The fact that Christianity started as a Jewish apocalyptic movement is evidenced by the teachings of the Biblical Jesus concerning the end of days. Not only did he preach he would rise from the grave, but that he would also ascend to the Heaven and one day return to judge and rule over the world. When did Jesus say his return would be? While he said no one, including himself, knew the exact time of his return, he knew it would be before the end of his generation.
Obviously, no divine final judgement and end of days has occurred. Jesus isn’t sitting on some throne somewhere on Earth ruling over the planet. His first century followers had to find a way to make sense of the predicament of having devoted their lives to a prophecy that seemed to have failed. Over the past two millenia since the prophecy was supposedly uttered by Jesus, believers have come up with a variety of explanations for why he had not come back. If can be easily seen that all the explanations are rationalizations that don’t really work when compared to the Christian scripture. Yet they persist among the faithful to this day.
In this article, I will first show that the Biblical Jesus did predict he would return within the lifetime of the people he preached to and that the New Testament writers fully expected to live to see him return. Then I will outline the common apologetic attempts to rationalize away the problem of the failed oracle. (Quotes are taken from the New King James Version of the Bible.)
WHAT JESUS SAID
“For the Son of Man is going to come in the glory of His Father with His angels, and will then repay every man according to his deeds. Truly I say to you, there are some of those who are standing here who will not taste death until they see the Son of Man coming in His kingdom.“ (Matthew 16: 27, 28)
“Behold, I have told you in advance. So if they say to you, ‘Behold, He is in the wilderness,’ do not go out, or, ‘Behold, He is in the inner rooms,’ do not believe them. For just as the lightning comes from the east and flashes even to the west, so will the coming of the Son of Man be. Wherever the corpse is, there the vultures will gather.
But immediately after the tribulation of those days the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will fall from the sky, and the powers of the heavens will be shaken. And then the sign of the Son of Man will appear in the sky, and then all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of the sky with power and great glory. And He will send forth His angels with a great trumpet and they will gather together His elect from the four winds, from one end of the sky to the other.
Now learn the parable from the fig tree: when its branch has already become tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near; so, you too, when you see all these things, recognize that He is near, right at the door. Truly I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things take place.“ (Matthew 24: 25-34)
“Then they will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory. And then He will send forth the angels, and will gather together His elect from the four winds, from the farthest end of the earth to the farthest end of heaven. Now learn the parable from the fig tree: when its branch has already become tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near. Even so, you too, when you see these things happening, recognize that He is near, right at the door. Truly I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things take place…“ (Mark 13:26-30)
“Then they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory. But when these things begin to take place, straighten up and lift up your heads, because your redemption is drawing near. Then He told them a parable: Behold the fig tree and all the trees; as soon as they put forth leaves, you see it and know for yourselves that summer is now near. So you also, when you see these things happening, recognize that the kingdom of God is near. Truly I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all things take place.“ (Luke 21:27-32)
In these passages Jesus is explicit about his return. He said that he would return riding the clouds with angels to judge the world and that with the sound of a trumpet he would send his angels to gather his chosen ones from the Earth. This would be no secret, invisible or “spiritual” event. Instead, the whole world would see him in the sky just the whole world sees the light of the sun. This was to happen some time during the generation of those to whom he was speaking. To make it clear to his listeners that this event would not be in the distant future, he told them that some of them who were there listening to him would still be alive to see it.
“But Jesus kept silent and the high priest said to Him, “I adjure you by the living God, that you tell us whether you are the Christ, the Son of God.” Jesus said to him, “You have said it yourself; nevertheless I tell you, hereafter you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of power, and coming on the clouds of heaven.“” (Matthew 26: 63, 64)
This passage is from the story of Jesus’ trial. Jesus tells the high priest that he would see him return riding on the clouds.
WHAT NEW TESTAMENT WRITERS BELIEVED
“Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son…” (Hebrews 1:1-2)
“Now these things happened to them as an example, but they were written down for our instruction, on whom the end of the ages has come.” (1 Corinthians 10:11)
“And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.” (Hebrews 10:24-25)
“Children, it is the last hour, and as you have heard that antichrist is coming, so now many antichrists have come. Therefore we know that it is the last hour.” (1 John 2:18)
“Do not seek a wife. This is what I mean, brothers: 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 present form of this world is passing away.” (1 Corinthians 7:27,29-31)
“The end of all things is near…” (1 Peter 4:7)
These passages show that these New Testament writers did believed the apocalypse was very near. They were clear that they were living in the last days when Jesus was to return in the clouds and bring about the end of the world as they knew it.
“For this we declare to you by a word from the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord.” (1 Thessalonians 4:15-17)
“We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed“ (1 Cor. 15:51)
“…the coming of the Lord is near. …the Judge is standing right at the door.” (James 5:8, 9)
The writer of these passages tells those he was writing to that Jesus was coming in their day. He recognizes that some believers had already died causing concern about the fulfillment of Jesus prediction. He reassures his readers that they would not all die before Jesus comes. He tells them that believers who have died will be resurrected when Jesus returns. Upon his arrival, resurrected believers and those who are still alive will be instantaneously transformed into immortal beings and raptured up together to meet Jesus in the sky.
Note his consistent use of the word “we”. The writer was obviously not speaking of Christians in some distant future, but of believers in his day including himself. There is no good reason to read “we” as if it refers to Christians alive thousands of years in the future.
“Blessed is he who reads and those who hear the words of the prophecy, and heed the things which are written in it; for the time is near.” (Revelation 1:3)
“And he said to me, “These words are faithful and true”; and the Lord, the God of the spirits of the prophets, sent His angel to show to His bond-servants the things which must soon take place. “And behold, I am coming quickly. Blessed is he who heeds the words of the prophecy of this book.” And he said to me, “Do not seal up the words of the prophecy of this book, for the time is near. Behold, I am coming quickly, and My reward is with Me, to render to every man according to what he has done. He who testifies to these things says, “Yes, I am coming quickly.“”… (Revelation 22:6,7,10,12,20)
John recorded that his visions also foretold a return of Jesus near to his day. He was repeatedly told throughout his visions that Jesus was about to return soon. It is unreasonable to think that “near”, “soon” and “coming quickly” could mean thousands of years in the future especially in light of Jesus’ own prophecy that some of his listeners and the high priest would still be alive to see him return.
CHRISTIAN APOLOGETIC RATIONALIZATIONS
To anyone not already indoctrinated into Christianity reading the above passages it is crystal clear that according to the Bible Jesus was supposed to return in the first century of the Christian Era. That has not happened. Yet the Christian religion persists with the majority of its adherents still awaiting the return of their savior. How have they reconciled their scriptures to reality? There are several lines of thought in Christendom about this.
Rationalization #1: Matthew 16:28 refers to Jesus’ transfiguration, not his second coming.
The transfiguration of Jesus is a story recorded in Matthew 17, Mark 9, and Luke 9. The first problem is that these Gospels place the transfiguration at different times. In Matthew, it occurs after Jesus made the prediction about his second coming. That might make it seem reasonable to think that it was a fulfillment of the earlier prediction. However, Mark and Luke place the transfiguration event before Jesus made spoke the prophecy. Laying aside the obvious discrepency in timing, we can say for certain that an event occurring before a prediction is made can’t be fulfilling the prediction. The “prediction” wouldn’t be a prediction at all.
The preceding verse (verse 27) starts off the description of Jesus’ coming by saying he would come “in glory” with angels to dole out judgment to “every man”. That is not what happened in the transfiguration stories. Therefore, the explanation doesn’t work. Some try to make it work by separating verse 28 from the preceding verse so that the two verses talk about different “comings”. This is a baseless tinkering with the passage in order to make a doctrine fit the scripture. The same Christians who do this will accuse other of taking verses out of context when they disagree with an interpretation. Yet, this is exactly what they do here.
Rationalization #2: The word translated “generation” can mean “race”. So, Jesus meant the Jewish race would not die out before he returns.
This is a manufactured definition to suit doctrinal purposes. When you see “generation” in the New Testament is means just that – people living in a particular era, not a race of people. Elsewhere when he speaks of the Jews, he does so by saying “Jews”. It’s rather strange that he would speak cryptically in just this one instance.
Rationalization #3: When Jesus said “this generation shall not pass away” he meant the generation living at the time of the end times tribulation.
Correct! Jesus told his followers that they would go through persecution. So, he apparently thought they would be the generation living at the time of the end. It is evident in the writings of the New Testament that first century Christians saw the tribulations they were going through as a fulfillment of Jesus’ prediction about the end times and the tribulation. If they saw it as such, modern Christians have no real justification not to see it that way as well.
Notice that Jesus didn’t say “that generation” – which would be the normal way of referring to a future generation. He said “this generation”. Besides through a plain common sense reading of the text, we know he meant the people alive while he was speaking because he said that some of his listeners (and the high priest at his trial) would still be alive to see his return to Earth.
Rationalization #4: When Jesus said that some of his listeners would be alive to see him return, he was talking about the Day of Pentecost when the Holy Spirit descended on the church.
This is another explanation that is so far from rational that is it hard to accept that anyone sincerely believes it. The Book of Acts tells the story of the Holy Spirit appearing over the heads of the saints as tongues of fire endowing them with the magical ability to speak in unlearned languages. There is no mention of them seeing Jesus in the clouds with angels. The supposed event did not accompany the final judgment. None of the things Jesus said would occur at his return happened on the Day of Pentecost.
Rationalization #5: When it was revealed to John in his visions that Jesus would come quickly, it is to happen on God’s time scale, not a human time scale. “The time is near” and “coming quickly” are not to be taken literally. To God a thousand years is a day.
This is actually the first Christian attempt (found in 2 Peter 3) to explain away the fact that Jesus had not come as expected. Believers of the time had begun to waver in their faith because Jesus had not come back as promised. The writer tells them not to listen to people who say, “Where is the promise of His coming? For since the fathers fell asleep, all things continue as they were from the beginning of creation.” (2 Peter 3:4) By “fathers”, he evidently means the founding fathers of the faith who had all died by that time. This is evidence that almost from the start of Christianity, believers have been wrestling with the apparent failure of their savior’s end times prophecy. In verse 8, the writer tries to reassure them by saying, “with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day” and continues in the next verse to say that the Lord is not slacking on his promise. He basically tries to make the argument that time is meaningless to God.
This passage is in obvious contradiction to what Jesus himself said about his return and everything else written in the New Testament about it. This contradiction raises the question: Did the Simon Peter, one of Jesus’ personal disciples, actually write this book? The most truthful answer: Not likely.
When reading 2 Peter, we must keep in mind when it was written. It is well-known that many of the writings floating around the early church were not written by the people claimed to have written them, but were forged by believers to push their particular doctrines. This is most likely the case with the book of 2 Peter.
The first clue is that the writer acknowledged that “the fathers” have died. Since Peter was one of those founding fathers of the church, he couldn’t have written this book. It has proven difficult for scholars to pinpoint exactly when the book was written, but they all place its origin sometime between 60 and 160 A.D. This means that it was written at least 30 years after Jesus’ crucifixion is believed to have taken place when he was 33. Assuming his disciples were somewhere around his own age and taking into account average life expectancy of that time and that, according to church tradition, the apostles were all killed, none of them would have likely been alive in 60 A.D. (the earliest date scholars say the book would have been written).
So, what can we make of the fact that this is in the Bible? It was written by a believer who didn’t want Jesus’ failure to come to cause the faith to die out. Knowing that Peter was a founding apostle and a personal disciple of Jesus who was deemed to be the first Pope of the Christian faction that came to be known as the Roman Catholic Church, the writer forged this book in Peter’s name. It seems likely that this was an attempt to keep believers in the nascent Catholic churches in the fold. This is not the only case of forgery to uphold Catholic doctrine. (There are other forgeries in the New Testament that have been recognized by scholars as such.)
Whether written by the apostle Peter or something else, it is an obvious rationalization to try to deal with the failure of a prediction that came to be central to the Christian religion. We do not accept similar rationalizations from modern-day doomsdayers and we shouldn’t accept them from ancient religious people either.
Rationalization #6: In Matthew 16 when Jesus said some of his listeners would see him “coming in his kingdom”, he was talking about his coming into his kingdom in Heaven after his resurrection when he went back to Heaven. Many saw this event through visions.
This fails to take into account what Jesus said his “coming in his kingdom” would be connected to the day of judgment when he would “reward each according to his works”. As far as I know, no Christian apologists say the judgment occurred when Jesus supposedly went back to Heaven in the first century. Everything in the New Testament places judgment day at the end of the world. Even if we were to throw the Matthew 16 passage completely out of the Bible, there would still be the problem of other passages where Jesus said “this generation will not pass” before he comes and New Testament writers testifying to their belief that he would come in their lifetime. It is no wonder that this rationalization has largely been dropped by Christian theologians.
Rationalization #7: Maybe in our human understanding we don’t know what Jesus meant when he said “this general would not pass away” and that “some of those who are standing here who will not taste death until they see the Son of Man coming in His kingdom”. He couldn’t have meant he was coming in the first century because he hasn’t come back yet and that would make him a false prophet.
This rationalization is nothing more than interpreting the Bible by a doctrine you want to be true. If you’re going to believe in the Jesus of the Bible, shouldn’t you base your doctrines on what the Bible actually says? It is self-deceit to look at Jesus’ “prophecy” detailing his return in the lifetime of his disciples and rationalize why it didn’t happen. Only a mind interested in maintaining the illusion of faith could twist and mangle the plain words of the Bible the way Christians have in an attempt to make the incredible credible. An honest mind looking at the facts would have no choice but to admit that Jesus’ prophecy of the end of days has failed to come true.