The Ascension and the Parousia of Christ

This post from Torrance scholar Stavan Narendra John outlines chapter seven of Thomas F. Torrance's book "Space, Time and Resurrection" (STR). Stavan wrote this outline for a meeting of the Torrance Reading Group. For addtional STR chapter summaries, click on the number: 123, 456, 8.

"Ascension" by Copley (public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

The relation between the ascension and the parousia

In chapter seven of STR, Thomas F. Torrance orients his readers to the relation between the ascension and the parousia. He does so by highlighting three main points:

1. The importance of understanding the parousia in realist terms 

Torrance elaborates on the importance of a realist interpretation by: 

a. highlighting how the NT uses the term parousia in a “realist and effective sense”: “Parousia, normally translated as coming or advent, means coming and presence, the real presence of him who was, who is, and who is to come. ‘All is present, and yet all is future.’ It is not applied in the New Testament or in the early Church in a spiritualized sense, as if it meant a presence in the Spirit only. Rather does it refer to a coming-and-a-presence in the most realist and effective sense” (143).

b. underscoring the “physicality of the incarnation”: “Moreover, the physicality of the incarnation, in which the Word was made flesh and in which Jesus Christ rose again in body, indicates that here we have to do with a presence in which God has bound up the life and existence of his creation with himself. This is not a parousia in the flesh which is merely a temporary episode, so that all it represents is a transient epiphany or manifestation: it has a finality about it, even for God. This is not a parousia of God in the flesh which consumes the flesh, but one in which the physical being of the creature is established and confirmed through being included in a covenanted relation with the Creator actualized in the incarnate Son” (143).

c. stressing the important role the “historical Jesus” plays in providing the “material content of all the parousia of Christ from the ascension to his coming again”: “It is here that the resurrection of the man Jesus is of decisive and determinative significance, for with the crucifixion it constitutes the epitome and consummation of the incarnation: through the resurrection the incarnate parousia is established and exalted as the material content of all the parousia of Christ from the ascension to his coming again; the presence of the historical Jesus is eternally fused into the presence of the risen Jesus and as such constitutes the one indivisible parousia of the ages” (143-144).

2. The NT uses parousia only in the singular 

This is important because it maintains “the continuity between the first and second advents” (144). Keeping the continuity is essential for the following three reasons:

a. It highlights the redemption of space and time: “it is a sort of space-time parousia, not a parousia which we split apart, as we do space and time in our ordinary every day experience, because our eyes cannot keep up with the speed of light in terms of which all motion and structure in the universe are defined. Here we have a parousia in which the breach between space and time is healed, which is neither spaceless nor timeless but which determines the whole invisible structure of history and is ultimately regulative of the shape and mission of the Church and indeed of the new creation inaugurated by the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead” (144).

b. It stresses the importance of viewing the final return of Christ in relation to the incarnation, resurrection, and ascension: “But even the parousia in that future aspect, at the second or final advent of Christ, will nevertheless be a parousia of essentially the same texture as that of the historical Jesus in the incarnation and the risen Jesus of Easter and ascension. ‘This same Jesus will come again’, as it was said on the day of ascension, ‘in the same way as you have seen him going into heaven’ (Acts 1:11)” (145).

c. It shows the integral relationship between the glory of the ascension and the suffering on the cross: ‘“How then, did he go? By what process did he fulfil the mission which was written of him? The New Testament answers by saying: ‘This is he who came by water and blood; not by water only, but by water and blood’, in other words by baptism and crucifixion. If, then, his going and his coming are to be ‘in like manner’, it is plain that the Parousia, whatever it may signify in its eternal dimension, is not to be understood in separation from the Incarnation and from Calvary” (145).

3. The ascension introduces an 'eschatological pause' in the heart of the parousia 

This eschatological pause (or "reserve") makes it possible for us to speak of a first advent and a second or final advent of Christ” (145), and enables one hold to the following views:

a. Make a distinction between the manner of the first coming and the second coming: “By withdrawing his bodily presence from contact and sight, that is from historical contact and observation, the ascended Christ holds apart his first advent in great humility and abasement, and pointing ahead to his final advent in great glory and power, when the eschatological pause will be brought to an end, and we shall see him as we are seen by him” (145).

b. Affirm the now and not yet of biblical eschatology: “The Kingdom of Christ was fully inaugurated with his crucifixion in its condition of humiliation, and with his resurrection in triumph over the forces of darkness and evil and his ascension as Lamb of God to the throne of the Father. That was in the most intense sense the fulfilment of Christ’s Kingdom. In other words, this is the immediacy and the finality of the Kingdom of which Christ spoke as taking place in the life-time of his hearers; but it is that same inaugurated Kingdom which will be openly manifested at the end of time when the veil will be taken away” (146).

c. Recognise that there is pause because God is loving and wants people to “repent and believe.” This recognition should also propel the Church to missions: “Nevertheless within that tension in which it is called to keep vigil and be alert waiting for the manifestation of Christ, the Church lives and works in the time that is established by the ascension for the proclamation of the Gospel to all nations and ages. God has established a time in the midst of history in which he waits to be gracious, allowing time and history to run on its course in order that the world may be given time to repent and believe” (146-147).

How the ascension enables our relationship to Christ

Torrance provides three main ways in which the ascension enables one to relate to Christ:

1. Historical relation to the historical Jesus Christ 

One can relate to Christ through the witness to Christ in the Gospels, and through the Holy Spirit who enables one to encounter the risen and ascended Christ (147-148). Torrance calls these kinds of encounters: “mediate horizontal relation” and “immediate vertical relation” (147). Both these aspects are crucial—one cannot have one without the other.  

a. “Mediate horizontal relation”: “by withdrawing himself from visible and physical contact with us as our contemporary throughout history, Jesus Christ sends us back by his ascension to the Gospels and to their witness to the historical Jesus Christ. That is the appointed place in which nations and ages may meet with God” (147).

b. “Immediate vertical relation”: “But with his ascension Jesus Christ also sent upon the Church and indeed upon ‘all flesh’ his Holy Spirit so that through the Spirit he might be present, really present, although in a different way” (147).

c. Torrance illustrates how both aspects work together in the manner in which Saul (who became the apostle Paul) encountered the risen and ascended Jesus: “His encounter with the risen Lord and his self-witness on the Damascus road threw him into blindness, and he required the testimony of an historical agent or witness sent to him by Christ before what he had received by divine revelation fully came home to him, and his eyes were opened” (147-148).

2. Sacramental relation to the crucified and risen Jesus Christ 

Torrance highlights three main points in this section:

a. The Church, through the Holy Spirit, already participates in new creation, albeit not yet fully. “The Church in history exists in that overlap of the two ages, the overlap that is constituted by the ascension to belong to the whole of the Church’s world-mission. The Sacraments also belong to that overlap, spanning at once, the two ages … On one side the Sacraments belong very much to earth and its on-going space and time, as is made clear in the visible, tangible and corruptible elements of this world, water, bread and wine, that are used. But on the other side they are signs of the new order which has once and for all broken into our world in Jesus Christ and in which we have constant participation through the Spirit even though since the ascension that new order is veiled from our sight” (148).

b. The ascension points ahead to the final return of Christ when he will “make all things new” (149). In light of this eschatological emphasis, Torrance argues that while God may intervene through “direct miraculous healing” in the lives of his people today, “there is no appointed programme of anything like ‘faith healing’ or miraculous activity of a kindred sort” (149) “The ascension means that Christ holds back the physical transformation of the creation to the day when he will return to make all things new, and that meantime he sends the Church to live and work in the form of a servant within the measures and limits of the on-going world of space and time” (149).

c. Through the Sacraments of Baptism and the Eucharist, the Church receives “‘miraculous signs’ of the Church’s forgiveness and healing … to be used perpetually throughout the course of its historical existence” (150). “The two Sacraments of the Gospel enshrine together the two essential ‘moments’ of our participation in the new creation, while we are still implicated in the space and time of this passing world. Baptism is the Sacrament of our once and for all participation in Christ, and may be spoken of as the Sacrament of Justification, which is not to be repeated. The Eucharist is the Sacrament of our continuous participation in Christ and may be spoken of as the Sacrament of Sanctification, which is regularly to be repeated, until Christ comes again” (150).

3. Eschatological relation to the ascended and advent Jesus Christ

Torrance elaborates on four points by way of orientation to this section:

a. He critiques Rudolf Bultmann’s view on eschatology, advocating instead what he calls the “Biblical view”: “Bultmann … speaks of the act of God at the end of the world, where the world ends or ceases. This is in line with Bultmann’s radical disjunction between this world and the other world of God, and his rejection of any interaction between God and this world which he holds to be a closed continuum of cause and effect. God’s ‘acts’ are related to this world only in a tangential fashion, and are not acts within this cosmos…. But when he speaks of this as eschatological event, it would appear to be the antithesis of what the New Testament means, for in it, eschatology is constituted by the act of the eternal within the temporal, by the acts of God within our world of space and time. On this Biblical view the eschatological acts of God run throughout time to their end at the consummation of time; they are teleological as well as eschatological, for they are not just abrupt acts abrogating or terminating time, but rather acts that gather up time in the fulfilling of the divine purpose” (151).

b. He shows how Christology shapes eschatology: “Yet by eschatology we refer not so much to the eschaton as to the Eschatos, that is to Christ himself who is the last (Eschatos) as well as the First (Protos), and who is the Last because he is the First, for he who has already come and accomplished his work of salvation in our midst will bring it to its final manifestation and consummation at his coming again” (151-152).

c. He shows how Christ’s final return will reveal what he has already completed: “Since the ascension his eschatological operations are veiled from our sight, by the fact that we live within the time-form of this world, and communicate with the new creation only through the Spirit in Word and Sacrament. The final parousia of Christ will be more the apocalypse or unveiling of the perfected reality of what Christ has done than the consummating of what till then is an incomplete reality.” (152).

d. He explains that the ascension and eschatology present a “two-fold relation” between (1) “a relation here and now between the old and the new,” and (2) “a relation between the present (including the past) and the future” (152). “In the here and now relation to Christ what stands between us is the veil of sense, so that although we communicate with him immediately through the Spirit, he is mediated to us in our sense experience only through the sacramental elements. In the relation between the present and the future what stands in between us is the veil of time, so that although we communicate with him immediately through the Spirit, he is mediated to us only through temporal and spatial acts of sacramental communion in the midst of the Church until he comes” (152-153). 

The scope of eschatology

With the above four points as orientation, Torrance goes on to address three points that speak to the scope of eschatology:

1. The cosmic range of eschatology

Christ’s resurrection has implication for all of creation. “Eschatology has here a teleological relation to the whole realm of created existence, and leads into the doctrine of ‘the new heaven and the new earth’. God does not abandon his creation when he has saved man, for all creation, together with man, will be renewed when Christ comes again. Since he is the first-born of the new creation, the head in whom all things, visible and invisible, are reconciled and gathered up, the resurrection of Christ in body becomes the pledge that the whole physical universe will be renewed, for in a fundamental sense it has already been resurrected in Christ” (155).

2. The corporate aspect of eschatology 

The Church is both already the “Body of Christ” and is becoming the “Body of Christ” (156). “[B]ut now we must think of the relation of the Church to Christ as governed also by the distance of the ascension and the nearness of the advent. This is the ‘eschatological reserve’ in the union between Christ and his Church, in which the Church is sent to carry out its work in the world, in a sense, ‘on its own’, and for which it must give an account to Christ when he comes again.” (156) “This means that the Church is constantly summoned to look beyond its historical forms to the fullness and perfection that will be disclosed at the parousia and must never identify the structures it acquires and must acquire in the nomistic forms of this-worldly historical existence with the essential forms of its new being in Christ himself” (157).

3. The individual aspect of eschatology 

The individual believer will be transformed at Christ’s return, but in the meantime, like the Church, the believer is called to faithfulness to Christ in the world filled with challenges (157) “Hence the individual believer also lives in the eschatological reserve created by the ascension in the midst of the whole parousia of Christ. He must therefore learn to live and work ‘on his own’, as it were, for he is sent to occupy himself with the talents the Lord has given him, and will have to render account of what he has done with them when Christ comes again to judge the quick and the dead” (157). 

As the believer waits for Christ’s return, the Sacraments provide hope and sustenance: “He lives from week to week, by drawing his life and strength from the bread and wine of the Lord’s Supper, nourished by the body and blood of Christ, and in the strength of that communion he must life and work until Christ comes again” (158).