“Catholic Christians have always believed that Jesus Christ would come back to close the current period of human history in earth. The time when Jesus will return is given many names: the Day of the Lord, the Parousia, the end time, and the Second Coming of Christ.”
“Be patient therefore, brethren, until the parousia. Behold, the farmer waits for the precious fruit of the earth, being patient over it until it receives the early and the late rain. You also be patient, establish your hearts, for the parousia of the Lord has drawn near.”
Introduction: I am fairly certain that most Christians asked would maintain that they are secure in their, and I do not challenge this. What I am suggesting goes behind the curtains of that narrative to the facts related by Christian scripture: Paul’s description of the failure of God’s son the convince the Jews whom God had sent him of his mission; of Augustine’s concern regarding Christianity’s “understanding” of Jewish scripture, his reference to forging those scriptures in translation; of Augustine’s need to find a justification for Jewish survival in the post-messianic world consistent with Christianity’s understanding of God’s purpose. the failure of Paul’s original promise of an “imminent” Second Coming.
Today we turn to another and more visible problem, Paul’s original promise of Jesus imminent return known variously as the parousia, or Second Coming of Christ.
“One of the most disturbing and troubling aspects in the New Testament is it appears to many readers that the early Christians thought their savior who had just been crucified would come again very soon. If that is true, then Jesus has failed for 2,000 years to fulfill this prophecy and it would be a tremendous blow to those who claim Jesus was God and the New Testament represents His Word."
Greek icon of Second Coming, c.1700 (Wikipedia)
[For a visual history of antisemitism from the 4th to the 21stcentury, visit David Turner’s: Antisemitism in Art]
Paul’s description of the Jesus’ resurrection immediately presents a problem for the faithful. Resurrection in the Mystery religions, and as represented in the gospels, refers to a the physical return from the dead mediated by a god. Accarding to the Christian narrative this describes also Jesus, his physical return (“Doubting” Thomas needing the evidence of touch as proof). But Paul’s description begins first to the “500,” etc, witnesses to the miracle three days after his death, and then includes Paul’s own experience several decades later. Now “appearance” can refer to the physical or the imaginary. What did Paul mean in pairing the earlier and later sightings, beyond evidence of himself as Jesus representative to the gentiles; and what are the implications for Paul’s promise of everlasting life through Jesus’ intercession following his return?
“[A]ccording to the Scriptures… he appeared to Cephas, and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep... and last of all, as to one untimely born, He appeared to me also.”
It is clear in his epistles that Paul originally expected Jesus imminent return during his and the “first generation’s” lifetimes. But as time passed without the hoped for Second Coming Paul several time had to adjust his promise, to move the date ever farther into the future:
Imminent: “The hour has already come for you to wake up from your slumber, because our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed.”
Less so: “Let everyone see that you are considerate in all you do. Remember, the Lord is coming soon.”
Indefinite: “Let no one in any way deceive you, for it [Jesus return] will not come unless the apostasy comes first, and the man of lawlessness [Satan] is revealed.”
Saint Paul, Byzantine ivory relief, 6th – early 7th century (Wikipedia)
A prominent example of how the indefinitely postponed parousia introduces confusion and doubt among even the most committed of theologians is Luther’s Sermon on Luke 21 (1531):
“[The world] is the devil’s child. . . . [I]t cannot be helped nor advised… Therefore I know of no other advice and help than the coming of the Last Day. Help, dear Lord God, that the blessed day [parousia] of your holy future will soon come [my emphasis].”
The year 1000: "Manifold signs and prodigies came to pass in the world, some earlier and some later, about the thousandth year from our Lord''s birth," wrote Radulfus Glaber, one of the few contemporary historians of the period. Certainly the period leading up to the year 1000 brought with it great expectation. And however much the events the monk described were historical or exaggeration (some present day historians represent the monk as over-dramatic) it is nonetheless obvious that the approach of the year 1000 brought with it expectation, apprehension and, when Jesus failed to appear, disappointment.
“Even after the Second Coming had failed to materialize in the early 1000s C.E., there was a resurgence of apocalyptic fervor that the "End" was near. There was no shortage of prophets to predict a NEW date: The years 1186, 1229… 1492-4 were all examples of "predicted" dates… In looking for a "cause" as to why the End had NOT occurred, charismatic preachers traveled from town to town, preaching that before the Second Coming would occur that all unbelievers must first be removed from society.”
Ninety-six years later Pope Urban II initiated the First Crusade:
"This land which you inhabit, shut in on all sides by the seas and surrounded by the mountain peaks, is too narrow for your large population; nor does it abound in wealth; and it furnishes scarcely food enough for its cultivators. Hence it is that you murder one another… Enter upon the road to the Holy Sepulchre; wrest that land from the wicked race, and subject it to yourselves. That land which as the Scripture says ‘floweth with milk and honey''"
Whether the Christians “murder one another” for the reasons reputed to the pope or represented continuing fallout from the disappointed failed Second Coming; whether the centuries of superstition called the Late Middle Ages with its living presence of Satan as cause for hurricane, famine and particularly the Black Plague; whether all these could be laid at the failure of expectation and disappointment at the failure of Jesus’ return is speculation. What is apparent is that the failed parousia resulted in a migration of Christians out of the Church’s orbit and into what previously had been viewed by the Church as minor heresies. And that triggered the start of the period of the Inquisition not brought to a close until the 29th century.
The year 2000: “A poll by Time magazine (January 1999) reported that 9% of respondents fully believe that the world as we know it will end on January 1, 2000.” Several suicides by individuals and groups were reported as the fateful date approached. There was even an assault on a subway terminal intended to set the stage for Armageddon. One example of the hysteria induced by the nearness of parousia was the following:
“Before the Y2K bug came to the public''s attention, they viewed other 20th century events as signs of the Antichrist''s presence and the imminent return of Jesus…During 1999, someone associated with the Prophecy Club contacted Jewish institutions to warn the Jews that it is essential that they return to Israel because the United States Government and the United Nations are building concentration camps in America to imprison Jews and "Israel-supporting" Christians. The return of the Jews to their homeland and their subsequent acceptance of Jesus as the Messiah are seen as the key to preventing the Antichrist from ruling the world… In 1999, Jerry Falwell, a mainstream Christian evangelical leader, stated publicly that the Antichrist is Jewish.”
That attack on the subway station mentioned above did not take place in New York or Los Angeles, but in Tokyo, Japan. As reported by the Anti-defamation League (ADL), Aum Shinrikyo,
“gained worldwide attention because of its apocalyptic beliefs and its 1995 sarin poison gas attack on the Tokyo subway, which killed 12 people and sickened 6,000. Even though Aum is rooted in Japanese religious culture, its leader, Shoko Asahara, has claimed to be Jesus.”
While this incident was not committed by radical Christians it suggests something also important to our discussion, the diffusion of religion and stereotype across cultures and continents in the age of satellite television and the internet. Japan, with no significant Jewish population has, since the Holocaust, imported antisemitism from the West.
For a religion a central tenet of which is the Second Coming and the promise of “eternal life in Christ” upon his return; parousia indefinitely deferred encourages doubt, insecurity. Fear of death and the promise of immortality is an (the) important attraction to Christianity. But if death merely represents the threshold between this “veil of tears” and “life everlasting,” what place fear and trembling? Why would Pascal even propose his “wager” if the promise was free of doubt?
But our discussion is not about whether Christians are secure or not in their religion, but how doubt and anxiety resulting from doctrinal inconsistency are taken out on the Jews. Which reminds again of that quote from Pastor Nicholls:
“The presence of this question, often buried deep in the Christian mind, could not fail to cause profound and gnawing anxiety. Anxiety usually leads to hostility.”
Next week, the quest for the historical Jesus.
Recent writings in this Series: