go well). Alan’s statement reminds me that our souls—in which I assume God reads our saintliness or lack thereof–stand naked before Him at the end or mortal probation. Thus, the “end of times” matter less to the individual than his or her own expiration date (Hah! We’re all jugs of milk!). A theologian well-versed in academic eschatology remains void of the Christian life which will prepare him for Jesus’ appearance unless he has added the pursuit of charity/sainthood to his studies and actions. I’m not disregarding theology, but a good person unfamiliar with the prophecies of Patmos stands better prepared for either the second coming of Jesus on this earth or his own second coming into the presence of the Lord in the afterlife than does a person for whom end times remains simply a fun intellectual puzzle. Plus, saintliness implies a reliance upon grace which theological inquiry does not. My hope is that most theologians pursue theology in order to understand God, emulate Him, and embrace His grace. But a life of holiness doesn’t have to include theological acumen and my hope (given that I never finished *The City of God*) is that Jesus privileges the former. He requires dedication and charity even in the lack of understanding. Especially then, maybe. Ramble ramble.

    I jotted down Alan’s statement during a History of Civ. lecture years ago (LOVED that class, quite the watershed of my life). He later restated it as “every death is Armageddon.” Even punchier, don’t you think?

    I’m only a psuedo-academic, Jim. I linger in ABD lingo for assorted reasons, not the least of which is my aforementioned fear that at my defense a “fraud” chorus will sound. Thanks for your kind words!

  11. David Brosnahan on February 22, 2007 at 10:28 pm

    The Idea of a Second Coming is at the heart of the Atonement and the true concept of repentance. That is, God is not gonna come down here and do our home teaching for us. What I mean is; before the final judgement, Christ is going to come and hold our hands, but we will finally live on this Earth (individually and collectively) the way we were intended to live before this Earth and the people on it are presented to be accepted by God the Father and into the Celestial Kingdom. The Atonement is not just about sweeping sins under the rug but giving us time, grace, and power to sancitify ourselves.

  12. MLU on February 22, 2007 at 10:51 pm

    Jim F: My thinking is that we didn’t understand the Savior when he was here because we didn’t yet understand evil well enough, which means we didn’t really know what goodness was and why it was and how profoundly it mattered.

    Since the first coming, the forces of goodness have made tremendous headway–century by century the world has gotten better. But what a struggle. And it’s not over.

    We, collectively, have the experience of countless well intentioned plans gone awry, countless aspirations worn out by troubles we didn’t anticipate–and the stories of many, many of us who struggled on, figuring out better governance, better medicine, better personal habits–coming graduallly, I think, to unpack the meaning of His talk about love and service and endurance and faith.

    When we get Zion built, it will be rock solid because we will understand all the way up and down what’s making it work. I think.

  13. Clark on February 23, 2007 at 12:24 am

    More to your point, eschatology (evangelical and LDS) has always struck me as a dodge ’round Gethsemane in its attempt to focus on mass events rather than individual conversion,

    I don’t think this is true. Rather I take the LDS notion of the second coming (especially in the 19th century when it was always seen as so close) as a way of making mortality and death something real for people. Eschatology, as I see it, isn’t just about earthly end times but the individual end times. If anything it is to take the individual fear of death and extend it to the community. There is that possibility of not only my own death but the death of everything that matters. Those false things that can give a false sense of immortality (my children, my business, my writing, etc.) All is nothing. In this state of recognizing nothingness or at least the possibility of nothingness I can finally see the world for what it is.

    (I should note that Nibley has a great take on eschatology that is along these lines)

    Put simply then eschatology and therefore all discussion of end times is there to get us to take Gethsemene seriously. To make it something authentic in our lives rather than something we ascent to intellectually but not in terms of our real way of being. Consider also what Gethsemene was for Christ for LDS. It was there, knowing that his end was coming that he fully embraces his mission. That was the eschatological moment I think for Mormons. Much more than the moments on the cross which were the fulfillment of his end but not the embrace of his end. That embrace is what is important both for Christ as well as for us.

    What’s so interesting is that the sacrament (often closely tied to Gethsemene by Mormons) is supposed to be the repetition of this event. But for the sacrament to be a repetition of this even it simultaneously can’t be a mere repetition. A mere repetition would be merely representation – the face of the even rather than the event itself. (i.e. the difference between watching a car on a computer screen versus driving a car – simulation versus reality) Thus the sacrament to function as such must always be a new taking up of death. Which is an important part of the symbol.

    Getting to Jim’s point about the first coming. What was important in the first coming though was the death. But for death to be a truly open (and repeatable death) it must simultaneously be continuously overcome. To make dying and thus the rebirth demanded by eschatology possible the dying must always be returning. So in one sense there must always be that return. In a sense (and this is a point Brigham Young makes) Jesus must always be returning. In LDS theology this occurs in the temple. The second coming then, on a personal level, is not the cataclysmic end times, but the individual death of the fallen man so that one can obtain the more sure word of prophecy and have the personal meeting with Jesus. But if this can happen on the individual level it must be able to happen on the group level. (Thus the City of God we see as the City of Enoch)

    One can take the individual phenomena and keep expanding it, if only as a possibility, on to larger and larger groups. (Church, City, Nation, World) This demands that, as at least a possibility, a second coming on this global level.

  14. Janet on February 23, 2007 at 2:16 am

    Clark, I like what you’ve written very much. I’ve been biased by eschatological discussions where people simply seemed obsessed with watching evil people suffer and feeling vindicated, as well as with obsessive calculations about exactly when such a thing might occur. I’m not a theologian, so my exposure to the subject has fallen to far to the side of second-guessing Christ’s return in order (consciously or no) to avoid pondering where we might stand before him at present. Hence my somewhat flippant comment about dodging ’round the atonement.

    Your thoughts actually mesh decently with my novice thoughts on saintliness, should someone view end times as you express. The communal refinement you speak of appeals to me particularly (oddly enough I recently posted on transformation, sacrament, community and renewal of death/life on FMH). Thanks for helping me see eschatology as much more than a bizarre arithmetic problem. You’ve given me good–and interesting–points to think about. (Though I must admit I’m still a little scared over here–my knowledge of theology isn’t what it should be, really, to insinuate myself in this conversation.)

  15. Last Lemming on February 23, 2007 at 11:01 am

    Does your understanding of the relation of the First and the Second Coming parallel that of Augustine, or is it different?

    Gee, I was really hoping that we could establish Janet’s fraudulence before my own, but oh well.

    Not being familiar with Augustine’s understanding, I read a few articles on the internet. Based on those, I think my answer is that my understanding is different from Augustine’s. But I might be missing your point.

  16. Janet on February 23, 2007 at 3:02 pm

    LL–snort. I’m like one of those people who precedes a Sacrament Meeting talk by cataloging the numerous reasons why nobody should pay attention to them! And I swore I’d never do that…:).

    The focus on the Second Coming ranges so widely, from the “Jesus is a bogeyman; I’m righteous; and you’re gonna get it” sort of conversation I’ve sadly witnessed–at church–to Clark’s reference of Hugh Nibley that the term “eschatology” seems differently freighted even within the LDS community. Which is why Jim’s questions intrigue me! I like the idea that ordinances conflate life and death, merging time and eternity (whee, like the temple!) and thus preparing us (individually and communally, I guess) for the moment we stand before Christ, having died but simultaneously witnessing our own second coming into eternal life. Clark mentioned sacrament, and what better precursor: eat the symbols of my chosen mortality and face your own while you renew covenants to literally adoption into life eternal. Nifty. I kinda still think Alan Keele’s pithy statement kicks my wordy bum, though.

  17. Clark on February 23, 2007 at 7:39 pm

    Note that I think the Second Coming has a second function I didn’t mention. The idea of heaven on earth, which was very big for both Joseph and Brigham. However they felt that these positive aspects wouldn’t “magically” appear but would have to be established by hard work both before and after the Second Coming. Which in a way makes us a bit different from many sects. I reread the sections in Discourses of Brigham Young and its well worth checking out.

  18. Jim F. on February 23, 2007 at 8:15 pm

    Keith: I hoped to suggest by the possible reasonable answer to my question how a traditional Christian might make both the First and the Second Coming definitive of Christianity. The question that motivated my thinking was whether the First Coming was a full revelation of Jesus Christ and, if it was, why there is a need for the Second. I think that we may think about the answer to that question differently than does traditional Christianity, though I’m not sure what the differences are.

    Janet: “A good person unfamiliar with the prophecies of Patmos stands better prepared for either the second coming of Jesus on this earth or his own second coming into the presence of the Lord in the afterlife than does a person for whom end times remains simply a fun intellectual puzzle. Plus, saintliness implies a reliance upon grace which theological inquiry does not.”

    Absolutely.

    I was serious about continuing to feel like a fraud. I think anyone who is honest about what he or she knows has to have that fear. And when you say that your knowledge of theology isn’t what it ought to be, you once again only repeat the same fact / fear that describes most of us who talk about theology. A few in the Church have perhaps done the deep and wide reading needed to really claim to know theology, but not many.

    David Broshnahan: “The Atonement is not just about sweeping sins under the rug but giving us time, grace, and power to sancitify ourselves.”

    Again, absolutely.

    MLU: “My thinking is that we didn’t understand the Savior when he was here because we didn’t yet understand evil well enough, which means we didn’t really know what goodness was and why it was and how profoundly it mattered.”

    Will we understand either good or evil better than first-century Christians did? It seems to me that there is little or even no moral progress in humanity. That’s because each person starts from scratch as a child. We don’t start off at the level of moral and spiritual understanding that our parents have achieved and progress from there.

    Clark: I like very much the idea that, among other thngs, the Second Coming reminds us of the vanity of all things, and therefore the need for something that makes the world meaningful. I hesitate, however, to think that in one of its most common forms: “If there isn’t a world to come, then this world is worthless.” I think it is rather than this world is not meaningful if it is lived and thought apart from its Creator. The world without God isn’t what it really is.

    Thanks also for your thoughts about the Sacrament as a repetition of Gethsamene. I am quite fond of Kierkegaard’s little book, Repetition and his thesis that authentic repetition cannot merely be representation since that which is being repeated wasn’t itself a representation.

    Great thought: “The second coming then, on a personal level, is not the cataclysmic end times, but the individual death of the fallen man so that one can obtain the more sure word of prophecy and have the personal meeting with Jesus. But if this can happen on the individual level it must be able to happen on the group level. (Thus the City of God we see as the City of Enoch.)”

    As you remind us, it is important not to forget that for LDS the Second Coming isn’t a cataclysmic event that we are waiting for, it is a state of the world for which we are working.

    Last Lemming: Funny! My point was just that Russell’s description of the relation of the First Coming (The City of Man) and the Second (The City of God) seemed like it might parallel what you were saying. For Augustine the church finds itself working out the meaning of Christ’s coming in remembrance of the First Coming and in anticipation of the Second. It is, as it were, suspended between the two.

  19. Jack on February 23, 2007 at 8:32 pm

    I like the idea of relating a post-millennial second coming to the individual. That way one’s death needn’t be viewed so much as an instance of irreversible judgement as a shifting of existential gears.

  20. Last Lemming on February 24, 2007 at 12:34 am

    It is, as it were, suspended between the two.

    OK, I’m closer to understanding your point. It sounds plausible that the City of Man could be the counterpart of my individual-focused First Coming and the City of God could be the counterpart of my collective-focused Second Coming. But I’m not comfortable with the “suspended between the two” part. I see the individual focus and the collective focus as the thesis and antithesis of a dialectic (this is where I become Hegelian) with a synthesis. “Suspended between the two” doesn’t sound very synthesized to me. And as a practical matter, we probably have not reached a synthesis. But instead of being suspended, we seem to be bouncing back and forth, with the First Coming aspect dominating much more now than during the time of Joseph and Brigham.

  21. MLU on February 24, 2007 at 12:38 pm

    It seems to me that there is little or even no moral progress in humanity. That’s because each person starts from scratch as a child. We don’t start off at the level of moral and spiritual understanding that our parents have achieved and progress from there.

    There’s certainly a way in which this is true. But there are also ways in which we do make moral progress, though it requires remembering and teaching. The Bible is the great story of moral progress, of the moral education of a nation, so that that nation might teach the world. It has worked.

    We can and do learn from errors made by those before us. It’s why we spend so much time teaching.

  22. Jim F. on February 24, 2007 at 1:49 pm

    MLU, can you explain how you see the Bible as the story of the moral progress of a nation? Was Israel in Egypt more moral than Abraham? Was Israel in the wilderness more moral than it had been in Egypt? In Babylon? On their return? At the time of Christ? I don’t see the moral progress you mention.

    I think I’m more of a pessimist than you are.

  23. MLU on February 24, 2007 at 5:41 pm

    The law was the schoolmaster to bring people to Christ. Christ teaches a higher law than Moses did–it’s not enough to avoid killing your neighbor; you need to not be angry without just cause. The main plot of the Bible is the leading of people out of bondage and toward a higher law–ie it’s primarily a story of moral progress (full of cautionary tales about moral regress).

    It’s tricky, because both communities and individuals can regress as well as progress, and frequently do, and at any given moment in time if you look closely you’ll find people at the full range of moral development, from telestial to celestial. You can always find counter-examples.

    But the modern world is less barbaric than the world of Alexander the Great, to pick an arbitrary moment, in all sorts of ways. It seems undeniable to me that over the centuries there has been pretty steady progress in moral understanding, and that this has often been accompanied by better moral conduct in general. No one seriously defends slavery anymore, though you can of course find those who still practice it. We don’t draw and quarter criminals in public anymore. We don’t praise the mighty in awe without asking whether or not they are good as well as powerful.

  24. Jim F. on February 24, 2007 at 6:47 pm

    MLU: Good point. We don’t condone slavery and our punishment practices are, in general, more humane than they once were. I’m less convinced that we don’t praise the mighty without asking whether they are good as well as powerful. Most of the mighty in the world today, including many of our own mighty, are not good, and many of them are publicly not good. In the U.S. we make a pretense of having our media inquire into their goodness, and they make a pretense of being good, but I’m not convinced that our political process is one in which the goodness of the candidates is genuinely an issue.

    Your point about the Old and New Testaments, however, seems to me to show that the law changed not necessarily human behavior. Even then, the change of the law was less of a change than we sometimes think–Christ himself said he did not change it (Matthew 5:17), which I assume means that he came to remind us of the meaning even of the Old Testament law, to help us understand how it pointed to him and required the same things he requires.

    You are right, though; the judgment about whether morality has improved is tricky. On the one hand, there have been some changes that suggest that morality is, overall, better now than it once was. On the other, there are so many ways, especially I think at the individual level, in which people have changed very little.

  25. MLU on February 24, 2007 at 11:19 pm

    I think if you look up close at any moment, you see lots of trouble and immorality. But if you take the long view, it seems to me undeniable that as centuries pass the world is getting better. Righteousness is stronger than evil, though only by a little.

    Up close, things may well appear to be getting worse. When I was a kid, all the language in scripture about not killing people seemed odd. I really couldn’t imagine people who might seriously think about shedding blood. No sermons needed to be preached about it, and they weren’t. We talked about “paying a full tithe” and “keeping the Sabbath.”

    Murder seems less rare today, and I anticipate the need for sermons against it. For a great many people, there has been little or no moral progress. Barbarianism is doing well.