Examining New Testament’s Prediction of Jesus’ (p) Return
More on New Testament’s Miscalculation of the End of World
In one of our earlier paper we documented how the gospel traditions impute inaccurate predictions of Jesus’ (peace be upon him) second return and subsequent end of the world on him. According to Jesus (peace be upon him), end of the world was so near that some of his disciples would have remained alive to experience it.
It is now time to further that issue with the New Testament disciples of Jesus (peace be upon him). The way they interpreted, perceived and reacted to Jesus’ (peace be upon him) prediction of imminent end of the world and his second coming!
Paul’s prediction Jesus’ (p) return
It would be good if we start with Paul. While writing to the Thessalonians, Paul had the following to predict:
“What we are teaching you now is the Lord’s teaching: We who are alive on the day the Lord comes will not go ahead of those who have died.” (1 Thessalonians 4:15)
It is very straight forward and obvious that Paul believed some amongst them would still remain alive on Jesus’ (peace be upon him) return! However, unfortunately, all of them are dead and Jesus (peace be upon him) is yet to return to the world!
Nevertheless, it would be fair if we also consider standard Christian understanding of the passage. Well known biblical expositor Adam Clarke reconciles as follows while dealing with the passage:
We which are alive, and remain – By the pronoun we the apostle does not intend himself, and the Thessalonians to whom he was then writing; he is speaking of the genuine Christians which shall be found on earth when Christ comes to judgment. From not considering the manner in which the apostle uses this word, some have been led to suppose that he imagined that the day of judgment would take place in that generation, and while he and the then believers at Thessalonica were in life. But it is impossible that a man, under so direct an influence of the Holy Spirit, should be permitted to make such a mistake: nay, no man in the exercise of his sober reason could have formed such an opinion; there was nothing to warrant the supposition; no premises from which it could be fairly deduced; nor indeed any thing in the circumstances of the Church, nor in the constitution of the world, that could have suggested a hint of the kind. The apostle is speaking of the thing indefinitely as to the time when it shall happen, but positively as to the Order that shall be then observed.
Quite obviously for Clarke and other scholars who would agree with him, Paul was alluding to the future Christians present during Jesus’ (peace be upon him) second return. We would examine the viability of this deduction very soon however, we would like to draw certain premises straight away from Clarke’s commentary:
- It was “impossible” for Paul, “under so direct an influence of the Holy Spirit”, to claim a false prophesy. Thus, on the contrary, if Paul did indeed miscalculate Jesus’ (peace be upon him) second coming, he ought to be not in any “influence” of Holy Spirit. Or, quite improbably, the Holy Spirit gave inaccurate “inspirations”.
- Clarke notes that, “there was nothing to warrant the supposition”. We would certainly be covering this aspect in passages to follow since it was highly expected and oft repeated prediction and earliest Christian communities were reacting positively to it.
- Clarke also denies any “circumstances of the Church” or any “constitution of the world” to “suggest a hint of the kind”. As we would soon observe, there was much more than just a “hint” that earliest Christians expected second coming of Jesus (peace be upon him) in their age.
Now coming to Clarke’s reconciliation if the Pauline passage referred to the future Christians and not the immediate ones? There are plenty of allusions in the passage which suggest that Paul was not probably indicating about the Christians who would be present in Jesus’ (peace be upon him) second return. Consider for example the choice of words; Paul wrote that it is “Lord’s teaching” that some amongst them would stay alive when he returns back! And we know biblically Jesus (peace be upon him) did predict his second coming well during the life time of some of his disciples:
For whosoever shall be ashamed of me and of my words, of him shall the Son of man be ashamed, when he shall come in his own glory, and in his Father’s, and of the holy angels. But I tell you of a truth, there be some standing here, which shall not taste of death, till they see the kingdom of God. (Luke 9:26-27, King James Version)
From that time forth began Jesus to shew unto his disciples, how that he must go unto Jerusalem, and suffer many things of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and be raised again the third day. Then Peter took him, and began to rebuke him, saying, Be it far from thee, Lord: this shall not be unto thee. But he turned, and said unto Peter, Get thee behind me, Satan: thou art an offence unto me: for thou savourest not the things that be of God, but those that be of men. Then said Jesus unto his disciples, If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me. For whosoever will save his life shall lose it: and whosoever will lose his life for my sake shall find it. For what is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul? or what shall a man give in exchange for his soul? For the Son of man shall come in the glory of his Father with his angels; and then he shall reward every man according to his works. Verily I say unto you, There be some standing here, which shall not taste of death, till they see the Son of man coming in his kingdom. (Matthew 16:21-28, King James Version)
Therefore, Paul merely reiterated the teachings of Jesus (peace be upon him) to suggest that some amongst them would stay alive before Jesus (peace be upon him) returns back. So it does not seem very persuasive that future Christians were referred by Paul. And so we do have a strong “warrant for the supposition”, namely, Jesus’ (peace be upon him) words itself!
Consequently, it had a profound impact on the Thessalonica society. People started to quit their jobs in wake of near end of the world! Consider Dr. Constable’s insights into the Thessalonians passages:
The teaching that Christ could return at any moment had led some of the believers into idleness. They had quit their jobs and were simply waiting for the Lord to return. This interpretation seems justified and is certainly consistent with life. Clearly they believed in the imminent return of Christ for them. Such deductions have led other Christians to do the same thing at various other times throughout church history. When people are not busy with their own work they may tend to meddle in the business of others. They may become busybodies rather than busy, neglecting their own business to mind other people’s, even minding everybody’s business but their own. (2. Specific instructions concerning the idle 3:11-13, 2 Thessalonians 3:11, The Expository Notes of Dr. Constable)
Note that Dr. Constable expressly denies Adam Clarke’s interpretation; Unlike Clarke, Dr. Constable does not interpret the verse to refer to future Christians. And for him the interpretation was “justified” that “Christ could return at any moment”! Simply because biblical Jesus (peace be upon him) and Paul expressly spoke of it!
This disturbed social setup of the Thessalonians fulfill Adam Clarke’s second and third premise! That is, there was a definite mass-level reaction to the apocalyptic passages of Jesus (peace be upon him), Paul and even John (as we would soon observe below). Thus we beg to differ with scholar Adam Clarke for his assertions that there was nothing in the “circumstance of the Church” or any “constitution of the world” to “suggest a hint of the kind”. Contrary to this, earliest Christians were agitated to prepare for the near end of the world!
Furthermore, in the wake of the fleeting time, Paul interestingly even guided his followers not to marry:
“Are you unmarried? Then don’t look for a wife. But if you do marry, you haven’t committed a sin; and if an unmarried woman marries, she hasn’t committed a sin. But I would rather spare you the everyday troubles that married people will have. What I mean, my brothers, is this: there is not much time left, and from now on married men should live as though they were not married” (1 Corinthians 7: 27-29)
Reputed Bible expositor John Gill enlightens that Paul discouraged marriage since, apart from other reasons, he assumed Christ’s (peace be upon him) return to be very near and so people would be wasting their time discharging marital responsibilities than serving God:
“But this I say, brethren, the time is short,…. This is another reason, with which the apostle supports his advice to virgins, and unmarried persons, to remain so; since the time of life is so very short, and it is even but a little while to the end of the world, and second coming of Christ; and therefore seeing the marriage state is so full of care and trouble, and it affords still less time for the service of Christ and religion, he thought it most advisable for them to, continue in a single life, that they might be more at leisure to make use of that little time they had for their spiritual good and welfare, the edification of others, and the glory of Christ: unless it should be rather thought that the apostle is still enlarging upon the former argument, taken from the present time, being a time of distress and persecution; and so the phrase, “the time is short”, or “contracted”, and full of anguish and affliction, is the same with the present necessity, and trouble in the flesh; and since this was the case, he suggests again, that an unmarried state was most preferable:…” (1 Corinthians 7:29, John Gill’s Exposition of the Entire Bible)
Paul even promulgated a “secret truth” that some amongst them would still be alive before the trumpet, signifying the end of the world, would be blown!
“Listen to this secret truth: we shall not all die, but when the last trumpet sounds, we shall all be changed in an instant, as quickly as the blinking of an eye. For when the trumpet sounds, the dead will be raised, never to die again, and we shall all be changed.” (1 Corinthians 15: 51-52)
Sensing the obvious problems with the above passage, Christian scholars have again typically tried to reconcile by stating that the passage talks about future generation who would be alive when the last trumpet is blown and Paul merely associated himself with them:
We shall not all sleep (pantes ou koimēthēsometha). Future passive indicative of koimaomai, to sleep. Not all of us shall die, Paul means. Some people will be alive when he comes. Paul does not affirm that he or any then living will be alive when Jesus comes again. He simply groups all under the phrase “we all.” (Robertson’s Word Pictures, 1 Corinthians 15:51)
However, there are at least two fold problems with such an explanation:
A) The letter itself does not fit the reconciliation since it was written to and for a specific community – the Corinthians – in mind. So when Paul uses the plural pronoun “we” it must apply more to the immediate recipients of letter than to any “future” generation!
B) This is not the only instance where Paul has hinted about the imminent end of the world. At other instances, as we have been reading, Paul had more than clearly declared that Jesus (peace be upon him) was to return during the lifetime of the present generation. And thus, when Paul’s writings are taken in totality, it could hardly be defended that Paul alluded to any future generation.
John’s prediction of the end of the world
Moreover it was not just Paul to have predicted the return of Jesus (peace be upon him) during the lifetime of present age, rather John – the author of the general Johannine epistles – also asserted the same:
“My children, the end is near! You were told that the Enemy of Christ would come; and now many enemies of Christ have already appeared, and so we know that the end is near.” (1 John 2:18)
Observe the rationale author John is providing for his assertions that end is imminent: Because the appearance of the “enemies of Christ” was a sign of the end of the world which materialized abundantly during the age of author John, “so we [John and his community] know that the end is near”!
Quite expectedly, a lot of Christian commentators face difficulty while explaining the above passage. In fact some of the well-known commentators like John Gill opine that by “the end” it meant the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple and not the end of the world! Nevertheless, this bizarre and totally out-of-the-context commentary has been denied by multiple classical and more candid New Testament scholars for a variety of reasons. Extremely reputed New Testament commentator H. Meyer has the following candid comments:
“John also expected that the advent of the Lord would soon take place. It was only when the first generation of believers was already dead, without that expectation having been fulfilled, that in the consciousness of Christians the period till the coming of the Lord extended to an indefinitely distant limit, without, however, extinguishing the hope of His speedy advent; comp. 2Pe_3:4 ff.; but that later still the time which began with the appearance of false teachers was regarded as the last, is proved by Ignatius, ep. ad Eph. c. xi.” (1 John 2: 18, Heinrich August Wilhelm Meyer’s NT Commentary)
Meyer has provided very important insights into the passage. In the first place note that according to Meyer, John was not the only one to teach “the advent of the Lord” to be soon! Obviously, he must be referring to Paul since at a number of places in his epistles Paul has also declared the same! And therefore, the “end” could not possibly be taken to mean the destruction of Jerusalem and its Temple since Paul hardly meant “destruction of Jerusalem or its Temple”! According to Pauline passages, “end” referred to the end of the world and the second advent of Jesus (peace be upon him)!
Secondly, note that Ignatius – author John’s close disciple – also believed that he was living in “last” age. We at least expect Ignatius to understand like commentator John Gill that “end” referred to end of Jerusalem and its Temple. Rather with the appearance of “false teachers”, Ignatius was confirmed of the “coming of the Lord” which was hitherto had to be extended for obvious, if not, embarrassing reasons. It is almost certain that Ignatius lived the destruction of Jerusalem Temple in 70 C.E., yet, he considered the later appearance of false teachers to be the sign of the “end” of the world.
However, the most notable with Meyer’s comment is the acceptance of a failed New Testament prediction! Based on the apocalyptic passage(s), the earliest Christians as a whole, like John, believed that Jesus (peace be upon him) was to return during their lifetime; however, when this band was “already dead” Christians were forced to “extend” their expectation “to an indefinitely distant limit”.
Deviating from the obvious imports of the passage has led noted commentators like Robertson to portray “evangelist” John as not a very cogent communicator:
It is the last hour (eschatē hōra estin). This phrase only here in N.T., though John often uses hōra for a crisis (Joh_2:4; Joh_4:21, Joh_4:23; Joh_5:25, Joh_5:28, etc.). It is anarthrous here and marks the character of the “hour.” John has seven times “the last day” in the Gospel. Certainly in 1Jo_2:28 John makes it plain that the parousia might come in the life of those then living, but it is not clear that here he definitely asserts it as a fact. It was his hope beyond a doubt. We are left in doubt about this “last hour” whether it covers a period, a series, or the final climax of all just at hand. (1 John 2:18, Robertson’s Word Pictures)
Although Robertson is “certain” that “parousia” – Jesus’ (peace be upon him) second return as judge – would happen in the lifetime of his generation yet, mysteriously and contradictorily, he is also forced to speculate whether author John “definitely asserts it as a fact” or he said it merely on the passing! Now the “Holy Ghost” phenomenon seems to cease with Robertson, for obvious reasons.
Robertson, for obvious reasons, probably for the first time in the New Testament, “is not clear” with the intent and purpose with which author John was writing!? Probably for the first time with New Testament, Robertson is unable to bank his hope on the “hope” of evangelist John which was “beyond a doubt” that “parousia might come in the life of those then living”!
Nevertheless, we have a few humble queries in line for such an unusual handling of the passage!
Why is it “not clear” to Robertson whether John merely “asserted” or gave a biblical “fact” when we know that John was writing under the direct influence of “Holy Spirit” – (Clarke’s first premise)!
Similarly, when John believed that “parousia” – Jesus’ (p) second coming – will happen in the life time of his generation, why was there any query made as to the implication of the “last hour” whether it meant a “period” or “a series”?
Likewise, when “evangelist” and “apostle” John “hoped” for Jesus’ (peace be upon him) second coming during his current age then why devout and learned Christians facing issues embracing it? Is it because the inspired “hope” of the “apostle” came to pass for nothing that Christians aren’t willing to comply with it even though it is registered in “God’s” scripture?
Therefore, rather than surmising eccentric reconciliations, Christians should come to terms with the truth that New Testament records apostles to predict Jesus’ (peace be upon him) second coming erroneously. In the same way as a lot of documents from antiquity provide inaccurate information! In fact, New Testament commentator Henry Alford not only accepts the “problem” with the passage but he also tones down the specialty of John as “apostle and evangelist” writing “inspirations”!
“…And I believe that if we are to deal INGENUOUSLY both with words and with facts, we must recognize this DIFFICULTY here, as well as in such passages as 1Co_15:52; 2Co_5:1 ff.; 1Th_4:15 ff.; and understand the Apostle to be speaking, AS ANY ONE in any subsequent age of the Church might have spoken, and as we may speak now, of his time as being the last time, seeing that the signs of the last time were rife in it. How long it may please God to prolong this ἐσχάτη ὥρα, how long to permit the signs to continue which demonstrate each age of the church to have this character, is a question to which it was not given to him, and is not given to us, to reply. To him indeed many prophetic visions were given, and have been recorded for us; but what is their plain and unmistakable import, will only then be known, when it becomes necessary for the churches to see clearly the signs of His coming):…” (1 Jn 2:18, Henry Alford’s The Greek Testament)
Pay careful attention to Alford’s usage of the words “as anyone…might have spoken”. By appealing that readers are to “understand” John to be speaking “as anyone” else would have spoken, in effect, Alford has already accepted that the subject “verse” is mere human product liable to errors. Consequently, the capacity of author John writing “inspirations” under the influence of “God” is also reduced to that of a mere everyday writer. Now “evangelist” John, for understandable reasons, is portrayed as just any other church historian; may be somebody like Eusebius! However, yet ironically, if not biased, John’s writings are accepted as “inspired” and “God”-breathed whereas Eusebius’ is not!? And we do not find any valid grounds for this discrimination except that it all rests with councils like Nicene to decide fates of authors. In this case John was voted over Eusebius (say).
Scholars inform us that recently it has become a topic of latest research whether Jesus (peace be upon him) and New Testament are apocalyptic in nature. Even though New Testament contains scores of apocalyptic passages attributed to Jesus (peace be upon him) which were subsequently promulgated by his disciples, yet we find substantial number of New Testament scholars disapproving this identity.
Through this paper we can have a hint to one of the reasons why Christians would not want to commit Jesus (peace be upon him) and New Testament as apocalyptic! Because such a notion would falsify a number New Testament passage wherein Jesus (peace be upon him) asserted that he would return back within the lifetime of his disciples with both Paul and John echoing with their master.
Such apocalyptic predictions had a profound effect on the earliest Christian community that they gave up their daily life: they would not go to their jobs neither would they prefer marriage!; after all, there was just no time left when the world, for them, was to come to its end! And so it meant a lot of sense to utilize the time in services of God than wasting it in office cubicles or bickering on petty kitchen-issues with spouses.
All seems good but the disappointing part remains that the much awaited “God-breathed” New Testament apocalyptic predictions never came to pass! This leaves us with some serious issues with the New Testament: If we can really consider it to be God-inspired or is it just another human product, albeit valuable, from antiquity?
We started this enquiry by quoting New Testament scholar Adam Clarke and his premise and so it would be best if we re-quote his first premise: “…it is impossible that a man [Paul], under so direct an influence of the Holy Spirit, should be permitted to make such a mistake”! We sincerely leave it on readers to cogitate on it.
- Unless otherwise mentioned, all biblical texts taken from Good News Edition.
- All emphasize wherever not matching with original, is ours.