Saturday, July 26, 2014

What Do You Mean By "Soon?"

"In the year seventy-five ten
If God's a-coming, He oughta make it by then"
—Zager and Evans, 1969

Mixed messages, somewhere west of the Mississippi River

Christians have been proclaiming the imminent return of Jesus for almost two thousand years, with nobody seeming to notice or care that the claim has become absurd, that the trail has gone cold.

Whenever someone says that Jesus is coming soon, the first thing you should ask is what do you mean by "soon?" After two thousand years of waiting, the word has been stripped of any meaning that might be reasonably ascribed to it. When your message hinges on a meaningless word, your message becomes meaningless as well. Time for a new message.

I've long been puzzled by the fixation of some Christians on end times predictions. If you'll allow me a phonetic pun, it's impossible to get the "scat" out of eschatology. The joke would be even better if the spelling would cooperate. But for practical purposes, and in the context of one's own salvation, what does it matter? If the intent is to warn the sinner that time is short, the point is better made reminding him of the precarious and undeniably brief duration of his own life. If the second coming of Jesus and one's demise both represent cutoff points in opportunities for salvation, why not go with what we know for sure? Presumably you'd get agreement from the hundred generations of Christians who have expired while waiting for the second coming that never came.

Interestingly, the notion of Jesus' return has undergone considerable revision and theological development over the centuries, but particularly in the first hundred years or so. It's fascinating to examine that development. As we do so, never forget that Jesus was a Jew, and that his public ministry was among and to fellow Jews. Jesus proclaimed a very Jewish message: that the end of time was near, the kingdom of God was at hand, and so time was short for Jews to repent and get right with God. Because of this teaching, many scholars view Jesus as a Jewish "apocalyptic prophet."

On this matter there are endless opportunities for confusion among modern day Christians who, after all, are not Jews, and who would not necessarily understand the first century Jewish context in which Jesus taught. It's really easy for Christians to misunderstand certain formulations they encounter while reading the New Testament.

For example, first century Jews understood that the "kingdom of God" (a.k.a., "kingdom of Heaven") was to be a true earthly kingdom, the ultimate fulfillment of God's relationship to his people. The kingdom would be led by a "messiah" (literally, the "anointed one"), who was a "son of God." Note that the Jewish notion of "son of God" does not imply divinity; it is not a reference to the second person of the Trinity. To first century Jews, a son of God is a man highly favored by God, who is specially engaged in furthering God's purpose. There have been sons of God throughout Jewish history, such as the great prophets.

Jewish expectations about the messiah varied. Some Jews thought the messiah would be a great warrior king, in the mold of King David. This king would vanquish Israel's enemies and occupiers—in particular the Romans—and restore the greatness and independence of the Jewish state. Given their centuries-long history of occupation, exile, and oppression, this made a lot of sense to the long-suffering Jews.

Others thought the messiah would be not so much a warrior as a great religious leader—one who would restore the relationship between God and his people through spiritual renewal.

Jesus taught that at the end of time—the establishment of God's kingdom—a judgment would occur that would welcome the righteous and exclude the corrupt. Thus the need to repent. Again, he's talking to Jews. The winnowing would be conducted by a shadowy figure referred to as the "Son of Man," a cosmic judge explicitly sent from heaven at the end of time. The term "Son of Man" likely comes from Jewish apocalyptic texts such as the Book of Daniel, and would probably not have been widely understood by all Jews at the time. There is some possible connotation of divinity (though probably not full equality with God) in the term, but this is debated among scholars. It is not at all clear that Jesus believed himself to be the Son of Man; the New Testament is ambiguous on the question.

Jesus surely believed that the kingdom of God would arrive very soon. He tells his followers that some of them will not "taste death" before the kingdom arrives (Matt 16:28). But then Jesus himself is put to death, and the distinctly Christian notion of "suffering messiah" (unthinkable to Jews) arises. Things are changing.

Jesus, according to his followers, was raised from the dead and ascended into heaven, but would return. Perhaps, in the early days after the ascension, his return was thought to be imminent. His followers certainly expected to be around when it happened. Furthermore, they became convinced that Jesus himself was the Son of Man, the cosmic judge. Now things made sense: Jesus was presently in heaven; the Son of Man would be sent from heaven at the end of the age. Ergo, waiting for the kingdom now meant waiting for Jesus.

But how soon would he return? Not right away, to be sure. At least that's how things were developing in the first few decades after the crucifixion. The rejection of Jesus by the Jews meant that salvation was now available to the Gentiles, and the mission to the Gentiles would take some time. And realize that by the time the first gospels were written—The Gospel According to Mark, the earliest, was written around 65 C.E.—Jesus had been dead for thirty to forty years. Over that time, many of his disciples had also died. The author of The Gospel According to Luke (written at least 15 years after Mark) and of Acts of the Apostles takes pains to say that Jesus would not return in his disciples' lifetimes, which was pretty much stating the obvious at that point. Still—and we cannot know this with certainty—"Luke" may have believed that, since the gospel had already been preached "to the ends of the earth," he, Luke, was in the final generation to live before the end time. In any case, Luke stresses that his readers should be concerned not with the future but with the present, and to continue to spread the gospel until the clock runs out.

The Gospel According to John is the latest of the four canonical gospels, written near the end of the first century, and represents a Christian theology that has already evolved significantly, even in comparison to the earlier gospels. By the time of John, the non-return of Jesus had been going on for perhaps sixty years or more. The gospel's author engages in a bit of semantic jousting to say that Jesus never actually promised that the "beloved disciple" (John, himself) would not die before Jesus' return (John 21:21-3). Apparently that explanation was necessary because the beloved disciple did die. Anyway, John says there's no need to wait for the end of time and Jesus' return to have eternal life; eternal life is available in the present, for all who believe in Jesus. Apocalypticism has been jettisoned. Good riddance.

There's a clear aspect over the first hundred years or so of making things up as you go, and that's not surprising: You have to adapt to unfolding developments.The imminence of God's kingdom as preached by John the Baptist, and by Jesus, didn't pan out. Jesus, a possible candidate for the job of messiah, went and got himself killed, necessitating a revised understanding of what the "messiah" was supposed to be. The earliest three gospels—the "synoptics"—never actually claimed divine status for Jesus. The latest—John—definitely does. An evolving Christology tried to make sense of who Jesus was, and of his program. Non-Jews increasingly entered the fray, bringing their own theological baggage from across the ancient world. Much remained to be worked out. Gnosticism, and a host of other "heresies," had to be defeated. "Orthodoxy" (the name by which we now refer to what remained after the theological battles of the first couple of centuries) had to be defined. It was not until the third century that Tertullian explicitly referred to the Trinity as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. It was not until the fourth century that the thing was codified in the Nicene Creed. Over time, Jesus actually became God, a development that may have surprised him.

So now we wait—for what? Good question. Christian theology still acknowledges a second coming, an end of time. The book of Revelation provides some of the bizarre details. But when? We can't know. No less an authority than Jesus himself warns that not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, know when it will be. Only the Father knows. Given what we've subsequently worked out about the Trinity, it's hard to understand how the Father keeps the secret from the Son, but never mind. (Yes, I know: Jesus knew nothing about the Trinity; he was referring to the "Son of Man," who apparently had to remain perpetually on-call for his big moment.)

Point is, if someone pretends to have an idea about timing, you should be suspicious. What we do know for sure is that nothing has happened for two thousand years. So if you tell me Jesus is "coming soon," first thing I'm gonna ask is what do you mean by "soon?"



Postscript - The billboard in the photo gives decidedly mixed messages. Presumably Christians can agree that Jesus is Lord—whatever that means. But as we have seen, the claim of  "coming soon" is decidedly suspect. Extending the incongruity, John 3:16 has nothing to do with the lordship of Jesus, nor of his return. It succinctly explains that God's great salvific act is an act of love; it is through love that God sent his Son, so that all who believe in him can be saved. It's a nice thought, even if it's unclear why "belief" is the criterion for salvation, and even if there's no evidence that it's true.

 Copyright (C) 2014 James Michael Brennan, All Rights Reserved

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