Each issue carries an
Archdiocese of Cincinnati.
Parousia: Living in the Endtime
Greek word parousia means presence
or arrival. In the ancient Greek-speaking world, it was used to describe the
ceremonial visit of a ruler or the apparition of a god.
In the New Testament it is used of the
appearance or coming of the glorified Christ at the close of salvation
history. In dramatic fashion, it expresses faith in a final act of God that
will mark the goal of human history. This act will be the establishment, in its
fullness, of the kingdom of God. After New Testament times this came to be
known, somewhat unhelpfully, as the Second Coming of Christ.
The earliest Christians expected this
consummation to happen in their own time. The expectation may be, and often is,
present in the New Testament without explicit use of the term parousia.
practice, the theme of parousia is one of the more difficult to comprehend
themes of New Testament study. First, there is the concept itself. Many
expected the parousia to occur soon, with, however, warnings that the time of
its occurrence was entirely unknown.
The parousia has to be viewed against
an apocalyptic background. One feature of apocalyptic literature is keen
expectation of the endtime. It was thought that God's final intervention would
follow hard on a perceived historical crisis.
There is in apocalyptic a looking to
life beyond death, a life very different from the life of our experience. There
is always a definitive judgment: the final clash between good and evil, issuing
in the total victory of God. There will be triumphant vindication of the elect.
All of this lies behind the imagery of the Son of Man coming in glory.
The New Testament presents a message
that is linked to a salvation history that had a beginning, developed, and was
oriented to an end fixed from the start. This end would be marked by the
triumph of God and humanity over all forces of evil.
Yet, certain as is the end of the
world, it is not at all easy to represent it. This could only be done in
imaginative and symbolic language. This symbolic language of apocalyptic makes
it more challenging for readers to understand the concept of the parousia.
Besides, Christians soon experienced
the delay of the expected parousia. They perceived that the nearness of the end
was not a question of date but a theological affirmation. The incarnation,
resurrection and exaltation of Jesus Christ have brought the religious history
of humankind nearly to the goal of its term. This is the last ageno matter how
long it may endure.
In this issue of Scripture From Scratch, we will approach
the subject of the parousia through three passages that may be taken as a
modest cross section of the New Testament. The passages will feature
modifications in the understanding of the parousia. We will see that while
expectation of the coming of the Lord is constant, the perception of it varies.
We find that expectation of an imminent coming turns out to be just
The evidence of reinterpretation in these texts is a pointer to
us today. We also seek to reinterpret the parousia in terms that make sense to
Thessalonians 4:13-18 Paul dealt with a practical problem in the Thessalonian
community: Brothers and sisters had died. In light of expectation of an
imminent coming of the Lord, it was feared that they would have missed out on a
wondrous occasion. Paul's assurance was that those who had died would be raised
for that coming.
Notable is his observation: we who are
alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord. At this stage, in his
earliest letter, Paul acknowledged the likelihood of the parousia happening in
Significant are the apocalyptic
language and imagery in the passage. We, with our scientific mentality, are
constantly tempted to translate such imagery into logical concepts. We thereby
miss the point.
Paul had inherited the Hebraic
world view, which envisaged two ages: the present age and the age to come. But
he came to regard the historical coming of Christ as the goal of God's plan of
salvation. In his perception, Christ's coming, death and resurrection were the
eschatological climaxthe fullness of time (Gal 4:4), the beginning of the
resurrection of the dead (Rom 1:4). For him, then, the two ages now
overlapped. This means that those who have believed in Christ and received the
Spirit live out their lives as Christ's in the overlap of the ages, between
It might be said that Paul's
eschatology is backward-looking rather than forward-looking; at least it lies
in tension between the two. Paul's message was eschatological not because of
what he still hoped would happen, but because of what he believed had already
What had happened (resurrection and the
gift of the Spirit) already had the character of the end and showed what the
end would be like. The heart of Paul's message in 1 Thessalonians is assurance
to his readers that all faithful Christians will be with the Lord forever. As
time went by, he came to appreciate more clearly the nature of that coming of
the Lord. He came to regard it not as another event within history but as a
history-shattering reality that communicates the fullness of life.
In his last letter he declares that the time of my departure has come (2 Tim 4:6). He looks forward to the crown
of righteousness, which he confidently knows he will receive from the Lord on
that day of the Lord's appearing. He has, in short, come to accept that the
parousia would be after his death.
This evidence of reinterpretation by
Paul offers a headline for our contemporary understanding of parousia.
Chapter 13, Mark deals with a problem in his community. His Gospel was, most
likely, written soon after 70 a.d.,
a date that marked the destruction of Jerusalem and its temple by the Romans at
the close of the disastrous Jewish-Roman war of 66-70 a.d. In the crisis atmosphere of the war, some Christians were
convinced that the end would directly follow the destruction of Jerusalem. It
had not come. They were disillusioned.
Though Mark was at pains to correct
their false interpretation, he himself believed in a real parousia and, indeed,
in its imminence. Those days, the days of the tribulation had begun (Mk
13:17-19). The parousia itself was not part of the current crisis. It would
Mark gave his impression of the
parousia in apocalyptic language in terms almost wholly drawn from the Old
Testament (13:24-25). The stage was set. Now the Son of Man could appear
For Mark, the glorified Christ would
not come to execute judgment: the one purpose of his coming was to gather
together the scattered people of Goda familiar Old Testament theme. They would
appear as his elect; they would belong to Christ (see 1 Thes 4:15-17).
Mark did believe that the parousia
would occur in his lifetime or, at least, that his generation would not have
passed before the end had come (13:30).
But he would not specify day or hour
because he could not. For that matter, neither the angels nor the Son himself
knew the precise date of the End. It remains the secret of the Father
(13:22).This statement is a pretty clear indication that Mark, like the early
church in general, was not aware of any precise prediction by Jesus. Their
expectation was a deduction from their conviction that the Christ-event had
inaugurated the last age. The culmination of that age, they felt, could not
long be delayed.
Come, Lord Jesus
Book of Revelation is the work of a Christian prophet named John (Rev 1:1,3)
addressed to a circle of Christian communities in towns of the Roman province
of Asia (western Turkey). He viewed them as threatened by persecution.
He would encourage them, but his
encouragement was paradoxical: Victory was won on the cross. This was the
pattern of Christian victory. The enduring comfort is that the powerless
victims will beand will be seen to bethe ultimate victors.
The closing promise of the Lord,
Behold, I am coming soon" (22:7), was an assurance that John's readers longed
to hear. His promise to victors was all very well. The reality was that
conquering meant dying! It was comforting to look to the One who was coming
soon, bringing his reward with him (22:12). He was the one who had conquered by
laying down his life. They, if they were faithful, would share his victory and
his triumph. They look to his coming.
In Mark 13:26-27, we have seen, the Son
of Man comes in clouds to gather his elect, to harvest them. In Revelation
14:14-20, one like a son of man" waits for the word of God, who alone knows
the hour (see Mk 13:32). The harvest is ripe. The wheat is gathered into the
heavenly barns. Behold, I am coming soon, bringing my reward with me (22:12).
The coming of Christ is a blessing for
the one who has hearkened to the challenging and encouraging prophetic message
of John. Inspired by the Spirit, the church (the bride) prays its mantra:
Our Lord, come!
The promise of coming stands in the
liturgical context of the Eucharist. As they now celebrate their Eucharist,
they have his presence with them. They have the reminder of his victory and the
assurance of his promise: As often as you eat this bread and drink the cup,
you proclaim the Lord's death until he comes (1 Cor 11:26).
They do not have to wait, bereft, for
his final coming. Yet they long for God. My desire is to depart and be with
Christ, for that is far better (Phil 1:23). It is in their going to him that
the Lord will come to themand to us.
Mark and the seer John all seemed to expect an imminent parousia. Were they,
then, mistaken? In one sense, obviously, yes. The parousia of the Son of Man
did not happen in their time; it has not happened up to our day.
Yet, we find a basic truth in their
conviction. The death and rising of Jesus did usher in the last age. In Jesus,
God had spoken his final word (see Heb 1:2); there remains only the consummation
(see 1 Cor 15:28).
Besides, parousia is a symboleven an
apocalyptic symbol (see Mk 13:24-27; 1 Thess 4:16-17). It gives dramatic
expression to the belief that God's saving plan must be perfectly rounded. And
there is a fittingness to the symbol.
God's definitive act was the sending of
his Son. The reappearance of that Son, in glory, would signal the triumphant
close of the drama of salvation. It is somewhat akin to the white screen with
its THE END at the finish of old-time movies.
Perhaps it is best to recognize that
the parousia is myth. Myth is a symbolic form of expression couched in
narrative that is not intended to be historical. It deals with realities that
transcend experience. The parousia is just such a reality: the final victory of
God in Christ made wholly manifest. This can only be expressed in symbol and
imagery. It is, properly understood, myth.
While we cannot share the view that the
end is near, nor look for a coming of the Son of Man on clouds, we do share the
faith of the first Christians in God's victory in Christ. And, for each of us,
the parousia will be our meeting with Christ when we pass out of this life
into the life of God. It should be our Christian hope that we will be fondly
welcomed by him.
After all, Paul, despite his own words
about parousia, when it came to it, spoke not of Christ coming to him but,
rather, of his going to Christ: For to me, living is Christ and dying is
My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better"
Next: Matthew's Five Sermons (by
Barbara Reid, O.P.)