Friday, March 28

Reflections on the Mystery of the Second Coming

This paper examines biblical and other references associated with the Second Coming to form the view it remains an enduring mystery whose immanency declined over the period up until the Council of Nicea in 320AD.

The Second Coming is best analyzed under the heading of Eschatology, where it figures strongly in religious studies. The word comes derives from two Greek words which mean last (σχατος) and study (λογία,).

The approach was to research eschatological references; to consider the revelatory, prophetic or apocalyptic passages about the second coming. What I aim to demonstrate is an evolving eschatology developed as the early church was shaped by the writer’s experiences and the tumultuous events that lead to the destruction of the second temple. I also conclude that Gnosticism was a rallying point for the various strands of orthodoxy to seek unification.
What is evident is the initial expected immediacy of the Second Coming, reasonably construed from passages in the synoptic Gospels, are not evident in Revelations and almost dissipate in Johns Gospel whose focus is the "New Symbolic Jerusalem ", rising from the ashes of the temples destruction.

This paper seeks to argue this conclusion which in turn underwrites my assertion the Second Coming remains an unresolved mystery.
Hence the research undertaken to support this conclusion is based on material in the Old and New Testaments, with particular emphasis to the book of Daniel which was written about 160 BCE and the associated literature around that time up until the destruction of the temple in 70 AD.

What became immediately apparent to me, but is hardly surprising, is the high degree of correlation of revelatory and apocalyptic references in the New Testament as if supplanted from the Old; E g the writers use these references as a means to authorities or reinforce a theme by way of rich apocalyptic imagery.
I resisted any notion to be prescriptive in relation to the teaching parables which can have many nuanced or hidden meanings, but do not seem to be prophetic in nature except for the parable of the final judgment, “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him” which comes from Daniel in the Old Testament.  

What this means is that many of the roots for such prophesies and parables are from the Jewish tradition, adapted to support the New, with revelatory truth often arising from a myth, which was a means to explain GOD who remained ineffable in the Hebrew texts. Hence we should not be surprised when confronted with meanings that seem to be obscure or mysterious because we are not privy to the context of the message, except what can be gleaned from the convention of the writer and the audience to which it is directed. Nor should we literally interpret such passages. 

A good example of Old Testament references appearing in the New comes from the book of Daniel, where scholars link to references in the synoptics to the Kingdom of GOD or Heaven.

Daniel’s text bears a striking resemblance to what is in Matthew in “But if so great a power is shown to have followed and to be still following the dispensation of His suffering, how great shall that be which shall follow His glorious advent! For He shall come on the clouds as the Son of man”, so Daniel foretold, “and His angels shall come with Him." 
The language of the “Son of Man” is used many times throughout the synoptics, as is the case in the Old to denote humanity except for its elevation in Daniel. The original source of the word “Son of Man” is from the Aramaic phrase (Bar 'eons " ) to mean a certain human being, hence "someone” or “humanity”.
There are many references in the synoptic gospels to apocalyptic end of time style prophesies heralding a second coming, with an emphasis on the sudden and unexpected, that suffice to say, I will not go into two much detail, except by way of examples:
“As the weeds are pulled up and burned in the fire, so it will be at the end of the age. The Son of Man will send out his angels, and they will weed out of his kingdom everything that causes sin and all who do evil. They will throw them into the fiery furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. He who has ears, let him hear." (Matthew 13:40-43).”
No one knows about that day or hour, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. Be on guard! Be alert! You do not know when that time will come." (Mark 13:32-33).
So, in summary, we can say Jesus’s public ministry has its roots in the Old Testament about which Jesus would have intimate knowledge.  

Hence the Old provides the foundation to the New to ensure enhanced understanding of his teaching and sayings concerning the yet to the established messianic kingdom, foretold in the Old.

The New Testament eschatology was realised to the extent of Jesus’s “Sermon on the Mount” with its love and peace theme, combined with the teaching parables and his sayings, which paved the way for the new pathway for Christianity.
But as time went on the delay in the Second Coming became a catalyst for an increasing concern over it validity, evidenced by Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians. But his emphasis wanes markedly in other letters as new dominant themes such as “Grace” emerge in the letter to the Romans.

Turning to the book of Revelations, the writers theme is the “new Jerusalem” coming down from heaven, the “holy city” (Rev. 21:2), where there is no need of a temple (Rev. 21:22).

The cosmic battle depicted could be argued was in the context of the  wrath of GOD, in judgment, to defeat the power of Rome (the Beast or Satan).  The evocative texts therefore could possibly reference either the impending temple destruction or its actual destruction, dependant upon when it was written.

There are two opposing views on when Revelations was written; one opting for a date just prior to the destruction of the Temple in A.D. 70, and the other around 95AD.

However, one might reasonably draw a conclusion the earlier date is more likely from Revelation 11:1, 2: “And there was given me a reed like unto a rod: and the angel stood, saying, Rise, and measure the temple of God, and the altar, and them that worship therein. But the court which is without the temple leave out, and measure it not; for it is given unto the Gentiles: and the holy city shall they tread under foot forty and two months”. 
The period of 42 months coincides historically with the Jewish war with Rome in AD 67 and the subsequent collapse of the temple.

Hence from the historical context of Revelations  any references to the Second Coming seems subordinate or perhaps even irrelevant to the writers theme.
References  from the Book of Revelation and Eschatology.By Dr. Kenneth L. Gentry, Jr. for further reading

Elaine Pagel who is Professor of Religion at Princeton University also provides a slightly different but insightful perspective, summarised in this book review:
“The Book of Revelation, a dark and enigmatic account of an apocalyptic end-times vision populated by warring demons and many-headed beasts, has given rise to more competing interpretations than most of the rest of the Bible combined. Even its authorship is disputed, with specialists unsure of whether the John referenced in the text is the Apostle John or a separate individual. Pagels (Religion/Princeton Univ., Reading Judas: The Gospel of Judas and the Shaping of Christianity, 2007, etc.)Explores Revelation’s outsized role in the development of Christian thought and places it in the context of its creation. Arguing that its language depicting battles in heaven and destruction on earth is a thinly veiled political screed against the pagan Roman Empire, Pagels identifies John as a Jewish refugee from Jerusalem following the destruction of the Temple. Viewing the Book through the prism of the Gnostic Gospels and the other accounts of prophetic visions that proliferated at the time, she advances the modern theory that Revelation is a Jewish Christian document fighting back against Paul’s mission to abrogate Jewish law and bring Christ’s message to the Gentiles. Pagels’ compelling, carefully researched analysis brings to life the multitude of factions that quickly arose in the nascent Christian community after the death of Jesus. The struggle to canonize Revelation was intensely controversial; to this day, believers fight over how to interpret the vision of John of Patmos, “reading their own social, political, and religious conflict into the cosmic war he so powerfully evokes.”

Scholarly but widely accessible, the book provides a solid introduction to the one book of the New Testament that claims to be divinely inspired.

Moving forward several decades after the destruction of the temple we find Johns Gospel takes a comforting approach, in John 14:3 and later in 14:8, a place for his disciples and  In (14:18) “I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you. In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me; because I live, you also will live" (14:18-19), which could conceivably be reference to the  post-resurrection appearance of Christ to the disciples.

It was also written with the aim of bringing together the competing philosophies and to combat what was deemed to be heresies.
Hence his gospel was not so much about the messianic kingdom yet to be fully realised but Christological i.e. centred in Christ “But these are written, that ye might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing ye might have life through his name.” (John 20:31).

Significantly Johns Gospel also makes no reference specifically to the Second Coming since its purpose was more to bring together the competing philosophies and to combat what was deemed to be heresies, such as Gnosticism which was a growing potent force at that time.

But Johns Christological focus was further developed by scholars who introduced the idea of the “The Johannine Community Hypothesis” which predicated a new symbolic Jerusalem to rise from the ashes of the temples destruction.

John’s approach to counter the growing gnostic movement which could not accept the validity of GOD represented in ordinary human form was to say that Jesus Christ was both fully man and fully God. 
Gnosticism was significant, as it was first major heresy faced by the Christian church, although possibly such a term was premature given at that time there was no agreed gospels, or structure but rather such diversity as we can scarcely imagine to day. Its fundamental importance as a heresy was that Gnosticism asserted you can find God yourself, and you don’t necessarily need a church or bishops or the ecclesiastical support available under orthodoxy. Hence it acted as catalysist to unify those varying strands of orthodoxy in opposition since the movement was threatening their power and influence.

Gnosticism maintained complete fullness was already present and available in the resurrected Christ, so there could be no need for a second coming.

Followers were known as Valentinians, as it was foundered on the Valentinian myth, which asserts one can rise above the fallen state of ignorance and suffering to obtain fullness spiritually in the resurrected Christ. At least that was the case for most of the movement, although there were splinters independent to Christianity. 
According to the Gnostic Society Library, “They believed that the experience expressed through the myth was real and that through visionary experiences (gnosis) and ritual one could experience the events it described. Thus the "myth" is not merely a teaching story. It is a metaphorical description of the experience of redemption.”

The traditional view that the movement may have infuriated St Paul, on the basis of exclusivity available to only those able to comprehend it, is subject to debate.

Elaine H. Pagels is Professor of Religion at Princeton University, a Gnostic expert, who argues the Pauline letters were something that the Gnostics were definitely very fond of, and she would guess, they were taught by a student of Paul. for further reading click here

So the battle lines of early Christianity was between the Valentinians (Gnostics) and evolving orthodoxy, one asserting the fall to ignorance and suffering by humanity in fullness could be redeemed in the resurrected Christ and Orthodoxy similarly accepting the risen Christ but also believing in the authority of the evolving church to develop a theology based on the truth as they perceived it.  
Herein then in the evolving orthodoxy there remained the unresolved mystery of the second coming , which found its way into the Nicene Creed and gained legitimacy with the later inclusion of the synoptic gospels into the New Testament in 380AD.   

I do not wish to cover any more ground before returning to my conclusion, since to my mind there is presented sufficient detail and argument to make my case that the Second Coming remains an enduring mystery.

But in the sense so much of the richness of a realized eschatology already exists, in that through grace and in the spirit of freedom championed by St Paul we are left to unite in peace as outlined in the Sermon on the Mount and in the parables. Is this not enough, to apply the golden rule and confine the second coming to a mystery and the doomsday prophesies that were to proceed such an event?  

But possibly I could lead the last word on the subject to Bishop Kenneth E. Untener, a native of Detroit, who has a doctorate in theology from the Gregorian University in Rome. In 1977 he was appointed rector of St. John’s Seminary, Plymouth, Michigan. In 1980 he became bishop of the Diocese of Saginaw. A writer and popular lecturer, Bishop Untener regularly conducts retreats for priests and gives talks around the country.
“The image of Jesus coming on a cloud is an apocalyptic expression, taken straight from the Book of Daniel: “I saw one like a son of man coming on the clouds of heaven (7:13) and should not be taken literally.

Instead of fretting about the question of when we are wiser to focus on the question of who, namely, upon a loving God who promises to walk with us to the end, whenever that occurs. Our understanding of the “end” flows from a real-life conviction about the here-and-now meaning of our lives and our universe. In short, we believe with St. Paul that the same God who began a good work in you will continue to complete it until the day of Christ Jesus.”
For the full reference click here

Friday, March 7

Good news is not popular

Amongst the doom and gloom of car plant closures and layoffs is some recent depressingly good news.
Australia recently quietly recorded a massive trade surplus in January of $3.4 billion, representative of the excess of exports over imports.
What a headache, imagine, we now have all that extra money as a nation trying to find a home. But wait a minute, we just had the best retail sales figures in 12 years!!
Of course some of our farmers are suffering terribly from drought effects, but elsewhere other sectors and regions more than compensated to record export sales of over $3 billion in January , buoyed by record wheat prices.

Annoyingly we have a corporate sector, that persists in taking advantage of opportunities both at home and abroad. 

Isn’t it irritating to see the giant Coles supermarket chain announce investment of another billion dollars , expected to create 16,000 jobs!!  Or worse still dynamic companies like Flight Centre, Seek and Car Sales are investing heavily in our region instead of sticking to the same old home grown market.  That might shore up our future and give us another headache as additional income accrues in the years ahead.
But what of those terrible miners, such as the world’s largest resources group BHP led by a CEO who is very concerned about global warming and the environmental effects of continual use of fossil fuels, such as coal. He wants to invest in cleaner coal technology and alternatives that don’t harm the environment!! What a tragedy! It was so much more depressingly simple before, to be pessimistic ! .

All of this may have tragic consequences, with so much positive news I’m depressed too much can go wrong!!