Return of Christ
6 April 2019 (updated 25 June 2021)
This is an edited transcript of my presentation at the 2018 Conference of the Mormon Transhumanist Association. I talked about the Return of Christ. I touched on how it relates to Transhumanism. But my focus was on some foundational theology that leads to what I believe is a more robust Christian and Mormon Transhumanism.
First, here are some thoughts for friends that might not be Christian, on why this is still important. As measured by number of adherents, Christianity is by far the most influential ideology in human history. And the prophecy of the Return of Christ is the most important prophecy in that religion. It’s had incredible influence on the thoughts of billions of human beings, their words and their actions. And those actions have shaped our world. They continue to shape our world. So even if you’re not a Christian, the effects of the prophecy of the Return of Christ may still be momentous in your life.
With that in mind, let’s consider how the Bible describes the Return of Christ. We can read that in the 24th chapter of the Gospel of Matthew in the Bible. And Jesus introduces the subject by saying, “Watch out that no one deceives you, for many will come in my name claiming, ‘I am the Messiah,’ and will deceive many.”
So will the Return of Christ be in the wilderness, maybe as a return to simplicity? The Luddites would love this but Jesus actually says no, that’s not going to be the case. In Matthew, where he describes his prophecy of the Return of Christ, he says, “If anyone tells you, ‘there he is, out in the wilderness,’ do not go out.”
How about in the inner rooms, maybe as some kind of carefully shared secret? Just yesterday, for example, I received a Google+ message – this is a true story – from somebody who told me that he wanted to invite me to a secret priesthood. And he introduced himself, and said: by the way, I am Jesus, literally. And, as it turns out, Jesus says no to this one too. In Matthew 24, he says, “If anyone tells you, ‘here he is, in the inner rooms,’ do not believe it.” I pointed this out to my would-be Jesus. And I’ll quote his reply to me. He said, “Goodbye, Satan, the Lord rebuke you.” And, as it turns out, that wasn’t the first time I’ve been called Satan. So I just let it go.
So if the Return of Christ won’t be in the wilderness and it won’t be in secret rooms, maybe it will be in great signs and wonders. Maybe we can recognize Christ in some extraordinary, some comprehensible event. But, yet again, Jesus says no. “False messiahs and false prophets will appear and perform great signs and wonders to deceive, if possible, even the elect,” he says.
So, then, what’s left? Matthew 24 reads – these are the words of Jesus: “For as lightning that comes from the east is visible even in the west, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. … on the clouds of heaven, with power and great glory. And he will send his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of the heavens to the other.” (Matthew 24: 27, 30)
That’s how Jesus describes the Return of Christ. And, on its surface, that description can be hard to distinguish, I admit, from “great signs and wonders,” against which he had just warned us. So maybe it shouldn’t come as a surprise that many Christians understand the Return of Christ too narrowly.
I have two questions for you to think about. The first question: why does Jesus speak in the third person, and why does he refer to himself as the “Son of Man?” The second question, as you look at this picture – an artist’s depiction of what Jesus was describing: who is Jesus looking at? I’ll return to those questions later on.
Let’s explore the meaning of the word “christ.” The English word, “christ,” comes from the Greek word “christos.” The English word, “messiah,” comes from the Hebrew word “mashiach.” And, as it turns out, both “christos” and “mashiach” have the same meaning. Literally, a christ or a messiah is somebody who is ritually anointed. Or, in other words, they’re anointed with oil as part of a ceremony.
Figuratively, a christ or messiah as someone who is set apart or designated with a special purpose. And that special purpose is typically to serve God by helping the people overcome their enemies. Those enemies can be concrete like, say, an invading army or an oppressive government. Or those enemies could be abstract: maybe spiritual alienation from God or from each other.
In the Bible, Jesus is not the only person designated as a christ or as a messiah. This, up here, is a picture of King David – or soon-to-be-King David, as it turns out – preparing to be King of Israel and Judah. He’s being anointed with oil, literally making him a christ. And figuratively, he’s becoming a christ with responsibility to protect the people and to establish justice. The Hebrew Bible designates David as a messiah multiple times. And it regularly designates other Jewish kings as messiahs, including Saul and Solomon.
The Hebrew Bible doesn’t stop there. It actually designates a non-Jewish king as a messiah as well. The prophet Isaiah talks about Cyrus the Great of Persia. Cyrus happened to rule the highest percentage of humanity of any empire in human history. And during his reign he liberated the Jewish people to establish their religion in Jerusalem. Here are Isaiah’s words:
“This is what [God] says to his messiah, to Cyrus, whose right hand I take hold of, to subdue nations before him, and to strip kings of their armor, to open doors before him, so that gates will not be shut: I will go before you and will level the mountains; I will break down gates of bronze and cut through bars of iron. I will give you hidden treasures, riches stored in secret places, so that you may know that I am [God], who summons you by name. … I summon you by name and bestow on you a title of honor [“messiah” or “christ”], though you do not acknowledge me.” (Isaiah 45)
Right. Cyrus was not a Jew. I find these words from Isaiah fascinating on multiple levels. And I’m going to refer to them again later, as we go along.
The Hebrew Bible also designates Jewish priests as messiahs. Like Jewish kings, they were literally anointed with oil during a ritual to make them priests. And figuratively, they were christs in their responsibility to the people, to help people reconcile with God and with each other. In the King James English translation of the Bible, all but one of seventy uses of the word “atonement” are references to ritual sacrifices performed by Jewish priests. That might surprise some Christians who look at the word “atonement” as being associated uniquely with Jesus.
So, in other words, many times in the Bible, before it designates Jesus as Christ, and many times before it designates his work as atonement – which it only does once – 69 other times, it tells us about other christs performing other atonements.
Despite the precedent of many christs, some Christians seek to raise Jesus exclusively above others. Idolizing him, they exalt him over everything that is called “god” or is worshiped, which happens to be the way Paul describes the Son of Perdition. And they do that despite Jesus’ refusal to exalt himself over others. In the Gospel of John – who’s there, depicted laying on Jesus’ lap – Jesus prays to God, saying:
“I pray also for those who will believe in me [christians]. I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one.”
The Apostle Paul – who actually is writing closer in time to the life of Jesus than the Gospels – repeatedly, over and over again, emphasizes that Christ should be in each of us. To the Romans, he writes, “we are heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ” (Romans 8). To the Corinthians, he writes, “you are the body of Christ” (1 Corinthians 12). And “Christ Jesus is in you” (2 Corinthians 13). To the Galatians, he writes, “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me” (Galatians 2: 20). And “all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ” (Galatians 3: 27). And to the Colossians, he writes, “God has chosen to make known … the glorious riches of this mystery, which is Christ in you” (Colossians 1).
The apostle Peter – there pictured receiving keys from Christ, from Jesus – adds:
“Divine power has given us everything we need for a godly life, through our knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness. Through these he has given us his very great and precious promises, so that through them you may participate in the divine nature … For this very reason, make every effort to add to your faith … godliness.” (2 Peter 1)
And for centuries following Peter, countless other Christian authorities have repeated, they have elaborated, they’ve celebrated the idea that we should all become one in Christ with Jesus. This is called the doctrine of “theosis,” or “divinization” for the Catholics, or “apotheosis” for the Eastern Orthodox. Some people call it “deification.” Some people have called it “Christosis.”
Pope John Paul the Second – this might surprise some of you – wrote:
“[God] incorporates us into the Body of his Christ; through the anointing of his Spirit who flows from the head to the members, he makes us other ‘Christs.’ … So then, you who have become sharers in Christ are appropriately called ‘Christs.’”
The Book of Mormon explicitly and repeatedly encourages us to take on the name of Christ. Perhaps most poignantly, King Benjamin says:
“[You] should take [on] the name of Christ … [Whoever does] this [will] be found at the right hand of God, for he [will] know the name by which he is called; for he [will] be called by the name of Christ.” (Mosiah 5)
Benjamin’s words remind me of Isaiah’s words to Cyrus of Persia. As you recall, I mentioned those earlier. “I summon you by name and bestow on you a title of honor.” (Isaiah 45) Maybe we should consider Isaiah’s words to Cyrus to be a prophecy about all who would take on the name of Christ.
But of course names aren’t enough. As the Apostle Paul points out in the New Testament, the Kingdom of God is not a matter of words but a matter of power. So in practice, then, what does it mean to be Christ? How can we be Christ, not only in name but also in power?
Jesus says that we should love. He says that we should console. He says that we should forgive. One of my favorite stories about Jesus is when people bring a paralyzed man to him and ask Jesus to heal him. Instead of healing him, though – almost as if it’s kind of a joke – Jesus forgives the paralyzed man. I can imagine his friends looking at their feet wondering if Jesus actually understood what they were asking him. So Jesus asks them: what’s easier to do, to heal or to forgive? Then he goes on to explain. Again using the third person and again using the “Son of Man,” he says, “the Son of Man has power to forgive.” And then, finally, he goes on to heal the paralyzed man. I think this story is teaching that, although it may be hard for us to heal each other, we all have the power to forgive each other. All of us are the Son of Man or, we might say, the Children of Humanity. And that can inform how we interpret Jesus’ description of the Return of Christ, when he also uses the third person and references the “Son of Man.”
Per the Apostle James, he says that we should feed the hungry and clothe the naked. And it’s not enough, he says, that we simply tell them to be fed and clothed. Rather, we have to actually feed them. We have to actually clothe them. “Faith without works is dead,” he says. So like today, when James lived, food was generally a product of agriculture, a technology. Clothing was generally a product of manufacturing, more primitive than today but nonetheless a technology. So when James exhorts us to show our faith through our works, he’s telling us to use technology to help each other. And that is power.
Jesus goes even further. This is a depiction of Lazarus being resurrected. Jesus tells us that we should heal the sick. And he says to his disciples, “raise the dead.” That’s a pretty audacious idea. Modern medicine can help us treat each other, help us heal each other. But do we take Jesus seriously when he tells us to raise the dead?
How do we do that? I don’t know the answer to that question, of course. Otherwise, I’d be doing it. But the Book of Mormon has some helpful advice for would-be christs in its many stories of people finding or making means to live up to the name of Christ. The stories motivated a generation of Mormon pioneers to cross plains and mountains and to begin to build their vision of Zion here in Utah.
The practical attitude behind these stories is perhaps best expressed by the words of Nephi and Captain Moroni in the Book of Mormon. Nephi says, “I will go and do the things which [God has] commanded, [because God gives] no commands [without preparing] a way [to] accomplish [them].” And Moroni asks, rhetorically:
“[Do you] suppose that [you] could sit [on] your thrones, and because of the exceeding goodness of God [you] could do nothing and [God] would deliver you? … Do you suppose that [God] will still deliver us, while we sit [on] our thrones [we could say, “sit on our hands”] and do not make use of the means which [God] has provided for us? … If [you] have supposed this [you] have supposed in vain.” (Alma 60)
In the same spirit, Joseph Smith wrote:
“[God should not] command in all things … [people that are] compelled in all things … [are] slothful and not … wise. [Everyone] should be anxiously engaged in a good cause, and do many things of their own free will … For the power is in them.” (D&C 58) And then, directly on the subject of redeeming the dead, Joseph exemplified faith that we could find a way, that we would find a way. And his claim, in the 128th section of the Doctrine and Covenants, is that “[God] ordained, before the world was, that which would enable us to redeem [our dead] out of their prison; for the prisoners [will] go free.”
In closing, let’s return again to the Return of Christ. The Apostle John writes, “When Christ appears, we [will] be like [Christ].” (1 John 3) The Book of Mormon repeats and affirms those words from John. And I think that they are the key to understanding the Return of Christ.
So let’s hear Jesus again. He says, “For as lightning that comes from the east is visible even in the west, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. … on the clouds of heaven, with power and great glory.” (Matthew 24: 27, 30) Remember the two questions I asked you think about earlier.
The first one: in this description of the Return of Christ, why does Jesus speak in the third person? What does he mean by this reference to the Son of Man. Well, as I mentioned before, I think that, whenever Jesus talks about the Son of Man, we should understand him to be talking about all of us, the Children of Humanity. So, re-reading his words with that replaced: for as lightning that comes from the east is visible in the west, so will be the coming of the Children of Humanity on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory.
And then the second question I asked you to think about was regarding the picture. Who is Jesus looking at? And I’ll suggest to you that Christ is looking at Christ.