The Sci-Fi Epistles – 1 & 2 Thessalonians

It's possible that Einstein's laws have been superseded. Researchers at the CERN laboratories in Switzerland and at Gran Sasso laboratories in Italy appear to have recorded a particle travelling faster than light. If their data holds up, it could mean a revolution in physics on the scale of the coup by which Einstein dethroned Newton.

Of course the data might not hold up. In many ways you'd expect it not to. The scientific consensus naturally presumes the evidence has been somehow misread or that some extraneous factor has been unaccounted for. But at the moment, as I write, no one really knows. Some live in hope.

When Paul (and Silas and Timothy) wrote to the Thessalonians it appears that they believed that the 'second coming' was on its way. Jesus was about to return to earth and when he did it would be on clouds and with blazing fire. They even had very specific ideas about 'the man of Lawlessness', an apocalyptic figure who had not yet been revealed (because another mystery character was 'holding him back’) but who was also coming soon and would usher in the end of the age (2 Thess 2:3-4).

The Second Coming is a pretty mainstream idea within Christian theology. But I have to confess that I find it difficult to believe. I can accept that Paul and his friends believed it would happen in their lifetime (or thereabouts), but after nearly 2000 years (a stretch of time that, in the other direction, would take us back to around the time of Abraham) I’m not sure we can reasonably take Paul as literally as he appears to have written.

Underdog, big dog

For Paul, it is the resurrection that lends the Parousia its credibility. Jesus is resurrected; therefore he will come back and judge the earth. For many of us the idea that Jesus died and was raised to new life is simply part of the furniture of our beliefs. However for those for whom it is not we are being asked to take on faith something that sounds astronomically absurd. The resurrection of Jesus from the dead is not an obviously acceptable fact. It is the whisper of particles faster than light; the scent of possibility, lived in the space in between an idea bravely spoken and its vindication.

Sober me up and ask me in the cold light of day: Do I think the resurrection of Jesus from the dead really, actually, historically happened? I cannot even begin to find credible ways of knowing, but if I had to bet on it I'd say no. People who are dead do not come back to life again. Or at least that is the bet-worthy probability.

But life is not a bet. It is a choice. Neither is it sober; it is fuelled by storming untamed passions. And probability is no way to live, when belief can confound the stereotype of life-as-is and prise open the possibility of life as it could be. Ask me in the devoted heat of battle whether I believe in the resurrection of Jesus and I'll tell you I believe with all my heart. It's not an historical answer, but it's an honest one.

And so it is with the Second Coming. Or at least so I would expect it to be. But the truth is that while I can get emotional about resurrection; I get the shudders when I think about the Parousia. I think it's that Jesus' resurrection is a deep hope against the powers that trod him down, whereas his return on the clouds is power to judge. I can get behind Jesus when he's the underdog. But when he's the big dog...

Breaking the law

But perhaps there's a different way to think about The Second Coming. And it might begin in the depths of the Hadron Collider.

For the early Christians the return of Jesus as judge of the world was a bold hope in the face of Roman oppression. Living under persecution – as the Thessalonians clearly did – they waited for the day when they would be vindicated, and the rule under which they laboured would be destroyed (2 Thess 1:5-10). The image of the cloud-riding Christ is no less than the continuation of the Jewish dream of a revolutionary Messiah into an apocalyptic version of Christianity.

As I read the Gospels (which I believe are all written later than these two epistles) there are differing treatments of Jesus’ return (see this post on Matthew and this on Mark for two very alternative perspectives). But the themes of the Jewish apocalyptic tradition are clearly present, just as they are here in 1 & 2 Thessalonians. The apocalyptic writings of Israel painted Yahweh as a cloud-riding God of light and other beasts, even Satan himself, as evil powers of darkness. There would be battles, but in the end the Light would defeat the Darkness.

Apocalyptic writing like that still exists in our contemporary world through fantasy fiction. But it is the genre of science-fiction that I think gives us the greatest modern parallel to the spirit of what the early Christians believed about the Parousia. I write this as someone who is definitely not a Trekkie! Heck, I don’t even really care much for Doctor Who … *awkward pause* … But it seems to me that Sci-Fi possesses a defiant commitment to the power of scientific imagination that will not let go of the belief that the boundaries of this world – the assumed and accepted straightjackets under which we labour and often suffer – can be broken. And that greater freedom is possible if we’d only discover more about what is right under our noses.

So the idea – just even the whisper of the idea – that a particle went faster than light is a rogue thought within the ranks of Darkness. The boundaries of light may have been broken! As this whisper of a chink in the Laws of the universe comes to us, so we are inspired to look for chinks in the other ‘laws’ of our world, especially those which bring so much darkness.

Out of this world

It may seem strange to suggest that the scientific future of neutrinos and other spectacular tales could reinterpret our early Christian visions of Jesus' return? Yet I have met plenty of people who would scoff at Star Trek but happy place confidence in the certain hope that a God-man would descend on clouds and call an end to the world as we know it! Are the visions of science-fiction really any more out-of-this-world?

Our most far-fetched ideas are really about the realities nearest to us. Even for Paul, the Second Coming wasn’t really about detailing a future event; it was about living right now as ‘children of the light’ (1 Thess 5:5). I say ‘Maranatha’ – ‘come Lord Jesus’ – and lift my eyes to the stars.

I wait in faith that the boundaries of darkness can be broken.