All major Christian denominations await the "Second Coming" or the "Return" of Jesus the Christ. How will he be recognized by Christians at that time? What are the criteria to be fulfilled? Surely, not just any claimant can be believed to be Jesus.
Scripturally speaking, Jesus isn't going to return quietly. Several passages refer to what is going to happen when he returns.
1 Thessalonians 4:15-17:
For this we declare to you by a word from the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord.
Matthew 16:17 echoes this (emphasis mine):
For the Son of Man is going to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay each person according to what he has done.
1 Thessalonians 1:7-8 also speaks of what will happen when Christ returns:
...when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with his mighty angels in flaming fire, inflicting vengeance on those who do not know God and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus.
Also, Matthew 24:31:
And he will send out his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other.
In 1 Corinthians 15:52, when Christ returns, the dead will be raised:
in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed.
I don't believe it'll be a matter of us believing it's him or not. In other words, when Christ returns, I think it'll be one of those things where, for the lack of a better phrase, "you'll just know." His return will be accompanied by angels, dead people coming to life, the sound of a loud trumpet, and he will be coming in on the clouds in glorified form.
In other words, Christ's return will be a big deal. You won't have to wonder.
I had a couple of questions in the comments. The first one was concerning whether Christ's second return was going to be a secret event as it is portrayed in the movies. I'm assuming this is referring to, mainly, the popular Left Behind series. The Left Behind series portrays the end times from a dispensationalist, pre-trib rapture, millennial perspective. My understanding of the end times is amillennial. Therefore, I do not believe in a "rapture" that will take the Christians off of the earth, leaving the non-Christians on the earth for seven years to sort it all out. Though I was raised in that tradition, I found it to be overly complicated, and too recent of a development (John Darby, 1800s) for comfort.
The amillennialist viewpoint would make for a terrible movie. In a nutshell, it can be summed up by the following: One day, Jesus is going to come back, punish those who rejected him, reward those who are his, and establish his kingdom. The viewpoint also approaches revelation from a completely different perspective, which, unfortunately, typically requires a significant amount of deprogramming from the dispensational millennial viewpoint, if the student is coming from that perspective, and that level of detail would be outside the scope of this answer. I'd recommend More Than Conquerors by William Hendrickson. For an excellent audio resource, I'd recommend Randy Pope's "The Rest of the Story" series, available on podcast.
As for why we should look for the man with the sword, Revelation 19:11-16 details a glorified view of Jesus with a sword coming out of his mouth. Whether that is literal or not, we can't be sure, but what we can be sure of, is that when Christ comes, he will look like no man we've ever seen, and it will drive everyone to their knees, some in terror because they've rejected Christ, and some in joy because they know they are his.
Then I saw heaven opened, and behold, a white horse! The one sitting on it is called Faithful and True, and in righteousness he judges and makes war. His eyes are like a flame of fire, and on his head are many diadems, and he has a name written that no one knows but himself. He is clothed in a robe dipped in blood, and the name by which he is called is The Word of God. And the armies of heaven, arrayed in fine linen, white and pure, were following him on white horses. From his mouth comes a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations, and he will rule them with a rod of iron. He will tread the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God the Almighty. On his robe and on his thigh he has a name written, King of kings and Lord of lords.
Jesus clearly distinguishes Himself from all the false christs in Matthew 24:
- Mat 24:23 Then if any man shall say unto you, Lo, here is Christ, or there; believe it not.
- Mat 24:24 For there shall arise false Christs, and false prophets, and shall shew great signs and wonders; insomuch that, if it were possible, they shall deceive the very elect.
Jesus tells us not to believe people who say they are the Christ, for His coming will be so dramatically jaw-dropping that there has been no such grand entrance ever recorded in history, and cannot be mistaken for any other event:
- Mat 24:29 Immediately after the tribulation of those days shall the sun be darkened, and the moon shall not give her light, and the stars shall fall from heaven, and the powers of the heavens shall be shaken:
- Mat 24:30 And then shall appear the sign of the Son of man in heaven: and then shall all the tribes of the earth mourn, and they shall see the Son of man coming in the clouds of heaven with power and great glory.
- Mat 24:31 And he shall send his angels with a great sound of a trumpet, and they shall gather together his elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other.
So the sun and moon will go dark, leaving only one light left, and it will be as noticeable as lightning striking across the sky: that will be the Lord Jesus Himself coming in the clouds.
Where will He come, exactly? Acts 1:11 tells us of (presumably) angels telling the disciples, while they watched the ascension of Jesus into heaven, "Ye men of Galilee, why stand ye gazing up into heaven? this same Jesus, which is taken up from you into heaven, shall so come in like manner as ye have seen him go into heaven." Where and how He arose is where and how He'll return:
- Zec 14:3 Then shall the LORD go forth, and fight against those nations, as when he fought in the day of battle.
- Zec 14:4 And his feet shall stand in that day upon the mount of Olives, which is before Jerusalem on the east, and the mount of Olives shall cleave in the midst thereof toward the east and toward the west, and there shall be a very great valley; and half of the mountain shall remove toward the north, and half of it toward the south.
The Lord arose from the Mount of Olives (Acts 1:12) and will descend upon it again in His return, as it clearly says in Zechariah 14 above.
Any other christ is a false christ. There will be no mistaking His return as men did the first time around. There will be no pretending and posturing as in the first time.
Jesus Christ said to his disciples that the Sign of Son of Man will appear in the sky (Matthew 24:30). Jesus Christ said that the son of Man will come in clouds with great power and glory (Mark 13:26). Jesus Christ said that the Son of Man will come with all the angels with him (Matthew 25:31).
Jesus said that the destruction of Jerusalem and his second coming will happen in the generation of his disciples (Matthew 24, Mark 13, Luke 21) - "This generation shall not pass until all these things happened."
A Generation is 40 years in Bible. Here are some examples.
Numbers 32:13 (ESV) - And the Lord's anger was kindled against Israel, and he made them wander in the wilderness forty years, until all the generation that had done evil in the sight of the Lord was gone.
Deuteronomy 1:34-36 (ESV) - And the Lord heard your words and was angered, and he swore, ‘Not one of these men of this evil generation shall see the good land that I swore to give to your fathers, except Caleb the son of Jephunneh. He shall see it, and to him and to his children I will give the land on which he has trodden, because he has wholly followed the Lord!"
Psalms 95:10 (ESV) - For forty years I loathed that generation and said, “They are a people who go astray in their heart, and they have not known my ways.”
Hebrews 3:9-10 (ESV) - Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts as in the rebellion, on the day of testing in the wilderness,where your fathers put me to the test and saw my works for forty years. Therefore I was provoked with that generation, and said, ‘They always go astray in their heart; they have not known my ways."
The Israelites wandered 40 years in the wilderness (Ex. 16:35; Deut. 2:7), in which time an entire generation died out (Num. 14:33; 32:13).
Acts 13:36 (ESV) - For David, after he had served the purpose of God in his own generation, fell asleep and was laid with his fathers and saw corruption.
In 2 Samuel 5:4 (ESV)- "David was thirty years old when he began to reign, and he reigned forty years."
We also know that Jerusalem was destroyed within the generation Jesus taught (AD 30-70). So all of the prophecies were fulfilled in that generation.
Right before the fall of Jerusalem in 70 AD, People in Judea saw the chariots and soldiers in their armor running about among the clouds.
This incident in the sky was recorded by Josephus and Tacitus who lived during that period. This was also later recorded by Church Historian Eusebius in his Ecclesiastical History, Latin Document Pseudo Hegesippus, and Jewish History Document called "Sepher Yosippon."
Here are the informations.
Josephus (Jewish Wars)
Jewish War 6:289 (184.108.40.2069) Thus there was a star resembling a sword, which stood over the city, and a comet, that continued a whole year.
Jewish War 6:290 (220.127.116.110) Thus also, before the Jews’ rebellion, and before those commotions which preceded the war, when the people were come in great crowds to the feast of unleavened bread, on the eighth day of the month Xanthicus [Nisan], and at the ninth hour of the night, so great a light shone round the altar and the holy house, that it appeared to be bright day time; which light lasted for half an hour.
Jewish War 6:291 (18.104.22.1681) This light seemed to be a good sign to the unskillful, but was so interpreted by the sacred scribes, as to portend those events that followed immediately upon it.
Jewish War 6:296 (22.214.171.1246) So these publicly declared, that this signal foreshowed the desolation that was coming upon them. Besides these, a few days after that feast, on the twenty-first day of the month Artemisius [Jyar],
Jewish War 6:297 (126.96.36.1997) a certain prodigious and incredible phenomenon appeared; I suppose the account of it would seem to be a fable, were it not related by those that saw it,
Jewish War 6:298 (188.8.131.528) and were not the events that followed it of so considerable a nature as to deserve such signals; for, before sunsetting, chariots and troops of soldiers in their armor were seen
Jewish War 6:299 (184.108.40.2069) running about among the clouds, and surrounding of cities. Moreover at that feast which we call Pentecost, as the priests were going by night into the inner [court of the] temple, as their custom was, to perform their sacred ministrations, they said that, in the first place, they felt a quaking, and heard a great noise, Jewish War 6:300 (220.127.116.110) and after that they heard a sound as of a great multitude, saying, "Let us remove hence."
Tacitus, Histories, Book 5
"Prodigies had occurred, which this nation, prone to superstition, but hating all religious rites, did not deem it lawful to expiate by offering and sacrifice. There had been seen hosts joining battle in the skies, the fiery gleam of arms, the temple illuminated by a sudden radiance from the clouds. The doors of the inner shrine were suddenly thrown open, and a voice of more than mortal tone was heard to cry that the Gods were departing. At the same instant there was a mighty stir as of departure. Some few put a fearful meaning on these events, but in most there was a firm persuasion, that in the ancient records of their priests was contained a prediction of how at this very time the East was to grow powerful, and rulers, coming from Judaea, were to acquire universal empire."
Eusebius Ecclesiastical History, Book 3, Chapter 8, Section 4-6
And the eastern gate of the inner temple, which was of bronze and very massive, and which at evening was closed with difficulty by twenty men, and rested upon iron-bound beams, and had bars sunk deep in the ground, was seen at the sixth hour of the night to open of itself. And not many days after the feast, on the twenty-first of the month Artemisium, (97) a certain marvelous vision was seen which passes belief. The prodigy might seem fabulous were it not related by those who saw it, and were not the calamities which followed deserving of such signs. For before the setting of the sun, chariots and armed troops were seen throughout the whole region in mid-air, wheeling through the clouds and encircling the cities.
And at the feast which is called Pentecost, when the priests entered the temple at night, as was their custom, to perform the services, they said that at first they perceived a movement and a noise, and afterward a voice as of a great multitude, saying, ‘Let us go hence.’
Pseudo-Hegesippus, Chapter 44. (Translated from the Latin by Wade Blocker. This excerpt taken from the Latin edited by Vincente Ussani):
Also after many days a certain figure appeared of tremendous size, which many saw, just as the books of the Jews have disclosed, and before the setting of the sun there were suddenly seen in the clouds chariots and armed battle arrays, by which cities of all Judaea and its territories were invaded. Moreover in the celebration itself of the Pentecost the priests entering the interior of the temple at night time, that they might celebrate the usual sacrifices, assered themselves at first to have a felt a certain movement and a sound given forth, afterwards even to have heard shouted in a sudden voice "we cross over from here."
Sepher Yosippon" is a 10th century historical Jewish document written in Hebrew that mentions about the fall of Jerusalem in 70 AD. Sefer Josippon also mentions about the vision of soldiers and chariots in the sky which we read in Josephus' Jewish Wars, Tacitus's Histories, Eusebius' Ecclesiastical History, and Latin Document "Pseudo Hegesippus."
Sepher Yosippon (A Medieval History of Ancient Israel) translated from the Hebrew by Steven B. Bowman. Excerpts from Chapter 87 "Burning of the Temple"
"Moreover, in those days were seen chariots of fire and horsemen, a great force flying across the sky near to the ground coming against Jerusalem and all the land of Judah, all of them horses of fire and riders of fire. When the holiday of Shavu'oth came in those days, during the night the priests heard within the Temple something like the sound of men going and the sound of men marching in a multitude going into the Temple, and a terrible and mighty voice was heard speaking: "Let's go and leave this House."
People usually ask what does chariots and soldiers in the sky have to do with sign of Son of Man and the Bible.
Here are some examples.
Jeremiah 4:13 (KJV) – "Behold, he shall come up as clouds, and his chariots shall be as a whirlwind: his horses are swifter than eagles. Woe unto us! for we are spoiled."
Isaiah 66:15 (KJV) – "For, behold, the Lord will come with fire, and with his chariots like a whirlwind, to render his anger with fury, and his rebuke with flames of fire."
2 Kings 2:11 (KJV) - And it came to pass, as they still went on, and talked, that, behold, there appeared a chariot of fire, and horses of fire, and parted them both asunder; and Elijah went up by a whirlwind into heaven.
2 Kings 6:17 (KJV) - And Elisha prayed, and said, Lord, I pray thee, open his eyes, that he may see. And the Lord opened the eyes of the young man; and he saw: and, behold, the mountain was full of horses and chariots of fire round about Elisha.
Zachariah 6:1-6 (KJV) - "And I turned, and lifted up mine eyes, and looked, and, behold, there came four chariots out from between two mountains; and the mountains were mountains of brass. In the first chariot were red horses; and in the second chariot black horses; And in the third chariot white horses; and in the fourth chariot grisled and bay horses. Then I answered and said unto the angel that talked with me, What are these, my lord? And the angel answered and said unto me, These are the four spirits of the heavens, which go forth from standing before the Lord of all the earth. The black horses which are therein go forth into the north country; and the white go forth after them; and the grisled go forth toward the south country."
There are other verses in the Bible that involve God and his chariots.
This vision in the sky and the fall of Jerusalem (which includes the destruction of temple) happened between 30 AD - 70 AD (40 years).
Revelation 1:3 (NIV) - "Blessed is the one who reads aloud the words of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear it and take to heart what is written in it, because the time is near."
We read that the time is near.
Revelation 1:7 (NIV) - "Look, he is coming with the clouds," and "every eye will see him, even those who pierced him"; and all peoples on earth "will mourn because of him." So shall it be! Amen.
We read that every eye will see him even those who pierced him.
Take a notice "He is coming with the clouds" in Revelation 1:7 and read Jeremiah 4:13 (Mentioned above).
The generation of Jews during the time of Jesus was an extremely evil generation. We see Jesus calling them "wicked (or sinful) and adulterous generation." (Matthew 12:39, Matthew 16:4, Mark 8:38, etc.). We also see Jesus calling people in that generation that their father is devil (John 8:44) due to their evil nature. We also see Both Jesus Christ and John the Baptist calling them "offspring of vipers" (Matthew 23, Luke 3).
Jewish Priest Josephus agrees with Jesus on the wickedness of that generation.
"I shall therefore speak my mind here at once briefly: — that neither did any other city suffer such miseries, nor did any age ever breed a generation more fruitful in wickedness than this was, from the beginning of the world." (Jewish Wars V, 10:5).
In Jewish Wars Book Six, Chapter 9, Paragraph 3, we read that 1.1 million people died and 97,000 people were taken as prisoners.
For more information, check this link under Preterism - http://en.metapedia.org/wiki/Second_coming_of_jesus
I am a Bible Literalist who believes in a pretribulational rapture and is a dispensational millialist. The rapture is when the Lord will descend from heaven and the dead will be raised and then all believers, living and revived, will go up into heaven alive then a 7 year tribulation period will begin followed by the millennial reign of Christ. Those who remain will have the option to meet Jesus and be born again. However as the other answer points out not everyone believes Jesus return for the saints will be in such form. That's fine; it isn't essential for salvation.
These are the individual verse and how we interpret them:
1Co 15:51 Behold, I shew you a mystery; We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, 1Co 15:52 In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trump: for the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed. 1Co 15:53 For this corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality. 1Co 15:54 So when this corruptible shall have put on incorruption, and this mortal shall have put on immortality, then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written, Death is swallowed up in victory. 1Co 15:55 O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory? 1Co 15:56 The sting of death is sin; and the strength of sin is the law. 1Co 15:57 But thanks be to God, which giveth us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.
In 1 Corinthians 15 the word says that we will not all die but we will be changed and become immortal. This transfiguration processes is similar to what Jesus experienced before his passion and glorification and ascension. This pattern is repeated several places in the Old Testament Elijah, Enoch and Moses all had similar experiences. It also says that those which are dead will be raised the implication is and also ascended as Christ and the dead who were raised at His death. It is unknown if those saints ascended with the Lord after the 40 days of Christ before Pentecost.
1Th 4:16 For the Lord himself shall descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trump of God: and the dead in Christ shall rise first: 1Th 4:17 Then we which are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air: and so shall we ever be with the Lord. 1Th 4:18 Wherefore comfort one another with these words.
1st Thessalonians 4 continues the explanation of the occurrence of the rapture stating that that after the resurrection and changing of the saints the heavenly family will move to the air and forever be with the Lord in Heaven or as a part of his millennial kingdom on the earth which follows the tribulation.
Rev 3:10 Because thou hast kept the word of my patience, I also will keep thee from the hour of temptation, which shall come upon all the world, to try them that dwell upon the earth.
Revelation 3 is used to show a pre-tribulation rapture. The hour of temptation which comes upon the world is considered to be the 3.5 years of tribulation and 3.5 years of great tribulation. Its important to not that some people interpret the word world and earth here to refer to the region of the middle east and Europe inhabited by ancient Rome and not the entire planet by some.
Mat 24:42 Watch therefore: for ye know not what hour your Lord doth come.
Mar 13:32 But of that day and that hour knoweth no man, no, not the angels which are in heaven, neither the Son, but the Father. Mar 13:33 Take ye heed, watch and pray: for ye know not when the time is. Mar 13:34 For the Son of man is as a man taking a far journey, who left his house, and gave authority to his servants, and to every man his work, and commanded the porter to watch. Mar 13:35 Watch ye therefore: for ye know not when the master of the house cometh, at even, or at midnight, or at the cockcrowing, or in the morning: Mar 13:36 Lest coming suddenly he find you sleeping. Mar 13:37 And what I say unto you I say unto all, Watch.
Luk 18:8b Nevertheless when the Son of man cometh, shall he find faith on the earth?
Mathew 24, Mark 13 and Luke 18 are conflicted. Some believe this refers to the the second advent rather than the second coming of the Lord. The second advent is the post tribulation return of the Lord when he begins the millennial reign. Some teacher like Gloria Copeland believe that they will be altered to the return of the Lord and the rapture in advance. Others believe that the ascension of the Church will be very similar to the 40 days of Christ on the Earth. The church will operate in the full gifts of the Holy Spirit then ascend. That said most believe that the rapture will come quickly and secretively and they point to Mathew 24, Luke 18 and Mark 13 which both say watch you do not know.
A version of the rapture and tribulation period has been dramatised in the book/movie series Left Behind. While it is two men's interpretation it does somewhat accurately describe the happenings of revelation from views like mine.
So in summary to answer your question if ever a massive amount of Christian suddenly go missing you did not believe or do it right or you would have gone with them.
I think the clearest answer to your question was given by the Lord in His Sermon on the Mount:
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God
On this, Augustine writes:
In the darkness, then, of this world, in which we are pilgrims absent from the Lord as long as we walk by faith and not by sight [2 Cor 5:6,7], the Christian soul ought to feel itself desolate, and continue in prayer, and learn to fix the eye of faith on the word of the divine sacred Scriptures, as on a light shining in a dark place, until the day dawn, and the day-star arise in our hearts [2 Peter 1:19]. For the ineffable source from which this lamp borrows its light is the Light which shineth in darkness, but the darkness comprehendeth it not — the Light, in order to seeing which our hearts must be purified by faith; for blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God; and we know that when He shall appear, we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is [1 John 3:2].