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.

At least some of the apocalyptic-seeming references in Jesus’s teaching, perhaps in Paul, too, may be alluding to the building storm with regard to the Jewish people in Palestine’s growing hostility toward the Roman Empire’s vicious occupation of their homeland. This hostility led to an outright rebellion that was ruthlessly crushed by the Romans, leading to the destruction of the Jewish Temple in 70 CE. So, there may have been predictive type allusions (or after the fact type allusions)—the point being, though, for the followers of Jesus, that they need to hold to their faithfulness in the face of ongoing disruption and trauma. The implication is that indeed history will continue past the catastrophe and that faithfulness will remain the watchword.

A third possibility for some of the future-oriented references is that they be understood more generally than as specific predictions. The general message is that God is present in their world, God remains faithful, and the followers of Jesus can hope for vindication for their faithfulness. An analogy with the message of Jesus’s resurrection could be recognized: Jesus’s faithfulness led to God vindicating him and raising him from the dead. This hope applies to his followers, too. Just as Jesus’s death and resurrection did not end history, neither will the deaths of his followers. They can rest in confidence in God’s ultimate healing actions, but history will continue as it has for an indefinite period of time. Rather than thinking of Jesus’s message as something not to be taken seriously in face of his death, Jesus’s followers should recognize his message as their guide for life on earth lived with both an acceptance of the partial nature of God’s kingdom and a resolve to embody that kingdom however they can.

In light of the overall message of the New Testament, I believe that the lesson we should take from it is that all the allusions to the future were meant to be in service to the call to live faithfully in the present and for the long haul of historical existence. There are general exhortations to live hopefully and with confidence in God’s transforming and healing love as the operative power in the universe—at least over time. Any interpretation that draws from the New Testament an inclination to weaken or disregard the rigors of Jesus’s call to follow him and that undermines the direct relevance of that call for all areas of life should be recognized as inaccurate and a misreading of the data.

The NT emphasizes the normativity of Jesus’s message

When we read the NT with the expectation that it holds together as a collection of writings meant to encourage its readers to follow Jesus, we will see that it emphasizes the normativity of Jesus’s message throughout. It is the case the Paul does not quote Jesus’s teaching very often (though note Romans 12:9-21). However, Paul regularly refers to Jesus’s life and to his faithfulness to the point of being killed due to his way of life as the model for Christians. That is, Paul did not see Jesus’s death as a one-off event that opened the door for history to end but rather as an on-going model signifying the call to a way of life of witness to God’s love and opposition to the Powers-that-be.

Whatever sense Paul may have had that God would bring history to a conclusion at any time, it was always combined with a call to embody the way of Jesus. The idea that Jesus’s message was meant only for a brief interim was the farthest thing from Paul’s thinking. We don’t know when the end will come, and it certainly could be a long time off. In any case, the way of Jesus is the norm for all areas of living for those who have identified with his cross—and have thus been raised to new life in history for as long as history continues. And this new life continues to be life lived as Jesus lived, even to the point of death.

The other major writing in the NT that has often been seen to support the idea that Jesus’s own message had only temporal relevance in light of the expectation of his soon return is the book of Revelation. However, when we recognize the clues the book itself gives us, we can recognize that it too confirms rather than undermines the conviction that Jesus’s life and teachings remain normative for his followers. The very first verse of the book asserts a close connection between the book’s concerns and the gospel message—this writing is identified as “the revelation of Jesus Christ.” We have no reason to assume that this assertion does not have in mind the Jesus Christ of the gospels. With this emphasis in mind, we may read through the rest of the book and see that indeed the Jesus of the gospels is in mind.

Revelation 5 gives us the key to the entire book (and to the author’s understanding of faith) with its vision of the Lamb that was slain as the victor of the struggle between God and the anti-God forces of the universe. That is, it was Jesus’s life of persevering love lived faithfully to the end when he was executed by the Romans that wins the victory—a victory confirmed when the entire animate universe is portrayed as offering him the same worship that it offers to the One on the throne.

That this way of Jesus is the norm for his followers is explicitly affirmed in Revelation 12: “The accuser of our comrades has been thrown down…. They have conquered him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, for they did not cling to life even in the face of death” (12:10-11). A later vision seems to reiterate this point when we read in Revelation 19 of the conquering white rider (who clearly is Jesus) riding forth with his victory determined by his blood shed on the cross and his message represented by the sword that came out of his mouth—accompanied by the “comrades” of chapter 12 who ride alongside “wearing fine linen, white and pure” that symbolizes their faithfulness in taking up Jesus’s cross.

The NT presents Jesus’s message as meant for the long haul

My conclusion in reading the Bible as a whole is that the dominant sensibility is one of encouraging its readers to live faithfully in this life in the here and now. The allusions to some kind of final victory or end of time should be read mainly as efforts to empower present faithfulness and should not be read as isolated predictions. And those allusions certainly should not be read as bases for disregarding the exhortations for present faithfulness. As well, the Bible as a whole seems to present a sober realism about the need for strength, resolve, and perseverance in the face of the stresses and challenges of living in history—especially for those committed to a faith stance that puts them at odds with the oppressions of the Powers-that-be.

An important theme from the Old Testament may help us think about the sense of crisis in the NT and the theological response to the crisis. Numerous times in the story we read of moments of crisis and even catastrophe among the children of Israel. From the beginning of the story when Sarah’s barrenness signals the end of the promise before it actually began, to the enslavement in Egypt, to the crises at the end of the territorial kingdom in Judah, and to the trauma captured in the book of Daniel of the Hebrew people facing extinction hundreds of years later, there are messages of trauma and deep fear that the end is near. Each time, though, the crisis leads to a deepening sense of the importance of the community of faith gathered around Torah. That is, the message was persevere in history, stay the course, gather together and find the strength among yourselves to continue to witness to the path of healing justice over the long haul. The crises led to resolve, not to escape. They led to a deepening of the relevance of the message of Torah and the prophets.

When we get to the NT, we find the same message. Jesus began his ministry in a world in crisis. The survival of his people was in jeopardy. And what was his message? Essentially, it was a call to gather together, to gain clarity about God’s love and the importance of embodying the true message of Torah and the prophets, and to be prepared to sustain this way of life over the long haul. His rare cryptic and vague comments about “the end” should be read not as an expectation of a literal soon end but as exhortations to recognize the crises of the day and see them as a call to persevere.

Interestingly, if we simply trace the use of the Greek word “apocalypsis” (translated either “apocalypse” or “revelation”) we find a link between the crisis-induced desire for a “revelation” and a call to cultivate the kind of community that will empower Christians to embody the way of Jesus over the long haul—key examples being Romans 1:17 and Revelation 1:1. So, indeed, the NT can be read as crisis literature. However, the lesson from the sense of crisis is double down on Jesus’s normative life and teaching and his call to be communities of resistance. It’s not, don’t worry, this will all end soon.

History validates the practical relevance of Jesus’s message

One of the main underlying issues that shape how we might look at this question about Jesus’s return is how practical we understand his vision for human life to be. This includes the question of how this vision has been embodied over time in history. My sense is that how we think about practicality in history will have a lot to do with how we think about Jesus’s vision in theory. Without being able to justify my perspective in this short space, I will state that I do believe that history does validate Jesus’s message.

Probably the clearest way this validation happens is by the profound failures of social and political visions that are contrary to Jesus’s. Throughout the past 2,000 years we continually see the failure of tyrants to sustain their leadership and the failure of unjust societies to remain viable. In a more general sense, we are seeing now the failure of Western civilization based on exploitation of nature and the politics of the sword to thrive—to the point that it seems increasingly likely that human life itself will not survive much longer. It’s as if, to quote W.H. Auden’s poem, “September 1, 1939,” we are seeing proven before our very eyes that “we must love one another or die.”

More positively, we do see validated in history the creative potential of non-hierarchical, generosity-oriented, and non-punitive communities and cultures. All too often, such communities have been and continue to be marginalized and overpowered by the firepower of coercive communities. I believe, though, that such squelching does not invalidate the truthfulness and practicality of a politics of Jesus. By its nature, such a politics—like love itself—will be vulnerable and non-dominating. Various sprouts of such a politics have always existed alongside the Domination System, though, waiting to come forth when the opportunity arises. Our only hope for a human future on earth relies on the cultivation of such sprouts in hope that more opportunities will indeed come.

It is not surprising that status quo forces would hope to marginalize and render irrelevant the politics of Jesus. It is sad, though, that so many self-identified followers of Jesus would be complicit in that effort. I believe that trying to fit Jesus and his earliest followers into a box characterized by their supposed mistaken understanding of the future is an important example of such complicity and that it should be rejected.

Questioning Faith blog series

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

  1. Jesus laid out as the clear main hermeneutical principle that of love of God and love of neighbor as inseparable entwined loves. We may be unclear about how some particular Biblical passages should really be understood, but this call to faithfulness through love must be held to be central.

  2. If you pay a bit more care to what the Lord and the Old Testament prophets and the NT writers actually said you can see that there is no end of history or end of time ever predicted. The end is the end of the old age of the Old Covenant, and of the old body of Israel. At the end, in Israel’s last days, she would accumulate her judgment and it would be poured out upon her, Deut. 32. See also Is. 2-4. At this time the old heaven and earth would be destroyed, Is. 65-66. But this old heaven and old earth is the old Israel, not the physical world.

    The end in Dan. 12 is the end of the power of the holy people, Israel, which is completely shattered. Israel is the Fourth Beast of Dan. 7, and the Second Temple is what falls at the end of Israel’s 70 sevens, Dan. 9.

    The Lord applies the end predictions of Dan 2, 7, 9 and 12 to the end of the Second Temple, in his generation in the Olivet Discourse. He comes as the Son of Man on the clouds in fulfillment of Dan. 7 to destroy the old Israel, not the physical world nor of history or of time.

    Time and seasons continue in the new heaven and the new earth. And so does the gospel and the kingdom. This is basic eschatological narrative.

  3. The revelation of Jesus Christ in the book of Revelation is the coming of the Son of Man on the clouds to destroy the little horn of the Fourth Beast of Dan. 7. This Revelation makes the tribes of the land of Israel mourn in Rev. 1:7. This is at the coming and fulfilment of the kingdom of God in Rev. 11 at the judgement of Jerusalem, the Great City, where the Lord was slain. That is when the great and terrible day of the Lord happens to avenge the blood of the martyrs in Rev. 6, when the earth and sky are rolled up like a scroll. The blood of the two martyrs of Rev. 11 and of the martyrs of Rev. 6 are avenged at the fall of the Second Temple, per Mat. 23. The coming and revelation of Jesus Christ is the coming on the clouds to destroy the old Israel that killed the prophets and the Lord and his apostles and prophets. That is what the book of revelation is about. It is not about Rome. It is not about the end of time. It is not about the end of history. It is about the fulfillment of the Old Testament, Rev. 10:7 when the old heaven and the old earth are destroyed and the new Jerusalem comes to replace the old Jerusalem, per Is. 65-66.

  4. When we consider how and when the Gospels were written (the earliest, probably Mark, possibly just before or soon after the destruction of Jerusalem, 70 CE), we realize the “predictions” of Jesus re. Jerusalem and the Temple were most likely put in his mouth after 70. If Mark was written pre-70, it’s quite possible we’re reading later additions. Such is almost certainly the case, based on existing manuscript dates and comparisons, with the later-added verses in Mark 16, in two or more different forms.

    The point is two-fold: 1) we know (as Matt. repeatedly says) that the Gospels were written based heavily on interpretations (usually allegorical) of Hebrew prophecies and various statements, with Jesus “fulfilling” them, and 2) there was a period of over 50, probably nearly 100 years during which NT-era canonical and non-canonical writings were not codified. That is, to where they became difficult and eventually impossible to emend.

    Given that, and the incredibly disruptive force of the war from 66 to 70 (73 if including the capture of Masada), it’s not surprising some reference to it, though oblique, would be included. And that would add to the muddying of the waters as to the “historical Jesus”, and whether or not he was an apocalyptic prophet (or self-proclaimed, even if non-military, messiah).

    Despite long, deep study of these and related issues, I remain uncertain but concur, Ted, as to the applicability of Jesus’ teaching for “the long haul” and as godly design for working WITHIN or in resistance to given governmental regimes.

    1. We have early sources in Paul’s letters that predict the rebellion and the take over and destruction of the temple in 1 and 2 Thes. and 1 and 2 Cor. That also include claims that they were reiterating what the Lord had said and that the resurrection and the coming of the Lord (and the rebel) would take place before the original audience had all died.

      Not only that, the destruction of the Second Temple was an Old Testament prediction that was current and a generally accepted part of the eschatological narrative. This includes not only the destruction of the Second Temple but also the rebellion, e.g. Is. 66:24; Dan. 7, 9 and 12. Taken together, Israel was to be a divided nation at her end, the wise and the foolish, the righteous remnant and the corrupt establishment, the wheat and the tares, the clay and the iron. The wise would not prevail after Antiochus Epiphanies (Dan. 11:32-35). But, at the end, at the appointed time, the wicked would rise to be condemned, the little horn would uproot its predecessors, an anointed one would be cut off and have nothing by a non-anointed prince who would precipitate the war to the end that destroys both Jerusalem and the Second Temple. The righteous remnant, the wise, would rise to dominance and life in the eternal kingdom. This is all Old Testament stuff. It can’t be post dated to after A.D. 70. So why try to force the gospels, which say exactly the same thing, to an ex post prophecy? It is totally unnecessary and inappropriate.

      At most Mark says that they will look back and see that the kingdom has already come, before they had all died. Other than that, all New Testament references to the end of the Second Temple are forward looking. The more natural reading is that they were expressed as forward looking because they were written before 70.

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