by Berry Friesen (May 3, 2015)
My parents expected Jesus to appear in the clouds, summon his followers and take them to heaven. That’s what “the return of Jesus” meant to my parents. Along with many other evangelical Christians, they based this belief on a literal (as contrasted to metaphorical) reading of 1 Thessalonians 4:16-17 and the notion that God intended to evacuate Christians from doomed Earth.
Other Christians associate the return of Jesus with the end of history, when Jesus and his resurrected followers would live on Earth together in timeless bliss. This belief is based on a literal reading of chapters 20 and 21 of the last book in the Bible, Revelation.
If Not Empire, What? does not include a general discussion of this subject. Our most explicit reference is on page 335, where we state that the return of Jesus described in Revelation “is the constant irruption of the Jesus-way of life in the life of his disciples.”
Also, on pages 279-280, we cite with approval John Fairfield’s assertion that after his death and resurrection, Messiah Jesus was present and visible on Earth through the community of his followers, which the Apostle Paul called “the body of Christ.”
All of this came to mind recently as I read an energetic online discussion at Peter Enns’ website, Rethinking Christianity. I’m referring to his post, “Jesus and the delay of the Second Coming: maybe he doesn’t want to be seen with us” and the 150+ comments that follow.
Many of those comments discuss Jesus’ predictions about the future, as recorded in Mark 13, Matthew 16:27-28, Matthew 24 and Luke 21. There Jesus is quoted as predicting the destruction of Herod’s temple, the fracturing of the Jewish community, the siege of Jerusalem, the shake-up of earthly political powers and the arrival of the Son of Man in “great power and glory” (Mark 13:26). All three gospels quote Jesus to the effect that all of these events would occur within the lifetimes of his contemporaries.
Some of the comments at Enns’ blog fit the approaches described in the first two paragraphs of this post. But many take seriously Jesus’ prediction that big changes—including the arrival of the Son of Man in great power—would happen within decades of his death. To be specific, such a view (called Preterism) focuses on the first Jewish-Roman war (66 – 73 CE), during which the empire laid Jerusalem waste, destroyed Herod’s temple and ended 600 years of priestly collaboration with imperial power. Preterism understands those events to have been the judgment of God, unleashed by the Son of Man.
As for “the return of Jesus,” most Preterists believe there have been many returns, most notably the astonishing outpouring of the Spirit of Jesus at Pentecost, but others too. This seems consistent with the perspective of our book, as noted in the third paragraph above.
None of this precludes Paul’s view—as stated in 1 Corinthians 15 and elsewhere—that Jesus’ bodily return to Earth and the bodily resurrection of his followers would occur at the end of time. But it prompts us to live this time—today—with alertness and anticipation.