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Literal or Not? Understanding Prophecies About Christ’s Return

Tom Tai-Seale | Jan 11, 2022

PART 49 IN SERIES Ancient Plan Unfolding

The views expressed in our content reflect individual perspectives and do not represent the official views of the Baha'i Faith.

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Tom Tai-Seale | Jan 11, 2022

PART 49 IN SERIES Ancient Plan Unfolding

The views expressed in our content reflect individual perspectives and do not represent the official views of the Baha'i Faith.

Has the understanding of prophecies concerning the return of Christ prevented Christians from seeing the divine interventions that have occurred since Jesus’ time? Let’s look at those prophecies to find out.

The short version of a common understanding of Christ’s return goes like this: Christians will be persecuted and many put to death. Many false prophets will appear, as will wars, rumors of wars, famines, pestilences and earthquakes (Matthew 24:4-7). The gospel will be spread throughout the whole world (Matthew 24:14) and then Christ will return like lightening moving from the east to the west (Matthew 24:27), in a cloud (Matthew 24:30, Luke 21:27, 1 Thessalonians 4:16; Revelation 1:7) in the same way that he ascended to heaven in a cloud (Acts 1:9-11). 

The sun and moon will then be darkened, the stars will fall from the sky as the tribulation sets in, the dead in Christ will rise, then those who are left alive. Angels will be sent forth to gather the elect (Matthew 24:27-31), and those left behind will be caught up in great tribulation as Christ comes to reign (1 Thessalonians 4:16-17, Matthew 24:15-21). This coming is to happen unexpectedly, on a day like that of Noah when people were carrying on and did not expect the flood, so Christians were advised to keep watch (Matthew 24:37-42). 

What do all of these prophecies mean?  

First of all, the Baha’i teachings caution everyone not to take these verses literally, because they mix physical and spiritual attributes. Clouds cannot sustain physical bodies, of course, and we’re awaiting a physical Jesus, not just a spiritual one – albeit with a new name (Revelation 2:17). Baha’u’llah, who founded the Baha’i Faith, wrote in his Book of Certitude:

As the adherents of Jesus have never understood the hidden meaning of these words, and as the signs which they and the leaders of their Faith have expected have failed to appear, they therefore refused to acknowledge, even until now, the truth of those Manifestations of Holiness that have since the days of Jesus been made manifest. They have thus deprived themselves of the outpourings of God’s holy grace, and of the wonders of His divine utterance.

Many popular Christian attempts to make sense of these prophecies seem to have only made things worse. Insisting on physically impossible literal interpretations makes Christians seem to have abandoned reason – which may explain why so many Christians have abandoned their churches lately.

The difficulty of interpretation, however, is easy to understand. It can’t be understood from the wrong side of revelation, from among those who are waiting for the return of Christ. It is only interpretable once the new Christ is found. Consider the parable of the thief in the night in Matthew 24:42-44 (it’s also at 1 Thessalonians 5:2):

Therefore keep watch, because you do not know on what day your Lord will come. But understand this: If the owner of the house had known at what time of night the thief was coming, he would have kept watch and would not have let his house be broken into. So you also must be ready, because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him.

In this parable, Christ’s return represents the thief. Note that he comes at night, when it’s dark and hard to see. Note also that the householder (Christians who are charged to stay spiritually awake) misses catching the thief, the return of Christ. The parable, as it turns out, is also a prophecy. Perhaps that’s why it’s in past tense and talks about having missed an event. The prophecy tells us that Christians will be asleep when Christ comes again. Indeed, in the prophecy, they remain asleep until they wake up and discover that the Promised One has already come.

It would be hard to count the number of wars, earthquakes and famines that have occurred since the time of Jesus. Two thousand years have passed, and much of the divine plan has already been revealed.  Prophecies say that the dead in Christ – those who have passed into the next world – can see this easily, but apparently it is very hard for living Christians to see because the advent of the Lord was (and is) shrouded in symbolic clouds. Thus, Christians must be wakened one by one from their slumber.

What Do the Sun and the Moon Mean in Prophecies?

The sun in the prophecies is not a physical sun, nor the moon a physical moon. 

The sun symbolizes the appearance of a Chosen One of God and a night represents his disappearance, as scripture makes plain (John 9:5). If you look carefully at scripture you will see that three divine appearances are foretold before Christians and Jews finally wake up and see what has occurred. 

Recall that Jesus was to be like Jonah in the belly of the whale for three days and three nights (Matthew 12:40). Thus, three appearances were foretold and through each, it appears that Jews and Christians would be wrapped in the darkness of the whale. Consider also that Christ’s disciples fell asleep three times while waiting for Jesus to return (Matthew 26:40-45). This is more than a story; it’s a prophecy. As I’ll explain more in subsequent essays in this series, God has been much more active in history than Christians realize.

It’s not completely their fault, however. The Christian clergy has often employed an incomplete model for building the kingdom of God on Earth – because the kingdom was not fully revealed to them. But the kingdom of God cannot be built upon tens of thousands of different Christian denominations, it cannot be built upon the intolerance Christian leaders have sometimes displayed toward others, it cannot be built through disparaging other religious systems and it cannot, as it is now, bring humanity justice. The wheat and chaff in Christianity must be separated, and Christians cannot do this themselves. To enter the new age, Christians must see the need for renewal, as well as see what keeps them from coming together with others. 

The Baha’i teachings make this clear. Abdu’l-Baha, in a speech he gave in Paris in the early part of the 20th century, explained:

The Christian Teaching was illumined by the Divine Sun of Truth, therefore its followers were taught to love all men as brothers to fear nothing, not even death! To love their neighbours as themselves, and to forget their own selfish interests in striving for the greater good of humanity. The grand aim of the religion of Christ was to draw the hearts of all men nearer to God’s effulgent Truth.

If the followers of the Lord Christ had continued to follow out these principles with steadfast faithfulness, there would have been no need for a renewal of the Christian Message, no necessity for a re-awakening of His people, for a great and glorious civilization would now be ruling the world and the Kingdom of Heaven would have come on earth.

But instead of this, what has taken place! Men turned away their faces from following the divinely illuminated precepts of their Master, and winter fell upon the hearts of men. For, as the body of man depends for life upon the rays of the sun, so cannot the celestial virtues grow in the soul without the radiance of the Sun of Truth.

God leaves not His children comfortless, but, when the darkness of winter overshadows them, then again He sends His Messengers, the Prophets, with a renewal of the blessed spring. The Sun of Truth appears again on the horizon of the world shining into the eyes of those who sleep, awaking them to behold the glory of a new dawn. Then again will the tree of humanity blossom and bring forth the fruit of righteousness for the healing of the nations.

Having been raised a Christian, believing in the divine mission of Jesus, accepting his sacrifice, testifying to his transformative power, and adoring many of his followers, it is not judgment by Jesus that I am worried about. My fear is not condemnation by Jesus, but succumbing to the seductive power of Babylon, the city of ease that surrounds us and so numbs us that we fail to take action. But before I talk more about this city, it’s corruptions, and the remedy, we must look at what happened six hundred years after Jesus, in retrospect, a time that came soon upon Christians who were awaiting Christ’s coming.

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