The belief that Jesus Christ will return to Earth at the end of time has long been a fundamental Christian doctrine. As the Apostles Creed, avowed by millions of Christians each Sunday, puts it: "He will come again to judge the living and the dead." For many believers, the Second Coming is associated with the Millennium, the thousand-year reign of justice and peace foretold in Revelation 20–21.
Specific interpretations of the Second Coming have varied widely, however, and remain a source of disagreement among Christians in contemporary America. In Catholic doctrine, the manner of Christ's return is generally viewed as a mystery, known only to God. In the Protestant tradition, one important strand of belief, generally designated as postmillennialism, holds that the Second Coming will follow a long cycle of gradual human betterment. Jonathan Edwards, amid the revival fervor of the 1740s, foresaw an outpouring of divine grace through prayer circles, evangelism, missionary activity, and so forth. By the late nineteenth century, a somewhat secularized post-millennial vision focused on ameliorating the social problems associated with industrialization such as slums, child labor, and exploitive working conditions. Theologians such as Washington Gladden and Walter Rauschenbusch elaborated the theological underpinnings of such reform effort. President Woodrow Wilson during World War I incorporated this hopeful tradition of millennialist thought in his soaring portrayal of America's mission to spread peace and democracy worldwide.
While becoming less literalistic theologically, a postmillennialist vision suffused twentieth-century American life, especially in the liberal Protestant denominations, inspiring campaigns against child labor and slum housing in the Progressive era; peace movements in the 1920s and 1930s; and civil rights activism in the 1950s and 1960s. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s, 1963 "I Have a Dream" speech at the Lincoln Memorial, saturated in biblical imagery, offered millennialist images of an America free of the stain of racism.
In contrast to postmillennialism, however, a very different view of the Second Coming, premillennialism, also exerts vast influence in contemporary America. According to this view, human history is not progressing inevitably toward righteousness and justice but rather is becoming increasingly wicked and conflict-ridden—a process that will soon culminate in a horrendous epoch when satanic forces will seem all-powerful. But just as conditions become most desperate, Christ will return and vanquish the forces of evil.
As long ago as the 1830s, William Miller of upstate New York became convinced through his study of Scripture that Christ would return in about 1843 or 1844. Some of his followers pinpointed the date even more precisely. Thousands were swept up in the Millerite movement. The subsequent "Great Disappointment" discredited date-setting, but not premillennial speculation. The most fully elaborated formulation of this scenario for the Second Coming is premillennial dispensationalism, first taught by the British dissenter John Nelson Darby (1800–1882), a founder of the Plymouth Brethren, and popularized in America by the Rev. Cyrus Scofield and others.
Premillennial dispensationalism envisions a precise sequence of end-time events drawn from apocalyptic texts in the books of Daniel, Ezekiel, Mark, II Thessalonians, and Revelation. This sequence begins with the "Last Days"—usually assumed to be the present age—when wickedness will increase and other evidences (including the restoration of the Jews to Israel) signal that the end is near. Next will come the Rapture, when all true believers will join Christ in the air, followed by a horrendous seven-year period, the Great Tribulation, when a demonic figure, the Antichrist, will rule the world, forcing everyone to bear the dread "Mark of the Beast," the number 666 (Revelation 13:16–18). As the seven years end, the armies of the earth gather at Megiddo in Israel (hence the Battle of Armageddon). At this cataclysmic moment, Christ returns with his saints, destroys Anti-christ and his armies, and establishes his millennial kingdom in Jerusalem. After a final uprising by the Antichrist comes the Last Judgment, when every person who has ever lived will be consigned to heaven or to hell. With this final drama, human history draws to a close.
Premillennial dispensationalism remains profoundly influential in contemporary America, promulgated by evangelical and pentecostal churches, televangelists, paperbacks, videocassettes, and even Internet web sites. In a 1996 poll, 42 percent of Americans agreed with this statement: "The world will end in a battle in Armageddon between Jesus and the Antichrist." Post–World War II popularizers demonstrated great skill in weaving current events—from nuclear war and the Communist threat to the computer, abortion, pornography, the global economy, environmental hazards, and Islamic fundamentalism—into their scenario of Last Days events that herald the long-awaited Second Coming.
Boyer, Paul. When Time Shall Be No More: ProphecyBeliefin Modern American Culture. 1992.
Rauschenbusch, Walter. A Theology for the SocialGospel. 1917.
Weber, Timothy P. Living in the Shadowof the SecondComing: American Premillennialism,1875 –1925. 1979.
Wojcik, Daniel. The End of the World AsWe Know It:Faith, Fatalism, and Apocalypse in America. 1997.