Although I haven’t taken an official poll, it seems most professors, skeptics, media, and those who comment on the Bible would say the disciples of Jesus expected him to come back within their lifetimes. This is often used as another reason not to take the message of Jesus all that seriously, but that is a sweeping judgment that lacks perspective. In fact, when it comes to the return of Jesus according to the Bible, Christians and skeptics alike may be guilty of missing key details.
For instance, many pastors and evangelical Christians today, (of which I qualify as both) maintain that Jesus can come back at any moment. We commonly speak and write in ways that give the distinct impression Jesus could return any moment in our lifetimes. In that respect, we aren’t much different than those early Christians.
It makes one wonder what people might conclude if, in the distant future, someone were to find the writings of Christians from today. Would they pick up a worn copy of “Left Behind” and conclude we believed Jesus would return in the next few years and that Kirk Cameron was our prophet? Couldn’t they also use that as evidence that since Christ did not return, he must not be real? Of course, ask almost any of those Christians or pastors of today and their views are not so simplistic. I have often said Jesus is coming soon, but I am not so certain he is coming in my lifetime.
Perhaps, we Christians should speak and write more carefully using more perspective in the first place? Probably, but that’s not going to happen. There’s never going to be a shortage of writers or speakers making exciting claims, no matter whether they are Christians, secularists, or global warming/climate change alarmist/deniers.
Besides, it’s more fun to talk about Jesus coming in the next few minutes. Come on.
Anyway, as it turns out and despite the fact this is often ignored for the sake of arguing, the writers of the New Testament DID write with perspective. Shockingly, they never
made a point-blank claim that Jesus would indeed return in their lifetime. Instead they often wrote about far less sensational things (at least for our day) like how Jesus was the fulfillment of the Jewish law. Sometimes they even cautioned about expecting Jesus to return any second. Several times they acknowledged they would not see Jesus return before they died. Contrary to popular assumption, if we use the words that actually appear in a Bible, one could argue the apostles of Christ did not necessarily expect Jesus would return “soon” or at least …that he might not.
Paul cautioned in II Thessalonians chapter two that Jesus would not return until certain things happened first. In I and II Timothy, he took time to describe what the world would become in the future before Jesus returned. Admittedly, reading his descriptions today gives one the eerie feeling that it might be time to start casting furtive glances to the heavens. Nevertheless the point is he wrote in a way that did not claim Jesus was going to return any second. For him, it would be future and he wrote that way.
Whoever wrote Hebrews mentions that an end is coming, but leaves it at that. James wrote to be patient and stand firm because the Lord’s return was “near,” but he included no other details and in the same letter explained that our lives are like a mist which is here one moment and gone the next. He made no claim that his mist-like life would last long enough to see Jesus return.
Peter, one of the original 12 apostles and one of the leaders of the early church, said in I Peter 4 said the end of all things is “near” and in chapter 5 told the elders of a church that when Jesus appeared they would receive a crown of glory. But did he mean that Christ would return before they died and received a crown of glory? It didn’t sound like that in II Peter.
In II Peter he specifically answers the question about when Jesus will return. He wrote: “They will say, “Where is this ‘coming’ he promised? Ever since our ancestors died, everything goes on as it has since the beginning of creation….But do not forget this one thing, dear friends: With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day. The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. Instead he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.” -II Peter 3:4-9.
He certainly left the door open to the possibility that Jesus would not return in his lifetime.
John the apostle, in I John 2 said we are living in “the last hour” and like Peter, John encouraged his readers by telling them to remain faithful until he returns. In chapter four John mentions the antichrist saying the spirit of the antichrist was already in the world, but the context of what John wrote concerning the antichrist was also talking about the spirit of truth and the spirit of falsehood. He was, in other words, contrasting things like the world and Christians, truth and falsehood, the antichrist and Jesus. (In fact, in II John he explains that ANY “deceiver” who does not acknowledge Jesus counts as an “antichrist.”) One should be careful with taking a single sentence out of all that abstract stuff and using it for a different subject entirely such as the timing of the return of Jesus.
I dare say Christians today speak just as urgently and far more specifically about the return of Jesus than the apostles did in their letters. The exception of course, would be what John wrote in Revelation but then, the subject of that book IS the return of Christ. Revelation, of course, makes some statements about the timing, but since those statements come from Jesus lets look at some of those together.
First, he said a couple of things that sound like the people around him are going to see the fulfillment all things. Matthew, Mark, and Luke record Jesus saying that “some who are standing here will not taste death” before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom. That sounds very end-of-the-world-ish, but Jesus also said in John 18 that his kingdom wasn’t of this world, and Christianity from the earliest times has looked upon the kingdom of Christ as a spiritual kingdom, not a literal one. Yet. So while Christians often believe someday Jesus will return and establish a literal kingdom, but the coming of the kingdom in power applies just as much to the spiritual side of things too.
In other words, which kingdom was Jesus talking about? I’m not sure it matters. Many of those standing there saw the arrival of the spiritual kingdom on the day of Pentecost in Acts 2, and three of those standing there (Peter, James and John) witnessed Jesus in all his transfigured glory shortly after that statement, and one of those (John) saw everything. John saw Jesus in his glory, was there on the Day of Pentecost, and saw the second coming of Jesus in his vision on Patmos when he wrote Revelation.
Finally, Jesus words in Revelation about coming soon sound more convincing in English than they do in the original language of Greek. In the Greek, the word means to come soon in relation to time, but it also means to come quickly, as in suddenly.
It’s the latter definition of the word that fits with everything else Jesus said, and everything else the apostles said.
When Jesus actually talked about the end, He mentioned many things that would happen first, including that the message about himself would be preached to the entire world BEFORE the end would come. He taught parables about it taking a LONG time before the end would come and how important it would be to keep watch.
It would be important to keep watch he said, because it would happen suddenly. Two will be grinding at the mill he said, and one will be taken and the other left. Jesus described that day as closing “unexpectedly like a trap.” He compared it to Noah’s flood, and said, “For in the days before the flood, people were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, up to the day Noah entered the ark; and they knew nothing about what would happen until the flood came and took them all away. That is how it will be at the coming of the Son of Man. -Matthew 24:38-39
The warning was clear. It’s going to come out of nowhere, suddenly, and it will be too late. It was the same message he gave in the parable of the 10 virgins, the parable of the talents, and others.
In the New Testament, Paul described the end as coming suddenly like birth pangs (so did Jesus). He said people will be saying “peace and safety” and then “sudden destruction” will come upon them and “they will not escape.” Both Paul and Peter described Jesus coming, “like a thief.”
So in the context of the rest of the Bible, and keeping in mind the meaning of the original word, it seems that the best understanding of Jesus in Revelation was that he was coming suddenly, not soon. It sounds like I’m cheating a little, even to me, but again that’s what the original language word actually did mean.
However, let’s pretend it didn’t have that possible meaning, but instead stated very clearly that Jesus was coming back soon in time. It is true that throughout history believers in Jesus have talked and acted as people who believed Jesus would come back in their lifetime. It seems to be the very attitude that Jesus encouraged when he told his followers to “keep watch” because you “don’t know the day or the hour” and told parables about not being ready. Perhaps this attitude of expecting Jesus to return in our lifetime is simply the attitude God wanted.
Since Paul talked about his own death, since John wrote about the way Peter would die when he was old, since Peter talked about an eternal God looking at the passage of time differently than we do… It’s safe to say the original apostles understood Jesus may not return in their lifetime. At the very least, their thinking and beliefs on the subject were a bit more complex than we sometimes give them credit.
But did they look for the return of Jesus? Absolutely. Did they believe it would be soon? Quite possibly. Were they convinced it had to be in their lifetime or could be at any moment? There is substantial indication the answer is no.
Of course, it’s more complicated than a simple yes or no.