Much has been written about the end of the world, but, if this end coincides with Christ’s second coming, then we should enquire from Jesus Himself what he teaches about His return. We will do this by using the material of the Christian Gospels.
Above all, for Jesus, the theme of the end reclaimed the importance of spiritual preparation and the Christian ministry in the world. Many lay people and theologians, however, speculate in directions Jesus did not encourage: false alarms regarding the end of the world, on the one hand, and the failure of prophecy, on the other. Still, if Jesus affirmed multiple times that His return is near and the delay is only short-lived, what explanation can be given for the as-yet unfulfilled predictions related to Christ? And a secondary question, which results from the first, concerns the purpose for which Jesus expressed the time of His return in terms of temporal closeness. Below you will find five answers which I will analyze in turn.
Paul Landa explains that, as Christ’s second coming was delayed, post-apostolic Christianity became more preoccupied with the individual rather than the planetary end. This caused the depreciation of Jesus’ imminent return at the end of history.
Although the church fathers were familiar with this idea, individual eschatology was integrated into the branch of eschatology only by Catholic and Protestant scholasticism.
Unlike cosmic eschatology, individual eschatology refers to the individual’s end in the experience of death. The idea is also characteristic of the Judaic and Greek-Roman apocalypses. The Bible presents death as an end, and our life now as the only period in which we can prepare for the coming life (1 Thessalonians 4:15, Hebrews 9:27, Ecclesiastes 12:1-7). Still, the individual dimension of eschatology, the end as death, must be kept—says theologian G. Berkouver—in permanent relation with general (cosmic) eschatology, in order for history’s movement towards the end not to be underestimated.
The merits of individual eschatology are mainly practical. It urges Christians to live their lives responsibly, aware that the clock stops when one dies, and the awakening will happen on Judgment Day. In this vein, Christ’s return is close for every generation and for each and every one of us. However, one must not come to the conclusion that, when He proclaimed a close eschaton, Jesus had in mind the death of the individual. The coming of the Son of Man is evidently much more than this.
Consistent eschatology (the belief that Jesus fully meant what He said; therefore, if it does not happen, it means He was wrong) is today most vehemently supported by Bart Ehrman. For him, the family tree of all the fortunetellers who have been wrong has its roots in Christ’s teachings, considered by Ehrman to be an apocalyptic prophet of the first century, who was waiting for the end to come during his generation. The theological implications are serious: the historical Jesus was wrong in His estimation concerning the future.
However, this way of analysing things disregards the predictions of the Judaic apocalyptical prophets which were not fulfilled, not because the prophet was wrong, but because the conditions for their fulfillment were not yet met. Probably the best example is Jonah (Jonah 3:4-10). We could thus have another reason why Jesus’ words were not fulfilled at the initially ordained time. Not taking into consideration these factors, which define the Jewish prophetic phenomenon, shows that consistent eschatology is rather inconsistent.
Inaugurated eschatology (the belief that Christ’s coming already took place in Bethlehem, and that there will not be another literal and personal coming) is a solution which today is represented by contemporary Anglican theologian N.T. Wright. He expresses his thesis in two main points: 1) The expression, “the coming of the son of Man,” is not a coming from the heavens towards the earth, but the other way around—Jesus’ coming to God at His ascension. The coming that Jesus talks about refers to the usual sense in which YHWH spiritually comes to Israel (Isaiah 40; 52). Conversely, the contemporary reader understands this coming eschatologically, although, at most, it should be applied to the destruction of Jerusalem in the first century.
Although there is value in this theory, the explanation of the inaugurated eschatology cannot resolve the multitude of texts which undoubtedly confirm that Jesus proclaimed a close parousia.
The actualized prophecy
Scot McKnight believes that trying to explain Jesus other than in the terms of an eschatological prophet is “exegetic gymnastics”. In this view, Christ believed that God will install His kingdom in Jerusalem, after having forgiven and cleansed His people of their sins. This would happen over the course of 30-40 years. The destruction of Jerusalem was seen as the end of history. The urgency and imminent preaching is characteristic of Judaic prophets. In light of this prophetic tradition, Jesus’ estimation was not wrong, because prophetic knowledge is not empirical knowledge. His preaching was meant to prepare Israel.
James Dunn supports this perspective and develops it. Judaic prophetic tradition, says Dunn, integrates failure of the prophecy without denigrating it. Psalm 89 debates the failure of the divine promises made to David, Jeremiah 4:23 presents Judah’s destruction in eschatological terms (although Judah’s destruction did not lead to the end of history), and Habakkuk 2:3 reveals the post-exilic Judaic struggle with delay. Failed prophecies gave birth to other prophecies. Jeremiah thought that the restoration would include both Judah and Israel. The partial fulfilment of these expectations generated confusion (Zachariah 1:12). But the case is taken over by Daniel, actualized and powerfully conveyed once more (Daniel 9:24-27; 12:11-13). Therefore a partially fulfilled prophecy was “ammunition” for a new prophetic stage. This model, which Dunn describes as “hearing, receiving, reaffirming”, proves why the delay of the parousia was not a problem for the first Christians.
Although this perspective has its merits, one must say that, after the era of the apostolic fathers, Christians have experienced a delay crisis. This model is thus only sufficient for someone who is familiar with the Judaic prophetic tradition or part of it.
The cultural answer
The search for the meaning of Christ’s delay in the modern era has a serious impact on the way His statements are regarded. What role or impact does the experience of time, at a cultural level, have on this analysis?
The difference between the ancient vision of time and the modern one is well-observed by Bruce Malina in his article “Christ and Time: Swiss or Mediterranean?” According to Malina, the middle class and the main American current are oriented towards the future, leading an objectified life, focused on accomplishments and long-term projects. When such a person reads Christ’s statements about an end that is “near”, the perception is that either Jesus or the authors of the gospels had a distant future in mind.
In contrast, the peasant from ancient Mediterranean society had the present as a main temporal orientation point, followed by the past and then the future. The focus on the present can be observed in texts such as Leviticus 19:13; Matthew 6:11, 3; 20:8; Luke 11:3.
The writers of the New Testament, says Malina, write in an interesting way about the present and the future age, but never about the next generation of the present age. Societies which orient themselves towards the future must be connected by conditionality and plans for the future.
In the rest of the article, Malina distinguishes between the experienced (human) time and the imaginary (divine) one. The first is ours, the second belongs exclusively to God and, through inspiration, to the prophets He decides to reveal Himself to. When Jesus did not come, the experienced time of the parousia made way for imaginary or prophetic time. One result is that there is no delay of the parousia from the New Testament’s perspective.
Malina’s thesis has special merit in that it takes note of the cultural differences. The delay of the eschaton did not represent a problem for the Mediterranean peasant. However, this delay is troubling for Western modern societies. Malina thus explains why Jesus expressed Himself the way He did, but not why He did not come. The following sections are an answer to this second question.
Anytime after the resurrection
There are authors who agree that Jesus talked about a near end, but that the end is near because it can happen anytime. The fundamental events of salvation history (Jesus’ ministry, death, resurrection and ascension) have already taken place. The rest of history is a mere epilogue, necessary for repentance. Due to the urgency of repentance, time has really been shortened, although the time until the actual parousia might still be long. This perspective belongs to C. Cranfield. The prolongation of the final events can only be long in light of divine patience and the invitation to repentance, although this invitation is always urgent. In my view, this is one of the best solutions to the delay problem. It also does justice to the biblical language and is an answer to the confusion experienced by those who are living many centuries after the first coming and who perceive the second as being very late.
The conditional element
Besides the previous explanation, what other alternatives are there for the Western contemporary man who concludes that Jesus was an apocalyptical prophet, but who is not convinced by the consistent eschatology (Ehrman) or by the inaugurated eschatology (Wright), who admits the importance of the way in which the Judaic prophetic tradition works (Dunn) as well as the cultural and age differences between then and now (Malina)?
The element that stands in the gap is conditionality. There is no doubt that in the Old Testament, prophecy (positive or negative) is conditional (Jeremiah 18:7-10; 27:7-8, Jonah 3:4-10, Zephaniah 2:3, Zachariah 6:15b).
In the same way, in the New Testament, the end of all things is near from the very first generation, but its fulfillment depends on two factors. The first is for the Gospel to be preached all over the world (Matthew 24:14; Mark 13:10). The second is the spiritual preparation of the church, an idea which belongs to Peter, which is presented both in the early mission of the apostle, and later (Acts 3:19-20; 2 Peter 3:9, 11-14). The motivation of both conditions seems to be God’s will and desire for everyone to repent.
In the New Testament, the parousia is described in agrarian terms, such as “the harvest” (Matthew 13:30, 39-40; 1 Corinthians 15:23, Revelation 14:15). God, as a harvester or a gardener, is interested in a rich harvest (Isaiah 5:1, 2, 4; Luke 13:8). This is why He establishes a time for the harvest when the results are optimal. As Norval Pease said: “…when nothing good can result from further delay, Jesus will come.” In practical terms, this does not mean that the end of history absolutely depends on the evangelistic and spiritual performance of the church. Only God can evaluate the world’s saturation when it comes to the Gospel and the spiritual preparation of the church. The fulfilment of the two conditions of the eschaton are thus connected to the church, but do not depend on it.
An instructive example comes from the experience of the Seventh-day Adventists and particularly, that of Ellen White, who is considered to be a prophet by this denomination.
At the end of the 19th century, after White was accused of hasty proclamations regarding Christ’s imminent return in the early years of the formation of the Adventist Church (1850s), she replied that she was no more wrong than Christ and the apostles were; God’s promises and threats are conditional.
The conditional element of the parousia is extensively argued in a recent study called “When the Son of Man Didn’t Come”. Prophecy does not primarily have a predictive role, but an activating one. It is meant to urge the listeners to move in a way which confirms or prevents that prophecy. When it is partially fulfilled, the prophecy does not fail, but builds bridges and stimulates. When it is not fulfilled at all, it means that the conditions underlying it were not fulfilled. In light of these principles, Christ was not wrong and, at the same time, did not promise a parousia which was inaugurated and continues to be realized. His eschatological predictions were, and still are, delayed until that which conditions them is fulfilled.
Laurenţiu-Florentin Moţ, PhD, is associate professor and rector of Adventus University.