Ashamed of a Blatantly Supernatural Gospel?

A Reflection on Christ’s Second Coming with a Sermon on Luke 21
In this article theologian Neal Plantinga offers a reflection on Christ’s second advent. It’s followed by an excerpt of a sermon on Luke 21, reprinted with permission from Plantinga’s book Under the Wings of God: Twenty Biblical Reflections for a Deeper Faith (Brazos Press, 2023).

The New Testament gospel is that the eternal second person of the Holy Trinity—“God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God,” as the Nicene Creed describes Jesus—assumed our flesh and undertook his mission “to seek and to save the lost” (Luke 19:10) on his way “to reconcile to himself all things” (Colossians 1:20). Following Scripture, the Nicene Creed says he began by being “conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the virgin Mary.” In the course of his mission, Jesus healed diseases, walked on water, cast out demons, and raised people from the dead. In heaven’s blessed chemistry, his own death was “the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world” (1 John 2:2). Moreover, while he was slain for our sins, he also was “raised to life for our justification” so that we would be forever accepted and forgiven by God (Romans 4:25).

This is a mission of transcendent origin and power. The three persons of the Holy Trinity act supernaturally throughout it. Miracles abound within it. The career of the Son of God forever shifts because of it, with the remarkable result that we now have our flesh in heaven. God, Christ, Holy Spirit, incarnation, virgin birth, miraculous healings, atonement, resurrection, ascension—these supernatural persons and events constitute the heart of heaven’s mission to earth and the good news in Scripture’s reports of it.

In continuity with all this, Scripture’s prediction of Jesus’ second coming looks conspicuously otherworldly as well. He will return from the sky, in the clouds, in blazing glory, accompanied by the shaking of sun, moon, and stars above and the roaring and foaming of the oceans below. During his descent, the Lord and an archangel will cry out in jubilation, God’s trumpet will blow, the dead will be raised, and the faithful who are still living will rise to meet Christ in the air (Luke 21:25–28; 1 Thessalonians 4:16–17).

No spectacle could be more dramatic, more apocalyptic, more blatantly supernatural. I can easily imagine some of us being ashamed of it. It’s so strange, fantastic, over the top. Doesn’t it remind us of all those Left Behind novels of the 1990s with their technicolor visions and prophetic confidence? In certain moods, the Second Advent seems embarrassing, an event advertised with “Beam me up, Lord!” bumper stickers, and so we leave it to those embarrassing Christians who turned apocalyptic speculation into a billion-dollar industry. How distressing they were, these prophecy buffs clicking away with their pocket calculators and computer charts and wrong predictions that were then folded back into new predictions, the preachers telling us with great confidence exactly when Jesus is going to come again! I once heard historian Paula Frederickson call this kind of prophetic improvisation “apocalyptic jazz.”

So when some of us get uneasy about the Second Coming or even ashamed of believing it, I think I understand.

But then, in the second movement of this music, we start to wince at our embarrassment. Where did it come from? Why are we so antsy? And we start to be ashamed that we were ashamed. Such timidity! Such disloyalty! After all, isn’t the whole Christian story blatantly supernatural? Did we suppose that if we believed in Godsovereign, immense, mysterious, supremely potent, unpredictable in initiative and imagination—we could be safe from supernatural incursions into our world? That we could hunker down with the Ten Commandments and the Golden Rule and mind our own business? That we could content ourselves with just enough religion to be respectable?

In Luke 21, Jesus cautions his followers to beware of living with a low ceiling over their lives, of being unprepared for the advent of the incoming Lord. “Be on guard,” he says. Watch! Be alert! Jesus talks like this because his return isn’t an apocalyptic fireworks display. His return is the final coming of the kingdom of God. It’s the coming of justice on the earth. When the signs appear, says Jesus to a temple full of listeners, don’t give up! Don’t freeze up! Look up! “When these things begin to take place, stand up and lift up your heads, because your redemption is drawing near” (Luke 21:25–28, 34–36).

Ashamed. Ashamed of being ashamed. And, finally, not ashamed. Not ashamed in the least! The Scriptures tell us wonderful things about what’s ahead of us. The second coming of Jesus Christ brings not just personal salvation. It ushers in a whole “new heaven and new earth.” No more death or weeping over it. No more pain or agonizing over it. Instead, a festival of joy and light as the city of God descends to earth and God dwells among us forever. All the nations of earth bring their “glory,” their cultural treasure, what they are known for, into the city of God for all citizens to enjoy (Revelation 21:1, 4, 22–26).

The Hebrew prophets imagined the new heaven and earth with their visions of shalom—of God, humans, and all creation webbed together in justice, fulfillment, and delight. They pictured this rich state of affairs in very earthly terms. A man who builds a vineyard will get to harvest his own grapes without somebody else ripping him off. Children and lions will romp together. Nobody will have to lock their doors or sleep with a weapon on their lap. All this happens under the arch of God’s love, and the knowledge of God fills the earth (Isaiah 2:4; 11:6, 9; 32:15; 65:19–22; Joel 3:18).

Knowing our own world, we can easily update the prophets’ vision. Imagine Palestinians and Israelis dwelling together in peace and mutual respect. Imagine no more school shootings. No more battered wives. No more cancer. No more shattered hopes or bitter disappointments. Husbands who stick with their families. Public figures who stick to the truth. Scrupulously fair elections. Love for God. Love for neighbors. Love for the good creation.

The gospel is blatantly supernatural, including the second coming of our Lord. We may be ashamed of it at some point. But if we are spiritually healthy, we then become ashamed of being ashamed. At last, we can join Paul in saying, “I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes” (Romans 1:16).


In the Interim

Excerpt from Under the Wings of God: Twenty Biblical Reflections for a Deeper Faith (Brazos Press, 2023).

Scripture Reading: Luke 21:25–36

“When these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near” (Luke 21:28).

Your redemption is drawing near! In Luke 21 Jesus is talking to people who know about redemption. These are exodus people. These are Passover people. These people have a history of being squeezed by Egypt, Babylon, and Rome. To these people, redemption is the longing of their heart. They want Rome off their back. They want Caesar out of their hair. It’s their dream. It’s their passion. The coming of God’s redemption means justice is coming, liberation is coming, the King of all the earth is coming. When biblical people want God’s redemption they cry out: O God, rescue me. Deliver me. Bend your ear toward me, O God, and in your righteousness save me (Psalm 71).

Do we know anything about such passion? I’m thinking that when life is good, our prayers for the kingdom get a little faint. As Justo González once put it, we whisper our prayers for the kingdom so that God can’t quite hear them. “Thy kingdom come,” we pray, and hope it won’t. “Thy kingdom come,” we pray, “but not right away.”

When our own kingdom has had a good year we aren’t necessarily looking for God’s kingdom. When life is good, redemption doesn’t sound so good. That’s how things go. God’s redemption is good news for people whose life is bad news. If you are a slave in Pharaoh’s Egypt, or a slave in antebellum Mississippi, you want your redemption. If you are an Israelite exiled in Babylon, or a Nigerian paralyzed by corruption, you want your redemption. If you are a woman in modern India—and it doesn’t matter what caste you belong to—and your husband or fiancé doesn’t think your family has come up with a big enough dowry, and if he locks you in a closet for three months, or calls up his buddies and threatens to have them rape you and then kill you—you want redemption from wicked sexism, and you want it with every fiber of your being.

According to Scripture, the person who wants redemption wants the kingdom of God whether she knows it or not. And the coming of the kingdom depends on the coming of the King, the one who will return with power and with great glory. However we are to understand this apocalyptic event, whatever form it takes, the second coming of Jesus Christ means to a Christian that God’s righteousness will at last fill the earth.

People with crummy lives want it to happen now. If you are a Christian in sub-Saharan Africa today, you don’t yawn when somebody mentions the return of Jesus Christ. When an epidemic has devastated whole populations, you want your redeemer. You want the one who has healing in his wings. Passionate Christians want the return of the Lord.

And, let me add, so do compassionate ones.

When our own life is sweet, we can look across the world to lives that aren’t sweet. We can raise our heads and our hopes for those lives. We can weep with those who weep and hope with those who hope. We can look across the world, and across the room, and across the pew. It’s natural to hope for ourselves, and how healthy it is to do it. But it’s unnatural to hope only for ourselves. And how parochial it is to do it.

Be on guard, says Jesus, that you don’t get weighed down with parochial anxieties and parochial amusements to relieve them. Be on guard against that fatal absorption with yourself! Take care! Stay alert! Stand up and raise your heads because the kingdom is coming.

Jesus’ words are

  • an antidote to our sloth,
  • an antidote to our worldly cynicism,
  • an antidote even to our scorn of prophecy buffs.

Jesus’ words are meant to raise our heads and raise our hopes. Could justice really come to the earth? Could husbands quit beating up their wives, and could wives quit blaming themselves? Could Arabs and Israelis look into each other’s eyes and see a brother or a sister? Could some of us who struggle with addictions, or with diseases that trap us—could we be liberated by God and start to walk tall in the kingdom of God? Could Jesus Christ appear among us in some way that our poverty-stricken minds can never imagine in a scenario that would simply erase our smug confidence about where the lines of reality are drawn?

If we believe in the kingdom of God we will pray, and we will hope for those without much hope left. And one more thing, one more tough thing. We will work in the same direction as we hope.

In a wonderful book entitled Standing on the Promises, my teacher Lewis Smedes says that hoping for others is hard, but not the hardest. Praying for others is hard, but not the hardest. The hardest part for people who believe in the second coming of Jesus Christ is in “living the sort of life that makes people say, ‘Ah, so that’s how people are going to live when righteousness takes over our world’” (Lewis Smedes, Standing on the Promises: Keeping Hope Alive for a Tomorrow We Cannot Control, 1998, p. 173).

The hardest part is simple faithfulness in our work and in our attitudes—the kind of faithfulness that shows we are being drawn forward by the magnetic force of the kingdom of God.

According to a striking story, in 1779 the Connecticut House of Representatives was in session on a bright day in May, and the delegates were able to do their work by natural light. But then something happened that nobody expected. Right in the middle of debate, the day turned to night. Clouds obliterated the sun, and everything turned to darkness. Some legislators thought it was the second coming. So a clamor arose. People wanted to adjourn. People wanted to pray. People wanted to prepare for the coming of the Lord.

But the speaker of the house had a different idea. He was a Christian believer, and he rose to the occasion with good logic and good faith. We are all upset by the darkness, he said, and some of us are afraid. But “the Day of the Lord is either approaching or it is not. If it is not, there is no cause for adjournment. And if the Lord is returning, I, for one, choose to be found doing my duty. I therefore ask that candles be brought” (Abraham Davenport, quoted in Timothy Dwight, Connecticut Historical Connections, 2nd ed. (1836), compiled by John Warner Barber, 2015, p. 403).

And men who expected Jesus to return went back to their desks and resumed their debate.


Lord Jesus Christ, we are watching and hoping.

Meanwhile, we are working for righteousness.

We are working in the same direction as we are hoping.

Looking for you.


Reformed Worship 149 © September 2023, Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. Used by permission.