The last case study in LeRon Shults’s book Christology and Scienceis parousia and physical cosmology. The first case study in this book on incarnation was interesting – but somewhat abstract. The second case study on atonement was fascinating and insightful. But … Shults out does himself in this third case study — and no, I don’t mean in clarity of prose. This chapter is not for the faint of heart in search of light (or clear) reading. An understanding of the paraousia of Christ is, however, a topic well worth discussion and I will attempt to lay out some key points for consideration.
First - it would be useful to define parousia as Shults uses the term. “In the New Testament, the Greek work “parousia” itself can mean either (or both) “presence” and “coming.” … The doctrine of the parousia attends to the variety of ways in which the biblical tradition witnesses to the experience of being confronted with the advent of God through Christ (for example, the coming of the “Son of Man”), and the relation of this arrival to the consummation of the whole created cosmos.” (p. 109)
Second - as with the doctrines of incarnation and atonement the starting point in this discussion is a realization that both the biblical witness and the contemplations of the early church fathers grapple with the parousia, the presence and coming of the risen Lord Jesus Christ, in the context of the available language, philosophy, and cosmology of the day and age. The NT writers grapple with the reality of the Jesus of their experience using language which they know is inadequate to the task. Something brand new, without precedent, had turned their world upside down. The early church fathers continue to wrestle with the new reality.
In articulating the parousia the church has used images of space and time, cause and effect, matter and spirit, that emerged out of their context and culture. The biblical witnesses and New Testament writers used the cosmological frame of reference they shared with their neighbors to describe their experience and expectation of the coming Christ and his relation to the presence of God; the eschatological presentations presupposed the cosmology of their “common knowledge;” they breathed this atmosphere and spoke this language as they tried to express in words the reality of the risen Lord.
In the early 21st century our views of space and time have been revolutionized, as have our descriptions of cause, effect and matter. The big bang, cosmology, special and general relativity, quantum indeterminacy, quarks and gluons all impact on our understanding of God’s creation and the continuing and coming presence of Jesus within creation. Many aspects of causality remain intact – but time, for example, is relative to the observer. Matter and energy are interchangeable. The universe is both infinite and expanding – there is no center. The exploitation of quantum interference effects to manipulate matter and process is an active field of research (in my lab for example). As Shults reports, the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle “is not simply an epistemological or methodological limit; the nature of sub-atomic reality is not susceptible to deterministic prediction.” (p. 123) This has profound consequences in many ways — the stability of both atoms and molecules are prime examples.
Well… as I said at the outset, this chapter gets a bit deep, in physics, philosophy, and theology. But Shults’s wrap-up makes several excellent points —
How then can we articulate belief in the resurrection, ascension and coming of Jesus Christ in dialogue with contemporary physical cosmology? Christians believe that Jesus has been raised up “bodily” into a redeemed relation to God through the Spirit. However, the way in which we articulate this belief will be shaped by what it means for a (material) body to be energized in space-time. (p. 147-148)
Watch out this gets a bit deep…
We are no longer required to imagine heaven as a place (near or far), where Jesus is watching and waiting for the right time to return. In light of contemporary cosmological categories, we can move beyond thinking of the “ascension” as a movement through space, away from a fixed inertial point, or the “coming” of Christ as a return from a particular space at a fixed time. Instead we may think of the whole parousia as the manifestation of God’s incursive and evocative redemption of space-time-matter-energy, as the arriving consummation of creaturely desire to belong to and be longed for within an infinitely redemptive field of hopeful communion.(p. 148)
(I warned you…)
Ok – here it gets a bit better:
Here we also have an opportunity to articulate a reforming Christology that makes clear why the arriving presence of God in, to and for the world is good news. Depicting the parousia as a future point on a timeline at which some of us will escape the destruction of planet earth is not only problematic for all of the biblical and scientific reasons outlined above; it also obscures our responsibility to face our neighbors in practical interdisciplinary and inter-religious dialogue about our shared longing for peaceful presence in communion.(p. 149)
Well the last quote still leaves one with a feeling of peering through a glass darkly – but the point is that the good news is not that some of us escape destruction, but that the kingdom of God, God’s new creation, is at hand – both present and coming.
This does lead to a key question…
What do we mean by the parousia – the present and coming reality of the reign of God through the Son and Spirit? What is the present and future Christian hope — the Gospel — and how can we describe the good news for our generation?