Did Jesus (and the early Christians) actually expect him to return soon? [Questioning faith #13]

Ted Grimsrud—December 23, 2022

Many New Testament scholars and others influenced by them assert that Jesus (and, following him, other New Testament writers such as Paul and the writer of Revelation) believed that he would return within a relatively short time after his death. This return would be tied with an end to history and the inauguration of a new heaven and new earth.

The people who advocate this view go on to point out that Jesus (and the others) were obviously wrong. Christianity thus quickly evolved to be a more conservative, more doctrine-oriented—and less radical-ethics-oriented—religion. Christians linked themselves with political structures (e.g., the Roman Empire) that would allow them to sustain their structures so long as Christians would contribute to the wellbeing of the political status quo. Over time, various small renewal movements would arise that would hearken back to the radical message of Jesus (and, in some interpretations, of Paul and Revelation). These movements could be dismissed because they were basing their visions on a message from Jesus that was meant for the short time between his life and his return. That message was not meant for the long haul of coming generations who were tasked with sustaining the faith over a much, much longer period of time than Jesus had anticipated. This work of sustaining the faith, thus, in the real world, required accommodation to the political systems of the world.

But is this true?

I have the impression that many of the people who accept the idea that Jesus (and the others) expected a soon end of history have not scrutinized the evidence very carefully. The first thing that I note is how ambiguous and peripheral most of the references are that seem to voice such an expression. We don’t have a clear, straightforward statement that Jesus will return soon. We do have various statements that seem to allude to something major happening in the near future without explaining what that would be and what would be the consequences. And there are more vague statements of hope about God’s victory to come. How should these be understood?

It could be that they are indeed predicting a soon end to human history and the inauguration of a new age of pure salvation. But such a predication does not have support in the overall message of Jesus and the rest of the New Testament that emphasizes the call to faithful living in a broken world. A key value in the New Testament is perseverance, the sense that followers of Jesus have a long haul ahead of them that will require strength, a commitment to resist the ways of the world, and an acceptance of the likelihood of suffering for the sake of their faith.

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