This morning I was reading through a chapter of The Return of Jesus in Early Christianity and came upon one of the most ridiculous statements I have read in awhile. I know, I know… I need to read more. But just read how ridiculous this statement is:
“The central New Testament image of the triumphant return of Christ need not be interpreted literally, as if Jesus would actually ride the clouds back to earth in a show of glory and power visible to all.” (p.197)
I am well aware that a statement like this is not really as ridiculous as I’m suggesting in certain circles, but if we have any sense that Scripture functions as some sort of authority for the church and if our hermeneutical process includes taking the biblical author’s seriously on some level, how can a statement like this not come across as slightly ridiculous? Here are three reasons why I find a statement like this to be problematic, from both an exegetical, theological, and logical perspective:
(1) Exegetically, I find any suggestion that Jesus will not “literally” return to be ridiculous. It’s simply an unexegetical conclusion, or as is often the case based upon scholars reading into the text what is not there.
For example, in Jesus’ own words, we are told that “all the tribes of the earth… will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory” (Matt.0 24:30). This is immediately after Jesus has warned his followers not to be deceived by “false christs” (cf. Matt. 24:4-5, 23-26). If we are to understand Jesus’ return as less than literal (spiritually?), how in the world do we account for both Jesus explicit statement that everyone on earth would see his return? And how are we to understand how “false christs” come in a non-literal way (since these two concepts correspond)?
After Jesus was crucified and was literally raised from the dead, he spent some time with his disciples, teaching them about the kingdom of God (Acts 1:3). After Jesus instructed his followers to wait until the coming of the Holy Spirit (which happened “literally”), he ascended to heaven. As his disciples watched as “a cloud took him out of their sight” (Acts 1:9), two men that were dressed in white robes (angels?) told them, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into heaven? This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven” (Act 1:11). According to these two men, who have been understood as being angels, Jesus would return in the same way that he ascended, literally.
Throughout the rest of the NT, we’re told explicitly that Jesus would literally return. In fact, the Corinthians were told they were “not lacking in any gift,” as were waiting “for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Cor.1:7). The writer of Hebrews declared that “Christ… will appear a second time, not to deal with sin but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him” (Heb 9:28). Note that the unknown author uses the verb form of hora? (ophth?setai), which BDAG defines as “catch sight of, notice; visit; experience, witness; perceive; look; pay attention.” All of this seems to clearly indicate that the return of Jesus will occur literally. And by “literally,” I really mean “physically” (more on this soon.
(2) Theologically, I find any suggestion that Jesus will not “literally” return to be ridiculous. This has been the hope of orthodox Christianity for nearly 2,000 years and it is a powerful theological conclusion.
When Christian theologians are theologizing, they are seeking to think in a way that reaches conclusions based upon Scripture. At least that is the assumption. Throughout the history of the church, Jesus has always been understood as coming literally (physically), just like he said he would. This is found in creed after creed, statement of faith after statement of faith, catechism after catechism, and throughout the writings of innumerable theologians. Time and space constraints will keep this short…
For example, in the earliest non-biblical creed that we have, the Apostle’s Creed, we’re told that Jesus “shall come to judge the quick and the dead.” Or the Nicene Creed, which states that Jesus “shall come again, with glory.” Even the Athanasian Creed states that Jesus “shall come to judge the quick and the dead. At whose coming all men shall rise again with their bodies; and shall give account for their own works.”
The early Patristic church taught that Jesus would physically return (cf. the writings of Irenaeus or Justin Martyr). Fast forward to the Reformers, and we find a continuation of the same theology. In the Thirty-Six Articles (Church of England) we read:
“Christ did truly rise again from death, and took again his body, with flesh, bones, and all things appertaining to the perfection of Man’s nature; wherewith he ascended into Heaven, and there sitteth, until he return to judge all Men at the last day.”
Anglicans have understood that in the same way that Christ “truly” was raised from the dead (literally!), Jesus will return. This was the predominant view of the Reformers (cf. the Westminster Confessional of Faith, chapter 33).
Even when disagreeing about eschatology, advocates of premillennialism, amillennialism, and postmillennialism all agree that Jesus will literally (physically) return. It’s part of the apostolic faith that was delivered to and by the apostles (cf. Jude 3).
(3) Logically, I find any suggestion that Jesus will not “literally” return to be ridiculous. While it may not be intentional, statements such as this are used to imply that rational people no longer believe in the Christian faith “literally” because only “fundamentalists” believe that way.
The quote states that “the triumphant return of Christ” is “the central New Testament image.” How does one come to that conclusion? By reading the New Testament. So the author of the quote in question acknowledges that the primary source for this concept is the NT and that the NT presents the “triumphant return of Christ” as the “central image.” Hmmm.
So we’re led to believe that the NT can be trusted in it’s presentation of the central message, but we can’t allow the NT author’s to speak upon the nature of that image? Hmmm. Doesn’t that seem to be a bit illogical? It’s certainly misguided, but quite illogical.
Why should we abandon the explicit statements of Scripture and the theology of the church throughout history while taking the NT as providing a central message that we can’t believe is literal?
Is anyone else confused?
Luke is a pastor-theologian living in northern California, serving as a co-lead pastor with his life, Dawn, at the Red Bluff Vineyard. Father of five amazing kids, when Luke isn’t hanging with his family, reading or writing theology, he moonlights as a fly fishing guide for Confluence Outfitters. He blogs regularly at LukeGeraty.com and regularly contributes to his YouTube channel.