Weblog of a Christian philosophy student

Weblog of a Christian philosophy student. Please feel free to comment. All of my posts are public domain. Subscribe to posts [Atom]. Email me at countaltair [at] yahoo.com.au. I also run a Chinese to English translation business at www.willfanyi.com.

Location: Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Jesus' prediction of his second coming, Part 1

There are two occasions where Jesus is interpreted by some as having said that he will return to the world and usher in the Kingdom of God within the lifetime of his disciples. In this article I want to examine this claim and argue that contextual evidence shows that Jesus plausibly did not say this and would not have been interpreted by those listening to have said it.

In this article I will deal with the passages called the 'Olivet discourse' in Matthew, Mark, and Luke which some have said involve Jesus making a mistake. Here is the passage in full from Matthew's gospel, 24:3-35 (NIV):

3 As Jesus was sitting on the Mount of Olives, the disciples came to him privately. “Tell us,” they said, “when will this happen, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?”

4 Jesus answered: “Watch out that no one deceives you. 5 For many will come in my name, claiming, ‘I am the Messiah,’ and will deceive many. 6 You will hear of wars and rumors of wars, but see to it that you are not alarmed. Such things must happen, but the end is still to come. 7 Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be famines and earthquakes in various places. 8 All these are the beginning of birth pains.

9 “Then you will be handed over to be persecuted and put to death, and you will be hated by all nations because of me. 10 At that time many will turn away from the faith and will betray and hate each other, 11 and many false prophets will appear and deceive many people. 12 Because of the increase of wickedness, the love of most will grow cold, 13 but the one who stands firm to the end will be saved. 14 And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come.

15 “So when you see standing in the holy place ‘the abomination that causes desolation,’ spoken of through the prophet Daniel—let the reader understand— 16 then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains. 17 Let no one on the housetop go down to take anything out of the house. 18 Let no one in the field go back to get their cloak. 19 How dreadful it will be in those days for pregnant women and nursing mothers! 20 Pray that your flight will not take place in winter or on the Sabbath. 21 For then there will be great distress, unequaled from the beginning of the world until now—and never to be equaled again.

22 “If those days had not been cut short, no one would survive, but for the sake of the elect those days will be shortened. 23 At that time if anyone says to you, ‘Look, here is the Messiah!’ or, ‘There he is!’ do not believe it. 24 For false messiahs and false prophets will appear and perform great signs and wonders to deceive, if possible, even the elect. 25 See, I have told you ahead of time.

26 “So if anyone tells you, ‘There he is, out in the wilderness,’ do not go out; or, ‘Here he is, in the inner rooms,’ do not believe it. 27 For as lightning that comes from the east is visible even in the west, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. 28 Wherever there is a carcass, there the vultures will gather.

29 “Immediately after the distress of those days
“‘the sun will be darkened,
and the moon will not give its light;

the stars will fall from the sky,
and the heavenly bodies will be shaken.’

30 “Then will appear the sign of the Son of Man in heaven. And then all the peoples of the earth will mourn when they see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven, with power and great glory. 31 And he will send his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of the heavens to the other.

32 “Now learn this lesson from the fig tree: As soon as its twigs get tender and its leaves come out, you know that summer is near. 33 Even so, when you see all these things, you know that it is near, right at the door. 34 Truly I tell you, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened.

Some people have argued that 'this generation' in the last sentence must be taken to mean the generation alive when Jesus is speaking, which gives a timeframe for Jesus' return of about 30-40 years.

But I don't think that Jesus would have been taken to be referring to those presently alive with 'this generation' when you read it in context. For example, in the same speech Jesus says that before He returns:

'many will come in my name, claiming, 'I am the Christ,' and will deceive many.'

Now, if Jesus thought he would return in about 30-40 years, then there wouldn't be many Christians to deceive, because the whole world would pretty much be non-Christian. Unless Jesus thought that the whole world would immediately convert on hearing about Jesus. But that presumes a level of optimism on Jesus' part that doesn't seem sensible, especially considering how many people rejected his message during his ministry (John 6:66-67).

But one could say that Jesus just thought that other people would claim to be Christ and attract a following like he did.

I guess Jesus could have thought that within a very short time frame, 30-40 years let's say, there would be many people claiming to be Christ. But I feel that this 'jars' a bit as an interpretation because every century or so there would be a couple of people claiming to be Christ, but I think it would be odd to think there would be a large increase in the numbers of Christ-claimants within 30-40 years in addition to the usual number of a couple a century (if I recall correctly).

This site says there were 2 people before Jesus who claimed to be the messiah, 4 in the first century (not counting the emperor Vespasian), 2 in the second century, none for ages, then 1 in the fifth century, etc.

So it's not really all that common.

This is why I think Jesus is speaking, with his 'you', to all Christians throughout many centuries, and not just his disciples, in that section of his discourse.


'And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come.'

'Then you will be handed over to be persecuted and put to death, and you will be hated by all nations because of me.'

What I wonder is how can a small Jewish sect that very few people have heard of spread the 'gospel' message to every nation in the whole world within 30-40 years? How could one sensibly expect that under any scenario? By the end of the 1st century 99% of people had probably not heard of Christianity, let alone been 'preached to'. It's not like preaching to everyone in the world is easy. So assuming that Jesus was a sensible thinker, he must be talking about events much further into the future.

One could say in response that the ancient Jews had a terrible knowledge of world geography and so it makes sense that the first Christians could preach to and become hated by all nations within 30-40 years.

But here is a list of countries that were in the Roman empire at some point:

Portugal, Spain, Andorra, United Kingdom, France, Monaco, Luxembourg, Belgium, Netherlands, Germany, Switzerland, Liechtenstein, Italy, San Marino, Vatican City, Malta, Austria, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Hungary, Yugoslavia, Albania, Greece, FYR Macedonia, Romania, Bulgaria, Turkey, Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Syria, Iraq, Kuwait, Cyprus, Lebanon, Jordania, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Sudan, Lybia, Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco and Palestine.

Keep in mind the Romans also knew about China, but didn't have much contact with them because the powerful Parthian and Kushan empires lay between.

They didn't know about Japan, Antarctica, and the Americas, and they didn't know about Australia, although Claudius Ptolemy hypothesised there must be a land to connect the east coast of Africa with China, which he called 'Terra Australis' (The Southern Region). But they (people at that time) knew about the other continents: Africa, Europe, and Asia.

So when you read:

'And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come.'

'Then you will be handed over to be persecuted and put to death, and you will be hated by all nations because of me.'

And if you assume that people knew about the aforementioned places, which seems quite likely since almost all of them were part of the Roman empire at that time, then is it really reasonable to interpret that was referring to a time span of a mere 30-40 years? Assume also Jesus is a reasonable person.

If you take actual Christian evangelism 40 years after Jesus left his disciples, it didn't cover anywhere near that much territory. It was many centuries before Christian missionaries even got to China.

With regard to the quote about being 'hated by all nations', if Jesus thought he'd come back in about 30-40 years, then who would care that much about Christians and Christianity? I can understand persecution, because occasionally small cults would worry the Romans. But why would first century Christianity with a small number of followers near Palestine be 'hated by all nations because of me'? The vast majority of people and nations would never have even heard of Christianity. And even if they had, they probably couldn't care any less about a small cult in Palestine that was powerless. So this is just puzzling if Jesus thought He would return in 30-40 years. Or he was crazily optimistic, but that's unfair to the Bible's portrayal of Jesus as a reasonable guy.

Now, it's true that Jesus and his followers did have a rough time at the hands of the local government, and so persecution wouldn't have been unexpected.

But Christians were not really persecuted heavily by a secular government until Nero, which was I think in the 60s CE, which is already 30 years after Jesus left, and moreover this is only one government, albeit a very large one, not all governments that were around. Most of their persecution before Nero, in any intense way, if I recall correctly, was from the Jews, only one small nation.

'At that time many will turn away from the faith and will betray and hate each other, and many false prophets will appear and deceive many people. Because of the increase of wickedness, the love of most will grow cold.'

What's going on with the second sentence if Jesus thought He would return very soon? The 'increase in wickedness' must be referring to society as a whole, which influences Christians' love to grow cold. But this seems a little odd given that, at this point in history, life had pretty much been continuing as it had before for thousands of years, only this time the Romans were the people you had to obey. Just something interesting to note (on the other hand, if Jesus is talking about many more years from now it does make sense that values in society could somehow drastically change for the worse).

But maybe Jesus thought that false prophets appearing very soon after he leaves the world would cause a lot of wickedness and his followers to turn against each other?

And yet this is such a short time span for that to happen though, it seems. After 30-40 years Christianity would just be starting up and gathering a small number of followers, and then just as it's starting everything gets really intense. How would we normally read that statement in terms of time?

'So if anyone tells you, 'There he is, out in the desert,' do not go out; or, 'Here he is, in the inner rooms,' do not believe it.'

If Jesus thought he would return in 30-40 years, then this conversation would presumably only be happening between a small group of followers of Jesus. But it has undertones of being a really significant discussion that a lot of people are having instead of a debate that is happening among 0.001% (or less) of the world's population.

But maybe Jesus is thinking that someone else will come and make use of Jesus' success? That someone will make use of Jesus' movement for his own ends?

But this is a pretty small timeframe to talk about someone making use of Jesus' movement for his own ends, a mere 30-40 years after he leaves.

So with this contextual evidence let's look again at the 'this generation' comment that has caused confusion.

The way we normally use 'this' is to refer to the object close at hand in terms of what we are talking about. For example, if I say, 'This book at the library that I've been talking about is actually by an American author', then even though the book is far away (at the library), it is being referred to with my 'this' because it is close at hand in terms of what I'm talking about.

So, using the contextual evidence, if we look at the generation Jesus is talking about when he says 'this', it seems to be the generation that sees all of these horrible events happen, and is not necessarily the one around now. This is the generation close at hand in terms of what Jesus is talking about.

So I would say that 'this generation' refers to the generation in the future that sees all this end-timey stuff happen, not the generation of Jesus' day, which is an interpretation helped by the contextual evidence.

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