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End-of-the-world predictions:

Part 1: Interpretation of Jesus' and Paul's prophecies:
Overview. Early church beliefs. Jesus beliefs.

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Overview:

There is no consensus on the meaning of Jesus' and Paul's discussions of the end of the world as they knew it. Various interpretations of key passages in the Christian Scriptures (New Testament) lead to totally opposite conclusions:

bullet A literal interpretation of these passages shows that Jesus and Paul believed that the end would come sometime in their own very near future -- certainly during the 1st century CE. That, of course, did not happen. As reported, Peter and Paul's beliefs were simply wrong.

bullet A symbolic meaning is the only other choice. Religious conservatives generally believe in the inerrancy of the Bible. Since they believe that Jesus is one person in the Trinity, then he could not have been in error. Since Paul's writing was directly inspired by God and preserved from error then he could not have been mistaken either. Thus a literal interpretation of Jesus' and Paul's sayings cannot be the correct ones. They must have intended to convey a more obscure, non-literal meaning.

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What the various factions in the early Christian movement believed:

Many different versions of Christianity were propagated by Jesus' followers and by others who had never met Jesus but had heard of his message. These fell into three general categories:
bullet The Pauline Christians were successful, and survived to form the Christian church which now exists in thousands of different forms.

bullet The Jewish Christians who were later scattered and largely exterminated by the Roman Army when the latter destroyed the Temple and most of the rest of Jerusalem in 70 CE.

bullet The Gnostic Christians who were oppressed and almost completely exterminated by the Pauline Christians with the help of the forces of the Roman Empire. A few survived, and the Gnostic version of Christianity is now in a period of rapid growth.

Almost all of the groups in the very early Christian movement anticipated the imminent appearance of the Kingdom of God, the arrival of the Son of Man in power, and angels taking the elect -- the true believers -- up into Heaven. It was a main focus of their belief.

It never materialized. The Church came instead.

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Jesus' beliefs, according to a literal interpretation of the Gospels:

Many gospel passages, interpreted literally, show that Jeshua of Nazareth (Jesus Christ) believed that the Kingdom of God (a.k.a. God's Domain) would occur very soon -- during the lifetime of at least some of his followers. In Mark 9 and Matthew 16, Jesus is recorded as referring specifically to some listeners who were present as still being alive when the event occurs. The life expectancy in those days was only about 30 years -- far shorter than it is today. Circa 29 CE, Jesus appears to have predicted the coming of the Kingdom of God sometime later in the 1st century CE. Jesus is quoting as saying that "some" in his audience will not "taste of death" This seems to imply that some listening to him would have died before the arrival of the Kingdom of God. Thus, Jesus apparently did not expect that the event would happen within his immediate future -- within days or weeks of his speech. Probably, he expected that at least a few years would pass.

In chronological order of the date of writing:

bullet Ezekiel 12:27 & 28: "Son of man, behold, the house of Israel is saying, 'The vision that he sees is for many years from now, and he prophesies of times far off.' Therefore say to them, 'Thus says the Lord GOD, "None of My words will be delayed any longer. Whatever word I speak will be performed",' declares the Lord GOD." God promised the fulfillment of prophecies in their very near future.

bullet Mark 8:39 to 9:1: Jesus is recorded as saying: "Whosoever therefore shall be ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation; of him also shall the Son of man be ashamed, when he cometh in the glory of his Father with the holy angels. And he said unto them, Verily I say unto you, That there be some of them that stand here, which shall not taste of death, till they have seen the kingdom of God come with power." i.e. Jesus was referring to the "adulterous and sinful generation" who were alive in the early 1st century CE when these words were spoken. Jesus expected that some of his audience would be alive when the "Kingdom of God" came with power.

bullet Mark 13:30-33: Jesus is recorded as saying: "....This generation shall not pass away, until all these things be accomplished....But of that day or that hour knoweth no one, not even the angels in heaven, neither the Son, but the Father. Take ye heed, watch and pray: for ye know not when the time is." A "generation" normally refers to a forty year interval. If Jesus spoke those words circa 29 CE, then all of the events predicted in Mark 13:24-27 would have happened on or before 69 CE, the approximate date that Mark -- the first gospel -- was written: the sun and moon would have been darkened, the stars would have fallen from heaven, the Son of Man would have arrived in the clouds with great power and glory, and the angels would have collected "his elect" from around the Earth and taken them to Heaven.

bullet Matthew 16:28: Jesus is recorded as saying: "...there be some standing here, which shall not taste of death, till they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom." (KJV) As mentioned above, the early Christian movement assumed that Jesus was referring to the individuals present in the crowd in front of him. The King James Version, cited above, does permit another alternative interpretation. Jesus might have been referring to a location and not to the crowd. He could have meant "there will be some people standing at this location sometime in the future who will see the Son of Man coming." However, other English translations of the Bible make this improbable; they generally translate the passage as: "...there are some of those standing here..."

There is a further ambiguity in this passage: it is not clear from the contents whether Jesus was referring here to his own second coming, or to the arrival of another individual called the "Son of Man." This ambiguity is seen elsewhere in the Christian Scriptures (New Testament).

bullet Matthew 24:34: Jesus is recorded as saying: "...This generation shall not pass, till all these things be fulfilled."

bullet Luke 9:26-27: Jesus is recorded as saying: "For whosoever shall be ashamed of me and of my words, of him shall the Son of man be ashamed, when he shall come in his own glory, and in his Father's, and of the holy angels. But I tell you of a truth, there be some standing here, which shall not taste of death, till they see the kingdom of God." (all KJV)

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A special problem concerning prophecy:

As noted above, In Mark 13:30-33, the author of the Gospel records Jesus as saying:

"....This generation shall not pass away, until all these things be accomplished....But of that day or that hour knoweth no one, not even the angels in heaven, neither the Son, but the Father."

Some theologians believe that it is fruitless and perhaps even sinful to attempt to predict when Jesus' will return, since this passage clearly states that the day and hour are known only to God. However, others have noted that there is a bit of wiggle room in this statement that might allow modern-day Christians to engage in prophecy about Jesus' second coming:

  • The passage records Jesus as saying that no human knows the day or hour of the second coming. However, it doesn't specifically state whether individuals might justify people trying to estimate the year, month and/or week of the event.

  • Jesus would have said these words circa 30 CE during one of the three years of his ministry, as implied by the author of the Gospel of John, or during the single year of his ministry as implied by the authors of the three remaining canonic Gospels. He could have been referring only to persons who were alive at the time. Perhaps during the interval 70 to 100 CE, when many theologians believe the Gospels were written -- and in the centuries since -- God might have decided to make the time and date of Jesus' return known to at least some Christians either through direct communication or by some other means.

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This topic is continued in the next essay.

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