So, I am starting to get a little frustrated with N.T. Wright. I love his work on the historical Jesus. He stuff on Paul is really good, too. But his eschatology is a bit squirrelly. He has a major axe to grind against the idea that Jesus might literally descend from the sky. He compares the view that Jesus will return in the clouds to "a primitive form of space travel." It was funny the first time I read it, but it's getting old. I think I might have an idea for a new drinking game--read a book by N.T. Wright on eschatology and take a drink every time he says "flying cloud," "space," "spaceship," "spaceman," or "space travel." Seriously--he says it that much.
At the same time, I have been thinking long and hard about where I disagree with Wright, and I do not think we are too far off. (I tell you what, though, if the "trumpet" spoken of in 1Thess 4 and Mat 24 plays the theme to 2001: A Space Odyssey, I will remind Wright of his demeaning comments.)
In chapter 8 of Surprised by Hope, N.T. Wright harps on the meaning of the Greek word parousia and how it has been misused in American eschatology. The word is most famously used in 1 Thessalonians 4:13–18:
"But we do not want you to be uninformed, brethren, about those who are asleep, that you may not grieve, as do the rest who have no hope. For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so God will bring with Him those who have fallen asleep in Jesus. For this we say to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive, and remain until the coming (parousia) of the Lord, shall not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord Himself will descend (katabaino) from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trumpet of God; and the dead in Christ shall rise first. Then we who are alive and remain shall be caught up (harpadzo) together with them in the clouds to meet (apantesis) the Lord in the air, and thus we shall always be with the Lord. Therefore comfort one another with these words." (NIV)
Wright notes that the Greek word parousia does not mean "coming" as in the NIV, but "presence." Wright writes, "The second meaning emerges when a person of high rank makes a visit to a subject state, particularly when a king or emperor visits a colony or province. The word for such a visit is a royal presence: in Greek, parousia. In neither setting, we note, obviously but importantly, is there the slightest suggestion of anybody flying around on a cloud [take a drink]. Nor is there any hint of the imminent collapse or destruction of the space-time [take a drink] universe." (N.T. Wright, Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church [New York: HarperOne, 2008], 129. http://www.amazon.com/Surprised-Hope-Rethinking-Resurrection-Mission/dp/0061551821/ref=pd_bbs_sr_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1211305732&sr=8-1.) A quick glance at a lexicon validates Wright's claim, that the primary meaning of the term parousia is "presence," not "coming."
Thus, to Wright, the "Second Coming" of Jesus is not about cloud spaceships, but about God being present on earth. He writes, "The reality to which it refers is this: Jesus will be personally present, the dead will be raised, and the living Christians will be transformed." (133)
However, while the word parousia can mean "presence," it can also mean "arrival." This is the sense that Paul uses it in 2 Cor 7:6, "But God, who comforts the depressed, comforted us by the coming of Titus." BDAG classifies the usage in 1 Thess 4 in this second sense, "arrival," and even under a technical use of the term referring to the "arrival" of Christ. I think that there is good reason for this. Specifically, the use of the term apantesis, "a going out to meet," in verse 17. Wright even mentions in his book that this word is used of people going out to greet a royal dignitary at his arrival. Note also that it says that the Lord will "descend" and that believers will be "caught up." There is a lot of language of movement in this verse for parousia just to mean "presence." It more likely means "arrival."
I can't wait to see the cloud spaceship. I hope its piloted by something that looks like a cross between an angel, an oompa loompa, and a klingon.
However, I am willing to grant that whatever the "Second Coming" language means, the point is this--God will be present with His people and we will be transformed. On this, Wright and I agree.
Thoughts on the cloud langauge? Do you think Jesus will literally descend from the sky, or is this just metaphor for "heaven breaking in to earth."
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