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End-of-the-world predictions:

Part 2: Interpretation of Jesus' and Paul's prophecies:
Paul's beliefs. Problems with a literal interpretation.
Alternate symbolic interpretations.

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This topic is continued from the previous essay.

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Paul's beliefs, according to a literal interpretation of the Epistles:

A literal interpretation of Paul's epistles shows that Paul anticipated the second coming of Jesus in his near future, and during his own lifetime. Again, this would have happened during the 1st century CE. He wrote 1 Thessalonians about 50 or 51 CE. Many theologians believe that this is the first book written in the Christian Scriptures (New Testament)

  • In 1 Thessalonians 4:16-17, Paul wrote:

    "For the Lord himself shall descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trump of God: and the dead in Christ shall rise first: Then we which are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air: and so shall we ever be with the Lord."

Here, Paul seems to be referring to himself and some of the recipients of his letter as being alive when Jesus returns.

  • In 1 Thessalonians 5:2-11, Paul wrote:

    "For yourselves know perfectly that the day of the Lord so cometh as a thief in the night. For when they shall say, Peace and safety; then sudden destruction cometh upon them, as travail upon a woman with child; and they shall not escape. But ye, brethren, are not in darkness, that that day should overtake you as a thief. Ye are all the children of light, and the children of the day: we are not of the night, nor of darkness. Therefore let us not sleep, as do others; but let us watch and be sober."

Here, Paul urges the recipients of his letter to be on guard at all times, because he expected the second coming to happen within both his and their lifetimes.

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Problems with a literal interpretation of the Gospels and Epistles:

The main deficiency with a literal interpretation of these passages is that Jesus' and Paul's predictions were wrong. The spectacular events did not happen in the first century CE. Some explanations offered to resolve the error are:

bullet Jesus actually believed that the end of the world was imminent, but he was wrong. This does not agree with the belief of most Christians that Jesus is God, the second person in the Trinity. As such, he possesses omnipotence, omniscience, omnipresence, and other infinite attributes. It is inconceivable that he could have been mistaken.

bullet Jesus did not believe that the end of the world would happen in the middle of the first century CE. But after his execution, traditions, legends and myths arose about Jesus and were spread via an oral tradition. Religious liberals believe that four to seven decades later, when the Gospels were written, none of the authors had any first-hand knowledge of Jesus. They had never met him; they had to rely on the oral sayings about Jesus, and thus misquoted him. This conflicts with the principle of biblical inerrancy.

bullet Paul agreed with Jesus, but was also wrong. This does not agree with the belief of many Christians that God inspired Paul when he wrote the books in the Christian Scriptures (New Testament), that the Bible is inerrant, and thus that Paul's writings are free of error.

bullet Jesus was misquoted. He aware that the world would not end in the first century CE. However, he was misquoted by the Gospel writers who intentionally lied. This is also a violation of the concept of inerrancy.

bullet Paul's writings were later modified by a forger. In reality, he was aware that the end was not imminent. This would cast doubt on all of Paul's writers.

bullet Jesus and Paul lied in order to keep their audience motivated. They were aware that the world would not end within the lifetime of his audience. However, they told them lies. This does not agree with the belief that God and Paul would not intentionally lie.

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Alternative symbolic interpretations of Jesus' and Paul's teachings: 

Many Christians normally interpret the Bible literally wherever possible. However, such an interpretation of the above passages about Jesus' and Paul's statenents leads to the conclusion that both were wrong in their predictions. This conflicts with two fundamental beliefs held by most conservative Christians:

bullet That the Bible is inspired by God, that it is God's Word, and that it is inerrant -- without error. Not only were the authors of the Bible inspired by God, but early church councils were as well. These were the ones who sorted through the 50 or so gospels and hundreds of epistles then in circulation, and selected four gospels, 13 Pauline epistles (letters), and eight general epistles as inspired and inerrant.

bullet That Jesus is the second personality of the Trinity. Being God, he could not have been mistaken.

An alternative interpretation is necessary if one is to continue believing in the Bible author's inspiration and the Bible's inerrancy. These passages cannot not mean that the kingdom of God or the second coming of Jesus would happen in the 1st century CE while Jesus' and Paul's listeners were still physically alive. Conservative Christians generally interpret the texts as predicting a series of miraculous events in our future. The repercussions if Jesus' and Paul's statements were found to be in error would be enormous and unacceptable.

Some possible alternative interpretations are:

bullet The passages must mean that these events would happen sometime after the death of Jesus' and Paul's followers, but while their souls still lived. Thus it could happen in the year 100 or 1000 or 2000 or 3000 CE, etc. Many feel that this is an improbable interpretation, since Jesus is recorded in Mark 9 and Matthew 16 as saying that some of his audience circa 29 CE would not "taste death."
bullet Some of the Jews who were in Jesus' and Paul' audience circa 30 to 50 CE never died and in fact are still alive, still wandering around the earth. The would be aged almost 2,000 years by now. They are known as the "wandering Jews." This also is believed by few Christians today. Few people live past their 100th birthday. There is no evidence of aged, wandering Jews. Still, this was a common Christian belief in the past. It does have the advantage of neatly resolving the interpretive conflicts.

bullet

Jesus and Paul were not referring to the lifetime of their hearers. Rather, as author William Martin wrote:

" ' This generation' refers to those alive when the unmistakable signs of the end [of the world] begin to appear. Since [conservative Christians]...regard the restoration of Israel [in 1948] as such a sign, they infer that we are living in the terminal generation. The chief problem with this interpretation for several years was that Israel was supposed to be not simply in Palestine but in control of Jerusalem as well. When this came to pass, in 1967, at the conclusion of a six-day war that seemed almost miraculous even to many non-believers, expectation within [fundamentalist and other evangelical] prophetic circles grew feverish." 1

Many Christians cannot accept this interpretation, because Jesus is recorded as referring to specific individuals who were alive and listening to his words.

bullet Jesus' references to the Kingdom of God came to fruition when the Christian church was founded. This is traditionally dated at Pentecost, some fifty days after Jesus' execution, circa 30 CE. 2 This interpretation conflicts with other passages: In Matthew 16, Jesus is recorded as saying that the Son of Man would come to earth with his angels and will reward each according to his works. In Mark 13, stars would have  fallen from the sky; the Son of man would have arrived; and and the angels would have collected "his elect" and taken them to Heaven. None of these have events happened, either in the 1st century CE or since.

bullet Some of the passages actually refer to Jesus' transfiguration circa 30 CE, or to the destruction of Jerusalem and its temple in 70 CE. As noted above, this is not a good fit because none of the events associated with the coming of the Son of Man occurred in 70 CE.

bullet The belief in inerrancy of the Bible involves only the autograph copies of its books. That is, only the original, handwritten test was without error. Some later copyist or forger may have added or changed the original to produce these prophecies. Thus the autograph copy would have been without error and the surviving copies contain errors. This explanation introduces an additional problem because we do not posess the autograph copies of any books in the Bible. If errors crept into copies of these passages then no Bible passages can be relied upon.

If any of our readers are aware of any alternative interpretations of these statements attributed to Jesus and Paul that allow Christians to continue believing in the inspiration of the Bible's author's and inerrancy of the Bible's itself, please send us an email via the "CONTACT US" button below.

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References:

The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. William Martin,"Waiting for the End: The growing interest in apocalyptic prophesy," The Atlantic Monthly, 1982-JUN. Online at: http://www.theatlantic.com/
  2. "The Spiritual Kingdom of God,"  http://www.truthandgrace.com/

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Copyright © 2000 to 2012 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Last update: 2012-DEC-14

Written by B.A. Robinson
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