Thursday, October 15, 2009

Misdating The Second Coming

Critics of Christianity often claim that the earliest Christians, particularly Jesus and Paul, falsely predicted that the second coming of Christ would occur before the end of Jesus' generation. William Lane Craig makes some good points about the issue in his October 12 podcast. For those interested in a fuller treatment of the subject, I wrote an article about it a few years ago.

Here are some points to remember:

- Critics who claim that documents like the gospel of Matthew and 1 Thessalonians predict that the second coming will occur before a particular time should be asked about the dating and textual transmission of those documents. It wouldn't make much sense to argue that a document like the gospel of Matthew predicts that the second coming will occur within a few years of 70 A.D. or earlier, and to argue that the early Christians were highly dishonest in their transmission of the text of the New Testament, only to go on to date Matthew well past 70 A.D. and to claim that Jesus' false predictions were preserved in the text even after the predictions were demonstrated to be false. Often, critics of Christianity employ arguments that are inconsistent with each other.

- Ancient Jewish eschatology and early post-apostolic Christian eschatology used language similar to what we see in the New Testament, without a belief that the second coming (or its Jewish equivalent) was certain to occur within the current generation.

- The early Christian (and Jewish) belief that nobody knew the time of the second coming probably included generational units of time, not just months, days, hours, minutes, etc.

- Though Jesus and Paul did sometimes speak as if the second coming could occur within their generation, they also spoke as if it could occur later.

- The earliest opponents of Christianity criticized the slowness of the fulfillment of the eschatological promises, not a failure of fulfillment. We see similar objections to ancient Jewish eschatology, which didn't involve a prediction of eschatological fulfillment within a generation. Trypho, Justin Martyr's Gentile opponents, the heretics Irenaeus addresses, Celsus, and other early opponents of Christianity raise a wide variety of objections against the religion, but a failed prediction of Jesus' second coming within His generation doesn't seem to have been an issue.

"It has often been ignored that in early Jewish literature, in particular some of the apocalyptic material in 4 Ezra, 2 Baruch, Apocalypse of Baruch and elsewhere, wrestles with the concept of the 'flexible' imminence of God's day of vindicating justice. In many ways, the discussion of the so-called delay of the parousia is just a continuation of this early Jewish discussion. In texts like Apoc. Bar. 85:10 we already see the tension between already and not yet, between eschatological hope and the delay of final vindication. That other early Jews could continue to maintain a strong faith in the possible imminence of 'the day' coupled with a discussion of its delay and possible reasons for it should warn us against the assumption that when someone like Jesus or Paul used the language of imminence it precluded any idea of flexibility about the timing or an interval before it happened." (Ben Witherington, Jesus, Paul And The End Of The World [Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 1992], n. 29 on p. 263)

"This [the use of 'time' in Mark 13:33 to correspond with 'day or hour' in verse 32] rules out the artful and somewhat humorous dodge suggesting that while Jesus did not know the exact time of the parousia, he knew the generational time it would transpire, namely, within a generation, if not sooner." (Ben Witherington, The Gospel Of Mark: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary [Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 2001], p. 349)

"In short, Paul does not refer [in Ephesians 6:3] to a future eternal life but to a present temporal life. In the end, the same general OT principle can be applied to the NT, namely, that obeying and honoring father and mother will bring well-being and a long life on earth. Again, there are going to be exceptions to the rule but the general principle holds....Because of the promise of long life on the earth, Lincoln contends that this could not have been penned by Paul who expected an imminent parousia....This argument is not compelling, for Paul never predicted that the parousia would occur within his lifetime. Even the apostles did not presume to know the time of the parousia since Jesus had told them that even he did not know, only the Father knew (Matt 24:36 = Mark 13:32)." (Harold Hoehner, Ephesians: An Exegetical Commentary [Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 2006], p. 793)

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