Will the second coming of Jesus be a literal, bodily return?

by Luke Wayne

"So Christ also, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time for salvation without reference to sin, to those who eagerly await Him" (Hebrews 9:28).

The Bible teaches that sin was dealt with once and for all in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ 2,000 years ago. The Christian hope, however, is also in eager anticipation of the future return of our Lord. This teaching is known as the second coming of Christ. The Scriptures plainly teach us to expect a literal, bodily return of Jesus Christ. In the book of Acts, for example, reports at the time of Jesus' ascension into heaven state:

"After He had said these things, He was lifted up while they were looking on, and a cloud received Him out of their sight. And as they were gazing intently into the sky while He was going, behold, two men in white clothing stood beside them. They also said, 'Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into the sky? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in just the same way as you have watched Him go into heaven'" (Acts 1:11).

This passage is not a symbolic vision. It is literal, historical narrative. Just as the disciples literally saw Jesus ascend bodily into heaven, the angels tell them that He "will come in just the same way as you have watched Him go into heaven." We see this hope of a literal, physical return of Jesus from heaven to earth repeated again in the Apostles' preaching.

"Therefore repent and return, so that your sins may be wiped away, in order that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord; and that He may send Jesus, the Christ appointed for you, whom heaven must receive until the period of restoration of all things about which God spoke by the mouth of His holy prophets from ancient time" (Acts 3:19-21).

Heaven has received Jesus until the appointed time of the restoration of all things. At that time, the Father will send Jesus again. The earliest followers of Christ clearly believed and preached that Jesus would physically return from heaven just as He had left. Paul echoes this teaching as well, explaining:

"For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so God will bring with Him those who have fallen asleep in Jesus. For this we say to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive and remain until the coming of the Lord, will not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive and remain will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we shall always be with the Lord" (1 Thessalonians 4:15-17).

While there is obviously some figurative language in this passage, such as referring to those who are dead as being "asleep," the passage is focused on a literal hope for those who have died and a literal remaining and enduring for those who are still alive. It is further rooted in the literal death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. So while phrases about the shout or the trumpet may perhaps be figures of speech, there is no reason to suspect that Paul intended anything but a literal descending of Jesus from heaven.

There is also ample evidence that the earliest Christians understood the Scriptures this way. The Didache, one of the earliest Christian documents outside the New Testament, concludes with the hope of Jesus' return from heaven at the time of the future resurrection of the saints. The "Apostle's Creed," a very early Christian confession of faith, explains that:

"He ascended into heaven and sits at the right hand of God the Father Almighty, whence He shall come to judge the living and the dead."

Christ ascended into heaven "whence" or "from which" He will come again. This points to the idea of a literal return. The Nicene Creed (325 AD) uses very similar language, and the Athanasian Creed is slightly more explicit:

"He ascended into heaven, He sits at the right hand of the Father, God Almighty, from whence He will come to judge the quick and the dead. At His coming all men will rise again with their bodies."

None of these extra-biblical documents, of course, is infallible, but they show that the Christians of the earliest centuries clearly understood the plain biblical promises to point to a literal, future, bodily return of Jesus. We would do well to share in this biblical hope and expectation.