phases of Christian: awaiting the return

Ivy’s done two podcasts now on the Messiah, addressing the Jewish and Christian understandings, and speculating as to when the Messiah might arrive.

She made a few interesting points, but I’d like to respin a couple of them. One interesting point was the difference between Jewish and Christian theology, versus their different understandings of what happens when the Messiah comes or when Christ returns. Her point being that Judaism is more judgment-based, yet the Messiah’s coming is a time of mercy; whereas Christianity is more mercy-based, but Christ’s return in Revelation is a time of tribulation and terror.

In Judaism, she says the Messiah will come when we’ve made the world holy and pure; in Christianity, Jesus returns when things are about at their worst.

Moreover, she asserts that Jews look forward to the time of the Messiah whereas Christians fear the return of Christ.

That latter, though, isn’t true. We don’t. There are prayers that Jesus should return, and we look forward to that day with hope. Yes, the pictures in Revelation are horrific, but we don’t need to be terrified of Jesus. That’s a distortion.

I grew up surrounded by people who feared the end, feared God with a trembling that wasn’t awe as much as anticipation of a smack-down. I incorporated this view of God as sitting in wait for us to get so bad that He’d come in and whack us around like billiard balls, and it wasn’t until I spent a few months away that I realized how distorted that was.

Here’s a set of phases that I think every Christian goes through:

First you have the neophyte Christian. This can happen at any age, and it can linger a while. In short, the person realizes that the world is a sinful place and evil runs rampant. This Christian longs for Jesus to come set the record straight by punishing evildoers. The underlying tenor is “He’ll show them!” and “You just wait till Dad comes home, because I’m telling!”

This is where you get the “Left Behind” kind of theology. It’s all terror and justice and “You did this bad thing” and the good guys rubbing their hands together in anticipation of God coming to town and knocking heads together.

Secondly, you have the sophomore Christian. This Christian has had his faith tested a little and is more mature now, and understands that he too sins and is forgiven. In this stage, the Christian is more forgiving and begins to lift his head a bit, to look around the world to see that everyone is broken inside. The Christian in this stage prays not for Jesus to come knock heads together, but for Jesus to come in and fix the mess we’ve made of the world.

The third level of Christian has matured to the point where he sees the hand of God at work in the world, transforming evil into good, and understands that frequently God uses us to minister to one another. As Teresa of Avila wrote, God has no hands now but yours, no voice but yours. So this Christian speaks up for the poor and advocates for the needy. This Christian sees pain in the world and while praying for God to alleviate it, he also takes action himself.

In other words, the third stage Christian sees a mess and instead of demanding God come and smite the mess-makers, he grabs a broom to start sweeping it up.

The fourth and most mature level of Christian is so busy tending the poor and feeding the hungry (while praying for God to bless his work) that his work itself becomes a prayer. And in this stage, if Jesus did return, the fourth-stage Christian would probably hand Him a broom and say, “You take that spot over there.”

In other words, the more a Christian matures, the more he naturally begins to emphasize mercy over justice. We can’t legitimately act on our desire for justice in this world, but we can act on our desire for mercy, and as we mature, that’s what we do.

What I’ve witnessed among the more holy people in my life is a mellowing-down from the thirst for hard-core justice to a desire for mercy and wholeness. Moreover, the most holy people I’ve ever met have a very intimate understanding that without the grace of God, there’s no sin that they themselves would be incapable of committing.

So they do look forward to the coming of Jesus, but without the fear. They have trust. They pray, along with the Spirit and the Bride at the end of Revelation, “Come, Lord Jesus.” And they wait with longing for the day of His return.

No, not so very different between the two faiths. Not at all.


  1. ivyreisner

    I love it. The fourth stage Christian view matches the Jewish view almost perfectly. Get everyone busy cleaning up the world and then the Messiah will come down to get to the high places we, as humans, can’t reach. It’s a cooperation. G-d creates. We complete creation so much as humanity is capable. G-d empowers the Messiah to bring forth the world to come.

    Which is why it makes sense to think it’s merit-based. We won’t get someone to go polish the stars until we pick up a broom and sweep greed and hate and cruelty away here on Earth.

    That cycles into a huge difference. Jesus is considered by Christians to be divine. Jews see the Messiah as a righteous human chosen by G-d based on his merits, his deeds, and his love of Torah. Again gift vs merit.

    Another difference is in the unanimity of the pleasure. In Revelation we get the idea of the Rapture. Good people are brought to heaven; bad people face retribution. In Judaism we get the idea of the world to come right here. Everyone wins, the lion and the lamb. The shofar sounds from heaven and each and every human heart is filled with joy.

  2. philangelus

    Actually, the Rapture is not in the book of Revelation at all. There’s a final judgment with a lake of fire and all that, but no rapture in Revelation.

  3. ivyreisner

    So everything that happens in Revelation 6–the plague, the fiery sword that brings forth mass warfare, the black sun and the red moon–happens to everyone?

    Where does the idea of the rapture come from?

  4. philangelus

    1 Thessalonians 4:16-17

    For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever.

    They don’t actually fit together with one another. That’s why among those who believe in a Rapture, you have pre-millenialists and post-millenialists. Many churches don’t believe there will be a rapture at all.

    Left Behind tries to synthesize the two, but there are many other interpretations. All the Bible seems to require belief in, however, is that
    1) Christ will return
    2) creation as we know it will come to an end
    3) souls will be judged and sorted
    4) this will all happen after some kind of tribulation

    I’m going to get a fight for saying that, but I think that’s the bare bones of it all.

  5. ivyreisner

    There is a huge difference then, right there. Jews don’t believe creation will end. The world to come is just the next step of this world. There will still be Starbucks, for example, they’ll just be kosher. And, of course, no tribulation.

  6. philangelus

    In Christianity, Creation *as we know it* will come to an end. There will be a new Heaven and a new Earth, but the ones we have will pass away.

    It’s cool to see all the differences between the two faiths. They’re not HUGE but they’re enough to give different color to our understandings of the world.

  7. knit_tgz

    Besides the 4 stages Philangelus describes, there are some oddballs, like me. Throughout my life, from more-or-less Catholic child, to rebel/heretic teen, to pantheist, to Pagan, to non-denominational Evangelical, to Catholic again, ever since my 8 years of age I do not fear the end times. (I do fear that I turn away from God now, or tomorrow, and not come back and then die not loving Him and become frozen in not-Love. I mean, after I died i suppose it’s all set, right?). Talk with me about the end times and my thoughts will become serious, but my heart will smile. This because when I was 8 I dreamt the world was ending (I am a child of the Cold War era, does it show?) and everybody was scared but not me. I was in peace, and happy because the Sun had stopped shining, the lights went off, but we all could see because something else was shining light into all. And even though I knew there would still be more trouble besides the earthquakes and destruction, I was SURE that it would be just a little more, and then peace. And I felt peaceful, and happy.

    When I told my dream to my primary school teacher, she said “What a horrible nightmare!”, and nobody understands why I think this was a beautiful dream, and one that still comforts me.

  8. philangelus

    I think it’s possible to bounce around and still fit into the four stages. It’s all in how you respond to the evil in the world. If one sees it and his first response is “God’s gonna show THEM” then that person is probably first-stage, even if he’s a hundred ten years old and has been Christian from birth. 😉

    Whereas there are people who seem to step into the faith and are right there in phase three or four, just because they have a compassionate understanding of human nature and their own failings, and a sense that we can work hand in hand with God to evoke good in the world.

  9. philangelus

    I meant to add, I understand why that dream would be a comfort.

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  11. ginlyn32

    Philangelus, I love your essay!

    I am a member of a pentecostal congregation and this sounds very much like a sermon my paster would have preached. He was always telling us to “grow up” in the faith.

  12. KnittyButterfly

    I am one of those ‘Christians’ who do not believe the rapture. If you do a word study on the subject you will find that G-d doesn’t speak kindly to anything that has to so with either the Greek or Hebrew forms of the word. According to the accounts in the minor prophets and in Revelation we are going to remain on earth and reign with the Messiah during the 1,000 year reign. I have read Left Behind and it isn’t any different than any other fantasy story that you can get off the book shelf created to make $$$. Go, get ye a Bible, and a Stegenga (if you can get your hands on one) and READ. I’m only 26, have no theological training (nor do I want any) and I can put two and two together. Each Scripture has it’s mate and everything is clear as crystal for those who just open their eyes. I don’t get it sometimes. Thank you Philangelus for opening this forum and both you and Ivy for getting the words out. It’s fastinating to see both sides of view. My husband is of Levitical decent (last name: Cohn) and wasn’t able to learn much from his grandfather before he passed so we are still gathering information about our heritage in the Jewish aspect.

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  14. Peter Elias

    To Philangelus and all the Commentors……I say “Oh Lord, forgive them for they do not know what they think, say and do”…..Its sad and its fact, you all do not know what you are talking about….unfortunately you will all fight to the death to say otherwise…I say only a very small percentage of people in this world understand or know what is the truth, possibly less than 5%….Read the Bible, try to understand between the lines, try to ignore the bulk, its all there for you to know…..Try to understand there is a reason why the Bible was written the way it was, obscure to the philosophers of the day, to ensure its survival through the ages…..Try to understand the ONLY way to the Lord is through Jesus, no matter what religion you believe in….At one’s end, a lot will know intuitively, a lot will understand, most will not know what they do and surely meet the fires of Hell and to top that they will ensure they take their future generations with them….Peter

    1. philangelus

      Thank you for an example of Phase I / Freshman thinking.

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