Sunday, May 22, 2022

Why wasn't early Christian eschatology criticized more?

In my last post, I argued that the earliest opponents of Christianity don't seem to have thought that Jesus and his followers falsely predicted the timing of his second coming. That raises the question of why they didn't make that accusation. Modern critics of Christianity frequently make the accusation that Jesus, Paul, and the early Christians in general set a false date for Jesus' return. Why would there be such a difference between Christianity's earliest opponents and its modern critics?

I don't think we can fully answer the question from the sources that are extant. There was oral interaction between the early Christians and their opponents, and some of what both sides wrote hasn't survived down to our day. We don't have access to everything that was said about eschatological issues on both sides. And it's not just a matter of what was said. It's also a matter of what was observed about the way people lived. As Christians prepared for the future in a variety of ways (how they handled their careers, how they planned for their children's lives, what they did with property, etc.), it would have become evident whether they thought it was certain that Jesus would return by a particular point in time. But most of what happened in such contexts isn't accessible to us. Not everything that would have informed early perceptions of Christian eschatology is available to us today. Sentiments like Paul expressed in Ephesians 6:1-3 (in that context, the idea that Jesus' return could be so far away as to allow children to live a long time before dying) probably came up more often than they're recorded in the documents that are extant. The early nonverbal and oral interactions between Christians and their opponents and the documents they wrote that we no longer have probably included other things akin to what we see in Ephesians 6.

For reasons like the ones addressed in my last post, the most significant conclusions reached by both sides (Christians and non-Christians) are likely to be extant in the sources we have. But some of what went into the thinking of each side surely has been lost to history. The sources we have provide the general parameters of what happened and some of the lesser details, but also leave out some of the lesser details.

However, we can go a long way in explaining what likely happened from what we do have. I suspect Jesus' comments in Mark 13:32-33 were of major significance in this context, and I've often quoted Ben Witherington on the subject:

"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." (The Gospel Of Mark: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary [Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 2001], 349)

And Jesus said much the same, using units of time that go beyond days and hours, in Acts 1:7. So, the concept is something Jesus expressed on multiple occasions. (Notice, too, that the agreement between Mark 13 and Acts 1 contradicts the allegation we sometimes hear to the effect that Luke was revising a false prediction in Mark that the second coming would occur before the end of Jesus' generation. Mark 13 and Acts 1 are in agreement that no such date could be set.) Passages like these, supplemented by things like the comments elsewhere about how it might be "a long time" before the second coming occurs (Matthew 25:19), should be enough to prevent modern critics from raising their objection and probably were largely effective in doing so with the earliest non-Christian sources.

Jesus' remarks in Mark 13:32 are very likely to be historical, given the unlikelihood that the early Christians would make up a comment in which Jesus professes his own ignorance. We have sufficient evidence to trust what sources like Mark and Luke report even without that sort of difficult nature of what Jesus said in Mark 13:32, but the difficult nature gives us even more reason to trust what's reported. There's also the fact that it's reported by multiple sources and repeated in a distinct context, namely Acts 1:7. Notice, also, that the Acts passage is similar in singling out the Father. That makes sense if the Mark 13 and Acts 1 passages both came from the historical Jesus, who singled out the Father in his thinking about this eschatological context. It's something the early Christians found difficult and that's been a difficulty for Christians down to our day. It seems, then, that we have strong evidence for an aspect of early Christian eschatology that directly and explicitly denies that any generational or other relevant date could be set for Jesus' second coming.

I've mentioned before that Jesus' opposition to setting dates, as expressed in Mark 13 and Acts 1, is consistent with the Judaism of his day (Craig Keener, A Commentary On The Gospel Of Matthew [Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1999], 590). The Jewish context in which Christianity originated probably discouraged the early non-Christian sources, especially Jewish ones, from interpreting Jesus and the early Christians the way some modern critics do. That, in turn, would have influenced early pagan thinking on the subject, given how much Judaism influenced early pagan views of Christianity (e.g., the interactions between Jewish opponents of Christianity and Gentile sources in Acts; 1 Thessalonians 2:15-16; Justin Martyr's accusation that Jewish arguments against Christianity had been popularized among pagans [Dialogue With Trypho, 17]; Celsus' consultation of one or more Jewish sources).

None of this is meant to suggest that the early opponents of Christianity fully understood every aspect of Christian eschatology. They didn't. Even the early Christians disagreed among themselves on some eschatological issues, and Christians still have difficulty understanding some aspects of eschatology. But one thing both sides, Christians and non-Christians, seem to have understood is that no generational date had been set for Jesus' second coming.


  1. The early Christians would have also recognized that the gospel had to be preached to all nations before the Eschaton (Mt. 24.14). Lk. 21.24 clearly signals a longer time of Jerusalem being trampled upon until the end of the "Times of the Gentiles." These two concepts indicate a long intervening age which most Christians would have envisioned.

  2. gospel had to be preached to all nations before the Eschaton... so true but somewhere in the NT it will say that it (gospel has to be preached to all nations) has happened already.

  3. Somewhere? Could you be more specific and find the reference and elaborate what it says? Otherwise, I think my point stands.

  4. Something to remember about early Christians is that the Christian eschatology was taught in the context of a Jewish eschatology. This fact is cemented by John in Rev 20, which contains a reference to the Messianic millennium. Whatever other conclusion you make about early Christian eschatology, you have to take this into account. It's probably one reason why there was disagreement in the early church. If they thought that all you had to do was count the millennia from creation, then you would have the second coming. That said, there was the first coming in a place where Jewish eschatology didn't account for it, yet John referenced it like there was some truth to it. They (and we) still have a lot of questions. In part, I think this is by design.