Do Evangelicals Know that C. S. Lewis Said Jesus “Was Wrong” about His Return?

C. S. Lewis (1898-1963) was a Cambridge professor of English Medieval literature and a very successful novelist. His books The Screwtape Letters and The Chronicles of Narnia won him many awards and honors. And with his book Mere Christianity (1943), the venerable Lewis became the bestselling author of Christian theology during his lifetime.

Lewis wrote another theological book near the end of his brilliant, literary career entitled The World’s Last Night: And Other Essays (1960). In it, he quotes liberals scholars who typically said, “the first Christians have been proved to be false. It is clear from the New Testament that they all expected the Second Coming in their own lifetime. And, worse still, they had a reason, and one which you will find very embarrassing. Their Master had told them so. He shared, and indeed created, their delusion. He said in so many words, ‘this generation shall not pass till all these things be done.’ And he was wrong. He clearly knew no more about the end of the world than anyone else” (p. 97). Lewis believed they were correct, though he didn’t say it in such stark language.

C.S. Lewis was referring to Jesus’ Olivet Discourse (Matt. 24.1-51; Mark 13.1-37; Luke 21.5-36). Therein, Jesus predicted there would be wars, earthquakes, famines, and the rise of false prophets and false christs. He said his gospel would be preached in all the world, and then the end would come. He also affirmed Daniel’s pivotal prophecy, that an “abomination of desolation” would be set up in the temple at Jerusalem. Then Jesus added catastrophic portents, alluding  to some Old Testament texts (Isaiah 13.10; 34.4; Joel 2.30-31), by saying the sun would be darkened and stars would fall from the heavens just prior to his return on the clouds of heaven. Then he uttered the words upon which Lewis and many others have stumbled–“this generation shall not pass till all these things have taken place” (Matt. 24.34/Mark 13.30 NRSV). Lewis added concerning this verse, “It is certainly the most embarrassing verse in the Bible.”

Ever since the German Lutheran theologian H.S. Reimarus (1694-1768) first made this viewpoint well known, a multitude of distinguished New Testament scholars have adopted it. That list is a Whose Who of biblical scholars in the 20th century. To start that century off, Albert Schweitzer put it forth in powerful arguments in his The Quest of the Historical Jesus (1906). This book has been acclaimed critically as the most important book about Jesus published in the 20th century. Lewis accepted this skeptical assessment, and he added the following in his book:

“Yet how teasing, also, that within fourteen words of it should come the statement, “But of that day and that hour knoweth no man, no, not the angels which are in heaven, neither the Son, but the Father.” The one exhibition of error and the one confession of ignorance grow side by side … the facts, then, are these: that Jesus professed himself (in some sense) ignorant, and within a moment showed that he really was so. To believe in the Incarnation, to believe that he is God, makes it hard to understand how he could be ignorant; but also makes it certain that, if he said he could be ignorant, then ignorant he could really be. For a God who can be ignorant is less baffling than a God who falsely professes ignorance” (World’s Last Night, p. 97).

Ponder that dense statement! Lewis means that it is easier to believe that Jesus, being God, doesn’t know the time of his return than it is to believe that Jesus said he didn’t know it whereas he actually did. Why is the latter more baffling? To believe that Jesus said he didn’t know something when he really did, one is forced to conclude that Jesus lied. (Yet many scholars who accept this skeptical assessment–that Jesus believed he would return within a generation–refuse to make the obvious conclusion that Jesus was wrong, but especially that he lied.) It is this realization that threw me into what I call, “my quest for the real Jesus.” This quest lasted 28 years and resulted in the publication of my provocative, biblically in-depth, 600-page book, The Restitution of Jesus Christ (2008).

But have these scholars been correct in alleging that Jesus wrongly believed his generation would live to see his return? Not at all. The very fact that two verses after he spoke of “this generation” (the Greek text has genea aute), he said he didn’t know “the day or hour” of his return, indicates that those scholars wrongly interpret “this generation” of Jesus’ generation. On the contrary, Jesus meant he didn’t have a clue when he would return, whether in about a forty-year generation or thousands of years later. Thus, he must have meant “this generation” as the generation that sees “all these things” (Gr. panta tauta) he predicted in Matt. 24.4-25 (with vv. 26-27 being explanatory). Every generation has seen wars, earthquakes, and famines, but not the abomination of desolation. That is an idol of the Antichrist (Rev. 13.14-18) which he will set up in the temple at Jerusalem and there declare himself a god (1 Thessalonians 2.4). Daniel and Revelation make it very clear that that event will happen 3.5 years before “the end” (Dan 7.25; 9.27; 12.7, 11; Rev 11.2; 12.14; 13.5), which is when Jesus will return. So, what Jesus meant was that the generation which sees “all these things,” which includes the abomination of desolation, will see his return.

Not many Evangelicals know about this skeptical viewpoint held by C.S. Lewis and so many distinguished biblical scholars. Why not? It shows the deep chasm that often separates the academy from the Evangelical pew, if not the Evangelical pulpit.

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  • Andrew A

    Most evangelicals don’t know Lewis said Jesus was wrong because the only books they read of him are Mere Christianity and Chronicles of Narnia.
    Lewis did not say or infer Jesus lied even though Lewis thought of Jesus as God.He was saying an ignorant god is better than a lying god.That was simply his way of taking God/Jesus off the hook.The fact that Jesus was wrong about returning in the lifetime of his disciples remains in many verses of the synoptics.For example Matt 10:23 Jesus says to his then present disciples”I solemnly assure you,you will not have covered the towns of Israel before the Son of Man comes”
    The very god of creation in Genesis was ignorant too or he would not have had regret about making man.Then he further displayed ignorance after destroying mankind in the flood for their evil,only to realize they would still be the same afterward.And as you know there are many more examples but you as all fundamentalists have excuses for them all.
    Faith can overcome all our mistakes as well as the mistakes of the gods.

  • kzarley

    I don’t agree with you in saying Jesus was wrong about the timing of his return. Mt 24.36/Mk 13.32 mean that he did not know when it will occur, only God does. I think the Bible is clear that God predetermined long ago when the end will be. And I don’t think there is anything in the New Testament that says the end would happen, and thus Jesus would return, during the first generation of the Christian era or during the first century. Scholars who so interpret are wrong, as was Reimarus and Schweitzer and some of my scholarly friends. I have an unfinished manuscript on this subject, and I plan for it to be a book in my Still Here series. You therefore misinterpret Mt 10.23

    • Andrew A

      So does Mt 10:23 apply to the modern state of Israel? Perhaps God will raise up 144,000″true Jew” evangelists to preach to them?

  • Ken Orton

    Jesus was correct but many “Bible scholars” are incorrect. He returned in 70AD during the destruction of Jerusalem. What is not spelled out in His prophecy is that it was to be a SPIRITUAL return, as explained by numerous writers such as Kenneth Gentry. The popular but faulty “futurist view” of churches today is so wrong.

  • https://www.facebook.com/stacy.turner Stacy Turner

    Oh I see. You are using a most original and rarely used form of advanced apologetics called, “Interpretation”. Apparently, we need a new word for the often confused 40 year and 1000 year old average life spans to fit into the more accurate measurements like, “couple” , trunk-full, butt-load, bunch, many and a “few”. Those can often through historians and mathematicians off as well.

    What would be a good time measurement for 1 ADE and the time you choose that could be near infinity (the closest I could come to never without going over, because I am polite and shit), but feel comfortable calling it “soon”, “any day now” and tense it up with “thief in the night”, “better get right with god” and the ever popular “look at the world around you, all the signs are happening! Turn or burn! That will be 10%”, and infinity?

    Also, what do you folks consider a prophecy? Don’t you have some measurements for it to qualify? Or can I just say that soon, the Earths Sun will expand, implode and then…maybe do one of 5 things? I would be correct. Soon.

    Give me some disciples, and so let it be written, as it shall be done.

  • Shiphrah Puah

    No. You’re wrong. Define generation.

  • kzarley

    Yes. I don’t agree with a lot that he says.