How will God’s dream for the world (kingdom) be realized in the future? Will it come about by means of a dramatic, divine intervention? Most Christian interpreters assume that the early church believed Christ would return visibly and personally to judge evil and finally fulfill the promise of the future kingdom. It is difficult, however, to actually know how literally they understood the expectation of Christ’s “coming” (parousia).
The basic meaning of the word is “presence.” Of course, if someone is absent and later becomes present, then that person has “come back” or “returned.” But in one sense Jesus never left. In the New Testament the Spirit functions as the equivalent to the living presence of Christ in the church and in the world. Understood in this light, Jesus’ “coming” is not an invasion from the outside, but an unveiling, manifesting, appearing from within as the central agent in the realization of God’s new world.
New Testament scholar N. T. Wright has argued that the language of the Son of Man coming in the clouds of heaven, found in several contexts in the Gospels, “denotes exaltation, not return. It is apocalyptic metaphor, signifying the vindication of God’s people after their suffering.” Wright’s interpretation, however, may require more of an exegetical stretch than most interpreters are willing to make.
But I do agree with his following assessment: “It is misleading to see this in terms of Jesus “returning” to our world as a kind of space invader coming to sort out a rebel planet. Rather, when God finally ushers in his new creation Jesus will be, in person, both the standard and the instrument of that just and deeply welcome judgment and restoration.”
Even if the early Christians (oriented as they were around a cosmology of a flat earth under a heavenly dome) understood Jesus’ “coming” literally, there is no reason why the church today need maintain the belief that Jesus will descend from another world to earth to usher in the kingdom supernaturally. It seems more likely that God’s reign will be implemented through the power of the Spirit working in conjunction and collaboration with Christ’s agents and emissaries of justice and peace in the world.
The more likely scenario for the realization of God’s new world is to be found in the dynamic process of the Spirit, empowering and energizing disciples of Christ (the church) and others, regardless of religious tradition or belief, to confront the powers that be and to engage the world through suffering love, compassionate justice, and nonviolent peacemaking.
It is, however, a legitimate question to ask whether or not the realization of God’s new world as envisaged by Jesus and his early followers is actually possible. There is no doubt that humanity has evolved in its cumulative spiritual consciousness, inspiring visions of a more compassionate, inclusive, just, and egalitarian world. And yet there are powerfully destructive and evil forces set against the fulfillment of God’s new world. Is the vision of God’s new world on earth a real possibility? Or is it just a “wish upon a star” with little real hope of actuality?
There are moments when I experience this hope as a genuine possibility; other times, though, it seems more like a vain wish. I am convinced, however, that nothing we do for the healing and transformation of our world—no kindness, no act of forgiveness, no loving word or deed—will be lost; that God’s vindication/resurrection of Jesus, who embodied God’s new world, is God’s pledge that life will overcome the malignant powers of death.
Whatever the ultimate outcome of this world, disciples of Jesus are called to devote spirit, mind, and body to the kingdom’s fulfillment, engaging imagination, emotions, and physical activity in the service of God’s kingdom on earth.
The church, as the body of Christ, is called to bear witness to the redemptive hope engendered through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus and to function as the salt of the earth and the light of the world by preserving what is just, good, and right, and by illuminating for all to see what a community of love looks like.