A follow-up to Phillip’s post on the Parousia

@lausdeo3; @servusfidelis; @citizentom

What Imminence Means

The doctrine of imminence as used by scholars and lay teachers means that the return of Christ could happen at any moment. To be sure, adherents and expositors of this teaching affirm that the “fullness of the Gentiles” must come into the Kingdom first, as per Romans 9. However, since that number is known only to God and no signs are associated with it in Romans 9, it is essentially a “signless event” that makes the return of Christ completely unpredictable from a human epistemological standpoint. Various scholars, such as Bart Ehrman among others, seem to believe that the New Testament teaches imminence.

Imminence Rejected

Imminence is not the position of the NT or the early church: it was flatly denied by various Fathers, and by the Didache. Christ and the Apostle Paul, drawing on various Old Testament sources and divine revelation, taught that the return could NOT happen at any moment within a particular framework. As we are still living within that framework, the return of Christ is not imminent within the meaning of imminence as a technical term provided above.

On a related note, imminence as defined above should not be conflated with the belief that the return of Christ could happen within one’s own lifetime. Paul may have thought that the return of Christ could happen within his lifetime, but that does not entail that: (a) he absolutely believed it would without a shadow of a doubt or (b) that it could happen at any time. Paul knew the necessary conditions for the return of Christ (and knew that they were necessary conditions) and therefore knew that if they did not obtain during his lifetime, Christ could not return during his lifetime.

Although perhaps it need not be mentioned, for the avoidance of doubt, I would also say that rejection of imminence does not entail the belief that one can know in advance the day and/or hour of Christ’s return. It is not possible to know this, for Christ Himself does not know it, only the Father, and neither directly nor indirectly is the timing or mechanism for its calculation revealed in Scripture. The position of the NT and the Fathers is simply that the return of Christ cannot happen until the necessary conditions are first met. Once they are met, the return becomes imminent, but not predictable with any fine level of granularity. All one can say once the conditions are met is that it is truly soon.

The argument may be summarised as follows:

  1. Christ cannot return until certain conditions are met.
  2. These conditions have not been met yet.
  3. Therefore, Christ’s return is not imminent.

Soon

The “soonness” within this framework of understanding provides the answer to the question of the puzzling verse, “This generation shall not pass away until all these things have been fulfilled” (Matthew 24:34). The verse cannot refer to the generation that witnessed the fall of Jerusalem in AD 70 because Christ clearly did not return in that generation’s lifetime and, in context, his return falls within the set “all these things”. It also cannot be simultaneously interpreted as “generation” and be applied to the entire inter-advental period, as that would be a contradiction and therefore meaningless and therefore false. Many successive generations of humans have lived during the inter-advental period, but “this” in context can only mean one.

The time span between the main condition for Christ’s return and the return itself is relatively brief – approximately 3.5 years. This can truly be called soon. Therefore, most assuredly, those who witness this condition – subject to untimely death – will witness the return. In otherwords, the generation that sees that sign will also see that return. There will be those alive at both the sign and the return.

The necessary conditions

The main condition that precedes the return of Christ for the purposes of the texts in the background of Phillip’s post (i.e. Matthew 24 and 2 Thessalonians 2) is the Abomination of Desolation. Once this event has occurred, Christ’s return becomes (relatively) imminent. He could return at any time following that event and indeed cannot return any later than approximately 3.5 years after that event, since the prophecies concerned indicate that He will be carrying out the Restoration on earth at that time.

Further conditions that precede the return of Christ are:

  • The Gospel being preached in all nations (Matthew 24:14)
  • The “fullness of the Gentiles” coming into the Kingdom (Romans 9)
  • The Great Cosmic Disturbance (Isaiah 13, 34; Joel 2; Matthew 24:29-30; Revelation 6)

These conditions are of varying epistemological significance. We are not really in a position to say what the Gospel being preached in all nations and the fullness of the Gentiles coming in really looks like for God’s purposes. Therefore, although these are technically conditions that affect imminence, they are not accessible to humans for prognostication purposes. Accordingly, from a pragmatic perspective, it is simpler to conclude that Christ could return at any time following the Abomination of Desolation and inception of the Great Tribulation and act in light of that position.

The Cosmic Disturbance is implied to be very close in time to the actual revelation of Christ within the Olivet Discourse and Revelation 6. Accordingly, when this event occurs, “soon” will become “within the next few days/hours/minutes”. Controversially, many have also inferred that when this event occurs, it will then be too late to repent. The Scripture is not explicit on this point and, in any event, it is not godly to leave repentance to the last minute, but the matter is raised for the sake of completeness as it is often mentioned in discourse on this topic.

Reading in context

A point must be made about the necessity of proper contextual reading and application. As with so many other parts of the Gospels and wider NT, the Olivet Discourse is not intended to be read in a vacuum. Much faulty exegesis of the Olivet Discourse and 2 Thessalonians 2 has arisen from a failure to pursue proper intertextual studies.

In order to properly understand NT eschatology, one must be familiar with OT and intertestamental texts. (In turn, a thorough understanding of these texts requires a sound grasp of Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek grammar and syntax.) These texts are also rhetorically structured. This means, that as with the writings of Paul, it is necessary at times to examine the structure of arguments more thoroughly, paying close attention to conjunctions, in order to grasp the thrust of the author’s intent.

Furthermore, in applying the prophecies to the real world, one must have an eye for typology, just as if one were studying Christology and atonement theory in the NT. The mistake made by preterists and other interpreters is failing to make a proper dichotomy between the 586 BC type and the 167 BC type (this unfortunate conflation of types has perhaps been fuelled by a widespread neglect of 1 and 2 Maccabees amongst Protestants).

As regards reading through the lens of Church tradition, the following text is also important for its rejection of imminence.

For as lawlessness increaseth, they shall hate one another and shall persecute and betray. And then the world-deceiver shall appear as a son of God; and shall work signs and wonders, and the earth shall be delivered into his hands; and he shall do unholy things, which have never been since the world began. Then all created mankind shall come to the fire of testing, and many shall be offended and perish; but they that endure in their faith shall be saved by the Curse Himself. And then shall the signs of the truth appear; first a sign of a rift in the heaven, then a sign of a voice of a trumpet, and thirdly a resurrection of the dead; yet not of all, but as it was said: The Lord shall come and all His saints with Him. Then shall the world see the Lord coming upon the clouds of heaven.

Didache 16:7-17 (Lightfoot translation)

The reader is encouraged to read Hippolytus, Justin Martyr, and Jerome for further, similar conclusions.

Tension

Lastly, a point needs to be made about tension between seeming imminence and the actual return within the NT itself and other texts (e.g. the imminence-like language of Didache 16:1-6). It is clear from the unambiguous language in the relevant texts that Christ cannot bodily return until the Abomination of Desolation and Great Tribulation occur first.

However, Christians during the days when the Temple still stood could reasonably conclude that the Abomination of Desolation might happen within their lifetimes. Furthermore, since all things are possible with God, one could never be sure in other periods that the Temple might not be rebuilt (although that looked decidedly unlikely at times). In any event, since we must all face judgment when we die, Christians are to live as if Christ could return at any moment because, from the standpoint of personal judgment, He could analogously return in the sense that we could each die at any time, given our mortality and the fragility of life. Christ and the Apostles were at all times keen to impress the importance of godly living upon their hearers and readers.

Scholar credits

Certain authors have been influential in formation of my thoughts and writing of this post.

  • Dr Alan Kurshner
  • Charles Cooper
  • Dr George Eldon Ladd
  • Dr Brock Hollett

14 thoughts on “A follow-up to Phillip’s post on the Parousia

  1. Have you ever read the WRATH OF GOD by Livio Fanzaga who includes THE ANTICHRIST by Vladimir Soloviev and the LORD OF THE WORLD by Robert Hugh Benson?

    First I would say that what you have said (in rather summarized form) gives me little to disagree with with although, your ‘belief’ that some of these ‘conditions’ necessary as prerequisites need not be so apparent as you make it sound rather obvious to everyone. It won’t be, in my estimation, or there would not be warnings that even the elect (if possible) will be deceived.

    Far too many finer points as to the operation of the Man of Sin and his seductiveness; bringing peace between religions and factions etc. And beyond that one can certainly ponder recent things which are also precursors to His appearance before the other pre-conditions . . . setting of the stage if you will. It is why some will lose their urgency at Christ’s return as they will think that it cannot occur in their own time.

    In addition the Catechism gives us another hint to what we should all be looking for in the unwinding of the coming Parousia:

    675 Before Christ’s second coming the Church must pass through a final trial that will shake the faith of many believers.574 The persecution that accompanies her pilgrimage on earth575 will unveil the “mystery of iniquity” in the form of a religious deception offering men an apparent solution to their problems at the price of apostasy from the truth. The supreme religious deception is that of the Antichrist, a pseudo-messianism by which man glorifies himself in place of God and of his Messiah come in the flesh.576

    676 The Antichrist’s deception already begins to take shape in the world every time the claim is made to realize within history that messianic hope which can only be realized beyond history through the eschatological judgment. The Church has rejected even modified forms of this falsification of the kingdom to come under the name of millenarianism,577 especially the “intrinsically perverse” political form of a secular messianism.578

    677 The Church will enter the glory of the kingdom only through this final Passover, when she will follow her Lord in his death and Resurrection.579 The kingdom will be fulfilled, then, not by a historic triumph of the Church through a progressive ascendancy, but only by God’s victory over the final unleashing of evil, which will cause his Bride to come down from heaven.580 God’s triumph over the revolt of evil will take the form of the Last Judgment after the final cosmic upheaval of this passing world.581

    To me, there is much relevance in what is happening in the world of religion and especially the Catholic Church of our day. To be placed on ready alert for other signs and movements and conditions is only an act of prudence. Whether the ‘conditions’ will be able to manifest themselves in days, weeks, months, years or even millenniums is beyond the point. For we do not understand the speed at which these can be manifest. This pandemic alone has shown us how quickly things can change and how fast a whirlwind can blow across our world and reorder our societies and reveal the tyrannical natures of our mayors, governors, bureaucrats, politicians etc. and how quick people will. fall in line like sheep and side with the dictates of dictators if they are under the stress of some imagined calamity or death. When the shepherd has been struck the sheep scatter and it is possible that the Catholic Church experienced just that since the last conclave.

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    1. Nicholas

      Certainly, I believe much that is going on today is relevant. I am concerned, however, to protect people from being duped by the pretribulational rapture theory. There are still a lot of people who think they will be “raptured outta here” before the worst hits, when Scripture and tradition are clear that the final persecution, in the days of the Antichrist, will be the worst the world has ever seen. I am concerned also that there will be various people who aren’t pre-tribbers but simply believe that all that is left is for Christ to appear (people influenced by various varieties of preterism). They too are in for a very rude awakening when things get bad.

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      1. Well we all knew one of them . . . our good friend Bosco. Being ready for the unexpected is always a good motto for the rest of us. There is never a good time in history to let one’s guard down. Always be ready for a fight even when it seems remote . . . though things don’t seem as remote in these past decades of my life as they did during the rest of my life. I am aware that things spiral out of control quicker than we usually imagine.

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      2. Nicholas

        We also have to remember that God is sovereign and permits the Great Tribulation. It is not as if the Antichrist and Satan are stronger than God. God permits them to wreak havoc because He has a purpose in it. Given that the Antichrist is able to prosper for a given period, it seems reasonable to conclude that the West will be incapacitated at that time or otherwise unwilling to engage him.

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      3. Indeed. The West’s response to this ‘pandemic’ seems to show that we are very quick to surrender Western Democracy for Totalitarianism if they can convince us that they have all the answers to our fears and misgivings. The Battle between Love and Sin is the final battle and the same one Christ won on the Cross. It is only right that we should see the Bride Christ, the Church, follow Christ’s example and let Him, once again show the entire history of mankind the power of Love to overcome Sin and Satan.

        So yes, Christ allows this to happen and Mystery of Iniquity and the Man of Sin will be defeated while Christ and Bride will prevail.

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      4. Nicholas

        Indeed, a trend in the expository community I belong to is that of the Church cruficied, as indeed Christ taught that as the world treated Him, so it will treat us – and we have seen that throughout history and even now in the ME under ISIS and in NK under the Communists.

        I would also add that Paul explicitly taught that the Day of the Lord will not come upon the elect as a surprise, but upon those in the dark – i.e. non-believers. In 2 Thessalonians 2, Paul taught that God will send a strong delusion upon the unbelievers, so that they will believe “the lie” (there is debate about what exactly this lie is, including it simply meaning falsehood generally, which is a legitimate translation of the Greek). And it should go without saying that not everyone who attends Church is part of the elect, and not everyone who properly understands the Scriptures is submissive to the Gospel. You don’t need supernatural gifting to understand large parts of the Scriptures, just a good intellect and diligence to do the necessary work.

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      5. Yes, St. Catherine of Siena was a functional illiterate and at the age of 28 was revered throughout Christendom . . . enough so that she got an audience with the Avignon Pope and convinced him to return to Rome.

        She also, I think this is relevant, tended to the plague victims of her time without any fear though 1 of 3 who had it died. Look at the response of the Church today compared to hers. Supernatural faith such as hers is a rather rare grace and even our priests, bishops and pope are making excuses for their lack of this gift of Grace.

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      6. Nicholas

        It seems to me that denying the sacraments to those who have a theology that is dependent on them is potentially tantamount to neglect and/or abuse, though I am still mulling this point. St Paul taught in Corinthians that we are to respect the consciences of other believers, even if we don’t share their views. It follows then, that if someone believes they need the sacraments, the Christian thing is to provide them, even if privately one thinks differently. It seems to me that at the very least, priests could ask their congregation to email/ring them letting them know who would like to receive the sacrament. Then the priest could travel to those who ask for it and not to those who did not reply/explicitly asked not to be approached. That would have risks, but it is a compromise that has the virtue of avoiding large gatherings and catering to people’s consciences. In former times in my Anglican parish, the priest would take consecrated hosts to the care homes, so that the elderly and infirm could receive communion if they were unable to get to Church.

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      7. A theology that is ‘dependent’ on sacraments is really a mischaracterization of the situation. The central Sacrament is the Body and Blood of Christ, of course, and yet many a Saint could not receive them in the past but perhaps once or twice a year.

        Much more important to a Catholic is at the moment of our death: to have a chance to make a good Confession of our sins and to receive absolution and our Viaticum (or food for the journey to the other side).

        Without it, as many have died without out our theology has always made allowances to ask God in our hearts (to perhaps say and Act of Contrition) and that then it is up to God to absolve us outside of the mission that he gave the Apostles and thereby the Church.

        But to abandon (as a Church) this mission in obedience to petty tyrants and to fear is not the nature of the Church as it was not the nature of Christ to fear a leper or any other person with a disease. We are primarily a Church that is here to comfort and to facilitate a good death . . . where we have made amends for our sins and asked forgiveness; to renew our strength in our faith, hope and charity and our Love of God. To abandon those in need is not something we have seen in chaplains during war or in the many plagues that have come and gone since the establishment of the Church. It is shameful to hide under your desk when the sheep are in need of their shepherd. That is what hirelings do.

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      8. Sacraments are Graces by God which might be a spiritual equivalent to a drink of water or crust of bread to those who thirst or hunger. They deliver God’s Grace to the recipient who receives them with supernatural faith and love of God. So yes, they are important to our spiritual health like medicine is important to the health of the physical body. To deny it for fear or for obedience to tyrants is something that the Church in my memory never did before in its history . . . at least not in such an overwhelming and universal way. It makes the faithful wonder if the leaders of the Faith believe what they themselves taught the faithful as they were raised spiritually by the Church. One wonders if pragmatism and physicality now trumps the supernatural and the teachings of the Church. Action is the best teaching these men could do but they will not do it though they are to do this in good times and bad.

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