Beginning with the End: The Problem of the Parousia

After a few weeks of getting this website together, I am now setting out on the enterprise of blogging. As I point out in the site’s About page, the blog will cover a wide range of subjects, focusing in particular on issues concerning the Bible, Catholic dogma and culture, world religions, and warranted religious belief. Of all the subjects I could treat, I have decided in good Thomistic fashion to begin with the end in mind and treat of eschatology, the study of the “last things.”

The particular subject I want to reflect on is the early Church’s expectation of Christ’s imminent return (parousia in the Greek of the New Testament). It’s a thorny issue that one may find more comfortable to avoid addressing, but one the aims of my intellectual apostolate is to grapple with hard questions like these and help present them in a way that respects their seriousness while also offering a serious response.

Over the next several blog posts, I’ll be reflecting on a series of sources, mostly from Pope Benedict XVI, on an existential crisis the early Christians had to face with regard to Christ’s return: Why hasn’t Christ come back yet like he seemed to say he would? By way of exploring this question, I wish also to show its relevance for our lives today and its implications for the way we ought to go about biblical exegesis as Catholics.

Aside from this brief introduction, today I want to do just two things. First, I want to refer you to my brief interview on Pope Benedict XVI for Benedictine College’s Gregorian Institute so you can get a handle on the approach to biblical interpretation I follow. In broad strokes, it consists in the attempt to follow the principles and example of Pope Benedict XVI, who according to many is the Catholic Church’s most erudite biblical scholar pope in centuries.

Second, I want to offer a few texts that concisely set up the problem of the early Church’s expectation of an imminent Second Coming, that is to say their belief that Christ would come back and usher in the Kingdom during the Apostles’ lifetimes. After setting up the problem, in future posts we will be able to offer responses.

1 Thessalonians 4:13-18:

“But we would not have you ignorant, brethren, concerning those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. 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.”

  • What is the apparent discrepancy between the words in bold and the facts of history?

Mark 13 with its parallels in Matt 24 and Luke 21

“So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he is near, at the very gates. Truly, I say to you, this generation will not pass away before all these things take place.”

  • The entire chapter of Mk 13 should be read, but verses 29-30 cited here are the seemingly problematic words I want to highlight.

1 Cor 7:29

“I mean, brethren, the appointed time has grown very short; from now on, let those who have wives live as though they had none.”

  • Again, the entire chapter 1 Cor 7 should be read to get a feel for the context. Paul is giving practical instructions to guide the Corinthian community as they live in distress and apparently await Christ’s soon return.

Jn 21:21-23

“When Peter saw him, he said to Jesus, ‘Lord, what about this man?’ Jesus said to him, ‘If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you? Follow me!’ The saying spread abroad among the brethren that this disciple was not to die; yet Jesus did not say to him that he was not to die, but, “˜If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you?’”

  • This text is perhaps easier to explain than some, but it gives an additional angle into the general mindset of the disciples with regard to Christ’s return.

That’s enough to set up the problem and give you something to meditate on. We could adduce a number of other texts that would bring the problem into further relief. Feel free to add any of the relevant biblical texts you find particularly tricky on this topic.



Matthew Ramage



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