"Second Coming type" is newspaper terminology for fonts so large they would normally be reserved for headlines announcing the end of the world. In practice, their impact has been dulled by familiarity as New York tabloids routinely engage in typographical overkill to hype their tawdry tales of scandal and mayhem. In any case, it is far from clear that the Second Coming will arrive with any more fanfare than the First. Apart from scriptural sources, there is no independent historical record to suggest that Jesus of Nazareth even existed. This is not to cast doubt on his existence; merely to point out that his comings and goings need not be front-page news.
The end of the world remains the most widely heralded event never to have happened, at least not yet. Nearly three thousand years before Christ, an early prophet of doom was already sounding the alarm in a message found on an ancient Assyrian tablet. "Our earth is degenerate in these latter days," he wrote. "There are signs the world is speedily coming to an end." Not to be outdone, the Old Testament prophets issued dire warnings of a cataclysmic "day of the Lord" in which Yahweh would settle accounts with wayward Israelites. Even Jesus added fuel to the fire by alerting the faithful to signs of the coming Apocalypse. These signs included wars, rumors of wars, nation rising against nation, famines and earthquakes -- all of which, he suggested, were merely the beginning of the birth pangs. They would be followed by a protracted labor that included false prophets, wickedness multiplied, a desolating sacrilege and great tribulation.
For those inclined toward apocalyptic thinking, biblical prophecy works like a medical encyclopedia in the hands of a hypochondriac. Every cough, sneeze and hiccup in world affairs is seen as a sign of a deadlier scourge to come. The Book of Revelation in particular offers a nearly inexhaustible source of end-time speculation, serving most recently as inspiration for a string of best-selling doomsday novels called the Left Behind series. Those not wishing to be left behind when the Lord comes can now join one of the series' co-authors on packaged tours of Armageddon hotspots in the Holy Land, where the climactic battle between the forces of good and evil is prophesied to take place.
True believers looking for signs of wars, rumors of wars, wickedness and false prophets have only to open a newspaper. As a consequence, doomsayers always have fresh evidence that the end is near. There is even a popular Web site called Rapture Ready that tracks "end-time activity" and calculates a Rapture Index, much like those Cold War clocks that once counted down the hours and minutes to a nuclear holocaust. In addition to such traditional measures as famine, drought and plague, the index factors in a host of latter-day scourges, among them drug abuse, arms proliferation and liberalism.
To those not in the grip of apocalyptic yearning, it may be a bit puzzling why the prospect of planetary destruction and the mass extermination of humankind would be greeted with such eager anticipation. Even more puzzling is why the repeated failure of doomsday forecasts fails to dampen enthusiasm for such prognostications. Apart from a cult leader in Korea who was once convicted of fraud when his prophecy failed, purveyors of the Apocalypse are rarely discredited when they get it wrong. Billy Graham, Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell have all weighed in with predictions that did not materialize, joining such illustrious predecessors as Martin Luther, Isaac Newton, Jonathan Edwards, John Wesley and Joseph Smith. When proven wrong, the most determined of this breed merely revise their calculations and move on, often winning fresh converts in the process. The Jehovah's Witnesses, to cite one example, have been regularly issuing and revising doomsday forecasts for over a century.
The signs Jesus pointed to have all seemingly materialized, and he himself said, "this generation will not pass away till all these things take place." Yet the Apocalypse has not -- so, what happened? Did he get it wrong? It is important to note that Jesus himself never claimed to know when the end would come, in contrast to some of those who came after him. There are also indications that he never believed God's kingdom would be ushered in with screaming headlines. "The kingdom of God is not coming with signs to be observed," he told the Pharisees, "nor will they say, 'Lo, here it is!' or 'There!' for behold, the kingdom of God is in the midst of you." In other words, it's not a matter of watching for telltale signs of the kingdom coming but of waking up to the fact it is already here.