Moltmann & the Parousia: Who Exactly is Coming Again?

This academic essay explores the character of Christ’s Second Coming in light of the Jesus-shaped theology of Jurgen Moltmann.  

Introduction

For most of Christian history, the doctrine of the parousia of Christ (his “coming” or “effective presence”, i.e., Second Coming) in glory and judgment has been neglected and pushed to the margins of Christian theology and devotion.

While the cross and resurrection serve as the pillars upon which systematic theologians construct their doctrinal towers, the parousia has often remained a mere appendage to our creeds with a quite subsidiary role in our faith.  For most, it would seem, the parousia is that far-off future hope, only to be tasted in the hereafter, and quite removed from our present concerns.

More recently, however, theologians such as Jurgen Moltmann and Wolfhart Pannenberg have alerted us to the thoroughly eschatological character of the Christian gospel, insisting that the future hope of the parousia should significantly shape and guide our present relationship with God (who is the promising God), our understanding of the meaning and direction of history (which is proleptic in nature), and our knowledge of and faith in Christ (who is the coming Redeemer and Judge).

Preliminary Considerations

While a renewed interest in the eschatological parousia has touched virtually every aspect of Christian theology (soteriology, eschatology, pneumatology, etc.), this study will focus specifically on some christological issues related to the parousia. [1] Some initial points are necessary before proceeding.

First, christological investigations in the past have tended to draw almost exclusively upon the ‘finished work of Christ’—his life, death, resurrection and ascension.  Yet, Moltmann argues that Christ’s work is not ‘finished’ until he returns in glory to judge and restore all things.[2] The past and future Christ-events must be considered together in our christological inquiries.  Or, as Moltmann put it, “Christ’s messianic mission, his apocalyptic suffering and his eschatological resurrection from the dead would remain incomprehensible fragments if we were not to take into account the future ‘Day of the Messiah’…”[3]

Secondly, while the ‘Second Coming’ has always dominated eschatological conversations, the parousia is rarely consulted in christological discussions examining the person and character of Christ.  A biblical understanding of the parousia should not only focus on what is to come, but also on the precise character of the one who is to come.  And this ‘who-question’ is a thoroughly christological one.

Thirdly, and most importantly for this paper, studies on the parousia of Christ have tended to let popular, preconceived images of the Final Judgment  — often influenced by Dante, the Sistene Chapel or Left Behind novels — shape our images of the coming Christ; rather than letting what we know of the character and will of Christ as revealed in Scripture reshape our images of the events surrounding the parousia.  I suggest that Christology (which is more clearly defined in Scripture) should shape our apocalyptic eschatology (which is more elusive and multivalent in Scripture)—not visa versa.

Having made these few preliminary remarks, we may now precede to the main argument of this essay.  The basic claim being made is that if we approach the doctrine of the parousia of Christ through christological lenses—that is, considering what is to come in light of what we already know of who is to come—some of our traditional understandings of the Final Event may be misguided and in need of reconsideration.

I believe that Jurgen Moltmann has rightly challenged some traditional views of the nature and purpose of the parousia.[4] Letting Moltmann guide the conversation, I will draw from some patristic writers along the way who either support or challenge his basic claims.  

Who Is This One Coming on the Clouds in Glory?

Moltmann’s challenges to the popular conceptions of the coming ‘Day of Christ Jesus’ stems from his unabashedly christocentric interpretation of the event.  To begin, he exposes the fact that most of the traditional characterizations of the final Judgment evoke feelings of terror and dread at the coming of a wrathful, vindictive Judge.  “When we look at the Judge in many medieval pictures, we would hardly just by ourselves arrive at the idea that he could be Jesus of Nazareth…”[5]

For Tertullian, Christ’s coming will make “the whole world shake, filling the earth with dread alarms, making all but Christians wail,”[6] for Hippolytus, all await “the terrible Judge, in fear and trembling unutterable,”[7] for Augustine that Day “strikes great terror,”[8] and Jonathan Edwards, centuries later, but in a similar vein, vividly warns that

The bow of God’s wrath is bent, and the arrow made ready on the string, and justice bends the arrow at your heart, and strains the bow, and it is nothing but the mere pleasure of God, and that of an angry God, without any promise or obligation at all, that keeps the arrow one moment from being made drunk with your blood.[9]

Moltmann recognizes that such vindictive images of Christ’s judgment often come directly from the New Testament writers themselves, who borrowed from the popular Jewish apocalyptic expectations of judgment.[10] Still Moltmann suggests that such awful images of the judgment are inconsistent with what we know of the character of Christ, and any understanding of the final day of reckoning must therefore be “Christianized” so that we recognize the Judge as none other than the crucified one.

He sees the NT writers wrestling to resolve this tension between Jewish apocalyptic and Christian eschatology—a tension that Christian tradition has never resolved.[11] We should not be surprised by this need for reinterpretation: for Jesus also challenged the popular Jewish messianic expectation (i.e. a crucified messiah?) as well as the Jewish eschatological expectation (an individual resurrection before the general resurrection?  The kingdom is ‘already—but not yet’ here?).

Thus, by approaching the parousia with a degree of christological consistency, we are forced already to reconsider the character and countenance of the coming Judge.

By Which Law Will He Judge?

Next, Moltmann argues that when Jesus comes he will not judge according to “the punitive law of retaliation which the universal Judge apocalyptically enforces”[12], as most of our popular images suggest.  Rather, he will come to “to set up the kingdom of peace, founded on the righteousness and justice which overcomes all enmity.”[13] He will judge according to “a law whose purpose is rehabilitation” rather than retaliation.

The danger of this statement is obviously that it opens the door for an argument for universal salvation.[14] Yet his main concern here is to rule out the chances that at “the final judgment the coming Christ will act in contradiction to Jesus and his gospel…He [i.e. the coming Christ] would then put Jesus himself in the wrong, and would be appearing as someone different, someone Christians do not know.”[15]

Again, christological convictions should shape eschatological speculation.  With the face of Mercy awaiting us, we can cry out ‘Maranatha, come Lord Jesus, come soon’ (1 Cor 16:22; Rev 22:20) because we know that he comes not to destroy, but to “make all things new” (Rev 21:5).  “Only when the apocalyptic expectation of judgment is completely Christianized does it lose its terror and become a liberating hope.”[16]

Why Is He Really Coming?

The strength, in my opinion, behind Moltmann’s bold claim is that he does better justice to the broader creative and redemptive purposes of God than traditional conceptions.  Traditional portrayals of the parousia have focused on the destiny of individual sinners and saints: Who goes to hell and who goes to heaven?

For instance, the Nicene Creed declares, “He will come again in glory to judge the quick and dead…” Writing in the 2nd century Irenaeus says: “Inasmuch, then, as in this world some persons betake themselves to the light, and by faith unite themselves with God, but others shun the light, and separate themselves from God, the Word of God comes preparing a fit habitation for both.”[17] Similarly Augustine (4th C): “In that day true and full happiness shall be the lot of none but the good, while deserved and supreme misery shall be the portion of the wicked, and of them only.”[18] In this mold, God’s future judgment is aimed toward people rather than the principalities and powers that enslave them.

Moltmann challenges this by arguing that Jesus comes to “slay enmity for ever—enmity, but not his enemies.”[19] Christ himself taught others to love their enemies!  Does he in the end obliterate his own?  Or does he instead judge in order to put things right?

We are reminded that people themselves are not the real problem with the world.  Rather, the true problem is Satan’s grip on the human heart and Sin’s work in marring the imago dei in humanity, thereby preventing communion with the Creator. Irenaeus put it this way: “Having been formed after His likeness…[humanity has] been led into captivity. And since the apostasy tyrannized over us unjustly, and, though we were by nature the property of the omnipotent God, alienated us contrary to nature, rendering us its own disciples…”[20]

The enemy is clearly identified here as “the apostasy,” while wayward human beings are portrayed here as victims of an unjust tyranny, being “led into captivity” and made to be “its own disciples.”  This line of thinking led to the so-called “ransom theory” held by most early Christians up until Anselm of Canterbury in the 11th century.  I believe Moltmann is justified in pointing to the deeper crisis to be ‘set right’ at the parousia: not merely sinners but Sin itself.

The ultimate purpose of the parousia, for Moltmann, “is not reward or punishment, but the victory of the divine creative righteousness and justice, and this victory does not lead to heaven or hell but to God’s great day of reconciliation.”[21] Moltmann clearly insists that the “judgment is not the last thing of all” but “What is last and final is the new word of creation: ‘Behold, I make all things new’ (Rev. 21.5).”[22]

Therefore, the Judgment should be viewed as “the precondition for the coming kingdom.”[23] The parousia should be eagerly anticipated, for with Christ comes the grand arrival of the new heavens and new earth “in which righteousness dwells” (2 Pet 3:13).  Here Christ’s life-renewing and creative character is emphasized over and against the doomsday images that prevail in the tradition.

The more neglected half of the Nicene reference to the parousia is here recalled—“and his kingdom shall have no end”.  In this spirit, Moltmann again echoes the cosmic hope of Irenaeus at the parousia: “In the restored creation the righteous must first rise at the appearing of the Lord to receive their promised inheritance…Therefore this created order must be restored to its first condition and be made subject to the righteousness without hindrance…”[24]

Again, we see that by approaching the doctrine of the parousia with clear christological truths in mind (e.g. bearing in mind that ‘the kingdom of God’ was Jesus’ main message), another key aspect of his coming becomes manifest: the parousia establishes Christ’s everlasting kingdom of peace in a renewed creation.

In summary, I have merely proposed a christocentric reconsideration of the character and purpose of the parousia, letting what we already know of the person of Christ color and reshape our interpretations of that future ‘appearing’ of the Lord.   Jurgen Moltmann has pioneered this path and highlighted for us some aspects of the traditional view that may need reworking or, at least deserve further study.

λεγει ο μαρτυρων ταυτα ναι ερχομαι ταχυ αμην ερχου κυριε ιησου

(Rev 22:20)


[1] By “Christology”, I am concerned here with the person or identity of Christ—i.e. who he is—and not so much with the work of Christ.

[2] Jurgen Moltmann, The Way of Jesus Christ (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1993) 319: “The parousia of Christ is first and foremost the completion of the way of Jesus: ‘the Christ on the way’ arrives at his goal.  His saving work is completed.”

[3] Ibid. 316.

[4] Space does not permit us here to explore the issues of time and futurity in relation to the parousia—another major concern of Moltmann.  Cf. Carl E. Braaten, The Future of God: The Revolutionary Dynamics of Hope (New York: Harper & Row, 1969).

[5] Moltmann, In the End—The Beginning: The Life of Hope, Trans. Margaret Kohl (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2004) 142.

[6] Tertullian, First Apology, in Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 3. Edited by A. Roberts and J. Donaldson (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2004) Ch. 23.

[7] Hyppolytus, “A Discourse on the End of the World, Antichrist, and the Second Coming of Our Lord Jesus Christ”, in Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 5. Edited by A. Roberts and J. Donaldson.  Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2004.

[8] Augustine, On Christian Doctrine, Ch. 15.

[9] Jonathan Edwards, “Sinners in the Hand of an Angry God” (Albany, OR: AGES Software, 1995), 11.

[10] See, e.g., 1 Enoch 1:3-9: “The God of the universe, the Holy Great One, will come forth from his dwelling.  And from there he will march upon Mount Sinai and appear in his camp emerging from heaven with a mighty power.   And everyone shall be afraid, and Watchers shall quiver.  And great fear and trembling shall seize them unto the ends of the earth.  Mountains and high places will fall down and be frightened.  And high hills shall be made low; and they shall melt like a honeycomb before the flame.  And earth shall be rent asunder; and all that is upon the earth shall perish.   And there shall be judgment upon all, (including) the righteous.”

[11] Most do not see a tension at all, since they have readily adopted the Jewish apocalyptic view.

[12] Moltmann, The Way of Jesus Christ, 336.

[13] Ibid. 338.

[14] He himself admits this with qualification: “If it is seen like this, then it of course raises the question of about universal reconciliation and the redemption of the devil.  But this does not have to be affirmed in order to spread confidence about the judgment, any more than a double outcome of the judgment for believers and the godless has to be affirmed in order to emphasize the seriousness of the human situation.”  See Origen, De principiis 1.6.2, for an early view of universal salvation.

[15] Ibid.337.

[16] Ibid. 315.

[17] Irenaeus, Against Heresies 5.28.1.

[18] Augustine, The City of God 10.1.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Irenaeus, Against Heresies 5.1.1.

[21] Moltmann, In the End, 143.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Moltmann, Way of Jesus, 315.

[24] Irenaeus, Against Heresies 5.32.1.

2 Comments Add yours

  1. Deacon Charles E. Miller, BA , MAR, DipBS, Abschlussurkunde in Biblische Studien says:

    I feel that the concept of time and eternity very interesting. There is nan individual resurrection and a general resurrection. My father and mother are already in heaven do to eternal time. As a great theologian has said, the dead in Christ are resurrected and with the Lord. As he said, death does not have a single moment of those who pass from this life to the Lord. As the first three Gospels say about the woman who married seven borthers, God is not a God of the dead, but the living, for all live unto him. The subject was resurrection; therefore, it must mean that Abraham, Issac and Jacob and others of the faith are already resurrection in etrernity.

    1. Jeremy Berg says:

      Charles –

      It is mistaken to talk of the current place or state of our dead loved ones as in anyway “resurrected.” Resurrection is a historical, bodily event at the end when Christ returns. When Christ returns all individuals will be resurrected (this is the general resurrection at the end of the age, to be distinguished from the one special resurrection of Christ in the middle of the age) — some are raised to eternal death and some to eternal life. John 5:29: “Those who have done good will rise to live, and those who have done evil will rise to be condemned.”

      Those already dead in Christ are certainly in the presence of Christ — “to be absent from the body is to present with the Lord” (2 Cor. 5:8). They abide with God in a non-bodily state still awaiting their final hope — the day when their spirit will be reunited with their resurrected physical body — an imperishable, glorified body in God’s restored New Heavens and New Earth.

      It is a confusion of categories to speak of a “spiritual resurrection.” Resurrection is always a bodily event resulting in empty tombs and empty graves.

      Peace,

      JB

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