The end of all things is near.
— 1 Peter 4:7
“Say what you like,” we shall be told, “the apocalyptic beliefs of the first Christians have been proved to be false. It is clear from the New Testament that they all expected the Second Coming in their own lifetime. And, worse still, they had a reason, and one which you will find very embarrassing. Their Master had told them so. He shared, and indeed created, their delusion. He said in so many words, ‘this generation shall not pass till all these things be done.’ And he was wrong. He clearly knew no more about the end of the world than anyone else.” It is certainly the most embarrassing verse in the Bible.
— C.S. Lewis, The World’s Last Night: And Other Essays, p.97
The late, great C.S. Lewis once confessed to believing that Jesus had made several “embarrassing” predictions about his return. While Lewis and others have invested a great deal of time in trying to absolve Jesus of this embarrassment, many Bible scholars and skeptics maintain that the best way to read the New Testament is with the understanding that Jesus and his followers believed they were living in the end times, and that Jesus’ return would occur within one generation.
But if Jesus really did set a deadline, it’s more than just “embarrassing,” it is possibly the strongest piece of evidence in the case against Christ, so let’s take a careful look a where this idea originates, and the Christian campaign to try and explain it away.
Ideas about an upcoming global apocalypse originate with Old Testament prophets like Isaiah, Daniel, Ezekiel, Joel, Jeremiah, Zephaniah, and Zechariah.
[ The End Times ] “At that time Michael, the great prince who protects your people, will arise. There will be a time of distress such as has not happened from the beginning of nations until then.
— Daniel 21:1
The great Day of the Lord is near, near and rapidly approaching. … I will bring distress on mankind, and they will walk like the blind because they have sinned against the Lord. Their blood will be poured out like dust and their flesh like dung. … The whole earth will be consumed by the fire of His jealousy. For He will make a complete, yes, a horrifying end of all the inhabitants of the earth.
— Zeph. 1:14-18
The Lord is angry with all nations; his wrath is on all their armies. He will totally destroy them, he will give them over to slaughter. Their slain will be thrown out, their dead bodies will stink; the mountains will be soaked with their blood. All the stars in the sky will be dissolved and the heavens rolled up like a scroll; all the starry host will fall like withered leaves from the vine, like shriveled figs from the fig tree.
— Isaiah 34:2-4
“In the time of those kings, the God of heaven will set up a kingdom that will never be destroyed, nor will it be left to another people. It will crush all those kingdoms and bring them to an end, but it will itself endure forever.”
— Daniel 2:44
These Old Testament prophets warned that at at time when the great prince arrived, there would be a time of great distress, and “a horrifying end” would come upon “all the inhabitants of the earth.” When would it come? “The great Day of the Lord” was “near and rapidly approaching.”
John the Apocalyptic Baptist
Just as there are Christians today who believe the end is near, there were Jews 2,000 years ago who believed the same thing. John the Baptist was one of them, and we can see the influence of these Old Testament prophets in his words.
When John, who was in prison, heard about the deeds of the Messiah, he sent his disciples to ask him, “Are you the one who is to come, or should we expect someone else?”
— Matt. 11:2-3
7 But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to where he was baptizing, he said to them: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? … The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.
— Matt 3:7-10
“Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”
— Matt. 3:2
Taking his cues from Old Testament prophets, John believed an apocalypse was soon approaching. The “coming wrath” would be preceded by the arrival of “the one who is to come,” who would bring about the end and the establishment of God’s new kingdom.
Jesus the Apocalyptic Christ
At the beginning of his ministry, Jesus aligns himself with John the Baptist (as opposed to some other Jewish sect), which suggests he agrees with John’s apocalyptic views.
Jesus later goes on to claim that he is indeed the promised messiah, and cites many of the same apocalyptic references. Jesus too warns that a time of “great distress, unequaled from the beginning of the world” was coming soon (Matthew 24:21). Jesus’ disciples ask him, “What will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?” And Jesus answered them:
29 “Immediately after the distress of those days “‘the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light; the stars will fall from the sky, and the heavenly bodies will be shaken.’ 30 “Then will appear the sign of the Son of Man in heaven. And then all the peoples of the earth will mourn when they see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven, with power and great glory. 31 And he will send his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of the heavens to the other. 32 “Now learn this lesson from the fig tree: As soon as its twigs get tender and its leaves come out, you know that summer is near. 33 Even so, when you see all these things, you know that it is near, right at the door. 34 Truly I tell you, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened. 35 Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away. 36 “But about that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.”
— Matt. 24:27-36
While Jesus says he does not know the exact day or hour, he does claim to know the generation in which these events would occur. But which generation? Was Jesus referring to his own generation, or a future one?
Jesus appears to be speaking directly to his disciples when he says, “when you see all these things, you know that it is near, right at the door” (as opposed to “when they see” or “when that generation sees”). Also, Jesus never asks his followers to write this message down for a future generation, so his words might be preserved for those who would witness these things.
An earlier chapter in Matthew seems to clarify what Jesus meant by “generation.”
For the Son of Man is going to come in his Father’s glory with his angels, and then he will reward each person according to what they have done. “Truly I tell you, some who are standing here will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.”
— Matthew 16:27-28
Jesus appears to define a generation as the lifetime of those standing there with him.
Revelation 22:12 and Daniel 12:13 tell us that the rewards given to each person will be distributed at the Second Coming, or “at the end of the days.” This can only mean one thing: the generation standing there would “not taste death” before they witnessed Jesus rewarding “each person according to what they have done.” They would witness the Second coming and the end of days.
Luke tells a similar story:
32 “Truly I tell you, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened. … 34 “Be careful, or your hearts will be weighed down with carousing, drunkenness and the anxieties of life, and that day will close on you suddenly like a trap.35 For it will come on all those who live on the face of the whole earth. 36 Be always on the watch, and pray that you may be able to escape all that is about to happen, and that you may be able to stand before the Son of Man.”
— Luke 21:22-36
Again, Jesus appears to be speaking directly to the people of that generation, warning them to remain on guard, because of the events that were “about to happen” to “all those who live on the face of the whole earth.”
And the same goes for Mark:
29 Even so, when you see these things happening, you know that it is near, right at the door. 30 Truly I tell you, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened.
— Mark 13:29-30
(Interestingly, in the Book of John, the last gospel written, all mentions of a return in “this generation” are mysteriously missing. Why would John retell the same story, but omit a key detail that appears in all the other gospels? Could it be that the author wrote after that generation had already passed?)
Jesus seems much more interested in getting his message out to the present generation than preserving it for future a future one. He even tells his disciples:
“Truly I tell you, you will not finish going through the towns of Israel before the Son of Man comes.”
— Mat. 10:23
Some believers claim this refers to his first coming, but Jesus makes a similar promise about the “coming” of the “Son of Man” to the high priest:
Again the high priest asked him, “Are you the Messiah, the Son of the Blessed One?” “I am,” said Jesus. “And you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One and coming on the clouds of heaven.”
— Mark 14:61-62
Again, the “Son of Man” is said to be “coming,” and it’s clear that Jesus is referring to the Second Coming (which would be on the clouds). But the high priest never witnessed either event.
In this promise to the high priest, Jesus sets a deadline that is consistent with all the others: Jesus would return in one generation, before all of his followers had “tasted death,” before his message had reached all of Israel, and before the death of the high priest. Even the men who nailed Jesus to the cross were to witness his return (Rev. 1:7).
Other indirect evidence from the gospels
Jesus makes many other indirect statements about the coming judgement, his impending return, and the establishment of his new kingdom.
“The time has come,” he said. “The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!”
— Mark 1:15
As you go, proclaim this message: ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’
— Mat. 10:7
Jesus went on to say, “In a little while you will see me no more, and then after a little while you will see me.”
— John 16:16
“If anyone is ashamed of me and my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will be ashamed of them when he comes in his Father’s glory with the holy angels.”
— Mark 8:38
7 And will not God bring about justice for his chosen ones, who cry out to him day and night? Will he keep putting them off? 8 I tell you, he will see that they get justice, and quickly. However, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?”
— Luke 18:7-8
But when you enter a town and are not welcomed, go into its streets and say, “Even the dust of your town we wipe from our feet as a warning to you. Yet be sure of this: The kingdom of God has come near.” I tell you, it will be more bearable on that day for Sodom than for that town.
— Luke 10:10-12
And in speaking to the scribes and pharisees, Jesus says:
35 And so upon you will come all the righteous blood that has been shed on earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah son of Berekiah, whom you murdered between the temple and the altar. 36 Truly I tell you, all this will come on this generation.
— Matt. 23:33-36
Judgement was coming to the towns and “adulterous and sinful” people of “this generation.” It would make little sense for God to pour out the punishments of Sodom upon these towns today, since they no longer contain the populations that rejected Jesus. It appears that Jesus believed he would leave for “a little while,” and then they would see him again, when he came to reward and judge these towns, and these people, in their own lifetimes.
The Apocalyptic Early Church
Even if we didn’t have the gospels, we could still establish what Jesus had promised his followers based on their beliefs.
James, John, Peter, Paul and others all indicated they believed they were living in the last days, and that God’s wrath and Jesus’ return were eminent.
“Men of Galilee,” they said, “why do you stand here looking into the sky? This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven.”
— Acts 1:11
You too, be patient and stand firm, because the Lord’s coming is near. … The Judge is standing at the door!
— James 5:8-9
Therefore, with minds that are alert and fully sober, set your hope on the grace to be brought to you when Jesus Christ is revealed at his coming.
— 1 Peter 1:13
He was chosen before the creation of the world, but was revealed in these last times for your sake.
— 1 Peter 1:20
Live such good lives among the pagans that though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us.
— 1 Peter 2:12
The end of all things is near.
— 1 Peter 4:7
You ought to live holy and godly lives as you look forward to the day of God and speed its coming.
— 2 Peter 3:11-12
The Lord is near.
— Phil. 4:5
When Christ, who is your life, appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.
— Col. 3:45
6 God is just: He will pay back trouble to those who trouble you 7 and give relief to you who are troubled, and to us as well. This will happen when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven in blazing fire with his powerful angels.
— 2 Thes. 1:6-7
Concerning the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our being gathered to him…
— 2 Thes. 2:1
Do not look for a wife … the time is short … this world in its present form is passing away.
— 1 Cor. 7:27-31
These things happened to them as examples and were written down as warnings for us, on whom the culmination of the ages has come.
— 1 Cor. 10:11
Listen, I tell you a mystery: We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed— in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed.
— 1 Cor. 15:51-52
“In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, 2 but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son…”
— Heb. 1:1-2
24 And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, 25 not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching. … For, “In just a little while, he who is coming will come and will not delay.”
— Heb. 10:24-37
Dear children, this is the last hour; and as you have heard that the antichrist is coming, even now many antichrists have come. This is how we know it is the last hour.
— 1 John 2:18
16 For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. 17 After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever. 18 Therefore encourage one another with these words.
— 1 Thes. 4:16-18
Why did all these men believe that “the end of all things” was at hand? Why did they believe they “would not all sleep” before Jesus returned to meet them “in the air”? Why did they believe that they should not marry, and that the “world in its present form” was “passing away”? Why did they believe they were living at “the culmination of the ages,” in “the last hour,” when Jesus would return in “just a little while”?
It was, as C.S. Lewis had observed, because “their Master had told them so.”
If Jesus wasn’t planning on returning right away, he certainly did nothing to clear up this confusion. When the Holy Spirit arrived at Pentecost, it said nothing; and when Jesus appeared to Paul, and later to John (in Revelation), he said nothing. To the contrary, Jesus continued to promote the idea that his return was imminent.
The Apocalyptic Book of Revelation
In the Book of Revelation, Jesus appears to John in a vision, and directs him to write to seven churches that existed at that time (Rev. 1:10-11).
Interestingly, Jesus doesn’t direct John to write to the churches of a future generation. Jesus does not bother to discuss the major schism that would eventually develop between Catholics and Protestants, or address the rise of Islam. Rather, Jesus’ concern is focused on the churches of that day.
Jesus tells them:
Repent therefore! Otherwise, I will soon come to you and will fight against them with the sword of my mouth.
— Rev. 2:16
But if you do not wake up, I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what time I will come to you.
— Rev. 3:3
“I am coming soon.”
— Rev. 3:11
John is then given a vision of the end times, and at the close of this lengthy vision, John is told something else of great interest.
When the Old Testament prophet Daniel was given his apocalyptic visions, God told him to seal up his scroll, because it was intended for a future time (Daniel 12:4). But when John was given his apocalyptic vision, he is told the opposite.
The angel said to me, “These words are trustworthy and true. The Lord, the God who inspires the prophets, sent his angel to show his servants the things that must soon take place. Look, I am coming soon!” … Then he told me, “Do not seal up the words of the prophecy of this scroll, because the time is near.” … “Look, I am coming soon! My reward is with me, and I will give to each person according to what they have done.” … “I, Jesus, have sent my angel to give you this testimony for the churches. … He who testifies to these things says, “Yes, I am coming soon.”
— Rev. 22:6-20
John was not to seal up the scroll, because all these things “must soon take place.”
Not only does Jesus repeatedly stress that he is coming soon, he also states, “My reward is with me, and I will give to each person according to what they have done.” As we saw in Matthew 16:27-28, Jesus promised those living with him that they would not taste death before they witnessed this event.
Apocalyptic thinking throughout
From the apocalyptic words of Old Testament prophets, to John the Baptist, to the promises of Jesus, to the words of his followers, to the book of Revelation, the Bible presents a consistent message throughout: repent, pack your bags, spend your children’s inheritance — the end is now!
If Jesus did set a deadline, and failed to satisfy it, it should spell “game over” for Jesus. But as you might imagine, many explanations have been developed to try and explain this situation. Let’s take a look at a few of the most popular explanations, to see if they provide a better explanation than what is otherwise so apparent.
Peter attempts to extend the deadline
One of the earliest known attempts to explain Jesus’ failure to return within one generation appears in 2 Peter:
3 Above all, you must understand that in the last days scoffers will come, scoffing and following their own evil desires. 4 They will say, “Where is this ‘coming’ he promised? Ever since our ancestors died, everything goes on as it has since the beginning of creation.”
— 2 Peter 3:3-4
(Note that most non-Christian Bible scholars regard 2 Peter to be pseudepigraphical, and written in retrospect, after Peter’s death. Few, if any, excuses for Christ’s delay are found in earlier works.)
These verses suggest that people had begun asking why they should continue to believe in Jesus now that his generation had died off. Jesus had not returned as promised, the apocalypse did not occur, and life went on as it always had.
Interestingly, “Peter” doesn’t deny that Jesus promised a swift return, rather, he tries to water-down the problem by claiming God has a different perception of time:
But do not forget this one thing, dear friends: With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day.
— 2 Peter 3:8
But this is no excuse, because Jesus used earthly markers to denote his timeline for returning (e.g. one generation, the lives of those standing there, the lifetime of the high priest, the apostles visiting all of Israel, and so on). These markers all relate to the human perception of time, not God’s.
Next, Peter tries to claim that Jesus isn’t “slow” in returning, but rather he is exhibiting patience.
The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. Instead he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.
— 2 Peter 3:9
While this sounds nice, it too fails for several reasons.
- If Jesus was truly concerned that none should perish, he would’ve returned 2,000 years ago, before billions more could perish.
- Jesus never allowed for “patience” in any of the deadlines that he set. He did not say, “I’ll return before all of you are dead… unless I need to exhibit patience, in which case it may be longer.” To the contrary, verses like Hebrews 10:37 and Luke 18:7-8 promise that Jesus would not be delayed in his coming. So if Jesus has chosen to delay, then he still failed to predict this delay, and made false promises.
- At what point, exactly, does “everyone come to repentance”? With each new generation, there is a finite number of people who will repent, and that is the point when Jesus should return. If he allows another generation to exist, then even more will perish, and this could continue on indefinitely. (In Peter’s case, he appears to believe Jesus is delaying just long enough to pick off a few last souls, but will still return soon.)
- And finally, is God’s delay due to his perception of time, or patience? Peter appears to be throwing out multiple excuses, in homes that one will stick. If his delay is due to his own perception of time, then he is not exhibiting patience, he is right on schedule. But if it is due to patience, then his perception of time is completely irrelevant, and there is no need to even mention it.
Lewis, Futurists, and Preterists, oh my!
C.S. Lewis eventually went on to try and excuse Jesus’ statements by claiming that Jesus spoke out of ignorance, because he did not know the day nor the hour. In other words, Jesus thought his return would occur within one generation, but he was mistaken. But most modern apologists shy away from this explanation, because it’s not very God-like to make such extraordinary (and potentially false) claims while ignorant.
But it was clear to Lewis, as it still is to many others, that Jesus had promised a literal return within one generation. But accepting both these truths leads to the inevitable conclusion that Jesus failed, and therefore, Christians must choose which fact they’re going to embrace (literal return or one generation), and which they’re going to reinterpret. Because both facts are equally well supported, today’s Christians are still divided over how to resolve this matter.
Christians known as “futurists” believe that Jesus promised a literal return, but they deny that he set a deadline of one generation. Conversely, “preterists” believe Jesus set a deadline of one generation, but deny he promised a literal return.
(If you’re interested, you can watch both sides duke it out further, here.)
Futurism is the most popular view among U.S. Protestants, and was exemplified in the popular Left Behind series.
Since futurists accept a literal return, their challenge is to reinterpret every verse where Jesus appears to promise a return, or judgement, or apocalypse within one generation. The futurist must also play down all those pesky apocalyptic beliefs espoused by Jesus’ earliest followers.
Since Jesus’ words are considered the most authoritative (the followers may have just been “mistaken”), let’s focus on how the futurist interprets these.
“This generation” (Matt. 24:34; Mark 13:30; and Luke 21:32)
According to many futurists, when Jesus says, “This generation shall not pass,” Jesus is saying that the “Christian race” will not die out before his return.
While the word for “generation” can possibly be interpreted as “race,” this doesn’t align well with Jesus’ other similar statements, or the beliefs of the early church. He also doesn’t act as if his words must be preserved for this future generation. And if this was what Jesus was promising — that Christianity would not pass away before his return — then why did he ask, “When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?” (Luke 18:8).
If it wasn’t Jesus’ generation that would witness his return, which generation will it be? Futurists say it will be the generation that witnesses events like the fig tree’s leaves emerging.
Unfortunately, understanding fig leaves is about as scientific as reading tea leaves, and this “last generation” has been misidentified many times.
According to Luke, the “time of punishment in fulfillment of all that has been written” began when Jerusalem was “surrounded by armies” (Luke 21:20-36) around 70 A.D. For Luke, the fig leaves had already begun to emerge, signaling the beginning of the end. But the end never came.
And according to 1 John 2:18, the early church knew they were living in the “last days” because “many antichrists” had come, just as Jesus had warned. But the end never came.
Fast-forward 2,000 years, and futurists were claiming that the fig leaves were emerging when the gentiles “stopped trampling Jerusalem” in 1948 (when Israel once again became a nation). However, that generation has also now come and gone, and the world did not end.
What good would it do for Jesus to warn a future generation, if it would be impossible to identify that generation?
“Some will not taste death”
For the Son of Man is going to come in his Father’s glory with his angels, and then he will reward each person according to what they have done. “Truly I tell you, some who are standing here will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.”
— Matthew 16:27-28
Here, many futurists claim that Jesus was referring to the transfiguration, which always follows this pronouncement in the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke). But Jesus associates the “coming in his kingdom” with rewarding each person, which does not occur at the transfiguration. We can only conclude that those who would “not taste death” were also those who would witness the assignment of rewards, which only happens at the Second Coming.
Jesus’ statements to the high priest
“And you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One and coming on the clouds of heaven.”
— Matt. 1:23
Here, futurists claim that Jesus didn’t mean the high priest would personally witness Jesus’ return, but rather, Jesus was just making a reference to the prophet Daniel, to indicate that he was the “Son of Man,” or the Messiah.
While Jesus does appear to be referencing this apocalyptic verse in Daniel, it doesn’t excuse the fact that Jesus also claims the high priest will witness these events. Jesus could’ve just as easily insisted he was the Son of Man without indicating that the high priest would witness his return.
Others futurists claim that the high priest might possibly witness this event from beyond the grave (citing Philippians 2:10-11). While this is a possibility, it seems more consistent to say that Jesus was repeating the same teaching he’d been giving all along: he was coming in one generation, before everyone died, before his message would reach all of Israel, and before the high priest died.
Futurists and the early church
Even if we accept all these futurist interpretations, we still must wrestle with the beliefs of the early church.
Here, futurists claim that words like “near” and “soon” are relative to God, and subjective enough to mean several thousand years. And when the early church speaks of his return for them, they are really speaking of Jesus’ return for Christians in general. And when that doesn’t work, the early church is said to have been a little confused, but they were only human.
Full-preterists take the opposing view, accepting that Jesus taught he would return within one literal generation, but they deny he would make a literal return.
The full-preterist isn’t burdened with having to deny all the apocalyptic statements of Jesus and his followers, but they still must find symbolic parallels for every end-time prophecy within one generation of Jesus’ life.
Luckily for preterists, symbolism is more art than science, and symbolism introduces so much ambiguity that just about anything can easily be said to have symbolized something else.
For example, when the second temple was destroyed by the Romans in 70 AD, preterists claim that this was when Jesus’ returned in the clouds… in the Father’s glory… with a loud trumpet blast (all symbolically, of course).
To make their case, preterists mine the Old Testament for any verses that happen to mention both judgement and clouds, no matter how loosely (e.g. Psalm 97:2, Jer. 4:13-14, Nah. 1:3, and Zep. 1:15-17). They then claim that everyone in Jesus’ day understood that “coming in the clouds” was Jew-code for judgement.
Did anyone physically see Jesus coming in clouds? No. But the destruction of Jerusalem in 66-70 A.D. they did see. And that is what Jesus meant by people seeing Him come in clouds. He meant they would see His judgment. His destruction. Coming in clouds was simply synonymous with destruction and wrath of God, therefore they would see the destruction.
— MF Blume
Futurists, of course, reject this symbolism, pointing out that Jesus was to “come back in the same way” that he left, in physical form (Acts 1:11). They also point out that his followers were to be literally transformed and caught up in the air to meet him (1 Thes. 4:17).
From a more historical perspective, what happened in 68 AD was that Jews refused to pay taxes, so the Romans plundered their temple. This infuriated the Jews, and triggered an all-out rebellion against Rome. (Some Jews even believed this was when their new king/messiah would arise, to help them defeat their enemies.) Many Jews gathered in Jerusalem for protection, but infighting broke out between them, and they were soon defeated. The Romans then destroyed the temple to teach the Jews a lesson.
So… was this what Jesus meant when he said, “all the peoples of the earth will mourn when they see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven”? That God would send some Romans to destroy the second temple? Over a tax dispute?
Full-preterists go on to claim that all prophecies were actually fulfilled by 70 AD. This is a bold claim, and futurists object, pointing out a number of inconsistencies with this interpretation. For example:
- Jesus warned that devastating events would “come on all those who live on the face of the whole earth,” not just Israel.
- In Matthew 24:21-22, Jesus says that this time of “great distress” would never be equaled again.” Was this really the worst distress the world has ever known?
- Luke says that immediately after the distress of those days, the sun would be darkened, and the moon would not give its light, and the stars would fall from the sky. None of this happened (well, not literally, anyway).
- Ezekiel 39:2-28 promises that God would bring every last Jew back to Israel, which still has not happened.
Full-preterists also claim that Revelation was written before 70 AD, and that all of its prophecies have already been fulfilled: Jesus has already come, Satan has already been bound, and the new heaven and new earth are already in place! (Somehow, I imagined the new world would have a lot more peace and far less porn… or more porn… I’m not really sure how much porn is supposed to exist in God’s new kingdom… perhaps we now have the perfect amount of porn?)
Futurists retort that we can’t possibly be living in God’s new kingdom, because Paul dismissed the idea of an early return 2,000 years ago (2 Tim. 2:14-18), and Revelation says there will be no more death in God’s new kingdom (Rev. 21:4).
Cognizant of the fact that both these explanations aren’t without huge problems, partial-preterists try to patch things up by opting for two separate returns, one figurative, one literal. (And just when you thought it couldn’t get any more complicated!)
These partial-preterists agree with full-preterists that some of Jesus’ predictions were fulfilled symbolically in the past (such as the destruction of the temple symbolizing his return), but they leave room for a literal Second Coming (though technically, I think that would make it his third coming, if we count the symbolic one).
But partial-preterism is nothing more than a marriage of convenience; a hybrid compromise cooked up to allow its adherents greater flexibility in picking and choosing which verses are symbolic, literal, past, or future. Ultimately, partial-preterism’s futurist leanings fail for the same reasons futurism does, and likewise for its full-preterist leanings.
But wait, there’s more!
The interpretations don’t end there. There are other explanations, such as historicism, which attempts to spread the prophetic fulfillments across the centuries, and idealism, which says, “Screw it, none of this makes sense, the whole thing must be one big spiritual metaphor.” But these are less popular.
While Christians have done their best to excuse and reinterpret Jesus’ promises, both the apocalyptic expectations of the Old and New Testament and the beliefs of the early church combine to amplify and clarify Jesus’ non-so-subtle statements about when he believed the Second Coming would occur: within one generation.
Honestly, I don’t know how much more explicit Jesus could’ve been, other than to say, “I will literally return in literal clouds within 70 literal years, to hand out literal rewards, before all of you are literally dead.”
The futurists are correct in saying that Jesus and his followers believed in a literal return, and the preterists are correct in saying that Jesus and his followers believed in a literal deadline of one generation. They are also correct in their criticisms of the other. And ironically, in debating each other, futurists and preterists give us plenty of good reasons to believe that Jesus had promised both a literal return, and a return within one generation. Both of these ideas are clearly spelled out in the Bible and do not conflict. If futurists and preterists would only agree on both of these facts, they would have one of the most reasonable, comprehensive, consistent, and intellectually defensible positions possible. But they cannot, because this would mean admitting Jesus failed. But since when is failure not an option?
While one can never prove that Jesus walked on water, or healed the sick, or rose from the dead, I believe we can prove — with a high degree of confidence — that Jesus was an apocalyptic prophet who promised to return within one generation. And he failed.
But if I’m wrong, and I find myself standing before God and he asks, “Why didn’t you believe Jesus was my son?” I would honestly answer, “I wanted to! But Jesus and his followers clearly believed he would return within one generation, and he failed! A real Son of God would not have failed! A real Son of God would’ve kept his promises!” And if God replied, “But you misunderstood! Jesus never promised to return within one generation!” I would reply, “Then Jesus was a deceiver, for he knew his words were being misunderstood by his followers, and he never bothered to correct them. Even after his death, he continued to mislead John. I know that God is not the the author of confusion, and that Satan is the only deceiver of men. Thus, I knew Jesus could not have been your son.”