This is a guest post by Anthony Coleman, a former Christian (but still a theist). His book The Evangelical Experience: Understanding One of America’s Largest Religious Movements from the Inside was recently published. In this post, he explains how understanding the apocalyptic claims of Jesus toppled his faith.
I remember hearing in church growing up that “the early Christians expected Jesus to come back soon.” From my experience, this is actually a fairly uncontroversial thing to say, even in a conservative church. You may have even heard it from your own pastor. As a former Evangelical, I wonder why this doesn’t cause believers more concern. Maybe it’s the phrasing. It was only the “early Christians” who “expected” something that didn’t happen. Those words don’t sound any alarms. But to put it in starker terms, it seems that the Bible is wrong about the return of Christ. A pastor making this claim has a controversy on his hands.
Although I tried to get out of it for several years, I eventually came to this conclusion for myself – the biblical authors were simply wrong about the return of Jesus.
In 1 Thessalonians, Paul expects to be alive for the event:
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. (1 Thessalonians 4:15–17)
In 1 Corinthians, Paul encourages believers to refrain from seeking marriage, due to the immanency of the “world’s present form” passing away:
I think that in view of the present distress it is good for a person to remain as he is. Are you bound to a wife? Do not seek to be free. Are you free from a wife? 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…. For the present form of this world is passing away. (1 Corinthians 7:26–27, 29–31)
We also have more brief expressions of this belief from various other biblical writers:
The end of all things is at hand … (1 Peter 4:7)
Be patient, therefore, brothers, until the coming of the Lord. See how the farmer waits for the precious fruit of the earth, being patient about it, until it receives the early and late rains. You also, be patient. Establish your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is at hand. (James 5:7–8)
Children, it is the last hour, and as you have heard that the antichrist is coming, so now many antichrists have come. Therefore we know that it is the last hour. (1 John 2:18)
He who testifies to these things says, “Surely I am coming soon.” Amen. Come, Lord Jesus! (Revelation 22:20)
And not only do we have these fairly straightforward statements about the expectation of an early return, we also have records of justifications and re-interpretations from the Church when Jesus didn’t come back so quickly.
Scoffers will come in the last days with scoffing, following their own sinful desires. They will say, “Where is the promise of his coming? For ever since the fathers fell asleep, all things are continuing as they were from the beginning of creation.”…But do not overlook this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day. The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance. But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a roar, and the heavenly bodies will be burned up and dissolved, and the earth and the works that are done on it will be exposed. (2 Peter 3:3–4, 8–10)
When Peter saw him, he said to Jesus, “Lord, what about this man?” Jesus said to him, “If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you? You follow me!” So the saying spread abroad among the brothers that this disciple was not to die; yet Jesus did not say to him that he was not to die, but “If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you?” (John 21:21–23)
Critics wonder where this return is. John has died, Jesus hasn’t come, and the church needs to re-interpret. A day is like a thousand years.
I suppose with some extremely creative exegesis, you could wiggle out of these verses. “Soon,” “the final hour,” “the end of all things,” and “at hand” could, perhaps, find alternate translations. Some might argue that these verses are somehow referring to the fall of Jerusalem or other events. Preterism (the belief that all biblical prophecy, including verses predicting Jesus’ “return,” have already occurred) or partial-Preterism are options presented on the theological table. For me, I couldn’t get around it. Looking at the Scriptures, even as a professing Evangelical Christian, I was forced to conclude that something the early church was expecting to happen, didn’t happen. They (and, because they wrote their thoughts into Scripture, the Bible) were simply wrong about the immediate return of Christ.
Some Christians may be able to deal with an errant church and even an errant Bible. But, even more controversially, could these expectations have come from Jesus himself?
With Jesus on record as saying that “the Kingdom of God is at hand,” “you will not finish going through the towns of Israel before the Son of Man comes,” “this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things take place,” and “some who are standing here will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom” as well as regularly warning his listeners about an impending final judgment (for instance in Matthew 25), I can’t help but think that they did.
The apocalyptic eschatology of the early church, and, in my opinion, of Jesus himself, was the straw that broke the camel’s back for me. It’s why I left the faith. In my book, The Evangelical Experience, I conclude with the following:
“Ultimately I left Evangelicalism because I could no longer believe its core tenets. The issue that pushed me over the edge was the apocalyptic eschatology of Jesus. The ‘Historical Jesus’ scholar Dale Allison explains the term in his Constructing Jesus:
“My claim … is that Jesus held what we may call, for lack of a better expression, an ‘apocalyptic eschatology.’ The words are a convenient shorthand for a cluster of themes well attested in post-exilic Jewish literature, themes that were prominent in a then-popular account of the world that ran, in brief, as follows. Although God created a good world, evil spirits have filled it with wickedness, so that it is in disarray and full of injustice. A day is coming, however, when God will repair the broken creation and restore scattered Israel. Before that time, the struggle between good and evil will come to a climax, and a period of great tribulation and unmatched woe will descend upon the world. After that period, God will, perhaps through one or more messianic figures, reward the just and requite the unjust, both living and dead, and then establish divine rule forever.1
“The worldview explained by Allison is familiar to Christians, because it is all over the New Testament. What is unfamiliar is the idea that Jesus thought this tribulation and ultimate Divine Deliverance was coming soon. As Allison, again, puts so well:
“His dream, however, has remained a dream. It is not just that, as Matt. 24:36 = Mark 13:32 says, the Son had no knowledge of precisely when the end would come. It is rather that the Son expected and encouraged others to expect that all would wrap up soon, and yet run-of-the-mill history remains with us: Satan still goes to and fro upon the earth.2
“Once the idea of Jesus as an Apocalyptic Prophet was presented to me the whole thing just made sense. The early Christians clearly expected Jesus to return immediately. The synoptic Gospels, on my reading, present Jesus as expecting a final judgment in the near future. It makes sense of his teaching, the warnings of judgment. ‘The Kingdom of God is at hand.’
“When the paradigm was in place, I couldn’t not see it. The evidence, for me, leads to a Jesus who is most fairly labeled as an Apocalyptic Prophet and who called Israel to repentance before an expected immanent final judgment. He was wrong. The world didn’t end and the Divine Rule was not established. My Evangelical faith survived a lot of biblical criticism, but it couldn’t survive that.”
About the author: Anthony Coleman holds a B.A. in Biblical and Theological Studies and an M.A. in Theological Studies from separate Evangelical institutions. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
1 Dale Allison, Constructing Jesus: Memory, Imagination, and History (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2010), 32.
2 Dale Allison, The Historical Christ and the Theological Jesus (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009), 96. Also see p. 92–95 of the same work for a list of Gospel material indicating that Jesus held an apocalyptic eschatology.