Friday, December 2, 2011

Second Coming, Parousia, and Rapture

In an ealier post of a passage from the Catechetical Lectures of Cyril of Jerusalem was this phrase, "we shall go out with the angels to meet the Lord and cry out in adoration: Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord." The phrase caught my eye because I had just read something about this in N. T. Wright's book, Surprised by Hope.

In the religious circles I grew up in there was lots of emphasis on “End Times” and a particular understanding of what it meant to believe in the Second Coming of Christ. I remember seeing wall charts that had the chronology of the Last Days with descriptions of the events leading up to and immediately following Jesus’ return. It was assumed that his “return” meant that those who belonged to him and were ready would be caught up into the air, rescued from this world which would be destroyed, and removed to heaven. And it was clear that you were in trouble if you weren’t ready. We sang songs like “I Wish We’d All Been Ready” and worried about being left behind when true Christians were caught up in the rapture. It is a way of understanding things that has a potent hold on the imaginations of many Christians in America. I am convinced it is a mistaken understanding.

In an essay that can be found online, Wright takes on the popular notion of "rapture" as an escape of the redeemed from this world:
The American obsession with the second coming of Jesus — especially with distorted interpretations of it — continues unabated. Seen from my side of the Atlantic, the phenomenal success of the Left Behind books appears puzzling, even bizarre[1]. Few in the U.K. hold the belief on which the popular series of novels is based: that there will be a literal “rapture” in which believers will be snatched up to heaven, leaving empty cars crashing on freeways and kids coming home from school only to find that their parents have been taken to be with Jesus while they have been “left behind.” This pseudo-theological version of Home Alone has reportedly frightened many children into some kind of (distorted) faith.

This dramatic end-time scenario is based (wrongly, as we shall see) on Paul’s First Letter to the Thessalonians, where he writes: “For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a shout of command, with the voice of an archangel and the trumpet of God. The dead in Christ will rise first; then we, who are left alive, will be snatched up with them on clouds to meet the Lord in the air; and so we shall always be with the Lord” (1 Thessalonians 4:16-17). (Farewell to the Rapture)

In Surprised by Hope, Wright fleshes out why he thinks Rapture theology is mistaken:
Scholars and simple folk alike can be lead astray by the use of a single word to refer to something when the word in its original setting means both more and less than the use to which it is subsequently put. In this case the word in question is the Greek word parousia. This is usually translated "coming," but literally means "presence"- that is, presence as oppose to absence.

Wright points out that at the time the New Testament was written, parousia had two meanings in non-Christian discourse. One was "the mysterious presence of a god or divinity, particularly when the power of this god was revealed in healing." (Surprised by Hope, p. 128)

The other 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 royal presence: in Greek, parousia.

. . . .

Suppose [Paul and other early Christians] wanted to say that the Jesus who had been raised from the dead and exalted to God’s right hand was the rightful Lord of the world, the Emperor before whom all other emperors would shake in their shoes and bow their knees in fear and wonder. And suppose they wanted to say that, just as Caesar might one day visit a colony like Philippi or Thessalonica or Corinth (the normally absent but ruling emperor appearing and ruling in person), so the absent but ruling Lord of the world would one day appear and rule in person within this world, with all the consequences that would result. The natural words to use for this would be parousia. (p. 129)

Wright continues
When Paul speaks of “meeting” the Lord 'in the air,'” the point is precisely not – as in the popular rapture theology – that the saved believers would stay up in the air somewhere, away from earth. The point is that, having gone out to meet their returning Lord, they will escort him royally into his domain, that is, back to the place they have come from. (p. 133)

And that seems much more likely to have been Cyril's meaning. In fact, aside from being biblically suspect, it is extremely rare to find anything like the rapture theology that has so shaped the imaginations of many American Christians expressed in the early or medieval church. It does not become widespread until after 1800 and even then, as Wright indicates, only in certain segments of Americam Christianity. It hardly represents classic Christian teaching. And it tends to obsure, if not outright deny another basic aspect of classic Christianity that Cyril also alludes to: the hope that "the created world will be made new."

Next: Heaven and earth made new
Previous: Cyril & Wright on Judgment

1 comment:

Robert F said...

Of course we need sober reflection about the Parousia of Christ, because it is such an important aspect of the faith, the foundation of hope not only for ourselves but for this dying world. It is a shame that responsible Christian thinkers have let the subject be hijacked by fringe fundamentalists and date-setters.