Jesus was coming soon
Readers of the New Testament discover about 40 days after his resurrection Jesus disappeared into the atmosphere, promising to return in just the same way someday. That sounds great. I am all for that! But when will it happen? More importantly, when did the authors of the New Testament say it would happen?
In the Gospel of Matthew Jesus is quoted saying the current generation of people would not pass away before the end would come (Matt. 24:34). In The Revelation, John quotes Jesus saying he is coming “soon” (Rev. 3:11, 22:7, 22:12, 22:20). Peter writes, “The end of all things is near” (1 Peter 4:7). John writes “this is the last hour” (1 John 2:18). So the clear understanding of the writers of the New Testament is not only that Jesus would return, but he would return soon.
It has been about 2000 years since those words were written. It seems clear that Jesus was either misquoted, misunderstood the timing, or meant something spiritual rather than literal in his talk of his return. It also seems clear the authors of the New Testament were wrong about the 2nd coming of Jesus being imminent in their day and age. Serious readers of the New Testament need to acknowledge these facts and reckon with them in any beliefs they hold about the Bible.
There are a few explanations often offered to explain these difficulties:
- “With God a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years is like a day” (2 Peter 3:8-9). This may be true but it doesn’t change what Jesus is reported to have said, or what the Apostles wrote would happen soon.
- “Jesus didn’t mean ‘generation’ he meant ‘race’ and the Jewish race still exists.” Based on an alternate translation of the Greek word translated ‘generation’ in Matthew 24:34, this interpretation tortures the context of this verse. It simply doesn’t make sense in light of the surrounding context in Matthew 24. It seems the only reason to prefer the translation “race” over “generation” is to cover up what seems to be a glaring error by Jesus.
- “Jesus himself said no one knew the day or hour” (Matt. 24:36). Although that is true, Jesus is still quoted saying it would happen within the time frame of that generation - and soon. It seems He is saying no one knows when His second coming will happen within the bounds of the existing generation (twenty or forty years).
To me, rather than trying to explain away these difficulties, it seems more honest and straightforward to solve this problem by saying, “The authors of the New Testament expected Jesus to come back any day and included this belief in what they wrote down. But they were wrong.”
Those who hold to the idea that the Bible is a record of the unerring words of God, recorded by human authors led word for word by the Spirit of God will find this idea difficult to accept, if not downright heretical. Honestly, it’s taken me a number of years to reconcile myself to what I’ve been clearly reading in the New Testament for decades. But I’ve come to the point that I’d rather accept the scripture for what it actually is than pretend it is something different than it presents itself to be.
Explaining to others that the Bible is perfect and always correct because it is God’s literal words is easy to do. Just read it and believe it. It’s simple. Figuring out what to do with the Bible if it actually includes ideas that have proven to be inaccurate takes a lot of thought. Explaining this to others is even more complicated. It is also risky, because such ideas tend to lead to discussions where lines are drawn and accusations made about things like heresy and orthodoxy. But let me start by proposing an idea to start with when we try to figure out what to do with troublesome aspects of scripture. It may sound controversial, or even heretical, but it is based upon a careful reading of the words that have been passed down the centuries to us. It comes from a sincere heart, and from a desire to follow part of the most important command according to Jesus: to love God with all my mind.
Here it is: The written words of scripture communicate the best and current understanding of God, humanity, and the cosmos held by the authors. This means that sometimes, at least in the idea of when Jesus would return to earth, they were wrong. Those who turn to the Bible for knowledge of God and how to live in right relationship to God need to reckon with this, not just pretend it doesn’t exist or it doesn’t matter.
However it was that God worked with the human authors of scripture to convey eternal truth, it is clear there was still a measure of human reason, human thought, human decision making included in the process.
There is obviously much more to say about this important topic. (In fact books have been written.*) As I close this entry let me just remind everyone that Christianity is based upon faith in Jesus, not faith in a perfect book. Although I believe the evidence makes it impossible to believe the Bible is perfect in every way, I believe there is so much the Bible offers to anyone seeking spiritual Truth.
* Two books that I have found very helpful in my personal study on this issue are