One element of Christian culture that had been an integral, foundational part of my personal theology was the expectation of a future return of Christ. I was raised with church being a large fraction of family activity, and with many opportunities to learn about Christian theology and development. By the time I was 15, I was convinced that not only was Jesus an historical figure, but that his return was inevitable.

I was told in no uncertain terms that the Bible’s message was that Christ would return, and that such return was still forthcoming. It was a message repeated in readings, in sermons, and in Sunday school classes. Promises of that return were repeated whenever the central miracle of the faith was discussed. Christ returned from the dead to the living after his execution, but then floated away into space, apparently shouting, “I’ll be back! Just you wait and see!”

The Return of Christ was promised to be more than Happy Days Holiday Special, more than a birthday at Chuck E Cheez, more, even, than a Disneyland electric parade, it was promised to come with a specific, special event: the End of the World. Christ would come to announce the End of the World, then raise up all the Christian dead (but only the true believers) and judge everyone whether they be worthy of belonging to the Kingdom of Heaven. And for as stupid as all this sounds written down, it seemed like gold to my pre-teen ears.

It was this very notion that Christ was historical and his return was inevitable that started my journey of discovery around the origins of Christianity. There was this person who lived outside the normal bounds of time and space — he was transcendental — he had interactions with God! Through the people he met, he must have made a great mark on the world in order for the Christian Church to have developed! I didn’t expect to find anything no one else had found, but I did want to know as much as anyone else knew about it. I had learned that there were active archaeological investigations still going on that could any day uncover that missing artifact that would prove the whole Jesus story. I was hooked, in more ways than one.

I wanted to understand how much time I had left. As a young adult who lived under the shadow of imminent global nuclear war, I didn’t really have a lot of expectations of adulthood. It made sense to me that an ancient prediction of the end of the world would look like a nuclear war, so I had conflated the two early in my life. Jesus would come and whisk away the believers, just before the bombs fell. I guess if you’re going to believe anything living next to a major nuclear weapons plant at the peak of the Cold War, that’s a good one to pick.

Death, and what happened at death, was something that occupied far more real estate in my head than any respectable teen should have allowed. I had a vague sense of what “Heaven” and “Hell” were, and the reassurance of family that great-grandparents were in “Heaven”. I remember being surprised to discover there was some controversy over whether family pets would be allowed in “Heaven”.

Then I learned about reincarnation as an idea in some distant not-Christian land. I surmised that good people would be reincarnated in wealthy, kind families and evil people would reincarnate as snakes. And folks who were super smart and kind and master their Buddha nature as pre-teens would be able to graduate to what I assumed was “Heaven”. It may have confused me why someone would take so many turns on the wheel to get to the same place, but I also failed to look too deeply into my own faith at that time.

At some point in my early teens, I encountered Nietzche and started to question everything I thought I understood, starting with good and evil. Also, I became acquainted with atheism, and the startling idea that after death was simply nothing. Death was like falling asleep but you never wake up. Everything you are and everything you know is simply lost. No greeting grandparents or lost pets, no great revelation about life, no swimming toward the light. Just lights out and a mumbling burble of the heart. I understood this on a basic level, but my heart rejected it outright. What’s the point of God and Christ and following a religious path when the promised glorious death is a lie? How can that be possible when there are so many churches?

Dealing with the cognative dissonance meant spending time trying to learn about what Jesus really said and did. It meant really reading the Bible and stacks of supporting books exploring historical context, textual analysis, and theological explication. It took several years. At the end of the process, I looked up to find my bearings and realized that I had gone a great distance, but in some other random direction, and there was no good information about “Heaven” or “Hell” in the Bible. For that matter, there wasn’t really a lot of good explaination of where the “prophecy” was beyond copying out the Old Testament references in the book of Hebrews and waving hands about the meaning of each one.

Most surprising for me was the odd discovery that the Messiah predicted by the Hebrew Prophet Elijah, son of a Jewish carpenter, and King of the Jews clearly disregarded Jewish traditions, laws, and religion, and professed a faith unlike anything found in the Old Testament. The central figure of the Christian church did not appear to hold any respect for anyone other than Romans. The more I read, the more my Sunday school fantasy fell away and was replaced by something far less rosy.

This did spur some healthy rethinking about the cycles of life and death and the mythology of after-death experiences. I was able to recognize that the “Heaven” and “Hell” of my youth was a deliberately vague construction designed to elicit preferred behavior and not to explain anything. If anything, they described states of existance here on this plane when one either is or is not coordinated with their natural rhythms. I was able to accommodate the atheist perspective with the Hindu one, and recognize that the experience of death is likely very different for different people, so perhaps both views are true.

I also gained a better understanding of Buddhist principles that explain that what keeps you connected to people in your life is what keeps you alive after your body fails you. It’s our interconnection with others that allows us to return, long after we are gone. Reincarnation from this perspective is simply the retying of old connections again and again. I think that’s really beautiful.

In the end, perhaps Christ is reborn daily as people work to improve the lives of others. Perhaps Christ returns as each of us as we aspire to serve others. Perhaps as Elvis once lived and touched the world and now Elvis is everywhere, the story of Christ, too, has touched the world, and he also is now everywhere.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *