Behold, I tell you a mystery; we will not all sleep, but we will all be changed…1 Corinthians 15:51
For this we say to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive and remain until the coming of the Lord, will not precede those who have fallen asleep.1 Thessalonians 4:15
These two passages tell an obvious story: regardless of what one may think about the nature or manner in which Jesus would come again, Paul obviously expected it to happen within his lifetime. We are familiar with these expectations, aren't we? How many pastors, preachers, and poets have suggested in recent years that “Jesus is coming soon!” And how many of those same teachers failed in their predictions? They have moved back their dates, altered their calculations, and written new books. Yet, time after time, they fail to come true.
At what point do Christians stop looking to these individuals for guidance? At what point do we admit that these men and women are just wrong?
Of course, in recent months, we have seen many so-called prophets make all kinds of politically related predictions, and all those turned out to be wrong as well. When called out, they sounded very similar to the thousands who have falsely predicted the coming of the Lord.
As several critics have pointed out, these predictions aren't anything new; we can trace them right back to Jesus Himself.
One of the points of the present chapter is that every single Christian who has ever claimed to know the time of the end has been dead wrong… For my thesis in the rest of the book is that every one of these Christians could trace the lineage of their views, not just to some wide-eyed fanatics in preceding generations, or to enthusiasts who propagated the Christian religion in its earliest centuries–but to Jesus himself. Jesus, the teacher and prophet from Galilee, predicted that the God of Israel was about to perform a mighty act of destruction and salvation for his people. And he thought that some of those listening to him would be alive when it happened.Bart D, Ehrman. Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1999. Print. p.18
Ehrman is exactly right. Jesus did promise to return before some of His disciples would die. One such passage is Matthew 10:23.
But whenever they persecute you in one city, flee to the next; for truly I say to you, you will not finish going through the cities of Israel until the Son of Man comes.Matthew 10:23
Jesus promised to return before the disciples finished fleeing from one city to another. When Paul wrote just twenty years after Jesus' ascension, he was writing nothing different from what Jesus had promised.
When confronted with the obvious meaning of Paul's words as quoted at the beginning of the article, Krister Stendahl wrote,
And we know how the Thessalonians were quite shaken in their faith when some Christians started to die. The way in which Paul had preached the gospel certainly had given them the impression that everyone would remain healthy up to the day of the Parousia, the Coming of the Lord in glory. And the Thessalonian correspondence was directed precisely to correct such an overinterpretation, so to say, of the powers of life available in the gospel (1 Thess. 4:13ff.). There is no question that Paul himself expected to be around at the Parousia; though doubtlessly sick, he would nevertheless be around. 1 Corinthians 15:52 clearly says that those who have died will be raised and we shall be transformed, which certainly presupposes that Paul is on that we side which will not have tasted death before the coming of the Parousia.Stendahl, Krister. Paul among Jews and Gentiles and Other Essays. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1976. Print. p.43
Not only had Paul “preached the gospel” in this way, but basically every New Testament author did the same. All of them had the same message: Jesus is coming soon! James, for instance, wrote,
You too be patient; strengthen your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is near.James 5:8
What do we do with these many bold assertions? Do we ignore them? Do we redefine them? Do we excuse them like millions of Christians have excused the hundreds of false prophets over the years?
Or is there another option?
Perhaps we take a step back and reevaluate the entire way we approach the New Testament altogether.
We should, like Stendahl, admit the clear meaning of Paul's words and not attempt to save face by ignoring or redefining. The Bible says what is says, and we must deal with it as it is, not as we would like it to be.
So, what's the solution? Was Jesus mistaken? Did Paul get it wrong? Did he give the Christians in Thessalonica who were mourning over their martyred friends false hope?
From my perspective, not at all. I believe Jesus did exactly what He said He would do, and I believe Paul knew what he was talking about. Jesus “came again” within that generation at the fall of Jerusalem.
But when you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies, then recognize that her desolation is near. Then those who are in Judea must flee to the mountains, and those who are in the midst of the city must leave, and those who are in the country must not enter the city; because these are days of vengeance, so that all things which are written will be fulfilled.Luke 21:20–22
If you would like to learn more about this perspective, I did a two episode interview with my friends Kevin and Lee at Exploring Faith, Pursuing grace. Listen below and tell me what you think. By the way, if you listen to the first episode, “preterist” is from a Latin word meaning past, not Greek. My brain was broken that day.