NORMAN’S QUESTION (summarized and paraphrased):
The New Testament letter of 1st Thessalonians regards the coming of the Kingdom as imminent. But don’t 2nd Thessalonians and later New Testament letters indicate the church was coming to terms with the fact that Paul (and Jesus himself) were mistaken about this?
THE RELIGION GUY’S ANSWER:
Experts say the first of the two letters Paul, Silvanus and Timothy sent to friends in the Greek city of Thessalonika was the earliest New Testament book to be written, dated only a couple decades after Jesus’ crucifixion.
Both that letter and 2nd Thessalonians (which some few think might actually have been written before 1st Thessalonians) demonstrate that from the very beginning Christians looked forward to the return of Jesus as the culmination of history. After 20 centuries, expectation of the “Second Coming” or “Second Advent” or “Parousia” (Greek for “presence”) remains a central belief.
The Religion Guy consulted numerous resources on this complex terrain and relies especially on the late F.F. Bruce of England’s University of Manchester, a clear thinker and writer and, significantly, a major evangelical Protestant scholar. That movement has focused muich attention on the End Times for a century and more. Bruce wrote a commentary on the two Thessalonian letters, and treated related material in the Gospels in his classic “Hard Sayings of Jesus” (1983).
Norman has a point because of one pronoun in 1 Thessalonians 4:15: “We who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, shall not precede those who have fallen asleep” (that is, have died).
Though the three letter-writers did not expressly say so, Bruce wrote, their first person plural pronoun “we” indicates that in the first blush of newborn faith — yes — they thought they and their contemporaries might well still be alive when Jesus returned. Not long afterward, Paul concluded he’d be among those who’ve been dead an unknown length of time when Christ returned (see for instance 2nd Corinthians 4:14). Further instruction that the Second Coming would occur after a wave of rebellion and anarchy under a mysterious “man of lawlessness” is found in 2nd Thessalonians 2:1-12.
Paul’s over-all emphasis, however, was that neither he nor anyone else could be sure about the timing but it would be unexpected. “As to the times and seasons, brethren, you have no need to have anything written to you, for you yourself know well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night” (1st Thessalonians 5:1). Jesus likewise taught that “of that day or that hour no one knows” (Mark 13:32) and “it is not for you to know the times or seasons which the Father has fixed” (Acts 1:7).
So the early church moved from anticipating Jesus’ imminent return to accept the so-called “delay of the Parousia.” Liberal writers often say this was a “crisis,” which the late Dutch exegete G.C. Berkouwer considered “foolish” because Christians’ “continuous expectation” and watchfulness about the End excluded any feeling of crisis.
Bruce agreed, saying the New Testament provides no evidence the “delay” was any major problem. Paul never claimed to know the actual time, Bruce noted, and underwent “a natural shift in perspective arising from advancing years and changing circumstances” without changing his basic belief about the End.
Side note: Paul’s candid change of thinking in the New Testament texts tells us these letters are authentic, preserved by the church as originally written and not revised by later editors to delete potential perplexities.
But what if Jesus himself was flawed by “errors and miscalculations” on this, as W.G. Kummel asserted? Such liberal views obviously undercut Jesus’ divinity and authority. A crucial saying by Jesus is Mark 9:1″ “Truly I say to you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the kingdom of God come with power.”
Did that refer to Jesus’ Second Coming? Scholars pretty much agree that’s unlikely, and the same for an event that followed days later in Mark, the “transfiguration” where Elijah and Moses appeared and God’s voice identified Jesus as the Son. What, then?
Some theologians think the kingdom was already inaugurated with the birth of Jesus the divine Son or the start of his public ministry. A fancy term for this is “realized eschatology.” If so, when would this new spiritual kingdom “come with power”? Interpretations of that include Jesus’ resurrection from the dead, or his ascension to heaven, or the advent of the Holy Spirit and birth of the church at Pentecost, or the massive change when the Romans destroyed the Jerusalem Temple in A.D. 70.
Or did Jesus predict a combination of such climactic events would come within decades, as Judaism-as-usual collapsed and the Christian cause rapidly expanded?
Norman’s posting also proposed that the shift in outlook between the two Thessalonian letters shows that Paul and his two colleagues did not really write the second one though the text names them. The Guy addressed that issue last year in “Did Paul write all 13 letters the Bible credits to him?” See: www.patheos.com/blogs/religionqanda/2015/03/did-paul-write-all-13-letters-the-bible-credits-to-him).