It has become almost orthodoxy in some scholarly circles to assume that Paul and Jesus were wrong about the future of the world. They were, the argument goes, both convinced that some time soon after the resurrection Jesus would come back again and sort everything out and put an end to the world. Only when this end failed to make its appearance did the early Church start to re-think its position and realise that perhaps they were in for a longer wait. We can only deal here with Paul and there are too many different texts to give a comprehensive presentation of the problem, but hopefully what follows will provide a key which unlocks many texts which have been read wrongly in this light.
Take for instance 1 Cor 7:29-31: I mean, brethren, the appointed time has grown very short; from now on, let those who have wives live as though they had none, and those who mourn as though they were not mourning, and those who rejoice as though they were not rejoicing, and those who buy as though they had no goods, and those who deal with the world as though they had no dealings with it. For the form of this world is passing away.
In the last hundred and fifty years or so there has so much “millennial” Christianity, with different Christian sects reading this (and other texts) as meaning precisely that everything we see is about to come to an end. This sort of approach is so widespread it is hard for even Catholics to not draw the same conclusion. But Paul is in no way talking about the end of the world. He means that the way things have been organised, the way the world has been run since its foundation has outlived its usefulness and that with the death and resurrection of Christ a new age has dawned. We could start to list the countless ways in which Christ’s coming has changed the world, and they are more and more profound than even Christians often realise, but it suffices to note that Paul, thirty years or so after the events, is still at the beginning of that process.
In 1 Corinthians 10:11 Paul looks back at some of the disasters that befell people in the history of Israel and makes this comment: Now these things happened to them as a warning, but they were written down for our instruction, upon whom the end of the ages has come. Two things to note here. First of all the word for ‘ages’ is the Greek aeon which can also be translated as world – as it is in the King James Version, beloved of fundamentalists. So many people read this and hear Paul saying purely and simply that the end of the world has come. But Paul's Greek word for “end” (telos) also means goal or purpose. Paul’s real contention is that the purpose, the goal for which God created the world, has now arrived, at least in embryo. Or to use another much misunderstood word, God’s purpose has been unveiled or revealed (apokalypsis). God’s purpose has been “apocalypsed” in what happened to Jesus.
So much in the Old Testament points to the fact that God will one day, in the end, vindicate his people and “sort everything out”. Paul maintains that this has happened—not at the end of time, but in the middle of it. He still looks forward to the day when this will be complete, but it has begun now and the believer’s task is to start living with this realization. So Paul has none of the morbid interest in the end of the world which characterizes certain strains of fundamentalist Christianity. But he is very concerned that Christians realise that with Christ the basis of the world was changing. And he sees that although this victory is decisive and the new age has definitively begun, the old age keeps trying to make a comeback. People are so used to living in by the old rules that although they have opted for the new age, their responses sometimes default back to the old one. The struggle between old pagan reflexes and the revelation of the cross goes on in the Church as a whole and in each of us.
Christians are like people living in territory once completely dominated by an oppressive regime. The regime has basically been toppled, the capital has fallen, but there are still fierce pockets of resistance and people loyal to the old regime still have influence everywhere. They have no political power any more but people are still afraid of them and still, to an extent, enthralled by them. The old guard is no longer in charge, but it still has moral power.
The Christian’s challenge is to believe that the new occupying power really will have the upper hand. The task is to live as though the forces of the old regime really have no power at all (remembering that in reality they have only as much power as people choose to give them...) To this end Paul prays:
that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith; that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may have power to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ which surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God. (Ephesians 3:17-19).
For further reflection, read Chapter Seven (Training the Eyes on the Coming) of Living in the End Times by James Alison.
© Fr. John Hemer, used with permission.