Today we continue our series on the problem of the parousia as we turn to a sure guide in matters of biblical interpretation: our Holy Father Pope Benedict. In the following posts, we will be exploring how he deals with the problem of the early Church apparently erring in the expectation that Christ would return in glory during the apostles’ lifetimes. If you have not read my first post which sets up the problem at hand in light of the biblical evidence, I recommended perusing it first before reading on.
In his book of Catecheses on St. Paul, Pope Benedict takes up the text of 1 Thess 4:13-18 discussed in my previous post: “For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep. For this we declare to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, shall not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first; then we who are alive, who are left, shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air; and so we shall always be with the Lord. Therefore comfort one another with these words.”
The Holy Father begins by observing that this text–the first of Paul’s letters and what some have deemed the earliest New Testament document–was likely written around 52 A.D. He indicates that the context and purpose of the letter was to aid the Thessalonian church being “beset by doubts and problems.” This purpose will play an important role in our discussion in a moment.
If you read Pope Benedict enough, you will not be surprised at some of his ensuing observations which may afflict the comforted Catholic. He describes this text as replete “with symbolic imagery, which, however, conveys a simple and profound message.” Benedict does not view 1 Thess 4 as a literal depiction of the Second Coming but rather as conveying theological truth through symbolic imagery. The “essential message,” he says, is that “our future is to be with the Lord.” What we can learn from this is that, regardless of whether or not Paul thought the end was imminent, this was not the claim or assertion of Paul’s text.
Moreover, the sense of the text is not changed even if Paul literally thought that the Second Coming would be ushered in with an angel blowing a trumpet (actually, who can verify this won’t be the case?). In the marvelous chapter of his book Miracles entitled “Horrid Red Things,” C.S. Lewis has a great treatment of the type of imagery that often disturbs the modern Christian. He says, “Even if it can be shown, then, that the early Christians accepted their imagery literally, this would not mean that we are justified in relegating their doctrines as a whole to the lumber-room.” The early Christian belief concerning the parousia and other doctrines like it “would survive substantially unchanged” even after “the falsity of the earlier images had been recognized.”
Like Benedict, Lewis affirms that images of how or when the parousia will take place are not the purpose of the biblical teaching concerning it. They are not errant because they are not asserted or taught for their own sakes in the first place. As Benedict and Lewis show time and again in their writings, Christians should not be afraid to admit the presence of symbolic imagery or myth in the Bible. Ask Lewis, Tolkien, or Chesterton, and they will tell you that myth does not equal falsehood. Now, in a way, this makes the Christian apologist’s task more difficult, as one now has to search out the essential message of biblical texts and show forth the enduring core meaning of it as distinct from accidental features that are not de fide. This requires more patience and skill than simply saying it is all literally true and needs no qualification. On the other hand, following the approach of Benedict and Lewis is liberating because Christians can be confident that there is a core message God wants to convey to us in the Bible and that this remains unchanged even if we grant the presence of certain difficulties in the text.
Getting back to Benedict’s catechesis, he next turns his attention to 2 Thess 2:1-4, which reads: “Now concerning the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our assembling to meet him, we beg you, brethren, not to be quickly shaken in mind or excited, either by spirit or by word, or by letter purporting to be from us, to the effect that the day of the Lord has come. Let no one deceive you in any way; for that day will not come, unless the rebellion comes first, and the man of lawlessness is revealed, the son of perdition, who opposes and exalts himself against every so-called god or object of worship, so that he takes his seat in the temple of God, proclaiming himself to be God.”
Paul here warns his church lest they be deceived in thinking an imminent Second Coming can be determined based on human calculations. He reminds his audience that “man of lawlessness” must come first, and that he plainly has not. The pope for his part tells us that “the intention” of this text “is primarily practical.” How so? Paul wrote this because he needed to correct Thessalonians who were rationalizing their neglect of worldly duties with the claim that the end was approaching soon anyway: “For we hear that some of you are living in idleness, mere busybodies, not doing any work” (2 Thess 3:11).
Teasing out Paul’s thought, Benedict teaches that the expectation of Jesus’ parousia does not dispense Christians of any epoch from working in the world but rather increases our responsibility to work in and for the world while not being of the world. This is but one of several examples in this catechesis of how Benedict characteristically follows his careful and critical exegesis with a spiritual exhortation for Christians to apply God’s word to our lives (see here for a brief overview of Benedict’s exegetical method). He concludes by teaching that, while Christians today might not pray for the end to come soon in the same way St. John did (Rev 16:22), we can truly pray for the Lord to put the injustices of the world to an end. We can also work for the world to be “fundamentally changed” into a “civilization of love.”
That said, Benedict’s catechesis does not completely resolve the problem of the early expectation of the parousia, but it does help us to see that teaching the precise moment of the Second Coming was not Paul’s real point in the theologically thorny text of 1 Thessalonians. To get a better grasp of the way Benedict approaches this, we will need to examine more of his writings in the next few posts.