“But in those days, after that tribulation, the sun shall be darkened, and the moon shall not give her light, and the stars of heaven shall fall, and the powers that are in heaven shall be shaken. And then shall they see the Son of man coming in the clouds with great power and glory. And then shall he send his angels, and shall gather together his elect from the four winds, from the uttermost part of the earth to the uttermost part of heaven. Now learn a parable of the fig tree; when her branch is yet tender, and putteth forth leaves, ye know that summer is near: so ye in like manner, when ye shall see these things come to pass, know that it is nigh, even at the doors.”
–Mark 13:24-29 (KJV)
“And if thou say in thine heart, How shall we know the word which the Lord hath not spoken? When a prophet speaketh in the name of the Lord, if the thing follow not, nor come to pass, that is the thing which the Lord hath not spoken, but the prophet hath spoken it presumptuously: thou shalt not be afraid of him.”
–Deuteronomy 18:21-22 (KJV)
For close to two millennia, belief in the second coming of Jesus Christ has been a major and important thread in the tapestry of Christian theology. According to the New Testament gospels, after his crucifixion and resurrection, Jesus ascended to Heaven, but only after promising his disciples that he would return in glory one day to establish his kingdom, ending the world in the process. In the so-called Olivet Discourse, quoted above, Jesus taught his disciples the signs they could recognize in order to know that his coming was near.
Twenty centuries of Christians have drawn strength from these words and looked hopefully for the signs. Some have looked forward to it in anticipation of their own vindication and exaltation to glory, while others have anticipated it for less savory reasons, such as their belief that God will destroy their enemies and those whom they hate. All, however, have shared in the belief that the second coming was just around the corner, even that they themselves would live to see it. Over the last two thousand years, for example, the apocalypse has variously been forecast to occur in 247, 365, 500, 848, 992, 1184, 1290, 1335, 1524, 1603, 1716, 1763, 1792, 1805, 1843, 1844, 1845, 1878, 1910, 1914, 1936, 1945, 1952, 1969, 1981, 1982, 1988, 1992, 1994, 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002, and more. Reliable reports indicate that none of these predictions came to pass.
Notwithstanding such failures, today apocalyptic hysteria is stronger than ever in mainstream Christianity. Popular Christian works such as the bestselling Left Behind series apply the end-time prophecies of the Bible to the present day, envisioning a near future where true believers are miraculously snatched off the Earth while the remainder of humanity undergoes seven years of horrible suffering, culminating in the triumphant return of Jesus Christ and the condemnation of all unbelievers to eternal torment. Christian websites such as the Rapture Index chart the signs of imminent apocalypse as if following the ups and downs of the stock market, while others let Christians write letters to unbeliever friends and loved ones, promising to deliver them automatically should their authors be raptured off the Earth. Remarkably, all the incorrect predictions of the past do not seem to have given the current generation of Christians any skepticism in these matters, nor dampened in the slightest their enthusiastic belief that they will be the ones who will live to see the end.
However, the evidence suggests that this enthusiasm is misplaced. To begin with, the events that Jesus lists as signifying the beginning of the tribulation period, including “wars and rumors of wars… famines, pestilences and earthquakes” (Matthew 24:6-7) are far too unspecific to serve as signs. All of these things have been occurring continuously for the entire span of human history; there has never been a period to which such a prediction could not apply, and nothing in these verses specifically identifies our time rather than any other. Therefore, there is no reason whatsoever for modern-day Christians to suspect that the end times prophesied in the Bible are now beginning.
But the problem for Christians is more fundamental than that. Although the above verses are too vague to indicate when the second coming is supposed to occur, there are other New Testament verses that are much more specific. However, the time period indicated by these more specific verses is not in the future; it is in the past. There are multiple New Testament verses that clearly indicate that the second coming was supposed to occur within the lifetimes of Jesus’ contemporaries, almost two thousand years ago. If there was such a person as Jesus Christ who promised to return to Earth, he is now close to two thousand years late.
The Olivet Discourse: The Destruction of the Temple
The first crucial argument in defense of this claim is that Jesus’ Olivet Discourse, by far the most important and detailed passage in the New Testament regarding his second coming, ties the beginning of the tribulation period preceding the second coming to a specific past event. Here is how Mark phrases it:
“And as he went out of the temple, one of his disciples saith unto him, Master, see what manner of stones and what buildings are here! And Jesus answering said unto him, Seest thou these great buildings? there shall not be left one stone upon another, that shall not be thrown down. And as he sat upon the mount of Olives over against the temple, Peter and James and John and Andrew asked him privately, tell us, when shall these things be? and what shall be the sign when all these things shall be fulfilled?”
–Mark 13:1-4 (KJV)
Notice that Jesus’ disciples ask him what the signs shall be of the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple. A sign, by definition, occurs before the event it signifies. But the destruction alluded to has already happened: it occurred in the Jewish War, around 70 CE. In this conflict, Roman legions razed the city of Jerusalem to the ground and destroyed the Jewish temple, which was never rebuilt. The so-called Wailing Wall is the only remnant that survives today. In a literal sense, then, Jesus’ prophecy did not come true – though the temple was indeed destroyed, it was not the case that “there shall not be left one stone upon another”. However, more important is that the awe-inspiring omens of the Olivet Discourse were omens of this destruction, which has already taken place. Therefore, either Jesus was a false prophet or the omens must already have occurred also. And yet, Roman historians living during this period do not record the sun being darkened, the stars falling from heaven, or any of the other signs. The conclusion to be drawn is that while the temple’s destruction came to pass as written, the second coming did not.
The Olivet Discourse: End of the World
It is not only atheists who have recognized this problem. Some Christians likewise see that the events of the Olivet Discourse must have preceded the destruction of the temple in the first century CE. Accordingly, they interpret these signs as symbolic only, and believe that the prophecies meant only to refer to the destruction of the temple, not the end of the whole world, and were fulfilled in that destruction. This position, known as preterism, is a minority within Christianity compared to those who believe the prophesied end-times still lie in the future, but it does exist.
However, preterism cannot stand: the events of the Olivet Discourse unmistakably are meant to precede the end of the world. Mark and Luke’s versions of this episode do not state this explicitly, but Matthew’s does:
“And Jesus went out, and departed from the temple: and his disciples came to him for to shew him the buildings of the temple. And Jesus said unto them, See ye not all these things? verily I say unto you, There shall not be left here one stone upon another, that shall not be thrown down. And as he sat upon the mount of Olives, the disciples came unto him privately, saying, Tell us, when shall these things be? and what shall be the sign of thy coming, and of the end of the world?”
–Matthew 24:1-3 (KJV)
Jesus then goes on to list the same signs as he does in the other gospels. The clear message of this text is that these signs are meant to precede the end of the world and not simply some local event. But for the reasons given above, these events have necessarily either happened already or not at all, and yet the world has not ended. Either way, the prophetic claims of the Olivet Discourse are false.
Further confirmation is supplied by additional verses from Matthew. First, Matthew 24:22 states that God has mercifully shortened the tribulation period, and if he had not, “there should no flesh be saved”. Obviously, there would be no danger of a local conflict killing everyone on the planet no matter how long it lasted. Matthew 24:30 likewise states that “all the tribes of the earth” will be able to see the Son of Man’s coming in the clouds when it occurs, which only makes sense if what is being described is a global event.
Another apologetic used by preterists is to suggest that the Greek word aion, which is translated as “world” in the above passage, should more properly be translated “age”. However, that translation is rendered improbable by the previous two verses, which, again, describe events of plainly global scope. The mere destruction of the temple, catastrophic as it may have been for the inhabitants of Jerusalem, does not qualify.
The Olivet Discourse: “This Generation”
One final piece of evidence from the Olivet Discourse further reinforces these conclusions. In all three of the Synoptic gospels, that sermon ends this way:
“Verily I say unto you, This generation shall not pass, till all these things be fulfilled.”
–Matthew 24:34 (KJV)
The common-sense reading of this phrase would be that the events Jesus predicted would occur within the lifetime of his listeners, within the current generation – twenty or thirty years most likely, sixty or seventy at the most. Even with the more generous estimate, of course, any possibility of prophetic fulfillment has long lapsed by now. (The Greek word translated as “generation” is genea, which means the same as it does in English; genea was, for example, what there was fourteen of between Abraham and David, according to Matthew 1:17.) There is no reason whatsoever to conclude that this word means anything other than what it says, except for a desire to preserve the Bible from errancy.
As before, it is not only critics of Christianity who have recognized this problem. C.S. Lewis, for example, in his essay “The World’s Last Night“, called this verse “the most embarrassing verse in the Bible” and an “exhibition of error”. In the essay, Lewis suggested that the explanation for this incorrect prediction is that Jesus, though he was an incarnate deity, was also a human being and therefore shared in human fallibility, and could be wrong on occasion.
Who Will See the Kingdom Come?
Supporting the conclusions of the Olivet Discourse, there are several other places in the gospels in which Jesus explicitly says that some of his contemporaries will not die before they see the coming of the kingdom of God:
“And he said unto them, Verily I say unto you, That there be some of them that stand here, which shall not taste of death, till they have seen the kingdom of God come with power.”
–Mark 9:1 (KJV)
“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 16:28 (KJV)
One common apologetic response to this is that the phrase “kingdom of God” in these verses is not meant to refer to the second coming, but to an event called the transfiguration, in which Jesus took three of his disciples to a mountaintop where they watched his clothing begin to glow with white radiance and saw him speak with Moses and Elijah. These apologists claim that since Peter, James and John saw the transfiguration before their deaths, Jesus’ words were rendered literally true and thus these prophecies were fulfilled as spoken. However, this interpretation cannot be correct. Consider the following verse, again from the Olivet Discourse:
“And when these things begin to come to pass, then look up, and lift up your heads; for your redemption draweth nigh. And he spake to them a parable; Behold the fig tree, and all the trees; when they now shoot forth, ye see and know of your own selves that summer is now nigh at hand. So likewise ye, when ye see these things come to pass, know ye that the kingdom of God is nigh at hand.”
–Luke 21:28-31 (KJV)
“The Time Is At Hand”
In addition to the gospel evidence, there are numerous verses in the New Testament epistles which convey a sense of imminence and urgency, as well as a clear expectation that the end would come within the authors’ lifetimes. For examples, witness the following passages:
“What I mean, brothers, is that the time is short. From now on those who have wives should live as if they had none; those who mourn, as if they did not; those who are happy, as if they were not; those who buy something, as if it were not theirs to keep; those who use the things of the world, as if not engrossed in them. For this world in its present form is passing away.”
–1 Corinthians 7:29-31 (NIV)
“According to the Lord’s own word, we tell you that we who are still alive, we who are left till the coming of the Lord, will certainly not precede those who have fallen asleep.”
–1 Thessalonians 4:15 (NIV)
“For in just a very little while, he who is coming will come and will not delay.”
–Hebrews 10:37 (NIV)
“You too, be patient and stand firm, because the Lord’s coming is near. Don’t grumble against each other, brothers, or you will be judged. The Judge is standing at the door!”
–James 5:8-9 (NIV)
“But the end of all things is at hand: be ye therefore sober, and watch unto prayer.”
–1 Peter 4:7 (KJV)
“Little children, it is the last time: and as ye have heard that antichrist shall come, even now are there many antichrists; whereby we know that it is the last time.”
–1 John 2:18 (KJV)
“The Revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave unto him, to shew unto his servants things which must shortly come to pass…. Blessed is he that readeth, and they that hear the words of this prophecy, and keep those things which are written therein: for the time is at hand.”
–Revelation 1:1,3 (KJV)
Not just the urgency, but the specificity of these verses merits comment. In the 1 Corinthians passage, for example, Paul states that married Christians should refrain from having sex from that point on so that they may be as pure as possible when Jesus comes. He also states not just that the end of the world is coming in the near future, but that it seemingly has already begun – the world is “passing away”, he claims, even as he writes those words. The 1 Thessalonians passage states that the believers still living will witness the second coming, while the 1 John passage claims that it must be the last time because the Antichrist is already on earth. And Revelation further reinforces the cited verse by having Jesus promise on multiple occasions that he will “come quickly” (3:11, 22:7, 22:12, 22:20).
This sense of imminence is further supported by gospel passages not part of the Olivet Discourse. Two of the most notable are as follows:
“Jesus answered, ‘If I want him to remain alive until I return, what is that to you? You must follow me.'”
–John 21:22 (NIV)
“When you are persecuted in one place, flee to another. I tell you the truth, you will not finish going through the cities of Israel before the Son of Man comes.”
–Matthew 10:23 (NIV)
Like the epistle verses, these verses convey the unmistakable message that Jesus’ second coming would happen within the lifetimes of their authors. Decisive in this regard is the verse from Matthew, in which Jesus states that when his disciples are rejected and persecuted by one city, they should simply travel to another, because his return will occur before they can visit all the cities of Israel anyway. Of course, this promise, like all the others, is now broken and has been so for nearly two thousand years.
As time went by, even the authors of the Bible began to realize that the prophecies of Jesus’ return had failed. This growing awareness is most clearly shown by the New Testament epistle of 2 Peter, believed by most scholars to have been written sometime in the second century CE, later than the majority of the New Testament books. In this passage, the author of the epistle attempts to make excuses for why Jesus has not yet come:
“Knowing this first, that there shall come in the last days scoffers, walking after their own lusts, and saying, Where is the promise of his coming? For since the fathers fell asleep, all things continue as they were from the beginning of the creation…. But, beloved, be not ignorant of this one thing, that one day is with the Lord as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day.”
–2 Peter 3:3-8 (KJV)
The gratuitous ad hominem attack on those who pointed out the failure of prophecy does nothing whatsoever to refute the argument. However, the epistle also does offer a somewhat more substantive reply, namely that a delay long by human standards is short by God’s standards, and that the second coming remains imminent (note that the epistle refuses to back away from the claim that the time of its authoring is the “last days”). The implication of this argument is that when Jesus promised to come quickly, what he really meant was that he would not come for thousands of years; that when the New Testament said the time is at hand, what it really meant was that the time lay millennia in the future; and that it has been the “last days” continuously for nearly twenty centuries since the closing of the canon. This type of word-twisting argument removes all meaning from the biblical verses. It means that when God originally inspired the Bible, he deceived both its writers and its readers by using words to mean something completely different – in fact, the complete opposite – from what those words mean in ordinary, clear communication. Two thousand years and more is not “quickly” by any stretch of the imagination.
This argument cannot stand, however. No amount of apologetic word-redefinition can change the fact that the Bible sets a series of very specific deadlines for the end – before the destruction of the temple, before the passing of Jesus’ generation, before the apostles finished traveling through the cities of Israel. All those deadlines now lie many centuries in the past; they came and went with absolutely nothing out of the ordinary happening. The promises they made were broken. Jesus has not returned.
Another frequently heard apologetic is that Jesus cannot have meant that the end was imminent, because he said it was a precondition that “the gospel must first be published among all nations” (Mark 13:10) and obviously such a goal would take some time to achieve. This argument would have merit, if not for the fact that the biblical authors believed this condition to already have been satisfied:
“…the preaching of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery, which was kept secret since the world began, but now is made manifest, and by the scriptures of the prophets, according to the commandment of the everlasting God, made known to all nations for the obedience of faith.”
–Romans 16:25-26 (KJV)
“…the gospel, which ye have heard, and which was preached to every creature which is under heaven; whereof I Paul am made a minister…”
–Colossians 1:23 (KJV)
The most remarkable thing about the second coming is not the doctrine itself, but the way Christians’ faith in it has never wavered despite these clear prophetic failures. As each new generation that grew up confidently expecting they would live to see the end has instead grown old and passed away, the apocalyptic torch has been passed to the next generation, who eagerly took it up and continued to hold it just as high. But as it happens, there is precedent for this in human history.
In the eighteenth century, a Christian preacher named William Miller proclaimed, based on an arcane rationale derived from several obscure biblical verses, that the date of the second coming would be October 12, 1844. Tens of thousands of “Millerites” gathered on that night to await the end, which of course failed to occur on schedule, in an event known as the “Great Disappointment”. One would expect that, after a failure of this magnitude, the movement would disintegrate, and indeed many disillusioned members did leave. But the movement itself did not die. Instead, a group of core followers who refused to believe the prediction had been wrong returned to the study of scripture, and lo and behold, developed a new interpretation: Jesus had returned on schedule; he had merely done so in Heaven, while his physical return to Earth remained in the very near future. Though a diversity of interpretations developed regarding the exact explanation for what had happened on that date, the Millerites did not fade away. The modern offshoots of this movement include the Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Seventh-Day Adventists, both of which have made something of a career out of erroneously predicting the end.
To the ordinary person, it might seem incredible that the Millerite movement could survive and even thrive despite seemingly the clearest imaginable evidence of failure. But Christianity in general is the same. The compelling proof that the first generation of Christians mistakenly believed the end of the world would occur within their lifetimes has made no impression on those who continue to believe, in the face of the evidence, that they will instead be the privileged ones. The solution to this apparent paradox lies in the basic human tendency of belief protection – when a belief in which one has a strong emotional investment comes into conflict with external reality, it is easier, more comforting, to rewrite the facts to fit with the belief rather than discard the belief in the face of the facts.
The unfortunate corollary to this principle is that apocalyptic belief encourages believers to turn away, to give up, to withdraw from the world. Lest anyone think such claims are an atheist’s invention, witness this thread from the Rapture Ready message board, in which Christian end-times believers discuss what they have done to prepare for the rapture, which they believe to be imminent. Some speak of giving away their belongings, of deciding not to do schoolwork, of quitting their job or passing up job offers. All echo a sense of detachment, of disconnection, of feeling as if they no longer belong in the world. The only thing that holds any meaning for them any longer is their desperate belief in the second coming, while every other aspect of their lives has faded into insignificance. And while they wait, and wait, and wait endlessly for something that is never going to happen, their lives are passing them by. Some, I hope, may ultimately become disillusioned and realize that there is a better way, but in all likelihood, the majority of them will age, grow old and die without ever abandoning their hope, just as twenty previous centuries of Christians have done.
This futile expectation, this endless chasing after a mirage, illustrates in painful clarity one of this atheist’s major objections to religion: it encourages people to deny themselves all the happiness they could otherwise have in this life by turning their attention to another, imaginary world which we know not of. Worse, it encourages people to take no action in the face of humanity’s problems in the belief that such assistance would be pointless since God will soon return to claim his own anyway. Such belief encourages a view of the world as a “sinking ship” – not something to be protected or cherished, but only something to be escaped as soon as possible.
But this resignation, though tragic in itself, is not the worst effect of apocalyptic belief. Instead, that distinction belongs to the people who take the other tack and see themselves, not as passive witnesses of the end, but as God’s agents actively working to bring it about. Belief in the apocalypse has always inspired some to commit acts of violence and oppression against those whom they hate, out of the belief that their actions are a necessary run-up to the final battle between good and evil. One of the more dangerous manifestations of this belief is the movement commonly known as “Christian Zionism”, which encourages the nation of Israel to take all the land it wants, advocates the destruction of Muslim holy places such as the Dome of the Rock, and holds that any withdrawal from occupied territories or movement towards peace in the region is contrary to God’s plan. (One member of this movement matter-of-factly explained on national television that the assassination of Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin was God’s punishment on him for entering into peace talks with the Palestinians.) Such dangerous false beliefs put us all at risk by encouraging religious divisiveness and fueling hatred and terrorism worldwide.
Despite all these negative effects, it is easy to see why belief in the imminent end remains so popular. In a way that few other beliefs do, it offers religious believers the promise of being special, of being privileged. (As one poster on the Rapture Ready thread put it: “We’re about to see [Jesus], in person and interacting in the world at such a grand scale, and we’re the first generation to see that since the resurrection and ascension!”) In addition, it holds out the promise that the world as we know it may pass away at any moment, creating a sense of constant excitement that is a powerful inducement to faith. However, though the expectation and the hope may be palpable, the evidence supporting it is nonexistent. All relevant biblical verses show that the second coming is now two thousand years overdue, and the deadlines set for its occurrence have long since lapsed. It is not going to happen. There is no longer any reason to continue chasing after this mirage, no longer any reason to view the world as a sinking ship – instead, we should face up to the fact that we are in this together and will be here for the foreseeable future, and use that knowledge to direct our actions. Instead of giving up our problems as insoluble, we should concentrate on working to solve them, and instead of focusing all our attention on trying to escape the world, we should take what happiness we can from it while we are here.
The apocalypse is not an inevitable doom, but a possible future that we can either bring about or avert by our actions, and it is a tragic irony that belief in such an event has the potential to become a self-fulfilling prophecy. The more fervently people believe in it and regard it as inevitable, the more likely it is to occur. In these troubled times, the balm of atheism offers a soothing alternative to this fever, and gives us a reason to hope that the future may be bright after all.
 Of the synoptic gospels, Matthew and Mark have Jesus give this sermon on the mount of Olives, while Luke places it in the Jerusalem temple. Therefore, the term “Olivet Discourse” is technically only applicable to Matthew and Mark. For purposes of simplicity, this essay will refer to that particular sermon in all three synoptics by this name.
 See http://www.abhota.info/index.htm for an excellent roundup of failed apocalyptic predictions.