my life after graduate: Islamic Fact, Chapter 18

Sunday, August 13, 2006

Islamic Fact, Chapter 18

The belief in the return of Jesus is an extremely early belief, since it is found not only in many different sources such as Paul (1 Thess 1:10, 1 Cor 16:22 etc), Mark (14:25, 62 etc), Q (Matt. 23:37-39=Luke 13:34-35) and John (14:1-3, 16:16 etc) but also found frequently and in many different forms. This chapter is concerned with the question: How did the belief in Jesus' return start so early? In addition, the chapter also outlines the main ways in which the function and manner of Jesus’ return was seen by his followers after his departure.

Before his disappearance, Jesus in all probability talked about his return, but he hoped only to participate in the kingdom of God upon his return, not to bring it as an eschatological figure. For Jesus the future manifestation of the kingdom of God was something that came by itself (Mark 4:26-29).

After his mysterious disappearance some of his disciples continued to believe in his return. They believed either that Jesus was in hiding or that he was raised to heaven alive and that he would return soon or, at least within the lifetime of their generation.

Some Jesus followers, however, explained Jesus’ mysterious disappearance by assuming that he was executed by some of the authorities hostile to him. These followers did not believe in the return. In due course of time the two explanations of the disappearance were combined to give rise first to the sequence: death – resurrection/ascension and finally to the sequence: death – resurrection – ascension – return.

Some of Jesus’ followers also continued to look towards the coming kingdom of God without postulating any special eschatological role for him in the kingdom, thus remaining more faithful to Jesus' own outlook. These followers included the Galilean followers such as James the brother of Jesus and his companions. The early Jerusalem Hellenists also probably did not think of Jesus in terms of any eschatological role. Because of their belief in the execution of Jesus it was probably difficult for them to assign any such role to him. They either thought only in terms of the coming of God without any eschatological figure or looked forward to a figure, e.g. the Son of Man, as someone other than Jesus. Some other followers, however, identified Jesus with one or the other of the eschatological figures found in the Jewish tradition. All these groups believed in an eschatology that was essentially futuristic, i.e. which saw salvation in the future, albeit a very near future. However, soon there emerged groups, either themselves gnostics or their forerunners, who saw salvation as already available through the revelation brought by Jesus.

The potential for these interpretations existed in Jesus' own teaching. Jesus talked about the future kingdom of God but did not separate the two ages in a sharp contrast. He rather talked about two kingdoms -- the kingdom of Satan and the kingdom of God -- which now exist side by side. In the near future, the kingdom of Satan would be defeated and the kingdom of God would be all in all. For Jesus the kingdom of God was an all-pervasive reality that was present in all ages and in all worlds, although in the future it will be manifested in a new situation when the kingdom of Satan would be destroyed. This enabled Jesus to sometimes talk about the kingdom of God as a present reality while at other times he referred to its future manifestation when it would defeat the kingdom of Satan. This in turn made it possible for different groups to interpret Jesus in the light of their prior conceptions about the kingdom of God.

Whether one believed in a future salvation or in its present possibility, a consequence of believing Jesus to be a bringer of salvation was that his past life was also given some salvific or eschatological significance. This was done differently by different groups. Some, like the gnostics, saw salvific or eschatological significance in his words. Others, like some Galilean disciples, saw this significance in his works or miracles. Still others, like Paul, saw the whole salvific and eschatological significance of Jesus' past life concentrated in his death and resurrection. At a later stage these more primitive views were combined in various ways.

Finally, the non-fulfillment of the promised imminence of the return created a problem that was solved by re-interpreting more and more of the expectations connected with the return of Jesus and transferring them to what Jesus did during his ministry and/or to his death and resurrection and/or to the risen Lord. The promise of imminence gradually came to be ignored, except that some leaders revive it in every generation in order to form new Christian groups or revive spirits in older groups. Those who re-affirm the belief in imminence naturally do so in reference to the time in which they live and not to the time in which the New Testament writers lived. This requires them to show how it is that the New Testament writers had in mind a time centuries after their own. This they show by subjecting the texts to very artificial interpretations.