Wessels notes that for those of us who have become aware of an emerging universe* over a time span of billions of years, it is difficult to accept Paul's ideas of the end times and the return of Jesus. The crucial question for many of us thus becomes: What is the meaning of the parousia for contemporary Christians?
Both [1 Thessalonians and 1 Corinthians] speak of the resurrection of Christ and those who belong to him, and both speak of the parousia, the coming of Christ back to earth. But First Corinthians explicitly adds the idea of an interval between the resurrection of Jesus and the end time when Christ will reign on Earth and when he will give over the kingdom to his Father.
. . . The mystery of the general resurrection and the immanent coming of the end times, most likely before the death of Paul's readers, implies that those who are still alive will not die but will be changed in an instant. Then the sound of the trumpet will announce the end times, and all the dead will be raised incorruptible and immortal. The final energy, which is death, will be "swallowed up in victory." The apocalyptic and metaphorical language Paul uses to enable his readers to grasp something of this mystery was certainly difficult for his contemporaries, and these biblical stories of the end times have raised many questions and disagreements throughout the history of Christianity. For twenty-first century Christians, these ideas are almost impossible to comprehend. Paul's description of the end times seems like a fable.
Those of us who have become aware of an emerging universe over a time span of billions of years find it hard to accept these ideas of imminent end times with the second coming of Christ. Knowing the story of an Earth that has existed for over four billion years and of an evolving community of species on the Earth, the eschaton found in Paul's letter makes no sense if it is taken literally. So the question that surfaces for us is: What is the meaning of the parousia, or the second coming of Christ and the end times, for contemporary Christians? The early Christians expected that the parousia would take place in their lifetime, but in fact Jesus did not come in their lifetime, and so the second coming was projected forward into the unknown future. As we study the solar system, it is true that eventually the energy of the sun will fade and our mother sun and the solar system will die, but a second coming of Christ at that time seems fruitless.
A better interpretation of this story is that resurrection should not be seen in terms of a time sequence but rather in terms of a transformation sequence. [Donald] Goergen talks about death and resurrection as a transformation, and then raises the following question: "Are we not talking about the same event? When we die, we are raised to a new mode of life. Death and resurrection are two aspects of the same event." The traditional three-day wait for the resurrection [of Jesus] is a metaphorical way of speaking. Since after death there is no time, death and resurrection are simultaneous. Moreover, as [Kenan] Osbourne points out, "resurrection and ascension are simply two sides of the same coin. There was no intermediary stage, that is, a time when Jesus was 'only' risen but 'not yet' ascended. If Jesus rose, he ascended. The two are synonymous. According to Roger Haight: "In sum, what is the nature of the resurrection? It is the assumption of Jesus of Nazareth into the life of God. It is Jesus being exalted and glorified within God's reality. This occurred through and at the moment of Jesus' death, so that there was no time between his death and his resurrection and exaltation."
In summary, the biblical meaning of the resurrection is a transformation from death to new life. With the crucifixion and death of Jesus he was simultaneously raised up to new life. The disciples experienced a presence of Jesus who is alive. Resurrection is not just a return to life as it was, not just the resurrection of a corpse. It is not just the ongoing existence of an immortal soul. Resurrection is new life beyond time and space but, as we see in Jesus, with a continuity of personhood. Resurrection is also the symbol of a transformation of the disciples who experienced new life flowing from the presence of God in the risen Christ. Paul is transformed from a persecutor to an apostle; the disciples are transformed into men and women imbued with the Spirit of Jesus and ready to share the message and mission of Jesus.
Jesus lives as the firstfruits of a resurrection which is promised to all those who belong to him. New life is now the reality for all believers, as Paul seems to indicate when he says in 1 Corinthians 15:12-19 that there is a direct relationship between the resurrection of Jesus and our resurrection. In an emerging universe, the resurrection of Jesus is the presence of God unfolding from within Jesus and giving him a new depth of life with God. Resurrection is the extravagant love of God which transforms the whole individual person of Jesus of Nazareth as well as ourselves with the final blossoming of a new depth of consciousness. Resurrection is the presence of God unfolding within each and every individual person, and therefore it is also a new inner relationship with God.
Resurrection is a revelatory symbol insofar as we experience a new dimension of God's unfolding presence within us. Resurrection is also salvific insofar as we experience a new depth of life manifested in reconciliation, healing, and liberation within the whole Earth community. Resurrection provides a deeper, more loving web of relationships within the entire human community as we enter into and return to the fullness of life.
– Cletus Wessels, O.P.
Excerpted from Jesus in the New Universe Story
* "Emerging universe" is a phrase that describes a process in which the universe rather than being created complete and all at once by a transcendent God, is emerging in a time-development sequence from a sacred presence within. Writes Wessels: "This kind of language stresses the immanence of God; it implies a God who acts from inside out with internal causality. Because of the immediate internal presence of the power, energy, and love of God as the source of all things, there is no need for mediators. . . . In an emerging universe God is the source of all being, not by an external efficient causality, but by an internal causality. This is a new concept flowing from the quantum make-up of the universe. . . In an emerging universe the inner presence of God is found in the very unfolding and emerging of the universe and not in an external divine plan."
See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
• The Two Entwined Events of the Easter Experience
• And What of Resurrection?
• Resurrection: Beyond Words, Dogmas and All Possible Theological Formulations
• The Resurrected Jesus . . .
• The Passion of Christ (Part 11) – Jesus Appears to Mary
• The Passion of Christ (Part 12) – Jesus Appears to His Friends
• The Triumph of Love: An Easter Reflection