(Parousia is the Greek word used in the New Testament which is commonly understood as the Second Coming. Parousia simply means “presence” or “appearing.” It is one of the metaphors used in the Bible and theology to refer to the fulfillment of God’s purpose for creation. Like all metaphors, it points to a reality which transcends the literal meaning of itself. Please take the time to read the Scripture passages listed above.)
What is the universe? The universe is everything—all of time, space, energy, and matter. If that is so, then do you realize that, in a very real sense, the universe does not yet exist? Do we experience all of time right now? All of the past and all of the future? Yesterday is gone to us and tomorrow has not yet begun. Right now, new space is being created all over this universe as well as new matter. The dinosaurs are gone; billions of stars have ceased to exist; new stars will be born millions of years from now. Some quantum physicists theorize that infinitely small particles of energy are constantly going in and out of existence. If the universe is all of time, space, energy, and matter, the universe does not exist in its fullest form, at least to us, because we are limited to the years we have on this earth. The present moment is just one infinitely small dot of existence on the immense canvas of all of time and space.
But if God is the Creator of this universe, then God must be transcendent–beyond and more than this universe. God can “exist” without this creation, but creation cannot exist without God. We are dependent on God, but God is not dependent on us. We believe that God is in this universe. The doctrine of incarnation refers most often to the specific presence of God in the human flesh of a Jew named Jesus of Nazareth. However, there is a broader understanding of incarnation through which God is in every part of creation experiencing each part “from the inside out” and taking it all into the Divine Self. So, in a very real sense, the universe is also in God. In other words, all of time, space, energy, and matter exist in God. Nothing is lost. Every snowflake that has ever fallen, every bird that has ever sung, every tear that has ever been shed, every single moment of time that has been long since forgotten by humans, every square inch that has ever been a part of this creation, and every bit of matter that makes up this universe exists in God. It is lost to us because we are confined to a finite moment in time and space—but because God is in the universe and the universe is in God and God is eternal, everything exists in God. Nothing is lost.
Consider a computer as an analogy. A computer has a screen, and on that screen, you can watch a movie, write a letter or sermon, keep a record of your finances, send an email—you can do countless things on a computer. But you usually have only one item on the screen of your computer. But there can be many thousands of materials kept on your hard drive or flash-drive. You can call any of this up whenever you want.
If we use this as an analogy, we could say that the screen represents time, space, matter, and energy as we experience them. But the flash drive/hard drive represents the memory of God who is not limited to one little segment of time and space. Everything exists in the memory of God—everything that has ever happened. But God’s memory differs from ours. We can remember, but we cannot bring the past back into the present. But God the Eternal Creator has all that has ever existed within the divine “memory” and as Creator can resurrect it at will, transform it, heal it, redeem it, and love it into its salvation.
Of course, the computer is just an analogy, and like all analogies, it fails to communicate the full truth of the reality to which it is pointing. But I hope it is helpful in understanding a profound concept. (Many theologians use this analogy when referring to eschatology.) What the New Testament teaches is that with the parousia, God will resurrect all of the universe and in the presence of and according to the nature of Christ, finally accomplish the divine will for this creation. And that divine will has already been seen in Jesus. He will appear because God’s will (Kin-dom) will finally appear in its fullness.
If the parousia represents the final redemption, healing, salvation, and transformation of the entire universe, then the parousia cannot happen in history—it must happen beyond history and include all of history and all of creation, not just you or some future generation or the church or this planet, but all of time, space, energy, and matter. Let’s say that Jesus literally returned in the near future (as many Christians expect). What would that mean to our present world? What would that mean to people who lived a thousand years ago? What would that mean to intelligent creatures who live on other planets (if there are such creatures)? Imagine you are a Native American who lived 1000 years ago. You’ve never heard of Jesus. You have your own culture, religion, and value system. And then you are raised from the dead, and I guess, Jesus says, “Hi there, Running Deer. I’m Jesus Christ.” What could that possibly mean to you?
But suppose you are that Native American and God resurrects you beyond history along with your culture and all that’s precious to you and somehow weaves all that into the splendid tapestry of God’s new creation which will be characterized by what we see in Jesus: love, forgiveness, joy, compassion, peace, sharing, reconciliation. Suppose every part of creation is resurrected by God in the presence and spirit of Christ and then transformed, healed, and made whole. And it is all done in the presence of Jesus and through the power of the Holy Spirit.
You may wonder if that idea is any better than the belief that Jesus will come back at a particular time in history— like tomorrow or next year or 500 years from now. Wouldn’t our Native American still be confused? Wouldn’t Jesus still be a stranger to him? But what if this Native American was presented with the truth of the good news of God’s unconditional love Jesus came to reveal in ways that he is familiar with from his own culture? We read in the Gospel of John that in the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God. And that all things which have been created have been created through the agency of the Word, and that everyone who has ever been enlightened has been enlightened by the Word. Everyone? The Word has been at work in this world from before the beginning of time. In Jesus that Word became focused like a laser beam in all its fullness, but the Word has been at work all through history enlightening and revealing the nature of God we see so completely in Jesus.
Missionaries who go to other cultures and present the gospel sometimes hear something like this from their converts: “We’ve always known there was something like Jesus and like the God Jesus reveals, but we just didn’t have a name for it.” My hero of the faith, John Woolman, accompanied a Moravian missionary to visit Native Americans during the colonial period. The Moravians went to convert the “heathen.” Woolman went to experience that of God in those Native Americans. He could not speak their language, but as he sat with them, he said he felt God’s presence and Spirit already in their midst. God has always been at work through the Word and Holy Spirit in every part of this universe. The essence of Jesus need not be a shock to those who have never heard of Jesus when they meet him in the parousia. In fact, I believe a lot of Christians are going to be in for a greater shock because we have so much theological garbage to unlearn.
Now let’s go back to what we believe Jesus is like. What were the words we used? Love, forgiveness, joy, compassion, peace, sharing, reconciliation. The Jesus the universe meets in the parousia is the same Jesus we find in the Gospels and the same Jesus we have just described. The God in Jesus defines the event, not the other way around. Just as the people of Galilee and Judea (peasants, beggars, the blind, deaf, and mute, lepers, prostitutes, sinners, tax collectors, women, children) did not fear meeting Jesus, so we and all others have no reason to fear meeting our Lord.
I believe in the parousia, but I do not believe Jesus is literally coming back to this earth in our time and space. His appearing occurs beyond time and space and beyond history to encompass all of history, time, and space as well as every part of creation within it. If a meteor should strike the world next week and destroy this planet and all life on it, that would not destroy my faith. If we destroy this planet with our insane weapons of mass destruction or wanton, irresponsible living, that will not jeopardize my faith.
God in Christ will appear beyond time and space in a way to include all of time and space. God will resurrect from the divine memory all that has ever been and will use it as the raw materials for the new creation. And at that point, God’s Kin-dom will finally come in its fullness, and God’s will shall finally be done on earth–the new earth–the redeemed earth–the transformed earth as it is in heaven. The reality to which the metaphor parousia points is the fulfillment of God’s purpose for Her creation defined, achieved, and consummated by the love revealed in Christ. How that is exactly accomplished is beyond our comprehension. This hope is based on the faithfulness of God to Her beloved creation—the trust that love wins. The Good News is better and greater than any of us mere mortals can even begin to imagine!