January 22, 2021

Jesus’ Future Presence


Eschatology Week
Part 3: Jesus’ Future Presence

Previous Posts
Part 1: The Christian Hope = Resurrection
Part 2: Eschatology starts in our past

I believe . . . He will come again.

• The Apostles’ Creed

• • •

Chapter 8 in N.T. Wright’s book, Surprised by Hope, “When He Appears,” is perhaps the sanest, most refreshing essay I have ever read on the subject of the “Second Coming.” As he is wont to do, Wright is able to pinpoint that which is of primary importance:

The presence we know at the moment— the presence of Jesus with his people in word and sacrament, by the Spirit, through prayer, in the faces of the poor— is of course related to that future presence, but the distinction between them is important and striking. Jesus’s appearing will be, for those of us who have known and loved him here, like meeting face-to-face someone we have only known by letter, telephone, or perhaps e-mail. Communication theorists insist that for full human communication you need not only words on a page but also a tone of voice. That’s why a telephone call can say more than a letter, not in quantity but in quality. But for full communication between human beings you need not only a tone of voice but also body language, facial language, and the thousand small ways in which, without realizing it, we relate to one another. At the moment, by the Spirit, the word, the sacraments and prayer, and in those in need whom we are called to serve for his sake, the absent Jesus is present to us; but one day he will be there with us, face-to-face.

The main point to emphasize is that, just like on the first Easter, the beloved One who has been absent from us will once more be present, in our very midst, and all will be made new.

What will that be like? How will that occur?

N.T. Wright points out that the N.T. authors had to pull language from O.T. stories and from the Empire in which they lived in an effort to describe that which is by nature indescribable:

We must remind ourselves yet once more that all Christian language about the future is a set of signposts pointing into a mist. Signposts don’t normally provide you with advance photographs of what you’ll find at the end of the road, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t pointing in the right direction. They are telling you the truth, the particular sort of truth that can be told about the future.

Before we get to the language that Paul, in particular, used to talk about Jesus’ appearing, Wright argues something that many have had a hard time accepting:

The first thing to get clear is that, despite widespread opinion to the contrary, during his earthly ministry Jesus said nothing about his return. [emphasis mine]

Taking two of the most prominent examples from his other writings, he shows (1) how Jesus’ teaching about “the son of man coming in the clouds” (citing Daniel 7) is about how he will be vindicated after suffering, not about his return. The context is both the resurrection/ascension of Jesus and the imminent destruction of the temple in 70 AD. Then, (2) the stories Jesus tells about a master who goes away and leaves his subjects before returning are meant to be read in the context of how God left Israel at the time of exile and returned to them in the person of Jesus (at his first coming!) to bring both salvation and judgment to his chosen nation.

In the New Testament, the primary witness to Jesus’ future appearing is the Apostle Paul. The word he uses is parousia — which doesn’t so mean mean “coming” as “presence.” The most pertinent use of this word in Paul’s cultural context was when it described the visit of a king or emperor to a colony or province. This person of high rank would make an “appearance;” his “royal presence” would be manifested among the citizens of his realm. So, in one sense, this is a political word making a claim about Jesus — that Jesus, risen and exalted, is the rightful Lord of the world, and one day he will make his royal presence known. He will no longer be ruling in absentia, but will appear and reign in person in this world.

One of the most prominent passages about this parousia is in 1Thessalonians 4:

But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about those who have died, so that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope.

For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have died. For this we declare to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will by no means precede those who have died. For the Lord himself, with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call and with the sound of God’s trumpet, will descend from heaven, and the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up in the clouds together with them to meet the Lord in the air; and so we will be with the Lord forever.

Therefore encourage one another with these words.

• 1Thessalonians 4:13-18

N.T. Wright points out that Paul borrows metaphors and imagery from three different stories to teach them about Jesus’ upcoming “royal appearing.”

  • The story of Moses coming down from Mt. Sinai. Clouds, trumpet sounds, a loud cry, and then Moses descends and brings the Law to the people.
  • The image of Daniel 7, in which God’s people are vindicated along with the Son of Man by being raised up on the clouds and presented to God in glory.
  • The cultural image of the emperor’s visit. When a royal personage made an appearance in one of his provinces, the citizens of the country would leave the walls of the city and go out to meet him and pay him honor. They would then escort him back into the city, his domain, so that he might be present as ruler among them there.

1Thessalonians 4 and other passages presenting Jesus’ future appearing are not journalistic reports in-advance, reporting in literalistic terms exactly what will happen. Rather, these texts follow the traditions of poetic, prophetic, and apocalyptic literature that speak metaphorically about matters we can scarcely conceive.

I would add that Paul uses all of this, not to teach “doctrine” about the second coming, but to comfort bereaved believers. And the point upon which he focuses is that those who “sleep in Christ” (believers who have died) will be the first people to welcome and accompany Jesus when he comes to be present with us. Paul says that we “who are alive” at that moment “will not precede” them. They will be raised “first.” Then we will follow them out to receive and honor our Lord.

Paul is honoring the Christian dead and encouraging the Thessalonians not to worry about them or think that they will be “left behind” (so to speak) or at some kind of disadvantage in the age to come. No, they will be like city officials, who go out at the head of the line to receive the emperor on his royal visit, to be followed by the rest of the citizens. They will be the honored welcoming committee, first in line to greet Jesus.

This is the language that unravels our simple creedal affirmation: “I believe he will come again.”

With rich biblical background and cultural metaphor, Paul describes that which we cannot describe, only anticipate.

Even so, come quickly Lord Jesus.


  1. Eckhart Trolle says

    What you believe is not really any more sensible than what the “Left Behind” people believe. How you can believe all this stuff, but think the Book of Mormon bizarre, is beyond me.

    He’s dead. He’s not coming back, except in the Christian literary imagination. All the flowery language in the world can’t disguise that. Jesus did not reign, or conquer death, or achieve much of anything (except get super-famous). As an eschatological figure, he is an impotent failure.

    • Until you’re willing to believe, it’s hard to argue against your unbelief.

    • The resurrection is the one critical point of Christian faith, ET. I can understand why a person would find it hard to accept. But if not true, there really is little point of having anything resembling Christianity.

      • And if I am not mistaken, Christianity may be the only religion in which this self-awareness of both the centrality and foolishness (to some) of it’s central point is made clear in it’s own sacred text. Paul says that if there is no resurrection, there’s nothing to be done in this life but to grab as much gusto as you can (gusto… I am so much a child of the 70s… 🙁 ).

        But let’s set that aside for the moment… Perhaps, ET, you might explain why you don’t think any of this is possible. Do you believe in God? If so, what’s the problem? If not, that would explain your disbelief, but not why have you made attempting to tweak us your hobby…

        • Eckhart Trolle says

          This insistence on believing in nonsense is a weakness of (most forms of) Christianity, not a strength. In Judaism, Hinduism, or Buddhism there are no such creedal requirements. Other, more open forms of Christianity do exist (the Quakers, for example), although you might not consider them deserving of the name.

          • The credal requirement in Christianity is primarily that we believe in a Person and his story. There have been a multitude of additions which may indeed be nonsense, but one of the purposes of a site like this is to expose them for what they and help us get back to the core message. As I said, that revolves around Jesus and his story. If at that level we disagree, ET, that’s ok and you’re welcome to share your opinion, but since this is a Christian site, you’ll always get strong pushback when you call it nonsense.

          • “This insistence on believing in nonsense is a weakness of (most forms of) Christianity, not a strength.”

            Actually, this “nonsense” is the core of Christianity, “folly to the Greeks” and all that (see 1 Corinthians 1). Thank you for at least recognizing and engaging with that truth instead of the sideshows of creationism, end times, same sex marriage, etc. that passes for the “core” of faith for which many argue. If you believe a dead man rising from the grave is ludicrous then welcome to the club; by it’s very nature it is unbelievable. The fact that I do, indeed, believe surprises even me. “I believe, Lord, help my unbelief!’

          • Headless Unicorn Guy says

            The guy’s handle alone should have been enough warning:
            “Eckhart TROLLe”.

        • Eckhart Trolle says

          The term “God” borders on meaninglessness, but for practical purposes the answer is no, I don’t believe in them.

          • If the term only borders on meaninglessness, then it’s meaningful. Thanks for acknowledging that, contrary to your comment some time ago that God-talk is in fact meaningless. I guess you saw the light.

          • Eckhart Trolle says

            Well, it is meaningless until it is defined (preferably without the contradictions which often come up in discussions of the divine attributes). Anthropologically, I understand it to refer to a class of culturally-posited “supernatural” entities who behave in human-like ways (for example, by speaking, or entering into alliances with humans). More abstract explanations are possible.

    • David Cornwell says

      The problem , Eckhart Trolle, is that there is a spark in you that wants to believe.

      • Nail on head.

      • And that spark is in total conflict with the other spark in him that wants us to DISbelieve.

      • Burro [Mule] says

        CM – The idea of jettisoning even a spark is what Trolle wants you to do.

        My stepfather was exactly like this, a TRVE BELIEBER who could no longer believe in the Christian myth but who couldn’t bring himself to doubt the myth of positivism that governed his life, and which detained him in an ever-constricting circle of what he could be certain about. The theme song of his life was “We Won’t Be Fooled Again”.

        As China Mievelle put it so eloquently in Kraken; he’s angry at the world for being all pointless and godless. He misses it, the midnight vigils, the candlelit rallies, the self-denial for a transcendent purpose. Nothing has been able to take its place; not sex, not power, not even alcohol.

        • It’s all meaningless! (It’s Ecclesiastes!)

          And Solomon’s bottom line? “Love God and keep his commands.” That’s our sole purpose.

        • Eckhart Trolle says

          Christianity has never played the role in my life that it has for you or your stepfather. It interests me in the same way that people who worship UFOs interest me.

          • So out of the millions of options to express your interest, you choose IMONK because……..??? Fun and giggles, or you are trying to tilt some of us towards something more useful/rational/constructive… or what ?? Boredom ??

          • Greg’s questions are good, and ones that have puzzled me about our periodic atheist/agnostic visitors. I’m leaning toward believing these periodic posts are intended to persuade wobbly believers that there are no such things as UFOs, but that’d only be a guess.

          • I have my own theories, but I am very curious as to what ET has to say about this. Or would that spoil your fun?

          • Eckhart Trolle says

            Evangelical Christianity boasts political power that UFO worshippers can only dream of.

          • I’m curious how much time you spend on UFO Believer blogs. Could you point to a couple you find interesting?

      • Is this like saying that all atheists really secretly deeply do believe there is a god, they just choose to deny what they really know to be true?

        Because that’s bunk.

        • Adam Tauno Williams says

          +1 I find the ‘spark’ or the god-shaped-hole theories to be not only wrong, but disrespectful.

          I know a couple atheist pretty well, this repressed spark notion does not deal honestly with their beliefs or experiences.

          • Loosely I like the god-shaped hole talk, but more as leonard cohen and others put it, not as some apologist evangelist would.

        • David Cornwell says

          I said nothing about “secretly deeply believing in a god”. (In case this is directed to me). This is your interpretation. And for the most part I’m not concerned about the belief systems of atheists. They can believe whatever they please. I’ll engage in whatever conversation they wish, and listen respectfully. I can answer questions from them, if they are honest ones. However their arguments have no bearing on the truthfulness of Christianity. I do not consider them a threat one way or the other. And I doubt that any kind of apologetics on my part will change a person’s mind.

          Perhaps I was mistaken to say “a spark that wants to believe,” Maybe its just a spark,

          I’m not sure how this is disrespectful. If someone starts a conversation in this, a Christian forum, then it takes much than a comment about a “spark” to be disrespectful.

          • I know you didn’t, but it seemed akin to that type of thinking, so curious.

            But yeah, in many, there may indeed be a spark of “I want to believe”, and in some there is no such spark. Also, maybe even “I no longer want to believe”.

            It’s not really disrespectful.

          • David Cornwell says

            My thinking about a so-called spark is better understood in the sense that is has been used by others on occasion. Perhaps the term itself isn’t a good one, but here is are some examples of its usage that I concur with:

            “This stunning belief — that we actually hold in our heart the spark of the divine — while dramatic in Jewish and Christian revelation, is also part of other great world creeds.” — Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan

            “For in every man there is a spark of the divine, and the promise of consuming brilliance which is a dim reflection of the reward for human living on a divine plane. ”

            “seeing deeply enough into man to discover the spark of the divine in him. …

            the spark of the divine life that makes the meanest of men a messenger of the sublime truths of God by his very existence; the threat is extinguished by a steady growth in perfection, a fanning of that divine spark into a flame of charity that will culminate in the holocaust of heaven”. — “CHRIST THE MAN,” CHAPTER IX , (Q. 40-45)

        • Headless Unicorn Guy says

          Is this like saying that all atheists really secretly deeply do believe there is a god, they just choose to deny what they really know to be true?

          Because that’s bunk.

          And is also a standard trope of Conventional Christian Fiction.
          Just like all atheists thinking and speaking in fluent Christianese.

        • Atheists who waste their time on Christian blogs ridiculing the beliefs of Christians have a serious sized vacuum in their life, and vacuums never remain empty; they draw in whatever is nearest. Soon we’ll be taking ET to the river.

          • “To one who has faith, no explanation is necessary.
            To one without faith, no explanation is possible.” (Thomas Aquinas)

          • Good quote, Christiane.
            I tend to believe ET when he says he has no past family history of faith or religion. Back in my nihilist days (early to mid 20’s), I might have mocked Christians and Christianity while passing the bong with some other nihilists or agnostics in a college dorm room. But, having been raised in a Christian, church-going family, I knew better than to do it in certain contexts, like church funerals or weddings, religious student unions, or anywhere within earshot of my parents. And it wasn’t just a matter of being chicken or nonconfrontational. There was something in me that really was ashamed of having lost or thrown away something that was instilled in me by my family and the mostly Christian community I call my home town.
            People too often give or ask for simple, nutshell reasons why people believe the way they do. When it comes to personal beliefs or a person’s worldview, I think there are a lot of ingredients in that soup — much more than most of us admit to or are even fully aware of.

  2. If Wright’s interpretations involve the idea that the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans was a judgement of God against the Jews for their failure to live out the vocation he had given them, then I reject it. The idea that the destruction of Jerusalem played a part in Christ’s “vindication” is morally appalling, and that this is part of the meaning of his “coming in the clouds” in “power” is unacceptable. Here is the major root of all subsequent Christian antisemitism: the idea that when Jews suffer at the hands of pagans and gentile Christians, it is because God is executing judgement against them, and that this is will of God. If anything in Wright includes anything like this, I want nothing to do with it.

    • That’s not a specifically Christian perspective, but part of the very message of the Hebrew Bible itself.

      I too struggle with the idea of God’s judgment, but it’s pretty hard to read the Gospels without seeing that Jesus said it was coming.

      • Aside from the theological aspect, this idea has had the historic consequence of feeding and supporting centuries of Christian atrocities against Jews. I’d much rather believe that the gentile writers and redactors of the gospels wrote these prophecies into the New Testament after the destruction of Jerusalem had already occurred, as many modern scholars, perhaps the majority of both Roman Catholic and mainline Protestant scholars, have said, than subscribe to an interpretation that requires morally insupportable views of God’s nature, and that has had morally deleterious historical effects for two millennia. It may be uncomfortable and embarrassing to acknowledge that our the writers and redactors of our scriptures made some things up after the fact while pretending that they were prophesied beforehand, but there is nothing morally objectionable in such a recognition. Just the opposite, it requires a kind of moral courage to acknowledge such imperfection and unreliability in ones own sacred texts; this was the courage of the liberal Christian theology of the 19th century.

        • Let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Tomorrow we have to deal with “He will come again to judge the living and the dead.”

          I’m not exactly looking forward to it.

          • LOL . . . be at peace, this coming post and comments, too, shall pass

            I am sometimes fearful of judgment up until the moment I realize here is a God who came down and Who is not in competition with His creation, but seeks to heal it, having come for the sake of the very sinners of which I am one

            It’s not only that He came down. It’s what He chose to endure, so that we would, in our simple barbaric human minds, begin to understand the enormity of His love and the undeniable commitment of His purpose to help our kind . . .

            With what Divine mercy shall He judge ? We can’t even begin to imagine it.

      • Jesus did not march with the Romans when they destroyed Jerusalem, nor did he come in behind them to proclaim his vindication in the midst of the horror of that destruction. God is not that like that; that is, the risen Jesus I know is not like that. For me this is a theological non-negotiable. Who could trust a god who glories in the destruction of total war, men, women and children annihilated along with combatants? Not me. Such gods send their devotees to fly planes into skyscrapers.

        • The reason this idea of judgment causes so much moral angst for a lot of Christians is, I think, found in our dualism.

          If we posit a high view of God’s active, meticulous sovereignty and demand faith that God is the active mover in every swing of every sword in every war, then you have, to me, an unacceptable view of judgment.

          This is dualism though, because it is demoting the real world, the operation of wisdom, and the system of natural consequences. It becomes a smoke and mirrors show for a hyper-controlling God that is standing behind every little thing.

          That’s usually why people can’t stand judgment theology. Because we can’t separate the idea of God judging someone from the hyperactive controller God meting out personal grievances behind every bit of suffering.

          Nevertheless, we can’t slide completely into “God’s hands are completely tied and he has nothing to do with anything that happens.” That’s another dualism: God is distant and uninvolved, and because humans are responsible agents in all this, there can be no theological significance to any event.

          The middle way seems to lie in stressing the natural consequences programmed within the created order. Poke a dog enough times with a stick and it will bite. Is it God’s fault? No. Did he program the response? Yes, it would seem so. The lesson: don’t poke a dog with a stick, because dogs don’t like that. Do we need theology for this little exchange? No, but if we wanted, we could say that God created dogs (and people) with an aversion to such provocations.

          So judgment language is just a way of describing the downward spiral into political destruction that a society experiences when it persistently rejects the designs of God for humanity.

          That’s my view anyway. I’ll be interested to see tomorrow’s post.

          • Give my time to think about that. There are large swaths of scripture where a very personal God plays a very active role in judgment, rather than leaving it to the created order, so those would have to be explained within the framework of what you’ve said. That’s a lot of ‘splainin’, but I’ll think about it.

            But that doesn’t neutralize the problem that there are sections of the New Testament that are blatantly anti-Jewish. Some of the writers and redactors of the NT had it in for the Jews, I have no doubt of that.

      • Eckhart Trolle says

        The OT stresses that the fortunes of Israel wax and wane depending on its obedience to the dictates of the Yahweh cult (whose members edited the OT, or its core, into what we have today). The myth (or lie) was that this cult represented the true ancient belief of Israel’s ancestors. In fact it was a sectarian movement, intolerant of all other religious streams,, and the ancient Israelites were none other than the Canaanites. Anyway, the beauty of this central conceit is that whatever happened–good or bad–could always be explained in such a way as to bolster belief in Yahweh.

        • The problem with the OT stressing that is it’s always written after the fact. Why we go so many problems? Those dumb people years ago didn’t do what I think they should. God must be angry at us. Maybe if we just did things the way I think we should, God will bless us again.


          What a terrible way to live a life. No wonder they wandered. Nothing good about that god.

          The idea of oaths is a contract. This for that. Well, give me that first, and we’ll talk about this.

          • It’s kind of sick. “Resting on the promises.” IF you do these things, then MAYBE you’ll get these things.

            No. They should go hand in hand.

            You want worship? Bless me. Then I’ll worship.

            I absolutely will not worship you in the hopes that maybe one day you just so happen if you don’t renege on the deal to actually bless me.

            Nope. You’re a false god. You’re a bad father. There is nothing good about you.

          • Adam Tauno Williams says

            I honestly believe there is conflation involved in this issue. Devotion/Morality and Organization bound up with thinking about divine providence and blessing, or curse.

            It is pretty clear from the old testament that Israel, as a nation, had a real hard time keeping their house in order [and they wanted a king after all – I think that story gets passed over too quickly]. With a disordered house they were constantly being assailed and trampled by their neighbors. .. . does that require divine providence or is that just natural outcome? Neither were the immune to division extreme as civil war.

            A united people, focusing on a common set of values, prosper and are generally left alone by their [entirely rational] neighbors. A divided people under a corrupt and/or incompetent end up occupied, exploited, or displaced.

            This is the story not just of the Hebrews but of pretty much every people.

        • An Israel Finkelstein fan, eh?

      • Be not grim, CM: all shall be well, and all shall be well…

    • Adam Tauno Williams says

      I agree; I also wrestle with what to make of the divine provincialism that is all over Scripture. I am fine with parochial/traditional/karmic morality in the hands of humans [up to a point], there is generally a reasonable amount of truth to it. But in the hands of the divine… I don’t know, I just expect ‘better’.

      Using actual peoples, nations, and cities as symbols/experiments is the arc of many a terrible SyFy channel movie. We are OK with God doing so? Everyone crushed by the collapse of the walls of Jericho is just a Red Shirt? [will God justify it by including their name, in small print, somewhere in the end-credits after the world is concluded].

      “””Here is the major root of all subsequent Christian antisemitism: the idea that when Jews suffer at the hands of pagans and gentile Christians”””

      In fairness this conclusion is fallacious, and most often reached for when it is convenient in light of other desires and grievances. Bad Theology is Bad Theology, and fallacy is fallacy; because someone finds some excuse for a bad idea somewhere in history does not morally mitigate their choice to exercise fallacious thinking.

      • Yes, stated that incorrectly.

        The animus against Jews existed in the Gentile Christian community from very early on; there are more than a few traces of it in our New Testament, when colonial gentile occupying rulers are depicted favorably in comparison with Jews. There was conflict between the Jewish community, including the Jewish Christian community, and gentile Christians from almost the beginning, apparently. Some of that was written into our scriptures.

        The claim that the suffering of Jews at the hands of Gentiles Christians was the result of a judgement of God has been a handy theological justification used by Christians who no doubt were motivated by other reasons, and cloaked their motivations in bad theology. But I do think that in the course of history, this pretext attained a life of its own, and Christians came to believe that they were really doing the will of God by persecuting Jews. When a meretricious idea is successfully repeated often enough, it sometimes gains a life of its own, apart from its use as a pretext to justify other things. This is the case with this particular idea, which at the height of its influence in medieval times resulted in religious pageants and shrines being set up in commemoration of events when local Jewish communities were persecuted, and the persons who persecuted them.

        • “The animus against Jews existed in the Gentile Christian community from very early on”

          The whole energy of the book of Romans is working against this.

          Small wonder that from time immemorial, Christians have used Romans to proof text their justification views rather than to stress racial reconciliation, which is what Paul’s main them actually is. And then proceeded to reinforce racial divisions.

      • But in the hands of the divine…

        Seems like the quickest, easiest answer that solves nearly everything is…there is no divine. Just people ascribing divinity to things.

        Providence, maybe.

    • My recollection of Wright’s point (from the little of him I have read) is not that he said Jesus was calling down judgment on Jerusalem. Instead, he was warning them of the logical natural consequences of relying on their old view of God’s salvation of Israel. That is, God would push out the Roman oppressors and restore the Davidic Kingdom with armies and the whole bit. Instead, Jesus was trying to let them know that God was doing a new thing among them — and that he was the new thing. Miracles. Death. Resurrection. The real meaning of “blessing to all nations.”

      But…if the keep on pushing against Rome, Rome is going to push back. Not because God wills it, but because that’s what Rome does. If you stay on that bus, Jesus said, don’t be surprised when you end up in Chicago.

      At least, that’s how I recall it.

      • “If you stay on that bus, Jesus said, don’t be surprised when you end up in Chicago.”

        David, that’s a wonderful line, one I sorely needed. I’ve been finding myself getting angrier and angrier over the past several days, and marveling how eschatology is able to do this. I’m more than willing to stand on my bottom line that God is good, and then take it like it comes. All this arguing over obscure scripture concerning the future strikes me as a puppet show put on by Cy Scofield. I believe the way home involves living in the Now, not the future, or the past for that matter. I take it that living in the Now leads to the Presence of God here and now, whatever somersaults the word “parousia” might turn.

        So thanks for your great one line summation. I think I’m going to need it the rest of this week, and probably the rest of my life.

        • Adam Tauno Williams says

          > marveling how eschatology is able to do this

          Yep. I think we share very similar feelings about “eschatology”. It is a topic a Christian can never completely escape, but it is one I loathe.

        • Eschatology also makes me mad, but I think for different reasons. I hate it, but can’t avoid it.

          For me, the very word “good” is what’s at stake. At times the word becomes twisted beyond recognition.

          “To say that God’s goodness may be different in kind from man’s goodness, what is it but saying, with a slight change of phraseology, that God may possibly not be good?” – John Stuart Mill

          I’m talking about eschatology in a general sense. The sequence of events and tying things to current events and all that strikes me as silly at best and utterly harmful at worst.

          For me, eschatology has an impact on how we view our own present. And the present demands it. That seems to be a theme of the context of many eschatological statements per these first few posts – they’re used to bring meaning to the present.

          I can’t tell you the Hebrew or Greek cultural meaning of all the symbols and language, or range of meanings that a word can hold, or how it all connects. But I can identify the narratives that are constructed from them, what they say about God, and how a given narrative has affected my faith, the faith (or lack thereof) of those around me now, and how the fruit of those narratives is manifested in history.

          Eschatology can create hope or destroy it, create fear or alleviate it, assure us that loved ones (not just dead ones) are safe in the arms of God come what may or indicate that wherever humanity is going is, by any decent moral standard, considerably worse than a nightmare and utterly terrifying. It can help us to open up to our neighbors or close ourselves off. Or something in between.

      • Dave, thanks for this. I think it will help me a great deal as I prepare tomorrow’s post.

      • Yes. The course Israel was currently on would inevitably lead to a confrontation with Rome, and it wouldn’t end well for Israel. And to address the issue of vaticinium ex eventu (prophecy after the fact) by the gospel writers, whether they wrote before or after the fact has little bearing on whether Jesus actually said those things. Jesus could very well have said those things even if they did write after the events (and he could very well have not said those things even if they wrote before the events). It’s an argument that resolves nothing.

        As to whether Jesus could have said those things, I have no doubt. One did not have to be a prophet sent from God to know that bus was going to ‘end up in Chicago’. Reading Josephus makes it pretty clear things would end badly if Israel stayed on her current course (and if the zealots had their way). It reminds me of the argument the Jesus Seminar made in ‘The Five Gospels’ for rejecting as authentic any saying of Jesus that referred to his impending death. Again, Jesus didn’t have to be a prophet to see what was likely to be his fate – it had happened to many others before, and many others after.

        • It’s an argument that resolves nothing.

          I’d say it resolves quite a bit, actually. It resolves whether Jesus was a prophet in the OT sense. It resolves whether he had supernatural “vision” into the future. It resolves whether there is a duality of fulfillment. It resolves the trustworthiness, or maybe literalism, of the Gospel accounts. It resolves how we should approach the Gospels as genre (historical revision).

          And yeah, the “you weren’t there, he totally come have said that” argument makes sense but also doesn’t resolve anything. We’ve got what we’ve got, both in the bible and history and whatnot. Now we figure out what it says and means, and in the 21st century with science and research and information and the internet, never before have we been able to better answer that question. Centuries of thought and debate MUST be thrown out because they were based on poor incomplete knowledge.

          So…here we all are, lol.

          It’s kind of exciting!

          • Actually, the OT standard for a prophet had nothing to do with predicting the future in the way we’d think of it. An OT prophet was so acclaimed for his knowledge of things happening in his own lifetime, not things after his death.

          • Amen, Tokah.

          • As I think about what you said, Tokah, I think you’re right. OT prophets were more “the sky is falling NOW” and not “the sky will be falling when I’m dead.”

          • Headless Unicorn Guy says

            “Prophet” originally meant a mortal who speaks for a god, and “prophecy” the message from that god.

            “Predicting the Future” is for Fortunetellers and their crystal balls and horoscopes and sheep’s livers.

          • Tokah, actually the Old Testament prophets are replete with examples from their own time and future times.

          • Oh, their prophecies included future times, I didn’t mean to say they didn’t. But any prophet who didn’t give clear prophecies that were fulfilled in their own time was considered a false claimant to the role. So Daniel, for instance, is a prophet in the Christian Bible, but not considered a prophet by his people. Isaiah is a prophet in the eyes of both, because he was verified by thing that happened during his life as well as after his death.

      • Instead, he was warning them of the logical natural consequences of relying on their old view of God’s salvation of Israel.

        Can we say with any degree of certainty that there didn’t use to be any such old view of God’s salvation of Israel, but the paradigm that existed in Jesus’ time was made up either by post-exile biblical authors, or even later by the Maccabees?

      • Adam Tauno Williams says

        “””But…if the keep on pushing against Rome, Rome is going to push back. Not because God wills it, but because that’s what Rome does. If you stay on that bus, Jesus said, don’t be surprised when you end up in Chicago. “””

        +1 This is how I have to understand this.

        And the Chicago line is just art! Thanks for that one.

    • The destruction of the holy city, understood in terms of judgment and wrath is not a new idea with 70 AD. It started with the Hebrew prophets.

      I agree that the idea of the destruction of Jewish culture/cities/life as judgment on the nation is appalling as an excuse for Christians to persecute Jews.

      However, that isn’t possible when the whole picture is taken in: if the Church is the nation of God’s people in the same way that ancient Israel was, then the same discipline, judgment, and suffering can come upon it, if it fails in its calling. Failures in such “how we treat our neighbors, including Jews,” for instance.

      Also, the Church, properly understood, is not some something *over and against* Judaism, but something that started as ethnic Israel and has now widened to a much broader “tribe.” That is a whole ‘nother can of worms tho’…

      • That’s not the way Christians interpreted it for the first two millennia CE. They saw the Jews as a “stiff-necked people” who refused to convert because of willful and even satanic obduracy, and they thought they were doing God a favor by persecuting the Jews. How is it that Christians for two millennia were getting this so wrong, and only of late have started to get it right? Our grip on the truth is fragile, and we could lose it if we tread down the same theological pathways that earlier Christians did when interpreting the scriptures.

        • Yes, I agree, hence the can of worms.

          But it’s not possible to justify persecution of Jews from the New Testament. There was obviously animus against them even during apostolic period, or books like Romans and Ephesians wouldn’t have needed to be written. The fact that they were written tells us that the apostles were striking against it already. Jewish apostles, no less, who claimed to maintain their Judaism.

          I am loath to say that the entire church has been wrong about something since the very beginning, but this may be a case of that. It’s not the NT’s fault though.

          • Nate, There are texts in the NT that are not innocent in this regard. If you treat the NT as a whole, there is some balance, as you’ve pointed out. But there are sections that are blatantly anti-Jewish; those texts are at fault in this issue. The animus against Jews existed in the earliest Christian communities, and it exists in the texts they wrote. The texts reflect the community.

          • Are these sections explicit, or do you have to read between the lines? I get where you’re coming from with use of the phrase “the Jews,” but I don’t think it’s enough to implicate the writers in whole-hog anti-semitism or anti-Judaism. Could they not, for instance, have been referring to the authorities among the Jews, for which a convenient shorthand was “the Jews?”

            I would like to do a deeper study of such texts, and have in the case of Romans and some other Pauline sections. It’s not out of question for me that a gentile writer/character, say Luke, did not think highly of Jews, or at least the Jews of his time that he had contact with. To have an attitude about the Jews, however, is different than condoning their persecution, or much less, intentionally providing the means to justify it. The NT writers weren’t infallible, but I do believe that the texts they produced reflect the kind of community God wants the Church to be.

            Problems do arise when Christians get “proof-text mania” and start throwing around all sorts of insidious notions that they’ve found in Scripture when it’s really the dark side of their imagination.

      • Actually, earlier Christians weren’t “getting it wrong” when they interpreted parts of scripture this way; the anti-Jewish bias is there in the some of the texts, such as “His blood shall be on us and our children”. The gospels use the word Jew almost as an insult in many cases; I have to assume that gentile Christians had a large part in shaping these narratives.

        • Robert,

          It’s the opinion of Wright and others that in the Gospel of John, the word that is usually translated “Jews” should actually be translated “Judaeans” – as in, the politico-religious leaders headquartered at the Temple, who were out of touch with and looking down on the hoi polloi, and in cahoots with the Romans insofar as they were trying to keep the Romans off their backs so they could continue worship – and continue being the bankers of the Empire as well. (This is not a stereotype – Wright documents.) Hence the high priest declaring that “for the good of the people” one man should be sacrificed.

          Also, there are plenty of Jewish scholars who recognize that it was the Jews who threw the first Christians out of the Jewish assemblies (understandable from the Jewish perspective), and persecuted *them* Not in any way to justify Christians persecution of the Jews; that is completely untenable and unexcusable. Only to set the record straight.


          • I can go along with all that you say here, Dana, and still insist that there was a powerful faction in the early Church that was anti-Judaism, that they were Gentile Christians, that under their influence parts of the New Testament depict Jews in a very negative way, and that these parts of scripture have provided horrifically destructive religious ideological fuel for the Christian anti-Judaism and antisemitism of subsequent centuries through the Middle Ages, right up into the twentieth century. European Jewish communities would quake in fear when the Passion plays came to town, exactly because they were all too familiar with the violent emotions that these texts of the New Testament generated in Christians, and how those emotions could quickly turn into pogroms.

          • Again, I would love to see a more detailed exegesis of these texts. Are there any particular books you can recommend or scholars I could reference who defend this view of these texts? Not questioning your research, I’d just like to see it for myself.

          • “Most historians agree that Jesus or his followers established a new Jewish sect, one that attracted both Jewish and Gentile converts. Historians continue to debate the precise moment when Christianity established itself as a new religion, apart and distinct from Judaism. Some scholars view Christians as much as Pharisees as being competing movements within Judaism that decisively broke only after the Bar Kokhba’s revolt, when the successors of the Pharisees claimed hegemony over all Judaism, and – at least from the Jewish perspective – Christianity emerged as a new religion. Some Christians were still part of the Jewish community up until the time of the Bar Kochba revolt in the 130s, see also Jewish Christians.

            “According to historian Shaye J. D. Cohen,
            “The separation of Christianity from Judaism was a process, not an event. The essential part of this process was that the church was becoming more and more gentile, and less and less Jewish, but the separation manifested itself in different ways in each local community where Jews and Christians dwelt together. In some places, the Jews expelled the Christians; in other, the Christians left of their own accord.[26]

            “According to Cohen, this process ended in 70 CE, after the great revolt, when various Jewish sects disappeared and Pharisaic Judaism evolved into Rabbinic Judaism, and Christianity emerged as a distinct religion.[27]”

            Yes, it’s Wikipedia, but this article has many quotes from reputable scholars. Shayne Cohen is one. Amy-Jill Levine is very even-handed.

            “Simon ben Kosiba began a revolt which quickly roused the whole land. He himself was hailed as Messiah by the great rabbi Akiba, among others, and given the title Bar-Kochba, ‘Son of the star’ (referring to the prophecy of Numbers 24.17). Not everyone agreed with this designation: some sages controverted Akiba, perhaps for reasons of speculative chronology, while the Christians resident in the area, recognizing a rival to Jesus, refused to join in the movement and (according to Justin and Eusebius) were accordingly subjected to fierce persecution.” Wright, The New Testament and the People of God, 166.

            “But why did Jews persecute Christians? Were they not both in the same boat–branded as atheists, regarded as the scum of the earth, scorned when doing badly and resented when doing well? The answer here clearly lies in the ferocity of polemic between different pressure-groups, parties and/or sects with the same parent body….Here we reach the heart of it. What evokes persecution is precisely that which challenges a worldview, that which up-ends a symbolic universe…Once we understand how worldview functions, we can see that the Jewish neighbours of the early Christians must have regarded them, not as a lover of Monet regards a lover of Picasso, but as a lover of painting regards one who deliberately sets fire to art galleries–and who claims to do so in the service of Art. I therefore suggest that the beginning of the break between mainline Judaism and nascent Christianity came not with AD 70, not with some shakily reconstructed decree promulgated by the historically dubious ‘Council of Jamnia,’ but with the very early days in which a young Pharisee named Saul believed it his divine calling to obtain authority to attack and harry the little sect. Analogies within the Jewish world suggest that this pattern is correct…This, it should be noted carefully within the present debate, does not make Christianity anti-Jewish, any more than the Essenes, the Pharisees, or any other sect or group, were anti-Jewish.” Wright, NTPG, 450-52.

            “We have seen that, as was inevitable unless such communities were totally isolated from each other, the two clashed in various ways. Christianity’s claim to be the true tenants of the vineyard was, naturally, resented, just as the Pharisees, Sadducees and Essenes had long resented each other’s competing claims. So, far from being mutually isolated, Christianity and Judaism were, for the first generation at least, intertwined in ways that must at the time have seemed quite inextricable. The community of Jews knew that the Way of Jesus had been born and nurtured in their midst; the early Christians knew it too. Nor was it clear to many first-generation followers of Jesus that there were in fact two communities. In the very early days, when, according to Acts, Jews were sometimes converted in large numbers, some people undoubtedly thought that the ethnic people of the creator god and the new community created in and around Jesus would end up coterminous.” Wright, NTPG, 467-8

            “One feature of the historical/political/theological mix needs special comment. It has become commonplace to claim that the gospel narratives of the trials and death of Jesus are strongly coloured by anti-semitism. This, I believe, has not been established. It is of course true that the narratives have been read and exploited in this direction, sometimes devastatingly; but that is a fact about subsequent readers, not necessarily about the stories themselves. When the stories refer to ‘the Jews’, subsequent gentile Christianity could all too easily forget that Jesus, his family, his followers, the first Christians and some or all of the writers of the gospels, were themselves Jewish. Paul, whose own Jewishness emerges, often explicitly, with every sentence he writes, can speak of ‘the Jews’ in general to mean ‘non-Christian Jews.” The phrase can be used simply to mean ‘Judaeans’ as opposed to ‘Galileans’ and so forth (the word in Greek is after all Ioudaioi), and some of the occurrences in John clearly belong here. After all even the Hebrew Bible can speak of ‘the Jews’ in this fashion. For much of the narrative we must now examine, the phrase is used by the evangelists to denote the Jewish **leaders** (emphasis original); and it was not only the early Christians who had a quarrel with Caiaphas and his colleagues.” Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God, 541-2.

            I can’t find the Wright quote on the Temple as bank at the moment, but this should do:
            “Jesus was not committing a purely religious act by attacking the money changers and dove sellers, for the simple reason that the Jerusalem Temple was not a purely religious institution. Even though the Temple was the religious center of Jewish life, it was also much more: it was the governing institution of Israel, the center of Israel’s political life and power. It was at the Jerusalem Temple that the high priest held court and presided over the powerful Sanhedrin; it was at the Temple that the priestly aristocracy obediently represented Roman interests to their own people, at times even collecting taxes to place in Roman hands; it was at the Temple that priests issued pronouncements and decisions that affected the life of every Jew in Israel. But more than that, the Temple was the center of Israel’s economy, its central bank and treasury, the depository of immense wealth. Indeed, so much of the activity of the Jerusalem Temple hinged upon buying and selling and various modes of exchange (Wright mentions the wheat trade of the Roman Empire – D.) that it is no exaggeration to say that in a real sense the Temple was fundamentally an **economic** (emphasis original) institution.” O. Hendricks, The Politics of Jesus, 114.

            Sorry this is so long, but you asked for documentation. Wright books cited above are most complete.


          • Haha, I accidentally forgot to put Robert’s name above. I was hoping for some sources from him. But that’s awesome, I love what you posted, Dana! It’s also the way I lean in all this. Good reading.

          • @ Nate, I’m not a scholar; my sense of how things go with this subject has developed from episodic reading, not scholarly research. But there is no question that there are competent scholars who would line up on both sides in this debate.

            @ Dana, For two millennia, Christians, Roman Catholic and Orthodox first, have routinely read these texts in a way that ascribed guilt to the Jews for the rejection and killing of Christ; they were accused of having committed deicide. Interpretation is everything, and this is the way the mainstream of traditional Christianity interpreted these texts for two millennia; there is either something wrong with the texts, or something wrong with the traditions that interpreted them.

  3. –> “…but one day he will be there with us, face-to-face.”

    Most of the time, that’s a cool, comforting thought.

    And then I remember all the junk I’ve done – the selfishness and borderline narcissism, the anger, the hurt, even stuff my wife and best friends don’t know about. Yep, the reason it’s so fun to sit down with old friends is because they don’t know all my shit. I can still wear the mask with them.

    Jesus…not so much.

    Lord have mercy when we meet face-to-face.

  4. Re N.T.Wright’s statement that Jesus never said anything about his return, apparently Mr. Wright’s New Testament does not contain the first three verses of the fourteenth chapter of the Gospel of John. And just as Lazarus told the rich man that if his brothers did not believe Moses and the prophets neither would they believe if someone rose from the dead, apparently the testimony of angels (who are God’s messengers) in the first chapter of the book of Acts apparently doesn’t sway Wright either.

    • He accepts the Acts testimony, but would have a different perspective on John I’m sure. I’m not where I can look it up now, but I will later.

    • Jesus’ statement in John of preparing a place for us and coming to receive us into it, or at least the disciples, could be shown in action at the death of Stephen, tho shown to Stephen only, not those standing around him. The statement of the angels in Acts doesn’t necessarily mean any more than this, that Jesus may receive us visibly upon the death of our body, and that experience has ample anecdotal evidence from then to now. I don’t know that non-believers would have seen anything unusual at the ascension of Jesus, possibly would not have seen Jesus at all.

      If Tom Wright is right in that Jesus never said anything about his return, I find that significant. I don’t believe that your witnesses contradict this, if we are talking about a world wide “Second Coming” as widely believed. I would like you or someone else to come up with better evidence to the contrary, and I’m talking about from the mouth of Jesus, which is what Wright means. Otherwise I’ll stand with Tom on this one.

    • Devil’s Advocate: it’s by faith we accept that angels even showed up, let alone what their message was. Having angels show up and proclaim something is a great way of backdating a text to “prove” Jesus was the Messiah to later generations. It would also be borrowing a fairly common trope from previous scriptures of angels showing up to say something. See also: Jesus’ birth.

      “tell us the story, grandpa!” “see, even angels showed up to proclaim the truth.”

      • Modern Biblical scholarship has a name for the literary device of having an angel show up just at the right place in the text to offer a theological interpretation for what has just been described: it’s called am angelus interpres. Scholars say that the angels were placed in the text at those junctures not to backdate proof of any kind, but precisely to offer a theological interpretation of what has happened in the text from within the context of the Church’s faith.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      Has anyone considered that Wright might be deliberately going far in the other direction to balance out the pop eschatology mess? Re-introducing forgotten/neglected angles?

      When you’re ballasted with a heavy list to port, you return to an even keel by adding weight to the starboard side.

      • HUG,

        the pop eschatology mess doesn’t really exist in England. Wright is a historian; he is following where the trail of evidence leads.


      • I have thought of that.

        Occasionally he’ll make a statement that just a *tad* too sweeping for my taste. So it’s good to recognize that anyone is going to be working both for the truth and against the falsehoods we see around us. Wright is no exception.

    • The angels were not Jesus. Wright’s claim is that Jesus himself did not talk about it. Wright does not disbelieve the return of Christ.

      I don’t know what he would say about John 14:3. But I think his point is that even if he mentioned a return, he did not describe it or give any details. For instance, a bunch of parables are typically taken to be about Jesus’ return (the landowner coming back to his vineyard, etc). He’s saying they are about the first coming, not the second.

      The point is, this rules out things like donning a monochrome cloak, ascending a hilltop – Bible in hand – and shouting judgments about the world while believing I will be whisked into the sky any minute now.

  5. Some old wisdom related to this.

    onsider another matter upon which there is a serious and sincere difference of opinion between evangelical Christians: the second coming of our Lord. The second coming was the early Christian phrasing of hope. No one in the ancient world had ever thought, as we do, of development, progress, gradual change as God’s way of working out His will in human life and institutions. They thought of human history as a series of ages succeeding one another with abrupt suddenness. The Graeco-Roman world gave the names of metals to the ages—gold, silver, bronze, iron. The Hebrews had their ages, too—the original Paradise in which man began, the cursed world in which man now lives, the blessed Messianic kingdom someday suddenly to appear on the clouds of heaven. It was the Hebrew way of expressing hope for the victory of God and righteousness. When the Christians came they took over that phrasing of expectancy and the New Testament is aglow with it. The preaching of the apostles thrills with the glad announcement, “Christ is coming!”

    In the evangelical churches today there are differing views of this matter. One view is that Christ is literally coming, externally, on the clouds of heaven, to set up His kingdom here. I never heard that teaching in my youth at all. It has always had a new resurrection when desperate circumstances came and man’s only hope seemed to lie in divine intervention. It is not strange, then, that during these chaotic, catastrophic years there has been a fresh rebirth of this old phrasing of expectancy. “Christ is coming!” seems to many Christians the central message of the Gospel. In the strength of it some of them are doing great service for the world. But, unhappily, many so overemphasize it that they outdo anything the ancient Hebrews or the ancient Christians ever did. They sit still and do nothing and expect the world to grow worse and worse until He comes.

    Side by side with these to whom the second coming is a literal expectation, another group exists in the evangelical churches. They, too, say, “Christ is coming!” They say it with all their hearts; but they are not thinking of an external arrival on the clouds. They have assimilated as part of the divine revelation the exhilarating insight which these recent generations have given to us, that development is God’s way of working out His will. . . .

    And these Christians, when they say that Christ is coming, mean that, slowly it may be, but surely, His will and principles will be worked out by God’s grace in human life and institutions, until “He shall see of the travail of His soul and shall be satisfied.”

    Harry Emerson Fosdick


    • Now, there are multitudes of reverent Christians who have been unable to keep this new knowledge in one compartment of their minds and the Christian faith in another. They have been sure that all truth comes from the one God and is His revelation. Not, therefore, from irreverence or caprice or destructive zeal but for the sake of intellectual and spiritual integrity, that they might really love the Lord their God, not only with all their heart and soul and strength but with all their mind, they have been trying to see this new knowledge in terms of the Christian faith and to see the Christian faith in terms of this new knowledge.

      Doubtless they have made many mistakes. Doubtless there have been among them reckless radicals gifted with intellectual ingenuity but lacking spiritual depth. Yet the enterprise itself seems to them indispensable to the Christian Church. The new knowledge and the old faith cannot be left antagonistic or even disparate, as though a man on Saturday could use one set of regulative ideas for his life and on Sunday could change gear to another altogether. We must be able to think our modern life clear through in Christian terms, and to do that we also must be able to think our Christian faith clear through in modern terms.

      There is nothing new about the situation. It has happened again and again in history, as, for example, when the stationary earth suddenly began to move and the universe that had been centered in this planet was centered in the sun around which the planets whirled. Whenever such a situation has arisen, there has been only one way out—the new knowledge and the old faith had to be blended in a new combination. Now, the people in this generation who are trying to do this are the liberals, and the Fundamentalists are out on a campaign to shut against them the doors of the Christian fellowship. Shall they be allowed to succeed?


  6. This subject is way over my head, but I’m loving the pics. Very cool.

  7. The point of 1 Thess. 4 is made clear and we would all do well to take the time to look at it verse by verse so that we can be of help to those fellow believers with the utterly out-of-context Left Behind version.

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