If the Incarnation and bodily Resurrection are cornerstones of the Christian faith, then the physical return of Christ is the capstone.
(Although “physical” might seem a bit redundant, we need to add that adjective in light of liberals and hyperpreterists who “spiritualize” the event.)
Not surprisingly, the NT frequently describes the Parousia in stock eschatological imagery. This, however, raises a question. While the Incarnation and Resurrection are depicted in literal terms, the Parousia is typically depicted in picture-language. To cobble together a summary description, Christ comes down from heaven. He comes on the clouds, accompanied by the heavenly host, with a trumpet fanfare. “Every eye will see him.” Christians on earth will “meet him in the air.” On top of that are the picturesque metaphors in Rev 19-22–which constitute a literary pastiche of many different OT motifs and images.
So how much of this is literal or figurative, and how do we distinguish the two? There are several reasons why it’s useful to answer that question as best we can:
i) Scoffers take figurative imagery literally, then try to press the incongruous implications of that interpretation.
ii) Since the Parousia is a fundamental article of the faith, it’s important to be clear on what the Bible actually teaches.
iii) Christians should cultivate the virtue of heavenly-mindedness, and to that end it is edifying to visualize, as best we can, the way in which the Parousia will actually occur.
Let’s consider a few data-points:
1.In Acts 1:9-11, we have a brief description of the Ascension. This is portrayed in observational language, from the viewpoint of a ground-based eyewitness (9-10). Moreover, the observers are told the return of Christ will operate the same way in reverse.
i) Given this bare-bones description, we’d expect Jesus to come down from the skies or even touch down (i.e. come all the way down to terra firma).
ii) Moreover, v9 suggests the mode of conveyance. The “cloud” is probably an allusion to the Shekinah–which, not coincidentally, also figures in the Lukan account of the Transfiguration.
2.Apropos (1-ii), the Shekinah sometimes functions like a divine vehicle of transportation. Indeed, functions like a portable throne room. God brings a bit of heaven along with him when he appears to men. The Shekinah also functions as a sort of corona, to conceal the passengers.
We have poetic depictions in Scripture (Ps 18:9-14). Very colorful. However, this is also a genuine phenomenon. We have an eyewitness report in Ezkekiel’s theophanic vision (Ezk 1).
That is how Yahweh actually appeared to the prophet. How Yahweh “came” to earth. And he was also accompanied by angels (the cherubim or seraphim).
From a distance this phenomenon has the appearance of a storm cloud, internally illuminated by lightning–like sheet lightning or ball lightning. If the initial phase of the Parousia takes place at night–and some descriptions of the Parousia accentuate the nocturnal aspect–then the effect will be quite spectacular (e.g. Catatumbo Lightning).
In all likelihood, this represents the actual mode of the Parousia. That’s how Jesus will return to earth.
3.Which also raises the question of what Jesus will do after he comes returns. Will he take us back with him to heaven? Or will he bring the saints with him to dwell on earth? And will the earth become the dwelling-place of God?
The Bible has many golden age passages about the future. This elaborates a new Eden motif. The earth as a global Eden. But is that literal or figurative?
I’d suggest two possible pointers:
i) The resurrection of the just implies a corporeal existence somewhere. Not just a state of being, but a place.
ii) In a fallen world, God uses natural evils as a penal sanction. Conversely, the ministry of Christ was, in part, a ministry of healing. Curing the sick. That marks a reversal of the curse, albeit a foretaste of things to come.
On balance, then, the final state as an earthly state seems likely. But, of course, we can always take a wait-and-see approach, for sooner or later we will find out.