Tuesday, September 16, 2014

When is Jesus coming?

The revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show to his servants the things that must soon take place…Blessed is the one who reads aloud the words of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear, and who keep what is written in it, for the time is near (1:1,3).
i) Liberal preterists view this as a clear case of failed prophecy. John expected Jesus to return "soon," for the time is "near." What could be plainer? 2000 years later, that can't be true. 
Up to a point, conservative preterists (e.g. Gentry, Mathison) agree with liberal preterists, but they salvage the veracity of the prediction by redefining the terms of fulfillment. According to them, it refers, not to a personal return of Christ, but the fall of Jerusalem.
ii) However, even in the text, the timing is more ambiguous. Soon for whom? In relation to whom is the time near? According to the text, in relation to the reader (or lector). But that's not a fixed frame of reference. Which reader? Which lector? The text itself makes the timing relative to the timeframe of the lector. But different lectors read Scripture aloud at different times. They belong to different churches. The public reading of Scripture doesn't occur at just one time and place. Rather, whenever the church meets for corporate worship, Scripture is read aloud.
The time-marker is indexed to the reader. But that's a relative rather than absolute frame of reference. 
iii) In addition, there's a further complication. In Revelation, there's more than one kind of dominical coming. There are at least two, or maybe three, different ways or senses in which he comes. For instance:
Behold, he is coming with the clouds, and every eye will see him, even those who pierced him, and all tribes of the earth will wail on account of him. Even so. Amen (1:7).
i) That's a classic reference to the Second Coming. Notice the universal language. "Every eye." "All the tribes of the earth." 
ii) Morever, this has its background in Zech 12:10. Yet John adds totalizing language to stress the universality of the event. This is a global, one-time event, involving the physical return of Christ. 
iii) Notice, too, how difficult this is to square with conservative preterism:
a) To begin with, "every eye" didn't witness the fall of Jerusalem. "All tribes of the earth" didn't mourn over the fall of Jerusalem. Even most inhabitants of the Roman Empire didn't witness the fall of Jerusalem, much less inhabitants of India, China, Japan, Australia, Northern Europe, North and South America, &c. Only a tiny fraction of the human race was even alive in 70 AD. And of those, only a tiny fraction of humanity witnessed the fall of Jerusalem. Fractions of fractions of fractions. 
Perhaps a preterist would say John's language is hyperbolic. However, that's dubious, since John adds totalizing language to Zech 12:10 to accentuate the universality of the event. 
Moreover, even if the language is hyperbolic, it's one thing to exaggerate for rhetorical effect–quite another when the truth of the matter is nearly the opposite. The number of humans who witnessed the fall of Jerusalem is statistically insignificant in relation to the whole.
b) In addition to the spatial mismatch (i.e. failing to match the biogeographical scope of the claim), the preterist interpretation also succumbs to a temporal mismatch. If this refers to the fall of Jerusalem, then those who "pierced him" must be still be alive about 40 years after the fact to mourn that calamity. Minimally, those who "pieced him" must refer to the Jewish and Roman authorities in Jerusalem (i.e. Pilate, the Sanhedrin) who were party to the execution of Christ. It might also include the mob, which demanded his death.
But is there any reason to think that all, or even most, of those who were complicit in the death of Christ were still alive to witness the fall of Jerusalem? Surely many of them died in the intervening years. 
If, however, this refers to a future advent, which is roughly synchronized with the general resurrection, then they will be in a position to witness the return of Christ. 
iv) In addition to a universal, one-time coming of Christ, Revelation also refers to one or two different kinds of local, repeatable comings. Take, for instance, the Christophany in 1:9ff. Jesus makes a personal appearance to John. He comes to John on Patmos. That's clearly different from the Second Coming. It's unlikely that Jesus appeared to John in the flesh. It's a vision. The details are surreal. Yet it's a case of Jesus coming back. 
v) And we have similar examples in the letters to the seven churches:
Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first. If not, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place, unless you repent (2:5). 
Therefore repent. If not, I will come to you soon and war against them with the sword of my mouth (2:16). 
Remember, then, what you received and heard. Keep it, and repent. If you will not wake up, I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what hour I will come against you (3:3). 
Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me (3:20).
a) In context, these refer, not to the Second Coming, but to localized comings. For one thing, Christ's coming in these situations is contingent on whether or not the churches are penitent. But it's incongruous to suggest that the timing of the Second Coming is conditional on the behavior of a particular church in Asia Minor.
Since, moreover, these are different churches, the Second Coming can't be synchronized with their behavior inasmuch as the behavior of one local church isn't synchronized with the behavior of another local church. What if Ephesus repents, but Sardis does not? What if Philadelphia repents at a different time than Pergumum or Laodicea? 
In Rev 2-3, Jesus can't come back at one time or the same time (i.e. the Second Coming) if his return is contingent on events which happen at different times. So this must refer to local, repeatable comings of Christ. 
b) There's also the question of whether this involves a personal appearance/reappearance (e.g. 1:9ff.) or Jesus "coming" to them indirectly in the sense of visiting judgment on them or restoring fellowship with them. If so, that would be a different type of coming than 1:9ff.–both of which differ from 1:7. 
v) The larger point is that when Revelation says Jesus is coming "soon," or the time is "near," you can't just assume that that denotes the Second Coming, for in Revelation, Christ "comes" in different ways. When is Christ coming? In Revelation, that depends on what kind of coming is in view. 

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