“I am concerned with Christ as He appears in the Gospels, taking the Gospel narrative as it stands, and there one does find some things that do not seem to be very wise. For one thing, he certainly thought that His second coming would occur in clouds of glory before the death of all the people who were living at that time. There are a great many texts that prove that. He says, for instance, “Ye shall not have gone over the cities of Israel till the Son of Man be come.” Then he says, “There are some standing here which shall not taste death till the Son of Man comes into His kingdom”; and there are a lot of places where it is quite clear that He believed that His second coming would happen during the lifetime of many then living. That was the belief of His earlier followers, and it was the basis of a good deal of His moral teaching. When He said, “Take no thought for the morrow,” and things of that sort, it was very largely because He thought that the second coming was going to be very soon, and that all ordinary mundane affairs did not count. I have, as a matter of fact, known some Christians who did believe that the second coming was imminent. I knew a parson who frightened his congregation terribly by telling them that the second coming was very imminent indeed, but they were much consoled when they found that he was planting trees in his garden. The early Christians did really believe it, and they did abstain from such things as planting trees in their gardens, because they did accept from Christ the belief that the second coming was imminent. In that respect, clearly He was not so wise as some other people have been, and He was certainly not superlatively wise.” Bertrand Russel, from essay Why I Am Not A Christian
We don’t need Betrand Russel to tell us Jesus was wrong about Eschatology. Most Christians think the same. Rather than become atheist like Russel, Christians just embrace the idea of everlasting soul and we never mention that early Christian kerygma contained the grizzly image of resurrection.
The Delay of the Parousia of Jesus has created an unspoken level of cognitive dissonance within the community of disciples that follow the wonder worker from Nazareth. Jesus was never bashful about proclaiming the imminence of the coming Kingdom of God. The Synoptics are full of Jesus’ more immediate eschatological leanings.
Examples abound but here are a few from the Synoptics. I do not include the Gospel of John because Johannine theology is far more reflective and a different theological animal than we find in the more rudimentary synoptic tradition.
Luke 12.35 & 40 “Be dressed in readiness and keep your lamps lit…you, too, be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an hour that you do not expect.”
The verb “to be” here in v35 is a present, active imperative. In v40, the verb “coming” is also a present imperative; it may be translated middle or passive. It is clear that Jesus is speaking of a present expectation, one he strongly believes (or at least was strongly believed in by the author of Luke) by the usage of an imperative.
Matthew 24.32-34 “Now learn the parable from the fig tree: when its branch has already become tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that the summer is near; so, you too, when you see all these things recognize that He is near, right at the door. Truly I say to you this generation will not pass away until all these things take place.
Notice the imminent tone of Jesus’ speech. Jesus is speaking future here, but doing so in an exact temporal sense that locates this future within the present of THIS generation. The word for “pass away” is in the subjunctive mood, giving it a sense of future openness, but that is negated by the “not” that precedes it. It is not a sense of indefinite passing away being referred to here. It’s a very specific location of place into which this passing will NOT go: the future. It’s presently pending. Also note the nominative “this” referring to generation. Keep in mind this verse starts where Jesus isolates his listeners as “you” in v4. This “you see” refers to a present active stance Jesus is asking of his readers/hearers.
Jesus is not lost when he thinks these events are going to transpire. He believes they will happen to the very ones with whom he is speaking.
Mark 14.61-62 “The high priest was questioning him and saying to him, “are you the Christ, the Son of the Blessed one?” And Jesus said, “I Am; and you shall see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the power and coming with the clouds in heaven.”
In this passage, Jesus makes a narratival confession of his status as Christ and links that status with the imminent coming of the end. Jesus tells the High Priest that “you” will see this. The “you” is part of the second person plural future of “see” and positions Jesus’ response to the plural scene in which he finds himself. His “you” is a reference to the characters with the narrative, not outside of it. Jesus, here, seems convinced that this gross injustice that is about to be carried out upon him will be vindicated in a very physical manifestation very shortly.
These few verses, along with the scope and content of Jesus eschatological ministry, seems to also fall in line with the major consensus’ amongst the latest NT scholarship. At bottom, Jesus was an eschatological prophet who saw his ministry as the pending coming of the Kingdom of God. He fully expected, and anticipated, its fulfillment in and through his ministry. This sense of urgency did not wane with the death of Jesus. It was alive and well within the early Christian tradition.
The Apostle Paul was also convinced of the imminence of the return of The Christ, the fulfillment of what the angels told the disciples as they saw Jesus ascend into heaven in Acts 1, “why do you stand here staring up into the sky? Don’t you know that the same Jesus that you have seen depart will return in a similar fashion?”
The Church of Acts is acting in the shadow of an imminent return and we are reminded of this at the very front of the Acts narrative. The early church took these teachings and narratives seriously.
Paul’s imminent eschatological predilections are on full display in 1 Thessalonians where he calms the fear of fellow believers who are now facing the death of those very ones to whom Jesus might have said, “this generation will not pass away.” Problem was…this generation was starting to pass away. Paul writes to assuage their fears and in the process reinforces the imminent eschatological teachings that began in Jesus’ sayings. Thessalonians is a great letter to isolate early Christian sentiment regarding the imminent return of God/the Christ because it is our earliest Christian letter (possibly as early as 38-39CE) and the church has not had the reflection of decades to fine tune its thinking.
In Paul, we do begin to see some eschatological development.
In 1 Corinthians 15, Paul merges the concept of resurrection to the final idea of Kingdom of God. Here he conflates the notion of resurrection into final parousia, a commencement that will involve the physical resurrection of the dead, and living, into an imperishable existence that can live in this coming Kingdom of God. In Paul we see the merging of the gospel traditions of Jesus teaching, with more Pharisaical leanings that taught resurrection. If one subscribes to the theory that Paul also wrote 2 Thessalonians this clearly shows a move in Paul away from imminence and toward delay…as there are some “conditions” that must be met that are wholly other than the conditions Jesus mentions in the Gospels.
The further we move from the very historical event of the Christ the more developed we get in regard to eschatology, or the coming of the God in Christ. The latter pastoral epistles then become concerned with how to “do” church and “be” church and very little attention is given to the coming of Jesus. The quicker the church can move past this unseemly historical absence, the better.
So the church stands in the wake of a grave that has been opened and a return that has not taken place. The imminence of Jesus and Paul has not been fructified, and in the process, one major element of their eschatology has been left out of the equation in regard to “last things”: resurrection. Jesus and Paul both taught that a resurrection would occur, a physical resurrection, restoration of creation as a part of God’s final victory over evil. It appears Jesus had taught Mary this on at least one occasion (John 11).
We, as the present day church, have forgotten this…and we give strange looks to people like me who want to once again move this hope front and center. You don’t believe resurrection produces weird looks and confusion? Next time you’re at church, tell someone you believe your dead corpse will once again see life and see what they say. Tell them that bodies matter to God and that the New Testament hope is fleshly resurrection, not a soulish flight to Jesus, and I promise they will look at you like you’re a Communist.
And because we forgotten resurrection we have fallen in love with an idea of Last Things that are absent the New Testaments core eschatological tenet: resurrection.
Why? How do I make this connection?
Because the church had to figure out a way of getting everyone to heaven without the event that Paul and Jesus firmly believed was necessary for any idea of God’s coming Kingdom: resurrection.
They both taught it would be imminent and was pending. Such imminence, as history continues to illustrate, was misplaced. Yet, hope in Jesus the Christ could not be misplaced due to his resurrection and despite our own. Thus, the church internalized the hope of Christians to be one of internal release, soulish ascent to heaven, that really doesn’t need a resurrection to be manifest.
Take a poll: Many Christians are content with knowing that when they die they will go to heaven. Ask if they care about being resurrected, they might not even know why you ask the question. Little wonder. Many preachers today are peddlers of soul language and confessions. Their entire object of ministry is the proverbial “never dying soul.” They are not interested in the restoration of creation as the vehicle whereby the world is restored into right relationship with God via the resurrection of Ezekiel’s dry bones.
The result has become an infatuation with spirits and souls. But how could we do otherwise? Jesus hasn’t returned and the resurrection has not happened. We have to believe in something.
No one, at least people of faith, like to think that their relatives have died and have remained rotting in their graves. We do not want to believe that our hope is somehow connected to the material body that the creator gave us before we entered the world. We want to be released from the pain and tribulation we face within our bodies. We want to believe we can escape them…not wait to be resurrected with them.
This need to escape and find a fulfillment to the “sinner’s prayer” has produced an entire generation of people that are no longer interested in being resurrected because their soul “will fly away oh glory.” If Jesus is not going to return to take our bodies, as he promised in John 14, then we need another device whereby God can fulfill his promises of salvation and get to our “mansions”. Thus, we negate all of Paul’s talk about resurrection and embrace his only verse that says “to be absent in the body is to be present with the Lord.”
The cognitive dissonance of an absent Jesus, and the absent event of resurrection, has created a vacuum of meaning that has been filled with the concepts of spirits and souls. The Greeks would be mightily proud. We no longer need resurrection to get to “heaven.” It’s not a viable element of our eschatological categories. We just need to believe on Jesus to ensure our soul flies to the right place.
Countless Maccabees died in vain. They should have known better than to think God would resurrect their corpses atop Masada.
Since Christians have traded in the currency of resurrection for the currency of the soul we are more prone to embrace ideas that are anti-Christian eschatology and pro-secular spirituality. Souls, spirits and apparitions have such a strong appeal because we have come to conclude that this vision of human eschatology (what happens after we die) is credible and it is credible because the imminent vision of Jesus and Paul has tarried too long.
One could even argue that the evacuation of resurrection space, of holy mystical space, has been left behind for that form of metaphysics we can grasp and make happen, apply.
Indeed, the absence of the coming of Jesus and the misguided imminence of Paul has created quite a problem for the church. We have turned to many idols to forget this unseemly absence. We have embraced ideas that allow us to get around resurrection and still have our Christian cake.
Not only have we embraced reason as the means by which we may know all things, but we have also opted for choices that require ourselves (our volition) to make it to heaven…rather than depend on a divine act whereby whatever is the “coming Kingdom of God” can only be given to us as a gift, a gift of resurrection that is absent our ability to believe ourselves to it.
And this is where we must make our eschatological stand. Our end, the future of the world that is God, is never something we inherently carry in our bodies or that we secure via our belief. God, the world’s future, is only given to us as a gift we could never give ourselves.
Resurrection is the ultimate gift because it is the ultimate end we can never give ourselves.