Saturday, May 13, 2017

Caught up to meet him

16 For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. 17 Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord (1 Thes 4:16-17).

This is a highly significant, intriguing, and much-debated eschatological passage. I'll just comment on a few items:

i) On the face of it, v17 uses the imagery of levitation. It's naturally impossible for humans to levitate, but this could be miraculous. Many humans wish they could fly. That's a popular fantasy. We sometimes fly in dreams. And hang-gliders have settled for the next best thing. 

ii) What is meant by the "clouds"? In biblical usage, "cloud" often an idiom for the Shekinah. And that's because the Shekinah had a cloudy appearance (like plasma, dust devils, and fire devils). On that interpretation, Jesus is returning in or with the Shekinah.

iii) Yet the passage speaks of "clouds" in the plural. My guess is that it's a double entendre. The imagery is trading on the connotations of clouds overhead or clouds on the horizon to create a word-picture of Jesus descending from the sky. Obviously, we associate clouds with the sky. But the actual referent is probably the Shekinah, and not ordinary clouds (i.e. a visible mass of condensed water vapor floating in the atmosphere). It uses natural atmospheric imagery to depict the return of Jesus, but the same word triggers associations with the Shekinah. 

iv) It might be argued that the imagery is figurative. If, for instance, the trumpet in v16 is figurative, then it seems arbitrary to assume the imagery in v17 is literal. 

v) There's the question of whether v16 refers to three different things (command, voice of archangel, trumpet sound) or one thing under three different depictions. The command of Jesus is like the voice of an archangel or like a military trumpet. Implicit similes. 

vi) In principle, Jesus might well be accompanied by angels and archangels. However, I think this particular passage is using the "voice of an archangel" to describe the command of Jesus, and not a separate speaker. 

vii) The choice between literal and figurative might be a false dichotomy inasmuch as there could be a third option: something analogous to a trumpet sound. Something similar will happen. Something functionally equivalent. 

It wouldn't be surprising if the return of Christ is heralded by spectacular sounds as well as spectacular sights, to grab everyone's attention. Consider the literally earsplitting volume of the Krakatoa explosion:

It was 10:02 a.m. local time when the sound emerged from the island of Krakatoa, which sits between Java and Sumatra in Indonesia. It was heard 1,300 miles away in the Andaman and Nicobar islands (“extraordinary sounds were heard, as of guns firing”); 2,000 miles away in New Guinea and Western Australia (“a series of loud reports, resembling those of artillery in a north-westerly direction”); and even 3,000 miles away in the Indian Ocean island of Rodrigues, near Mauritius (“coming from the eastward, like the distant roar of heavy guns.”)The British ship Norham Castle was 40 miles from Krakatoa at the time of the explosion. The ship’s captain wrote in his log, “So violent are the explosions that the ear-drums of over half my crew have been shattered. My last thoughts are with my dear wife. I am convinced that the Day of Judgement has come.”

viii) in Acts 1:9-11, we have an account of the Ascension, from the viewpoint of earthbound observers. And that says the return of Christ will operate in reverse. Normally, it's hermeneutically illicit to use one writer to interpret another writer.  This, however, is more a case of using the underlying event as a frame of reference. That's a reason to view the description in 1 Thes 4:16-17 as more realistic than figurative. Mind you, even eyewitness accounts sometimes use poetic metaphors for vividness. 

1 comment:

  1. Great post Steve! I've always been mesmerized by the records of the sounds heard when God spoke as accounted for in the book of Exodus! It maybe be similar as when we read the three different accounts of God speaking in the Gospels.