A good friend of mine has written a simple story in which the apostle Paul is transported to the twenty-first century and is disturbed to find that Jesus still hasn’t come back. It’s clear from his letters that Paul expected Jesus to return within his lifetime, or soon afterwards. But here we are two thousand years later, and there’s still no sign of him. No wonder people are walking away from Christian faith. To the rational mind, the whole notion that Jesus could, at any minute, descend bodily on the clouds of heaven just seems absurd.
From Jesus on the Mount of Olives to John on the Island of Patmos, the belief is expressed in the New Testament that dramatic events would soon unfold, and that a central feature of these events would be an epiphany of Jesus as Son of Man coming with the clouds. Jesus himself was adamant that this would take place within the lifetime of his followers. Paul is more circumspect but was clearly operating with a similar chronology. John ends his Apocalypse with the testimony of the risen Jesus, “Surely I am coming soon” (Rev. 22:20).
But what did they actually expect to happen?
Despite the best efforts of apologists, the coming of the Son of Man in Jesus’ Olivet discourse cannot be dissociated from the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple by Rome. Paul’s perspective is different. He has to incorporate the fact of the existence of churches in the Greek-Roman world into the apocalyptic narrative. So the vision gets refocused on a more remote and more expansive future.
Paul tells the believers in Rome, for example, that the time has come to wake from sleep, the night is far gone, the day is at hand. Therefore, they should cast off works of darkness (sexual immorality, drunkenness, quarrelling, etc.) and put on the “armour of light” and the Lord Jesus Christ, making “no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires” (Rom. 13:11-14). Armour is required when a person is confronted with intense, perhaps violent, opposition (cf. 1 Thess. 5:4-8; Eph. 6:11-12). When you put on the Lord Jesus Christ, you put on his faithful obedience in the face of suffering.
Paul is warning the churches in Rome that they will soon be subjected to persecution. He wasn’t wrong. Less than a decade later they would be rounded up by Nero’s police and killed as scapegoats for the great fire.
This gives us the right sort of context for Paul’s vision of the revelation of the royal parousia of Jesus.
Believers were waiting for a “day of our Lord Jesus Christ”, when Jesus would be revealed, when the Son from heaven would deliver them from the wrath to come, when the Lord Jesus would inflict vengeance on their persecutors and destroy the blasphemous “man of lawlessness” by the “breath of his mouth”, when a Saviour from heaven would transform their lowly bodies to be like his body (1 Cor. 1:8; 1 Thess. 1:9-10; 2 Thess. 1:7-8; 2:8; Phil. 3:20-21). What he is describing is the eventual deliverance of the churches from both localised and top-down persecution. The narrative is inseparable from the immediate historical context.
Paul got it wrong, but not by much
In a more graphic account of this event, he speaks of the Lord Jesus descending (katabēsetai) “from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God” (1 Thess. 4:16). This is the language of Old Testament theophany and divine intervention.
- The Psalmist petitions God: “O Lord, tilt your heavens, and come down (katabēthi); touch the mountains, and they will smoke. Flash a lightning flash, and you will scatter them; send out your arrows, and you will throw them into disarray” (Ps. 143:5–6 LXX; cf. 17:10; Neh. 9:13).
- When YHWH acts to restore his people, “the LORD will appear over them, and his arrow will go forth like lightning; the Lord GOD will sound the trumpet and will march forth in the whirlwinds of the south” (Zech. 9:14).
- Isaiah speaks of a day when a “great trumpet will be blown, and those who were lost in the land of Assyria and those who were driven out to the land of Egypt will come and worship the LORD on the holy mountain at Jerusalem” (Is. 27:13).
The language is figurative. There is no expectation of a literal descent of God, arrows flying from heaven, or a great trumpet being heard from Assyria to Egypt. The language, rather, simply makes the historical event—the defeat of Israel enemies, the ingathering of scattered Israel—a matter of divine action.
Paul certainly thought it possible that the royal parousia of Jesus would happen during his lifetime (1 Thess. 4:15), though it appears that he also had a very realistic hope of suffering to the same extent that Christ had suffered and, therefore, of participating in the resurrection from the dead (Phil. 3:10-11; cf. Col. 1:24).
He was wrong, as it turned out. The churches endured a precarious existence, with sporadic bouts of persecution, for the next two to three hundred years. But there is no question that the parousia, as he imagined it, happened within a plausible and foreseeable historical time frame. Roman persecution was brought to an end, the pagan kingdom was overthrown, Jesus was “revealed” to the nations of the empire and confessed as Lord, and the persecuted churches were vindicated—the living and the dead—for their faithful testimony.
So then we must ask whether this extraordinary transformation of the ancient world had to be accompanied by a literal descent of Jesus on the clouds from heaven.
Believing in the signifier rather than in the signified
There’s no foolproof answer to that, but my argument would be that Paul and others drew on prophetic-apocalyptic traditions to fashion a vision of the resolution of the kingdom storyline around the person of the glorified “Son of Man”, for whom and in whom the churches were suffering. But they also drew on the fact that the extravagant prophetic-apocalyptic language is not to be confused with the historical referent, the events predicted.
However, over time the language was severed from the thought-world that originally made it meaningful. The historical referent was forgotten, and increasingly the symbolism became the thing, the reality. So the parousia—the vivid image of Jesus coming to be acclaimed as king by the citizens of the empire—became a matter of belief in the actual descent of Jesus from heaven, rather than of belief in the historical reality to which the language referred. The church came to believe in the signifier rather than in the signified.
Here’s a crude analogy. A Scottish politician declares: “I predict that in the next five years a second referendum on independence will trigger the earthquake that will separate Scotland from the rest of the UK.”
Ten years later Scotland votes for independence and leaves the UK, but a diehard sect of literal-minded nationalists refuses to be happy until the earthquake happens and the sea rushes in between Scotland and England. Their belief is no longer in independence but in the earthquake, in the signifier rather than in the signified. Fifty years further on, with Scotland thoroughly assimilated into the monolith of Europe (just an analogy, folks), it begins to dawn on the more “rational” among the sectarians that the earthquake is a myth, it’s never going to happen, so they stop believing in it. But everyone—believers and sceptics alike—has forgotten what the original point of the metaphor was.
What might really puzzle Paul…
Actually, I would suggest that the question on Paul’s mind, if he were somehow transported to the twenty-first century, would not be “why hasn’t Christ come?” but “where has he gone?”
If we allow that the prophetic-apocalyptic language of the New Testament is as realistic as the prophetic-apocalyptic language of the Old Testament, it is perfectly reasonable to think—yes, with hindsight—that Paul’s parousia hope was fulfilled with the conversion of the Roman Empire.
Paul foresaw a day when the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob would be worshipped by the whole Greek-Roman oikoumenē because of Jesus, and his people would serve as a priesthood for the nations, in the place of the old pagan priesthoods. But he did not foresee the slow disintegration of that arrangement 1500 years—an age or two—later. At his parousia Jesus, seated at the right hand of God, was acclaimed as King of kings and Lord of lords by the nations of Europe. Now he has been dethroned, and his place has been taken by Reason and the many quasi-divinities of the secular-humanist pantheon.
And not surprisingly, people are asking hard rational questions about the faith that they have inherited.