The One and the Many Second Comings

“…you mustn’t torture yourself. Nothing really endures, and nothing’s ever as solid as it seems. Surely you know that time is an ocean and history a ceaseless storm, and nations and civilizations are only fragile little fleets driven about upon the waves.” — Roland W. Hart[1]

“But what is left over of the ‘city’ when age overtakes it and it breaks up? What is left over of it is the true (or real) ‘City of God’? — the sorrow-less, ageless, deathless Self (atman), whose desire is true (or real), whose concepts are real…. Those who fare away having already found (or known) here the Self and those true desires (or loves), they become ‘movers-at-will’ in every world”” — Ananda Coomaraswamy[2]

“The present world, this heaven and this earth, will not see Christ again. The parousia is therefore not an event in the life of this world, and even less is it one of this world’s events. Rather, it is an accomplishment that entirely transforms the life of this world as well as that of the humanity that passes through resurrection.” — Sergius Bulgakov[3]

There is a perceived failure of prophecy in the New Testament. It is well known that St Paul expected the Parousia, the return of Christ, to happen in his lifetime. In fact, in the Gospels, Christ himself said they will occur within a generation. Paul, and most of the early church, took that prophecy seriously, and were presumably disappointed, presumably…

Perhaps some questions arise. If St Paul was wrong about this, what else was he wrong about? What about the status of his letters as Scripture? What about the Gospels? Jesus Himself believed this prophecy. Was he wrong? I will not answer these questions for the reader. You are going to have to work that out yourself. What I will do is give an explanation of my understanding of the Parousia that answers these questions for me.

“Literalism”, which I understand to be the tendency for humans to understand everything in ways conformable to their ordinary experience, is not exclusively modern. If it was, Gregory of Nyssa wouldn’t have needed to explain that scripture be understood “philosophically”[4], everyone in his time would have known that. What is exclusively modern is the exacerbation of literalism by the “worldview” of modernity. What is exclusively modern is the systematic exclusion of everything that is not literal, and not just literal, but “mechanistically” or “physically” literal, that is, not explainable with a kind of “mechanics” or the modern science of physics, for which “physis”, the greek word for “nature”, is simply all that can be explained with the previously mentioned “mechanics” of some sort, with the methods privileging quantity[5]. Instead of participants of the “cosmic city”[6] that is also a “cosmic man”[7], the manifest god[8], we now believe we live in the “machine”[9], the efficiency of which is inversely proportional to its mindlessness.

But, all that is a detour meant to illustrate a (possibly oversimplified) point: Whereas in the past literalism in general had a “spiritual deposit” through which it could be understood that the “less literal” was also the “more real” and “more true”, now we believe the opposite. We think the less literal is the less true, an addition to some brute event that is always sufficient in itself. The machine is so effective that we cannot even imagine the “spiritual” — even the very spiritual nature of our own consciousness — except as some phantom illusion of the machine; and of course we forget the question: Who is experiencing the illusion?[10].

This is why explaining the “less literal” understandings of the Parousia is so daunting for moderns in particular, despite the resistance to the idea in pre-modernity. It is the point of this post to explain my “less literal” but “no less real” understanding of the Parousia. To start with, we have to put aside the idea that the less literal is less real and that the “spiritual” reading of certain scriptures are nothing more than compensations for the failure for a literal reading. To set this aside would be to reconfigure what we mean by “wrong” and “right” and to understand that the principle that underlies Paul’s statements of “the immortal swallowing up the mortal” applies to every single facet of life, including scripture.

Margaret Barker believes that the less literal and “more spiritual” understanding of the Lord’s return hidden and revealed in the book of revelation, the gospel of John, and the Pentecost of Acts becomes more prominent in the years closing the Jewish-Roman War and was the content of the “bitter scroll” of John in the book of revelation[11]. However, we are not to understand this as simply an adjustment in the face of disappointment, although this is a part, but instead as the gateway into a fuller understanding of Christ’s return, the description of which is perhaps most fully articulated in Christian thought in the words of Sergius Bulgakov. Every revelation is from the spirit of truth and the spirit of truth is to glorify Christ. So why would the revelation of a non-literal Parousia in our own scriptures by anything less? Bulgakov says that the Parousia is “supratemporal”[12], meaning it is not of “this time”, this “age”. In more familiar terms for a perennialist like me, the Parousia is not of “this cycle” or of “cycles” in general. With respect to the “horizontal time”, whether straight or cyclical — a difference erased with the right insight — Christ’s return is “Vertical”. Christ “interrupts” time with aeviternity, a “time” continuous with eternity. In the symbol of a circle, time is the circumference, aeviternity is the radii, eternity is the dimensionless centre. This is why Bulgakov can say that the Parousia is not an event in our “time”. The radii is not of the circumference. It is of the centre, and constitutes the circumference. The radii are the “ladder” by which the circumference can be “raised” closer to the centre and become more “centre-like”, i.e. cover less area. Indeed, the radii is most like the centre. It is extended, and yet, with respect to the circumference, not extended. The circumference has “area” extension, bound by lengths. The radii has length extension, bound by points. The radii is less limited than the circumference, and yet still limited with respect to the centre, because of the nature of the true point: It is nowhere, and hence potentially everywhere. Christ, whose created nature is the “radii” of all things, who “measures” them and gives them being, is the ladder to heaven. But here is an insight that is a direct consequence of this: If the resurrection and ascension was Christ “returning” to the Glory he had “before” (in principio) the creation of the cosmos and before his incarnation as Jesus of Nazareth, which he still had in another sense while on earth as Jesus of Nazareth, then the manner of his return according to our perspective in this “age” and in all ages like ours is the same as it has been for millennia, this perspective is that of the Old Testament prophets, and it is this language that “full” and “partial” preterists have been best at. It is the language of the “day of the Lord”, in the Liturgy of ancient Israel and its repeated playing out in history. This “day” occurs in several ways, in various iteration of one phenomenon: Death, in our personal, final deaths in this world (death of individual human bodies), in the deaths of civilizations and communities (death of human social bodies), and in deaths in general, all deaths in this world. Sacramentally, this is the Eucharist for us Christians, which plays out in all other Church events and should play out in our (ideally) ascetic lives. Even the resurrection is celebrated as the “death of death”. But, if the gospel of John is a good testimony to go by, we should always remember that every death is the death of death. This is because transformation (or resurrection) and destruction are tied, even as two sides of the same event, but “destruction” is the “fallen” perception of transformation. As Margaret Barker explains, “resurrection” and “ascension” describes the same thing for the first Christians, and it is steeped in Jewish theology at the time, as well as pagan understanding[13]. Perhaps what was distinctive about the Christian message of resurrection was the very literalist tone of something that was actually very well known to ancient pagans and Jews: The very literal deification of men. For most pagans, the spirit is deified even if the body dies and rots. For the Christian, Christ’s body was transformed into Spirit, it did not rot, and Christians proclaim that this is the destiny of every man. The “pagan” perspective is somewhat preserved in Islam, as its own interpretation of the Crucifixion of Christ[14]. However, if the Jewish view is anything to go by, the Easter resurrection was the manifestation of something that had occurred long before, in his baptism. You will have to read her book on the revelation of Jesus Christ to get the full story, but the “resurrection” first occurs in baptism, and if the link between baptism and birth is true, it “occurs” at every “birth” of Christ, including at Christmas:

Anointing transformed Enoch into a Messiah, a Christ (that is what the word means), an angel who had been raised up into the presence of God. He was then initiated into the heavenly knowledge and sent to earth as a messenger. He had been raised up, resurrected. The story of the Transfiguration (Luke 9.28–36) describes a similar transformation, and John’s Gospel is full of Jesus’ claims to have heavenly knowledge: ‘He who comes from above is above all… he bears witness to what he has seen and heard (John 3.31–32).

The priest kings in Jerusalem had all been ‘raised up’ and declared to be sons of God and Melchizedek priests. ‘You are my son, today I have begotten you’ (Ps. 2.7); ‘Sit at my right hand … You are a priest for ever after the order of Melchizedek’ (Ps. 110.1, 4) described a mystical ascent, and these were the texts used by the first Christians to describe Jesus’ resurrection; this is how they must have understood it. The texts which speak of resuscitation of dead bodies, texts such as Isaiah 26.19: ‘Thy dead shall live, their bodies shall rise’, are not used in the New Testament.[15]

If this is “resurrection”, then we have to apply it accordingly. This is why the Gospel of John frames Christ’s crucifixion as an exaltation, an exaltation that is revealed in glory first in the empty tomb at Easter. This is where the Jewish account meets the Pagan account and vindicates the Islamic interpretation, and this is so because “no matter how singular the event, there must be a place of hospitality already there, in nature and culture, or nothing at all can be revealed. The analogical womb in which the Logos becomes incarnate. The manger of nature in which the Christ child sleeps”[16]. This understanding of “parousia” is the fulfilment of the name of Christ as “beginning and end”, for in Him they meet, and the “Second” and “First” are One[17]. The Parousia is the beginning of the World and its end, it is the birth and death, resurrection and ascension, constitutive of time and the ladder to eternity. Parousia is the “whole” that unifies the “all” to the “One”. To understand how this ties itself together for us, let us look at the various ways in which Christ “returns”

Christ returns to Israel in his incarnation as Jesus of Nazareth. He brings the “day of the Lord” in what is for Christians his “first coming”. Indeed, for Christianity, it is the “first” as it is the constituting event for our grafting into the story of Israel, but for Israel as a whole it is one of many “comings” that began in the garden with the Lord arriving in the “cool of the day”. Here, in this realization, is the beginning of the end of any supercessionism. Christ is here for us as the link to a nation that is much older than “Christianity”. We may have “separated” from ethnic Israel, but Israel has been anything but a uniform entity. Scholarship has revealed many different sects and opinions, one or several of which, because of common themes, is the root of Christianity in the Jewish story. If there is anything clear in the history of the “day of the Lord” from the story of Israel, even up to the time of Christ and after, it is that the “day of the Lord” is not a once and for all event in the history of the world, but an “age” beyond it that judges it and reminds us of the transience of this world. If the immeasurably distant past can be subsumed into the eternity of archetypal stories, so can the immeasurably distant future, and this is how Scripture works for us. Fortuitously, the Christian modality of the eternal Scriptures has a beginning in legend and an end in legend, of seven day temple creations and 12,000 stadia floating cities. Both are images of the eternal beginning and end, the two perspectives on the “vertical” source of all things. For those on the circumference, the past and the future curve upwards, seemingly in the direction of the radius, and so it is the perspective of the radius that the seers see. Those who know realize that the radius is not reducible to the circumference, and they need their eyes transformed to ascend the ladder, and we ascend in many ways, the first of which for the Christian is the Eucharist.

Christ returns in the Blessed Sacrament. According to St. Paul, Christ’s return results in us becoming “like he is”, and in truth, this is what occurs in the Eucharist. We eat His body and become His Body. We drink His blood and have His life. It is the food of the angels, the food of resurrection, as we are to become “as the angels”. In this “Liturgy”, where Christ becomes present to us in Priest and congregant, in Bread and Wine:

…past, present, and future collapse in God’s eternal now. The remembering that occurs in the Eucharist is of a future fulfilment of the past event; a re-presencing of the past event of Christ’s resurrection and of the future expectation: “The present, then, is not a self-sufficient reality defined over against the nonpresence of an extinct past and a not-yet-existent future; in the Eucharist the future fulfilment of the past governs the present.”[18]

This is the presence of the “supratemporal” in our experience. This is the “twinkling of an eye of St Paul” that is the “eternal present” of God’s presence[19], the “holy of holies” where the Seer, the anointed, the resurrected one sees all of history “at once” on the curtain[20], and we see it in our Liturgies.

Christ returns to us in death. We are told to “die before we die” because “he who loses his life for me will find it”. This is the purification of the eyes so that we can see death not as a void absence but the fallen perception of a fuller presence[21]. The way of negation is the way of immortality. Thus God is best known by “unknowing”, not ignorance, in which all articulate knowledge is implicated. The “day of the Lord” for the ancient nation of Israel is thus the logic of personal death applied to the “social person”. If the community as a whole and as one, “dies before they die” — that is, if the community allowed the eternal day of the Lord to judge them — the community is saved. But, as with all things, human faithfulness is transient, more so on the larger scales, and so the “day of the Lord” must come anyway. It is the same fire, but different subjects. The jubilee that is freedom for the enslaved is destruction for the slavers. Individual humans experience this “day” as either heaven or hell at death according to the understanding of hell prevalent in the Orthodox Church. However this is experienced, the end is the same.

Because of the transcendence of the “supratemporal” Parousia, it would be a mistake to say that there is a “final Parousia” in time as an event among events. Time, considered “horizontally”, has an unbroken logic. Even concerning linear vs cyclical time, the difference between the two disappears when it is realized that an infinitely large circle is indistinguishable from an infinitely straight line. The logic is the same: There is no end on the horizontal axis. Even the Christian grants this when he speaks of the “new creation” that never ends. It is still “temporal” in one sense, even if “eternal” in another. Hence, the “resurrection” can only be experienced in this “age”, this “time”, as a shadow of itself. We experience it in renewals and in the positives that pervade our lives, such as the birth of the Child[22], the sexual act, music, simple joy, the birth of a nation, the coronation of a king[23], anniversaries, and so on. During and after personal death, that resurrection is our calling up to heaven, and as is the case with these kinds of things, to rise to the highest heaven is to unite with the lowest on earth, where “islands flee” from the face of the Lord. We meet all people from all ages, at once, deified, and the “false selves”, those not present in the “book of life”, burn in the “lake of fire” that is the samsaric and metronomic existence in this world below. For the deified, there is no fire, just beatitude, and for us here, we can practice beatitude now, even in the midst of flames. This is “heaven”, and this is the “new earth”, the eternal now perfectly realized in the pure “presentness” of the fleeting present in time, a “present time” that is also pure futurity. When we see fully, as St Paul explains, the transformation will be made plain to us, and as St Gregory of Nyssa reveals, that what was called “death” is revealed as a lie that masks the perpetual transformation of epekstasis, the true “time” that is the “moving image of eternity”. Eternal Noesis is the principle that manifests in “temporal” Epekstasis. The inexhaustible and “eternal now” life of intellect is expressed in the endless and “utterly future” temporality of epekstasis[24], in a “world” and “age” that is in fact the true reality of this one, and the world this one “fell from”. It is a world never truly separated from our persons, but shows us why we are called “microcosmos”, a world where we are truly the “body of Christ”, the manifest god. The end is at hand, it is now, and the Parousia occurs to all that realize this fully — despite their “distance across time” — in that “eternal present” manifest in “aeviternal future”.

“…among your species there are three classes of chronic cultural sentimentalists: those fixated only upon the past, those obsessed only with the future, and those capable of happiness only in the fleeting present. All are deluded. It’s a rare anthropine soul indeed that knows how to place his or her hopes and allegiances in the eternal…I was speaking of those who are desperate always to be up to date, to be au fait with everything… relevant , I suppose. I didn’t mean those who know truly how to inhabit the present moment in its pure nowness, and to see that moment as an image of and participation in eternity… eternity as forever reiterated in the vanishing instant, and so discovered in every instant by those who know how to detach the present from mere… mere contemporaneity…Which is why I speak of the horror of sheer limitless successive existence. The desire simply to perdure forever, the resentful refusal to die — which at a deeper level is also the refusal to die into the now. But that sort of dying, that relinquishing of the past — that’s precisely what life is. It’s also a matter of relinquishing the self that clings to the future so long as that future is understood only as the ego’s mere duration. That’s a craving that makes one small, cowardly, greedy for existence even at the expense of others. True life is a dying into the now, and ultimately the fullness of life is a dying into the eternal now. And learning to live is learning the art of dying fruitfully. Unless the grain fall to earth and perish, and all that. To learn to die properly is to learn to live.” — Roland W. Hart[25]

[1] David Bentley Hart, Roland in Moonlight (Angelico Press, 2021).

[2] Ananda K Coomaraswamy, Time and Eternity (Select Books, 1989).

[3] Sergius Bulgakov, The Bride of the Lamb (Wm. B. Eerdmans-Lightning Source, 2001).

[4] Gregory of Nyssa, Abraham J. Malherbe, and Everett Fergurson, The Life of Moses (Paulist Press, 1978).

[5] Wolfgang Smith, Physics and Vertical Causation: The End of Quantum Reality (Angelico Press, 2019); David Bentley Hart, ‘Where the Consonance Between Science and Religion Lies | Church Life Journal | University of Notre Dame’ <https://churchlifejournal.nd.edu/articles/where-the-consonance-really-lies/> [accessed 11 October 2021].

[6] Coomaraswamy.

[7] Naida Muslić, ‘Al Insân Al Kabir — The Anthropology of Cosmos’ <https://www.orphicinscendence.com/post/al-insân-al-kabir-the-anthropology-of-cosmos> [accessed 11 October 2021].

[8] Jesse N., ‘The Zohar’s Bereishit: A Commentary’ <https://einsofist.medium.com/the-zohars-bereishit-a-commentary-1ccef631a31> [accessed 11 October 2021].

[9] David Bentley Hart, ‘Machine and Spirit: A Few Humbly Apocalyptic Aphorisms’ <https://davidbentleyhart.substack.com/p/machine-and-spirit-a-few-humbly-apocalyptic> [accessed 11 October 2021].

[10] David Bentley Hart, ‘The Illusionist’ <https://www.thenewatlantis.com/publications/the-illusionist> [accessed 11 October 2021].

[11] Margaret Barker, The Revelation of Jesus Christ: Which God Gave to Him to Show to His Servants What Must Soon Take Place (Revelation 1.1) (T&T Clark, 2000).

[12] Bulgakov.

[13] ‘The Spiritual Was More Substantial Than the Material for the Ancients | Church Life Journal | University of Notre Dame’ <https://churchlifejournal.nd.edu/articles/the-spiritual-was-more-substantial-than-the-material-for-the-ancients/> [accessed 27 August 2020].

[14] Seyyed Hossein Nasr and others, The Study Quran: A New Translation and Commentary (HarperOne; Reprint edition, 2017).

[15] Barker, The Revelation of Jesus Christ: Which God Gave to Him to Show to His Servants What Must Soon Take Place (Revelation 1.1).

[16] Hart, Roland in Moonlight.

[17] Jordan Daniel Wood, ‘In the Fullness of Time — Macrina Magazine’ <https://macrinamagazine.com/theology/guest/2020/02/01/in-the-fullness-of-time/#identifier_3_1312> [accessed 18 May 2020].

[18] Aristotle Papanikolaou, The Mystical as Political: Democracy and Non-Radical Orthodoxy (University of Notre Dame Press, 2012).

[19] Coomaraswamy.

[20] Barker, The Revelation of Jesus Christ: Which God Gave to Him to Show to His Servants What Must Soon Take Place (Revelation 1.1).

[21] John Milbank, ‘No Title’, 2021 <https://twitter.com/johnmilbank3/status/1369709812750159875?s=20>.

[22] Johnny Serratt, ‘Beatific Baby Dictator — Macrina Magazine’ <https://macrinamagazine.com/issue-three-time/guest/2020/02/08/beatific-baby-dictator/> [accessed 11 October 2021].

[23] Margaret Barker, The Great Angel: A Study of Israel’s Second God, Names, 1992.

[24] David Bentley Hart, The Hidden and the Manifest Essays in Theology and Metaphysics (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2017).

[25] Hart, Roland in Moonlight.

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Jedi Scribe

I'm just a fiction loving theology amateur with a background in Physics, who loves to integrate the fragmented parts of his life into a Christocentric whole