RE: [asa] A theology question (imminent return of Christ)

From: Dehler, Bernie <>
Date: Fri Oct 10 2008 - 17:05:15 EDT

Thanks Edward. I guess you are just helping me be comfortable knowing there is no clear answer as to how Jesus could have been wrong in teaching His imminent return. I guess it is just a mystery, like the trinity. Your CS Lewis quote said it well- very applicable (in some ways).

The question is "How could Jesus have got his imminent return wrong" and I guess there's no clear answer. It sounds like Pastor Murray agrees that the early church also expected an imminent return, and that they were wrong.

CS Lewis' quote doesn't apply in one sense, though. I understand it is a mystery how Jesus could be God yet needed to be taught how to speak as a toddler. Yet it is a different situation when Christ was recognized as God as an adult, taught something, the disciples believed and practiced it, yet all were wrong (about the imminent return doctrine).


-----Original Message-----
From: Edward T. Babinski []
Sent: Thursday, October 09, 2008 7:36 PM
Cc: Dehler, Bernie;;;;;
Subject: Re: [asa] A theology question (imminent return of Christ)

Hi Bernie and Murray!

Murray, did you receive a copy of my initial email to Bernie? It's included below, following this reply.

Murray, your "big picture" approach only works if all theologians can agree on the picture, but they don't. There are Dispensationalists (of different kinds who disagree with one another), and Preterists (again of different kinds, the Partial and Full Preterist views being at odds with one another), and "historicist" approaches to interpreting Revelation. And there's the errant approach of some amillennialist Catholic and Protestant scholars as well that simply lets each verse, Gospel or letter say what it says, and they admit inconsistencies and difficulties face those who attempt to harmonize all such things, and that such attempts have so far proven inconclusive.

I know it's difficult having a faith that's not sewn up neatly and tidily that you can walk around in and feel confident and show off to others, and instead have to admit -- as other theologians point them out -- that instead, threads are hanging out from one's suit, or one's "armor" has loose rivets, chinks, and some holes in the chain mail. But hey, that's life. And humans with human ideas and expectations appropriate to their day and age wrote the Bible. They were not ventriloquist's dummies whom God was merely using to write a book that 20th century conservatives would later employ great ingenuity in "proving" to be an "inerrant" book.

I notice you focused on a few verses that say no one knows the time when the Son of Man would return. There are some verse in the Gospels, parallels of one another, and one in Acts to that effect. But there are far more verses in the Gospels and in N.T. letters that say otherwise (see my initial letter to Bernie for some examples, or see the books listed at the end of this email).

One must also recognize that after a while the church began making excuses for the failures of the many straightforward predictions of the Lord's soon return in the N.T. ("One day is as a thousand years" was the excuse found in 2 Peter.) But why invent such an excuse in a late-penned letter if no obvious nor embarrassing predictions of the Lord's soon coming were ever made in earlier letters?

Speaking of "no man knowing the time," the verse in Mark (with parallels in Matthew and Luke) says that no man knows the "day or hour," not "the time." The overall time before "all these things will be done" is given in that same section as being a "generation." Or as Strauss pointed out over a century ago:

"[Naturally there is a distinction] between an inexact indication of the space of time, beyond which the event will not be deferred (a 'generation'), and the determination of the precise date and time (the 'day and the hour') at which it will occur; the former Jesus gives, the latter he declares himself unable to give."

And having admitted that he did not know the precise "day or the hour," Jesus continued to address his listeners as though that "day or hour" could not be far off: "Therefore be on the alert, for you [his listeners, circa 30 A.D.] do not know which day your Lord is coming... at an hour when you do not think he will." [Mat 24:36,42,44] Compare Luke 21:36: "But keep on the alert at all times, praying in order that you [his first century listeners] may have strength to escape all these things that are about to take place, and to stand before the Son of Man."

As professor James D. Tabor explains: "In the [end-times chapters of the gospels], Mk 13, Mat 24, and Lk 21, Jesus connects the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple to the more general 'signs of the end of the age': false prophets, war and disruptions, earthquakes, famines, pestilence, persecution, and a world-wide proclamation of his message... The scheme is very tightly connected, and Jesus declares at the end that 'this generation shall not pass away until all these thing are fulfilled'" [Mk 13:30].

Speaking of which Prof. Edward Adams, author of The Stars Will Fall from Heaven: Cosmic Catastrophe in the New Testament and Its World (Library of New Testament Studies 347, 2007) delves into conclusive evidence for a belief in the end of the created world in works written either just before or during the N.T. period, works such as 1 Enoch, Pseudo-Sophocles, Jubilees, other Dead Sea Scroll writings, the Testament of Moses, the Testament of Job, Pseudo-Philo's L.A.B., 4 Ezra, 2 Baruch, the Apocalypse of Zephaniah, 2 Enoch, and the Sibylline Oracles, and in the N.T. from the earliest N.T. letters of Paul to the last written N.T. book.

To mention a few other theologians and two esteemed Christian apologists (besides the Wesleyan theologian whom I already mentioned, who wrote IN GOD'S TIME), all of whom agree that predictions of the imminent coming of the Lord and the final judgment of the cosmos proved erroneous:

James D. G. Dunn, major Brit theologian, moderate Evangelical and friend of N.T. Wright, and author of Jesus Remembered, admits Jesus and the apostles were mistaken.

Dale C. Allison Jr., another theologian, author of Jesus of Nazareth: Millenarian Prophet. And, The Apocalyptic Jesus: A Debate.

Bart D. Ehrman, author of Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999). He has an audio series on The Historical Jesus which covers this topic, though not as thoroughly as his book:

Paul Johnson, defender of Christianity whose works include A History of the Jews, A History of Christianity, and a booklet in which he defended his belief in the historicity of the Gospels (a booklet popular with evangelical Christians), admitted in A History of Christianity: "The whole of Jesus' work implied that the apocalypse was imminent; some of his sayings were quite explicit on the point... The prima facie view of the Jesus mission was that it was an immediate prelude to a Last Judgment. Hence the urgency of the pentecostal task, an urgency which Paul shared throughout his life ['...brethren, pray for us that the word of the Lord may spread rapidly...' 2 Thes 3:1], so that his final hope was to carry the good news, while there was still time, to Spain - for him, 'the ends of the earth.'"

C. S. Lewis agreed that Jesus made was in "error" predicting that his generation would live to see the coming of the Son of Man in final judgment: "The answer of the theologians is that the God-Man was omniscient as God, and ignorant as Man. This, no doubt, is true, though it cannot be imagined. Nor indeed can the unconsciousness of Christ in sleep be imagined, not the twilight of reason in his infancy; still less his merely organic life in his mother's womb." ["The World's Last Night" in The World's Last Night and Other Essays (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1960).]

To Bernie, I think the author of IN GOD'S TIME does the best at explaining how to reconcile a belief in Jesus' divinity and God's inspiration with an erroneous prediction. Though in the end it's a matter of learning to live with uncertainty or with difficulties. Life is like that. Being human is like that. And there have always been similar difficulties such as reconciling the N.T. author's useage of O.T. verses with the original contexts of those O.T. verses. Even after millennia and clouds of explanations, difficulties remain. And no explanation or interpretation is itself inerrant.

I would also add something here, a bit off topic perhaps, about the intensity of the early church's beliefs. I mean per the story in Acts, which may or may not be true, it says a married couple who were members of the early church were struck dead immediately after lying to Peter that they had "given all they had" to the church. But what about Christians today who claim to tithe and give 10% of their total income to the church but who are lying about doing so? They aren't struck dead immediately, are they? The first century believers seem to take their religion far more seriously and even far more deadly than today's believers do. Another example in 1 Cor. where Paul is speaking about the Lord's Supper and who important a practice it is for them all to get together and eat, and how one must celebrate it properly, not in drunken revelry, nor by having the wealthy in the congregation eating most of the food and others starving or getting little. Paul even
 speaks in the same deadly serious fashion as in Acts when the couple was allegely struck dead immediately for lying. For Paul writes in 1 Cor. 11: "Anyone who eats and drinks without recognizing the body of the Lord eats and drinks judgment on himself. THAT IS WHY MANY AMONG YOU ARE WEAK AND SICK, AND A NUMBER OF YOU HAVE FALLEN ASLEEP... JUDGED BY GOD." So Paul interpreted the sicknesses of "many" in the church, and even some "deaths," to an improper practice of the Lord's Supper. But do today's churches believe God is THAT judgmental, smiting people with illnesses and killing some, or as Paul says in 1 Cor. 11:29-20, "judging" and "disciplining" the church in such a DEADLY fashion "so that we will not be condemned with the world?" Talk about separating the wheat from the tares! Ouch! God doles out diseases to "many" and even "death" because of how people behave in church? And He keeps a keen eye peeled, judging both the practice of the Lord's Supper,
 and the monetary offering (as in the case of the couple in Acts struck dead for lying about how much they gave). Whew.

And Murray doesn't believe that same early church also believed the final judgment was near? They did. They certainly did, if you read all the verses I mentioned in my initial email below.



--- On Wed, 10/8/08, Edward Babinski <> wrote:
Hi Bernie [Dehler], and others...

Bern, I think you hit the nail on the head, one that other scholars (including moderate Evangelicals) have hammered upon over the millennia.

In particular note that the verses you cited in the Book of Acts speak about Christians selling all they had and sharing everything (presumably taking care of even the poorest among them, thus taking the Sermon on the Mount quite directly and seriously) and Acts said they did this in order to "testify to the resurrection," Jesus' resurrection -- the point being that early Christians taught that Jesus' resurrection was the "first fruits" of the general resurrection soon to come with the judgment of all mankind not far off. See Matthew, "His angels will gather..." and "separate the sheep from the goats." The "first fruits" were taken from the field and enjoyed in a celebration, they were the first fully matured fruits in the field, and every farmer hearing such a phrase knew that the maturation of all the rest of the fruit in the field was not far off, but would soon have to be harvested. Therefore, "first fruits" could NEVER be considered very far away
from the general harvest.

So YES, you are quite correct about the heightened expectation back then, the sense of urgency to testify to the world, the sense of imminency, existing in the early church, even prophesied by Paul that "WE shall not all sleep," and in 1 John, "it IS the last hour, by this we KNOW it is the last hour, because many antichrists HAVE [ALREADY] arisen." Such serious expecations/prophecies uttered by early apostles can be found throughout the N.T. Take the Letter of James:

Come now, you rich [those living at the time the letter of James was written], weep and howl for your miseries which are coming upon you... It is in the last days that you have stored up your treasure... Be patient, therefore, brethren, until the coming of the Lord. Behold, the farmer waits for the precious produce of the soil, being patient about it, until it gets the early and late rains. You too be patient; strengthen your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is at hand... ...Behold, the Judge is standing right at the door. [5:1,3,7-9]

The author of James sought to address the impatience of some at the delay of Jesus' return. He reassured them that the "the coming of the Lord is at hand," "the Judge is standing right at the door."

Or consider passages from the letter to the Hebrews:

...In these last days... ...He [Jesus] would have needed to suffer often since the foundation of the world; but now once at the consummation He has been manifested to put away sin by the sacrifice of Himself. [4] ...As you [the first century Christians being addressed] see the day drawing near... ...For yet a very little while, He who is coming will come, and will not delay. [1:2; 9:26; 10:25,37]

Notice the statement, above, that "...He [Jesus] would have needed to suffer often since the foundation of the world; but now once at the consummation He has been manifested to put away sin by the sacrifice of Himself." "At the consummation" can also be translated, "at the end of the age." And Jesus, according to the gospel of Matthew, informed his listeners exactly what "the end of the age" referred to:

...The harvest is the end of the the end of the age...the Son of Man will send forth his angels, and they will gather out of his kingdom all stumbling blocks, and those who commit lawlessness, and will cast them into the furnace of fire; in that place there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth. Then the righteous will shine forth as the sun in the kingdom of their Father. [Matthew 13:40-41 - based on the description of "the end of the age" found in Daniel 12]

Look at what Paul wrote to the believers at Corinth:

...The rulers of this age...are passing away ["will not last much longer" - Today's English Version] ... Do not go on passing judgment before the time [i.e., "before the time" of final judgment which he predicted was near at hand], but wait until the Lord comes who will both bring to light the things hidden in the darkness and disclose the motives of men's hearts..." ...The time has been shortened so that from now on both those who have wives should be as though they had none [i.e., Paul preached that the time was so "short" that married Christian couples "from now on" ought to abstain from having sex! [5] ]; and those who weep, as though they did not weep; and those who rejoice, as though they did not rejoice; and those who buy, as though they did not possess; and those who use the world, as though they did not make full use of it [i.e., there was no time for marriage or buying or selling - only in a state of holy celibacy could the Elect remain pure
while awaiting the soon return of Christ]; for the form of this world is passing away ["This world, as it is now, will not last much longer" - Today's English Version]... ...These things were written for our instruction, upon whom the ends of the ages have come... Proclaim the Lord's death until he comes [i.e., Paul did not say, "Proclaim the Lord's death until the day you die," but rather, "until he comes," which means that he considered Christ's coming to be nearer than the time when the believers he was writing to would all be dead]. We [Paul and the first century believers being addressed] shall not all sleep... ...At the last trumpet...the dead will be raised...and we shall be changed. Maranatha [="Come Lord"] [1 Cor 2:6; 4:5; 7:29-31; 10:11; 11:26; 15:51-52; 16:22]

Or consider what Paul wrote to the believers at Thessalonica:

...How you turned to God from wait for His Son from heaven [Compare 1 Cor 1:7, "...awaiting eagerly the revelation (revealing) of our Lord Jesus Christ," and, Heb 9:28, "Christ...shall appear a second those who eagerly await Him." These instructions to "eagerly wait" for Christ's return reveal how imminent the second coming of Jesus was believed to be.]... For who is it not even you [the first century Christians being addressed], in the presence of our Lord Jesus at his coming? ...May establish your hearts...before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all His saints. For this we say to you by the word of the Lord, that we [Paul and the first century Christians being addressed] who are alive and remain [notice how Paul included himself as one who will still be alive] until the coming of the Lord, shall not precede those who have fallen asleep...the dead in Christ shall rise first. Then we who are
alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air... ...May your spirit and soul and body be preserved complete without blame at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. [1 Thes 1:9,10; 2:19; 3:13; 4:15-17; 5:23]

Keep in mind Paul was writing to people living in the first century, and also that he was repeating a "word" that he had received directly from "the Lord." Namely, that "we" [the first century Christians who "remained alive" at the time this letter was written, including Paul, its author] "shall be caught the clouds to meet the Lord in the air!" For Paul there was no doubt that Jesus would arrive before he and the believers he addressed would all be dead. "We," including himself, "shall not all sleep" [1 Cor 15:51].

But they do sleep today, the "word of the Lord" notwithstanding. In his second letter to the Thessalonians, Paul remained just as certain that Jesus would return shortly:

...It is just for God to repay with affliction those who afflict you, and to give relief to you who are afflicted and to us as well when the Lord Jesus shall be revealed from heaven with his mighty angels in flaming fire, dealing out retribution...these will pay the penalty...when He comes... [2 Thes 1:6-10]

That is to say, Jesus would be revealed from heaven "with his mighty angles in flaming fire" soon enough to "relieve" the afflictions of the Thessalonians, and Paul, and other first century Christians. Compare Paul's expectation of supernatural judgment and "relief" with this prediction made in the letter of Jude:

...Certain persons HAVE crept in [to the church] unnoticed [i.e., in Jude's day], those who were long beforehand marked out for condemnation...about these [i.e., ungodly persons living in Jude's day]...Enoch...prophesied saying, "Behold, the Lord came with many thousands of his holy ones to execute judgment..." [4,14-15]

Jude's message, like Paul's, and like the author of Revelation's was that Jesus would soon arrive, punish those who were afflicting the churches throughout the "world," and provide "relief" for steadfast believers.

Or take these passages from Paul's letter to the believers at Philippi:

...He who began a good work in you [the first century Christians being addressed] will perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus [i.e., rather than saying, "until the day you die," which he assumed was not going to happen to all of them, since, as Paul pointed out in 1 Cor, "we shall not all sleep!"]... ...In order to be sincere and blameless until the day of Christ [Compare 1 Tim 6:14, "Keep the commandment...until the appearing of our Lord Jesus Christ."]... ...We eagerly wait for a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ... ...Let your forbearing spirit be known to all men. The Lord is near. [Philip 1:6,10; 3:20; 4:5]

What about Paul's letter to the believers in Rome?

...The sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory that is soon [mello] to be revealed to us... ...The whole creation groans and suffers the pains of childbirth together until now... ...We...groan within ourselves, waiting eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our body. ...Knowing the time, that it is already the hour for you to awaken from sleep; for now salvation is nearer to us than when we believed! The night is almost gone, and the day is at hand... ...The God of peace will soon crush Satan under your feet. [Rom 8:18,22-23; 13:11-12; 16:20]

No one has ever preached more explicitly that Jesus would return (even "must" return - Rev 1:1) in their lifetimes, than the New Testament letter writers who addressed the churches throughout the Roman Empire in the first century A.D. Oddly enough, the plain straightforward fundamental meaning of such verses continues to be denied by "fundamentalist" "inerrantist" Christians who have used every means possible to try and deny what appears quite obvious.

Like Dispensationalism, "Preterism" is an attempt to uphold inerrancy and deny the obvious. But I ask Preterists to read the verses above and note that neither Paul nor any of the others connect the "coming of the Lord" with the "destruction of Jerusalem," but instead connect it with the general resurrection and final judgment.

On the positive side, I ought to add that THERE ARE NON-INERRANTIST CHRISTIANS WHO REMAIN EVANGELICALS, and who accept that such predictions are faulty but who take very seriously the sociological world in which such predictions were made, and who conclude that one can be a Christian -- but the historical and sociological contexts in which the Bible was composed are far more crucial to studying it than the principle of "inerrancy." See for instance this book, video, and website:


The video for the above book is even sold along with N.T. Wright's videos at this website:


From: Dehler, Bernie <>
Date: Tue Oct 07 2008 - 18:01:41 EDT

Here's a question I have.

In the NT, it is obvious that the disciples thought Jesus would return at any time and that the end was near. For example, that's why in Acts it says the believers had everything in common- sold what they had and shared everything. We would too if we seriously thought Christ would return tomorrow, but we don't really believe it. So we keep our own money- our retirement and college plans for our kids. We don't believe in the imminent return of Christ like the first believers did, as evidenced by our behavior.

Here's my question: Was Jesus wrong when He taught about the immediate return? How do we explain his slowness in coming, when they all thought it would have happened almost 2,000 years ago? And since it has been so long already, what's the big deal if Jesus waits another 2,000 years? I know that's inconceivable to most evangelical Christians, just like if you told a Christian in 100AD that Christ still did not return by 2000AD.

No need to post scripture about "scoffers who say Christ isn't going to return." That isn't the question. The question is how to you resolve the fact that Christ clearly taught, and His disciples clearly believed, in the imminent return, which didn't happen yet? There was no imminent return. If Christ returns today, it was not imminent.

It is a genuine problem that I have and am pondering, as a believer.



From: Bethany Sollereder <>
Date: Tue Oct 07 2008 - 18:20:19 EDT

Hey Bernie,

Funny you should mention the idea that we would not have retirement and
college funds if we really believed... at the Bible college I attended, we
had a speaker come in and tell us that when he was young he scorned all
those things because of the immanence of Christ's return. Now, at
retirement age, he was unable to, and actually advised us not to take his

I'm not sure where you mean that Jesus said he would return immediately.
When he speaks of coming on the "clouds of heaven" etc. I like to follow
N.T. Wright's approach which says that this is language of vindication -
vindication which came with the fall of Jerusalem in AD 70. As for when the second coming would be, I don't think he actually said it would be
immediate. It seems to me that most of his teachings/parables on the nature of returning are usually emphasizing the uncertainty of the timing of the return. I'm thinking of the parables of the women with the lamps, or the servants with the master gone away. Also, the one time Jesus speaks
directly of the timing, he says he does not even know the day or the hour,
only the Father knows.

I don't know that it would be a big deal if he waits another 2000 years.
Why would it be? My job is to be faithful while I have time.

Also, this just occurred to me, so I haven't done any studying on it, but
some of the language may also be referring to the resurrection, which did
happen immediately, while some would be talking about the "proper" second
coming. As in all prophetic writings/oracles, the time scale in view is
always a difficult thing to pick out.


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