Proposal: An eschatology where God is more present than absent

When Jesus talks about “the Son of Man coming on the clouds” (Matt 16, 24, 26; Mark 13; Luke 17, 21), I believe he is using well-known metaphors to warn of a socio-political catastrophe that some of his first-century hearers would live to see.  I also believe in the future event usually called “the Second Coming,” but I believe these texts (and others like them) are not talking about that.

This is not the most important doctrinal distinction in the world. The creeds, for example, don’t address it.  But I am coming to believe it is a distinction that matters and is worth talking about.  More on that in a bit.  But first I want to give some background…

First, T.F. Torrance points out a problem in how we talk about the Coming of Christ:

It is important to recall that the apostolic witness to Christ did not speak of his advent (parousia)…in the plural, for strictly speaking there is only one saving parousia of the Son… The term parousia was used in the New Testament to speak of all three: the coming, arrival, and presence of Christ… His presence is an advent and his advent is a presence. “The hour comes and now is,” as Jesus once said [John 4:23]. The plural word, “advents” or parousiai, was not found in Christian literature for more than a century after the ascension of Christ… In one revealing statement, however, Justin Martyr spoke of what takes place in the midst of Christ’s parousia. In other words, here and now in the on-going life of the Church we live in the midst of the advent-presence of Christ, already partake of the great regeneration of the future, and share in its blessings with one another (Thomas F. Torrance, The Evangelical Theology of the Ancient Catholic Church. Edinburgh: 1988. pp. 299,300).

Our deistic culture believes in few things so profoundly as it believes in the absence of God.  We Christians seem to believe that he was present once and will someday be present again, but for now we mostly go along with the broader culture in saying that God is certainly not here now.  Except for being “present in the Spirit,” which we mostly use as a euphemism for “not really present.”

N.T. Wright explains:

When God renews the whole creation, as he has promised, bringing together heaven and earth, Jesus himself will be at the centre of it all, personally present to and with his people and ruling his world fully and finally at last… And since the ascension is often thought of in terms of Jesus ‘going away,’ this future final moment is often thought of in terms of his ‘coming back again,’ hence the shorthand ‘second coming.’  However, since the ascension in fact means that Jesus, though now invisible, is not far away but rather closely present with us, it isn’t surprising that some of the key New Testament passages speak not of his ‘return’ as though from a great distance, but of his ‘appearing’ (e.g. Colossians 3.4; 1 John 3.2)… For the early Christians, the really important event—the resurrection of Jesus—had already taken place, and his final ‘appearing’ would simply complete what had then been decisively begun (N.T. Wright, Revelation for Everyone. John Knox: 2011. pp. 224-25).

The Trinity and Humanity blog is part of a larger theological community that emphasizes the twin mysteries of Trinity & Incarnation, and the universal character of the Atonement which flows from them. This magnificent vision lives and breathes the good news of the Real Presence of the Triune God.  As such, our theological project includes re-formulating doctrines which teach or imply God’s Absence.  The popular eschatology of our day is one such doctrine that requires our attention.

Jesus and the New Testament writers have quite a lot to say about the impending destruction of Jerusalem “in this generation,” and the dark and difficult times leading up to it.  And when we take those texts and impose them upon our doctrines about the future Glorious Appearing of Christ, it has consequences.

It produces a worldview of fatalism and pessimism, because it makes us think we know what the world will look like immediately before Christ appears, and it looks awful.  When the beasts and tribulations of the first century get pasted onto our own future, it produces a vision of the world forever getting worse and worse and worse and worse and worse and worse and worse and worse and worse and worse and worse and worse and worse until Jesus comes back and fixes it, and there’s nothing any of us can do about it in the meantime, so don’t even try making the world a better place, because we already know it won’t work.

Is this our vision of the world where the life of the Father, Son, and Spirit is earthing itself in human life in the world?  Where Christ is already present and becoming more present all the time?  Do we really want to be telling people to forget the prophetic visions of a world where swords get pounded into plowshares, where everyone has their own fig tree, where it will be considered unusual for someone’s lifespan to be less than 100 years, where water will flow in the wild places and flowers will bloom in the desert?  Do we really want to be telling people to forget all that because those are visions of a world where God is present, and we don’t live in that world, at least not yet?

The Gospel is better than that.

What do you think?  Have I gone off the deep end?

40 comments so far

  1. tjbrassell on

    Hey John!

    In my humble opinion, the only “Deep end” you are swimming in is the deep end of Truth – JESUS – and of Who He REALLY is RIGHT NOW WITH and FOR all of us in His Relationship with His Father, the Holy Spirit, Humanity and all Creation! Something REALLY happened in His Ascension that set the entire Creation on a new basis that we are all slowly catching up to in His faithfulness 🙂

    As Robert Capon humorously says, the reason we don’t buy the “pig in a poke” they think we’re selling is that when we go to show them the pig it’s “invisible” and can only be seen through the eyes of Jesus’ shared faith – then it is PRESENTLY everywhere! HaHa!

    Keep it coming…this is the view that clarifies things most for me on days and moments in which I am actually able to participate with Jesus and believe it! I’ll be talking this up real soon in the congregation! Thanks! 🙂

  2. Ben on

    Excellent proposal. A good direction… so much more to reflect upon. Thanks!

  3. Ted Johnston on

    For the reasons you mention, it is more Biblically/theologically sound to refer to Jesus “appearing” (the term in the Greek NT is “parousia”) at the end of time, rather than his “return” (as in “second coming”). Indeed, Jesus is here now, through the Spirit and via his body on earth, the church (the mystical “body of Christ”)..Some day, the reality of that abiding, real presence will be made manifest when Jesus, in his glorified humanity is made visibly present for all to see (every eye will see; every knee will bow). May God speed that day, even as today, we seek to help people experience Jesus who already is present with them.

    • Ted, as always, I appreciate your gift of clear speech! Another question that’s been clanking around my brain: Can a biblical/theological argument be made that we ought to expect Christ’s Appearing to occur within any particular range of time? Such as “in my lifetime” or “before the extinction of my species,” or “before the death of my planet”? Just stretching my imagination here… Anyone?

    • tjbrassell on

      Yes, Ted, this is an excellent and profound point! It really makes all of the difference in the world when approaching this subject. It reminds me of the illustration Karl Barth uses to emphasize God Here and Now in Christ. He says our blindness to Who Jesus presently is and what He has done is like a tablecloth over a table. The table is actually there, present, under the veil, and when the veil is removed we will see more clearly the table that is already there. That illustration has forever changed my perspective in embracing the “already but not yet”. “Appearing” = excellent! 🙂

  4. billwinn on

    smokin’! Have you ever seen Dr. Mickey Efird’s study on Revelation? I think you’d love it. Our eschatology in the West is a messed up mix of Darbyism and a whole pile of young theological takes on “end times”.

    • capnkrik on

      I don’t know if he ever got around to checking our Efird and his Revelation study but it changed my whole point of view. I’ve called a heretic now by people I don’t even know…lol

  5. Thanks for the feedback, everyone! Bill Winn, I will check out this Efird dude, sounds interesting. It has been striking me really hard lately, how DEEPLY my life and worldview are affected by this core belief that the world is getting worse and worse and worse and that it’s either impossible or pointless to try to make it better. I keep finding new places in my mind where that belief is still ruling my thoughts and feelings without me being consciously aware of it.

  6. Randy Baxter on

    Excellent post. When we place our hope in the return of an absent Jesus, we end up living our lives more as functional atheists than followers of Jesus. For many years I have been of the opinion that much of Revelation and the “end times” portions of the Gospels were really about the end of the Temple era in 70 AD.

    • Thanks Randy! I don’t believe we’ve met in person, but maybe we can remedy that at a future Perichoresis gathering. It looks like you guys had way too much fun, and it’s becoming less and less acceptable for me to not be going to these things!

      • Randy Baxter on

        John, we did have a great time in Jackson. Both Tim Brassell and Bill Winn have my e-mail address. If you send me your contact info I will add you to our contact list so you will get e-mails regarding future meetings.

  7. Another question: However we may define this good/better eschatology we’re talking about here, is it possible to have this good eschatology WITHOUT disentangling the future Glorious Appearing from the “coming on the clouds” texts like Matt 16, 24, and 26; Mark 13; Luke 17 and 21?

    I would also argue that many of the “judgement parables” require a similar disentangling. I think we have often assumed that Jesus is talking about heaven and hell when he may be just talking about surviving the impending Roman smackdown.

  8. Brian on

    Hi this came across my email and since I’m preaching through the book of Mark, it seemed interesting to read. But I am still confused about what you’re actually proposing. Sorry.
    As of now, it seems you’ve embraced a type of Preterism and are contrasting this with, what seems to me to be a straw-man eschatological view. Who is “we” saying this?
    “Do we really want to be telling people to forget the prophetic visions of a world where swords get pounded into plowshares, where everyone has their own fig tree, where it will be considered unusual for someone’s lifespan to be less than 100 years, where water will flow in the wild places and flowers will bloom in the desert?”
    So could you please restate your proposal if you would please. If not, thanks anyway.

    • Hi Brian, nice to meet you! It is certainly true that my writing can be more enthusiastic than precise, so I appreciate questions that push me into greater focus and clarity.

      My point is to suggest that there are biblical and theological reasons not to see the future as a pre-ordained inexorable downward spiral. For me, at least, this is a pretty big mental shift. My ideas here are not original; most of it I have borrowed from N.T. Wright. Does that clarify things?

      • Brian on

        Thank you for your reply. I have several of Wright’s books so perhaps you can quote for me something he is saying that you might be passing on to through this blog in regards to eschatology. I guess I am still unclear about what you mean by a future which is “a pre-ordained inexorable downward spiral.” Are you a Preterist? I believe Wright is. I am not myself.

      • Hi Brian, WordPress won’t allow me to reply to your reply to my reply to your comment, so I am posting my reply as a new comment at the bottom of this list. If annoying technology is a sign of the end times, that might convince me to be less presterist-ish… 🙂

  9. […] to some of you (and even though I know many of you would find this to be a total snooze), I just posted on the Trinity and Humanity blog about how I read the “end-timey” parts of the Bible, and how I think it fits with the […]

  10. Elias on

    All the while we view God as absent from this decaying world, we continue to sing, “Our God Reigns.” Last time we sung it in church was right after one of the many mass-shootings, and it got me thinking, “is this what it looks like to have God reign?” I then thought that God reigning has little meaning if his people continually refuse to live lives of obedience. A king needs either willing subjects or an iron fist. Because we don’t want to be willing subjects, we wait for the second coming when he will rule with the iron fist, forcing his people into subjection. But, if we live lives of obedience, then perhaps we can enjoy the Kingdom of God now, without having to constantly wait for him to come and “fix” everything. Perhaps the fix is found in our obedience to our Abba.

    • As I see it, Christ reigns from the cross — a different way of ruling than the caesars who rule through violence. And I don’t think his way of ruling will ever change. But I do think you are right that our obedience to Abba is a huge piece of how the “fix” is being implemented.

  11. Sheri Kling on

    Excellent blog! I really love what you have written here.

    • John on

      Thanks John
      I agree and find that this repentance is one that has us thinking out of our own box and into the freedom of Trinity. Now is the day of salvation, and now and now and now, as the Spirit unscrambles in the Light that already is.

      • Thank you, Other John! I agree, it has always been tricky for me to think of how Jesus could be one way in his ‘first coming’ (following the way of the cross, enduring suffering for the sake of his enemies) and then another way in his “second coming’ (mass-slaughtering his enemies, soaking his robe in their blood, breaking people’s knees to force them to kneel before him, etc). This new way of thinking makes much better sense to me.

    • Thanks Sheri! But I must confess my ideas are not terribly original to me. I’ve learned most of this from N.T. Wright’s “Surprised by Hope.”

  12. tracy winbornbe on

    John:

    Give me more…I would love to hear more on the topic. One of my mentors is Tim Brassell. I’m sure he’s all over this…

    • tjbrassell on

      HaHa! You know me well bro Tracy, I AM all over it! I suggest your purchase of “Surprised By Hope” as John has mentioned! It is EXCELLENT reading along these lines and you will like it much I’m sure! Miss you man! Can’t wait for your return! 🙂

      • I believe I noticed on Amazon.com that they have turned the book into a sort of small-group video curriculum thing. I’m definitely curious about it!

  13. Carrie Smith on

    Interesting thoughts – I like them! Thanks for sharing.

  14. Ron Garrett on

    I really like N.T. Wright as well! ShackBibleGuy, you might find this interesting. He has also done a new contemporary translation of the New Testament.

  15. A reply to Brian’s request for more clarity about N.T. Wright’s position:

    Hi Brian… Here is a quote from Wright’s SURPRISED BY HOPE that might help an attempt to pin him down: “If the texts that speak of ‘the son of man coming on the clouds’ refer to A.D. 70, as I have argued that (in part) they do, this doesn’t mean that A.D. 70 was the “second coming,” because the son of man texts aren’t second coming texts at all, despite their frequent misreading that way.” That may or may not fit your definition of “preterist”?

    • Brian on

      Wright reads the gospel passages about “the Son of Man coming on the clouds” (Mark 13:26, 14:62) and said they are about Jesus’ vindication, his “coming” to heaven from earth. In other words, its referring to his ascension and session.
      This is not an uncontroverted exegetical assertion. You make it sound as if just because NTW said something, it must be true. There was a lot of debate about this assertion and Wright has not convinced most very good exegetes.
      Wright would be considered a partial-preterist (because he thinks we are still waiting for Christ to come again unlike the full preterists) and I do think preterism makes some good and valid points. Most of what Jesus was talking about I think was in AD 70. But I am convinced from my research that Wright is just wrong here with his interpretation of Jesus’ Son of man prediction, and many good professional non-dispensationalist scholars disagree with him also on exegetical grounds.
      I myself am an amillennialist and I believe the leadership of GCI affirms this eschatological view.
      So I am more clear now. Thank you.

  16. A reply to Brian’s request for clarification about what I mean by my reference to a future which is “a pre-ordained inexorable downward spiral.”

    By this, I am painting with broad strokes the vision of the future held by my dispensationalist friends. Is it an unfair characterization, do you think? What I see them doing is taking the words of Jesus (and Paul and others) about the impending catastrophe in Jerusalem (A.D. 70), and turning them into images of our future – – earthquakes, famines, wars, false messiahs, apostasy, doctrines of demons, beasts, antichrists, world governments, beast-riding whores, and a sword-wielding Jesus with his robe soaked in the blood of his enemies. My observation is that seeing these images as the world’s future tends to result in a generally pessimistic and fatalist view of history. Your thoughts?

    • Brian on

      My thoughts are that you sound like a good partial-preterist talking. Also it is important that you substantiate the things you assert on your blog from the Bible. For example, where does it say Jesus will be wearing a robe which is red because it has on it the blood of his enemies? Rev. 19:13, for one, does not say that. All it says is it is “dipped in blood” and this very well could be referring to his sacrifice on the cross. And why would a future time of tribulation and upheaval lead to pessimism when Christians are supposed to put their hope in the return of Christ the King? We are the ones who are supposed to know that this trial is temporary; that the coming Christ will put an end to it. Is it because you might be required to suffer? In the west, Christians don’t seem to take to suffering and so the dispensationalist (rapture) views and the preterist views are very popular here.

      Well that is all the time I can take for this. It was interesting. Thanks again.

  17. iamjean9 on

    I’d gotten a bit behind in my reading here – this is an excellent post, John. I’ve stopped viewing the world as a downward spiral – but I absolutely did see it that way not so long ago. I believe that, in so many ways, the world is what we make it. If we expect bad, it will come. If we expect good, it will come in a million surprising ways.

    I love what you’ve quoted here from N.T. Wright.

  18. Boyd Merriman on

    I keep telling people that Jesus told us to seek first his kingdom and his righteousness. Not seek his righteousness now and live that while seeking the kingdom to come sometime in the future. If Jesus is your king…right now…then you must assume that you are his subjects. And Jesus is not a king without a kingdom. So if you believe he IS your King now, then you are RIGHT NOW in his kingdom! Then I tell them “Welcome to the Kingdom of God!” Lets start living the Kingdom now! Not fret about the future!

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  20. […] to some of you (and even though I know many of you would find this to be a total snooze), I just posted on the Trinity and Humanity blog about how I read the “end-timey” parts of the Bible, and how I think it fits with the […]

  21. […] to some of you (and even though I know many of you would find this to be a total snooze), I just posted on the Trinity and Humanity blog about how I read the “end-timey” parts of the Bible, and how I think it fits with the […]


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