Did early Christians expect the end of the world in their own lifetime?

Many of them probably did.  Clearly, throughout all of the Christian centuries, we find many examples of individuals or groups thinking that the “end is near”.  The clear teaching of the New Testament is that each Christian should be prepared for the end to come at any time.

There is one passage in the Gospels that might seem to suggest that Jesus predicted that the world would end within the lifetime of the first disciples.  Some skeptics point out that the world is still here, and claim this as evidence that Jesus was a false prophet.

The verse in question is “truly I tell you, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened”, verse 30 of in Mark 13 (what is called the Olivet Discourse, with parallels in Matthew 24 and Luke 21).  Skeptics read the surrounding chapter to mean that “these things” are a prediction about the return of Jesus at the end of the world, “this generation” is that of the first disciples.  If Jesus did in fact make a failed prophecy, it would be a strong argument against Christianity indeed.

I agree the text is problematic.  However, if one has otherwise good grounds for believing in Jesus, then it is reasonable to not to jump to conclusions, and instead look for plausible explanations that resolve the difficulty. I have found two approaches that work for me.

As a first approach, I could take the text at face value, assume it is a verbatim quote from Jesus, and try to make sense of it as if it were a verbatim quote.  Since we have good reasons to believe the Gospel writers are truthful, this should always be the preferred approach.  The Olivet Discourse is perhaps the most difficult section of the Gospels, it doesn’t have the familiar ring of everyday life that many of the parables do.  We should read the entire context of the passage for clues.  The opening verses of Mark 13 are:

As Jesus was leaving the temple, one of his disciples said to him, “Look, Teacher! What massive stones! What magnificent buildings!”  “Do you see all these great buildings?” replied Jesus. “Not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down.”

This leaves open the interpretation that everything that follows is not a description of the “end of the world” in a distant future, but a description of an event that did come to pass, in 70 AD, the destruction of the Jewish Temple by the Romans.  Jesus also warns believers (verse 9) that “you must be on your guard. You will be handed over to the local councils and flogged in the synagogues. On account of me you will stand before governors and kings as witnesses to them.”  This too matches the events described in the Acts of the Apostles, and the environment of persecution the early Christians faced. Perhaps the “coming” of Christ is not the end of the world, but the end of the old Jewish religious system based on the Temple. Those who hold this interpretation are called Preterists.

Alternatively, we could view these verses (as many other Christians do) as speaking about the end of the world and a very literal second coming of Christ.  Those holding this point of view are called Futurists.  In this case, the challenge is to explain the words “this generation”. One interpretation is that Jesus is talking about the generation that sees the signs that the end is near.  In verse 29, Jesus says “even so, when you see these things happening, you know that it is near, right at the door.”  Then in verse 30, “Truly I tell you, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened.”  I think it is quite reasonable to read “this” as the generation that sees the signs, not the one standing in front of him.

third option is to see the word “generation” as not a group alive at one time, but a symbolic group, such as “all believers” or “the human race” or “the Jewish people”.  In other words, the problem is in the English translation.  or even a copyist’s error related to the Greek word in question.

There are a variety of other interpretations to Jesus’s words as well.  Historicists see end-times prophecies as not referring to a single event but playing out over the course of church history.  Idealists see the meaning in end-times scriptures as highly symbolic, spiritual, allegorical, and non-literal.  Personally, I can see where each group is coming from and am not sure which of them (if any) has it quite right.  It’s possible that different parts of the Olivet Discourse are meant to be taken differently (some as near-term predictions, some as long-term predictions, and others as highly symbolic).  I’m comfortable with the fact that I won’t have any certainty on this until kingdom come (no pun or theological point intended).

The second approach one can take is to consider that the text we read may contain errors. This is, of course, the approach that skeptics use on other Gospel stories, for example the difficulties in the infancy narratives of Matthew and Luke.  A typical response of many Christians is to assume there are no errors in the text and look for explanations that fit.  This is likely well-intentioned, and while I agree that explaining any particular passage as a possible error should be a last resort, I don’t think the inerrancy of the Bible can be persuasively defended. It seems there is a shared understanding between skeptics and fundamentalists that if the details can’t all be trusted, then the core of the story can’t be trusted either.  This always struck me as unreasonable.

For example, the movie Schindler’s List contains dozens of well-documented factual errors, anachronisms, and mistakes.  Yet the filmmaker clearly wants you to believe it is a true story (e.g., the Holocaust survivors shown in color at the end).  If you had no access to other sources, and had to reconstruct your view of history from the subset of movies that are both famous and claim to be “based on a true story”, how often would you end up with something very far from truth?  I can think of a handful (Birth of a Nation, for example) that misrepresent what we know of their subject from other sources, but for the most part, dramatizations of true stories try to be faithful to the core of the story, and succeed.  Would it be reasonable, based on the errors found in Schindler’s List, to deny that there ever was a Holocaust, or deny that Schindler ever existed, or deny the basic idea that he tried to help save Jews from Nazis, at risk to himself?  I certainly don’t think so, and for the same reasons I am comfortable admitting that there are errors in the Gospels, and that this is not at all fatal to the arguments that they are essentially a true story.

Taking this approach, we can see Mark 13 as Mark’s reconstruction (through his interviews with various witnesses, trying to remember details from decades ago, or from earlier written sources now lost to us) of various things Jesus said.  If any of the details can’t be reconciled with history or science or other Gospel passages, then I consider them as most likely being honest mistakes.  In this case, if any of the above explanations about the interpretation of “generation” are not sufficient, we can consider that word to be an error on Mark’s part, rather than Jesus’s.  (In this passage, Matthew and Luke copy Mark pretty closely; it is generally agreed that they used Mark as a source.  John, whose sources are mostly independent, reports no similar predictions by Jesus.)

For me personally, I don’t consider it critical to decide which of the various explanations I’ve suggested is the correct one.  Instead, two particular concepts about the “end” are of practical importance.  First, statements on when the end will come are not reliable. Christ specifically points out in Mark 13:32 that no one knows the day or the hour (which would suggest He wasn’t trying to pick the time period in a more general sense either, so the skeptic’s interpretation of “generation” becomes less likely still).  Second, I think the whole point of “preparing for the end” is to look at how fragile my own life is and how it could end at any moment.  We have to be prepared for this much.

To be fair, I should note that there are a few other verses in the New Testament that skeptics may have in mind that seem to suggest the second coming in the disciples’ lifetime.  I don’t think any of them are nearly as problematic as Mark 13:30.  These are Luke 9:27 (which I think refers to the Transfiguration, described in verse 28), 1 Corinthians 9:29-31 (which just strikes me as general wisdom that one should live in recognition that one’s own life is short), and 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 (“we” would seem to refer to all Christians, not a specific group alive at that point).

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