(aka The Second Coming…and Preterism mentioned)
I was born again in 1989, late in the Fall. Little did I know that at the very time as I was nearing age 20, the global calendar was nearing 1990. This of course marked the beginning of a unique decade that culminated in 2000.
If I had studied history, I would have known that about every 100 years, and especially at the changing of the millennia (1000 AD and 2000 AD), certain Christians get kind of “supercharged.” This is primarily in the convenience of contemplating that a year that ends in either 00 or 000 could in fact be the year that Jesus finally comes back. There is nothing particularly special about such years—really—except that our human minds wonder if such easy to remember dates might somehow be more conducive for the re-appearing of Christ. Or maybe it’s just that such kinds of numbers cause Christian leaders to conveniently set some sort of goal in their minds, which in turn capture their imaginations and subsequently wind up in their weekly teachings.
Well, the reason I mention this is because when my college years ended and I was thrust upon the world, (or vice versa), I was caught up in the flood of anticipation. Since I had never before experienced the world as a non-college-student Christian (as I was born again in my first year at university), what I saw during the decade of the 1990’s became for a time, my standard for the normal. But little did I know that much of the excitement of Christianity at that time had a great deal to do with the looming future year 2000.
Maybe for me it was more pronounced. I mean, I attended a huge church, where the pastor himself had called for 10 years of prayer for the most remote edges of the earth; and many other leaders then circled about him and his vision. Therefore, it felt that we were all focusing our prayers and efforts on a reachable goal. I also had a close friend then, whose parents actually worked, full-time, for a ministry called AD2000. Their express intent, if I remember correctly, was to facilitate the reaching of the entire world with the Gospel, by 2000. And this was in hope that Jesus would come back soon. (This of course is based on the teaching from Matthew 24:14, where Jesus makes a reference that he will not return until the Gospel has been preached to all nations.)
Another factor I faced was that late in the 1990’s, I worked at a ministry that was advocating for the reaching of all unreached people groups. They were somewhat unique in that they had issued their clarion call long before, in 1974. And while they did not place any particular significance on 2000, they were heavily in the swirl of that magical decade.
In fact, today, May 21, 2019, is the 10-year anniversary of the death of Dr. Ralph Winter. He was the one who founded the US Center for World Mission and who put forth the challenge to reach all people groups with the Gospel. His words were later repeated and amplified, especially by those who were championing 2000. I pause to pay him homage.
And so, when January 1, 2000 came and went, we all realized that Jesus had in fact not returned. There was a bit of a let-down, to be honest. But in my heart, I still harbored hope that maybe we needed to wait until the end of the year, just in case. And when that too passed, I thought that maybe it would all just be delayed by a few years. In truth, at first there was still momentum for me to keep believing for the soon return of Christ.
But the years dragged on, and before I knew it, it was 2010. And then people started talking about “2020” or “2025,” and setting various goals. And when I observed that, it made me feel that maybe the dates and years on the calendar were sometimes just arbitrarily selected by individuals who hoped to stir up revival, or even to draw attention to themselves. At the very least, maybe it was a good excuse for helping people to get more serious about their faith.
During the years from 2010 to 2019, I felt as if I were in a desert. All that excitement that I remember from the 1990’s was totally gone. And in truth, I have to admit that it likely will not happen again until 2090, when the Church will anticipate that maybe, just maybe, Jesus will return by 2100. And if the world lasts, and Jesus still does not appear, I would expect a similar dynamic in place in 2990.
In these days, I try to step back and attempt to imagine what my life might have been like if I had been born farther away from the end of a century. Then presumably I would have known nothing of the anticipation I actually experienced in my twenties. Maybe my life would have been more normal, or at least seeming less like a spiritual adrenaline rush. The important thing I tell myself, is that Christianity is not defined only by the hope we have in the return of Christ. Certainly, that is part of the faith, but not all of it.
Even so, I would be dishonest if I did not admit disappointment. For me, I had placed an unusually high perspective on the goal of AD 2000 and I worked towards it in whatever ways I could. And then in my free time, I would often offer prayers and devotions along those lines. So then, when the world did not much change when the calendar changed, I wondered what now?
Some ideas came immediately into my head:
- Love God and love people
- Disciple all nations
- Glorify God and enjoy him forever
- Repent, believe, love, celebrate communion, pray, give, disciple others (George Patterson’s basic commands)
Those are all well and good, but it’s hard to set a reachable goal around these items. Maybe I am more task oriented, desiring a “finish line” in sight; and I find these to be too ongoing and repetitive. Now I will admit that I am not very accomplished at any of these, and so I am sure I could be kept occupied quite adequately for all time. Sigh. Well, maybe that is really what the Christian life is mostly about.
A Reasonable Criticism?
Despite my self-pity, I eventually made an interesting observation: I had only waited in a quasi-hyperactive state of anticipation for about 10 years…but some people have waited effectively their whole lives. And actually, humanity has been waiting for close to 2,000 years for Jesus to come back.
The reason of course, that we are all waiting, is because Jesus said he would be back. But the tragic irony is that in Matthew 24:34 Jesus appears to explain that he’d return in the next 50 years or so. This verse states,
Truly, I [Jesus] say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things take place.
When he says “things,” we assume that he meant everything he explained in verses 1-33, which includes his return. His same statement is repeated in Mark 13 and Luke 21, so it’s not easily argued as some random one-off comment.
These ideas were magnified recently for me after reading a quote by CS Lewis. Apparently, in 1960 when referring to the text above in red, he wrote, “It is certainly the most embarrassing verse in the Bible.” (Lewis, 98) And the reason this may have the power to unnerve Christians is because Jesus was apparently wrong in what he said. At least what is written, (and attributed to Christ) is incorrect. And that’s because Jesus did not return in the course of that generation, nor has he yet, I believe.
Incidentally, if you want to go back and read the first 33 verses of this chapter, you will see that in addition to his return, the other “things” Jesus spoke of there are:
- The destruction of the Temple – verse 2 (already happened in 70 AD)
- Appearance of false Messiahs and people claiming to be Jesus – 5
- Wars and rumors of war – 6
- Famines and earthquakes – 7
- Execution of Christians – 9
- Christians being hated by all nations, for being Christian – 9
- Great falling away among Christians – 10
- False prophets – 11
- Gospel being proclaimed to all nations – 14
- The abomination of desolation in the holy place – 15 (what happened in 70 AD may have been the full fulfillment of this)
- People fleeing Judea for the mountains – 16 (what happened in 70 AD may have been the full fulfillment of this)
- Greatest tribulation ever – 21
- False Messiahs and false prophets deceiving many with signs and wonders – 24
- The coming of the Son of Man, clearly seen by many, even those far away – 27
- After the tribulation, the sun will be darkened; the moon will not give light; stars will fall from heaven – 29
- Sign of the Son of Man appearing in heaven – 30
- All people of the earth will mourn – 30
- All the people will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven – 30
- Jesus sending out angels with a trumpet call, who will gather the elect from one end of heaven to the other – 31
CS Lewis reminds us that when we find ourselves flustered by the fact that Jesus spoke something erroneously, we should also remember what Christ said in Matthew 24:36:
But concerning that day and hour, no one knows, not even the angels of heaven nor the Son, but the Father only.
Jesus clearly said that he had no idea when he would be coming back.
How could it be that the Son of God would not know this seemingly important facet of his existence? I mean, he did accurately predict the destruction of the temple, which happened in 70 AD, and which is clearly within that “generation.”
Could it be that maybe Jesus only assumed that the destruction of the temple and his return would happen simultaneously? Or could it be that the first Gospel writer included similarly sounding statements in the same paragraph…that maybe did not really take place in the same original conversation? Another possibility is that while the question posed to Jesus in verse 2 seems to conflate the destruction of the temple, the return of Christ and the end of the age, maybe the long answer Jesus actually provided was never intended to imply that all that would take place at the same time?
We can only speculate.
Even so, regardless of any feelings of embarrassment, there is really no biblical conflict here. Jesus said he did not know when he’d be back, and so we should not blame him for predicting the timing of his return in error. (And for all those people who have at one time later in history predicted the end of the age…and then been proven wrong…Jesus can apparently relate.)
I believe that part of the reason these verses still leave us scratching our heads may be because we tend to back-project our knowledge of the Trinity onto this monologue from Matthew 24. But remember, on that day, we know that the disciples (and maybe others) already believed that Jesus was the Messiah. But as far as we know, none of them claimed that he was God. And yet, when the Trinity was officially dogmatized in 325 AD (almost 300 years later), we were told then that Jesus was actually God in the flesh when he walked on earth. And so, with that information, we can in the present-day return to Matthew 24 and rationalize that there is no obvious reason that Jesus (as God) would not have known of his return date—at least to the point that he could get it so wrong. I mean, as of now, he’s at least 1,900 years off.
However, if we reject the doctrine of the Trinity (as I explain in my book by the same title), then maybe, just maybe, we can have a deeper understanding, and more sympathy, as to why Jesus as the Messiah and Son of God could have made such an incorrect statement.
Since it is related, I want to mention a perspective that seems to take a different approach to interpreting these verses. Many Christians do not realize that some folks have divided Christianity into four camps regarding biblical prophecy: The Futurists, the Historicists, the Idealists and the Preterists. Curiously, the later believe that everything in the bulleted list above actually took place in or before 70 AD. That’s right, they say Jesus returned, the resurrection took place, as well as the final judgement. That way they can say that the verses are true, and Jesus was correct in what he said: that all those things took place in that generation. However, even when I try to think outside the box, I cannot rationalize how this interpretation could be anywhere close to being correct. As is shown in the green highlighted text above, I identify only 3 out of 19 points that could maybe have taken place by 70 AD. For the rest, I am simply not convinced by the arguments that Preterism makes.
For a more detailed criticism about the teachings of Preterism, please see http://www.evidenceunseen.com/theology/eschatology/a-critique-of-preterism/
In closing, I do not believe that we need to invent new orthodoxy because we can’t imagine how Jesus could have been wrong about the date of his return, or because we are tired of waiting. Rather we can take him at his word that he did not know. And with hope we can look forward to his future coming.
For further reading, please see this very helpful pdf article about the prophetic schools of thought.
NOTE: CS Lewis, The World’s Last Night: And Other Essays, 1960, p.98. https://archive.org/details/worldslastnighta012859mbp/page/n111
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