If Jesus, being fully and infallibly God, was not wrong about the time of his Second Coming, what about St Paul, being fully and fallibly man?
The whole thrust of his early writings were imbued with a sense of the nearness of the Parousia. New converts in Thessalonica saw their essential Christian task as being ‘to wait for his Son from heaven‘ (1Thess 1:10); and the Corinthians were said to be ‘waiting for the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ‘ (1Cor 1:7). Indeed, it was deeply worrying to some believers that their pre-deceased family and friends would somehow not benefit from the return (1Thess 4:13-5:11), in response to which St Paul appears specifically to delimit the timing of the Parousia by asserting that he and many Thessalonians will still be alive at the Lord’s coming (4:15f) – an assumption he also communicates to the Corinthians (1Cor 15:51). He even seemingly counsels the single to remain unmarried on the grounds that time is short (1Cor 7).
However, all of this needs to be understood in the contexts of those communities to whom Paul was writing, as each epistle is carefully composed to address specific and relevant circumstances. The problem in Corinth was an over-realised eschatology – the belief that the Messianic age to come was already present (1Cor 4:8f). Some therefore took Jesus’ teaching on marriage in heaven (Lk 20:35) as being a present directive, which Paul countered (1Cor 7:38). It seems absurd that Paul would be advising believers not to marry because of very imminent Messianic woes when, in fact, he goes on to talk about widows remarrying (7:39). Paul assures the Corinthians that salvation has been inaugurated, and that domestic issues like divorce and remarriage should not interfere with devotion to the Lord. It is a distortion to assert that such teachings delimit the timing of the Parousia.
It can also be asserted that Paul’s later writings display a marked apocalyptic dimming, almost as if his own disappointment had caused him to change his mind (2Cor 5:1-10; 2Tim 4:6-8; Phil 1:20). He tends to emphasise the riches and new life which the believer already enjoys (Col 1:13-23; 3:1-4), whereas in 1 Corinthians 15 he was adamant that believers do not yet enjoy these realities. There is also a clear implication that he may well die before the Parousia (2Tim 4:6-8; Phil 1:20), and, consequently, Paul could be accused of ‘spiritualising’ what he had previously held to be literal.
The truth is that these passages cannot be construed as definitive ‘spiritualising’ at all, nor do they establish that Paul lost his apocalyptic attitude in his later writings. His subsequent thoughts on his own death do not present a contradiction of 1 Thessalonians 4:15f, since these verses establish no more than the possibility of his witnessing the Parousia. Indeed, he writes that witnessing the Lord’s return or pre-deceasing the event are both possibilities (1Thess 5:10 cf 2Cor 5:9). There are also many references to an imminent hope in the later letters (Phil 3:20; Rom 13:11f cf 1Tim 6:14; 2Tim 4:8). Paul’s hope is still in an imminent Parousia, and he makes no reference to the notion of any ‘delay’.
There is, in fact, no evidence at all that Paul made any change in his eschatology, although, as he grew older, he would realise that the possibility of his being alive at the Parousia was diminishing. This does not mean that even at the end of his life Paul abandoned his belief in the imminence of Christ’s return.
Apparent conflicts (as between 1Cor 15:50-57 and Col 3:1-4) cease to be so when it is understood that Paul faced very different situations in Corinth, where he was combatting the super-spirituality of those who believed they were already resurrected and reigning with Christ, and Colossae, where there was need to encourage believers to an awareness of the riches they already have in Christ. A verse removed from these contexts can, of course, be distorted. But contextualising apparent inconsistencies establishes that Paul responded specifically to the needs of his readers: they were definitive words to a specific congregation in a distinct time.
There is, therefore, no evidence that Paul delimited the end, nor that his apocalyptic worldview or hopes of an imminent Parousia somehow faded. Certainly, the Parousia did not happen within his lifetime, but he followed the example set by Jesus – that its timing could not be calculated – and Christians were to remain vigilant, living holy lives, suspended in the perpetual tension between ‘soon’ and ‘not yet’, which is where we still are.
Treating the Bible as literal until proven otherwise imposes unnecessary constraints upon the interpretation and comprehension of many passages. Listed, logical facts can convey truth, but so can metaphor and figurative language. Indeed, the latter can often convey a deeper and more appreciable truth because they communicate a sense of something straight to the heart, bypassing the reasoning of an intellect. Picture language doesn’t move an event into the realms of fiction; it heightens it by evoking emotions. The Spirit sings.
It is a human frailty to seek security in tangible specifics, yet faith demands the opposite (Heb 11:1). The precise date of the Second Coming can easily become more important than the fact that the Lord has indeed prepared a place ahead for each believer, and that he is going to return in glory to usher in a new age. If, in this age of insecurity, Christians are prone to dwell on dates and times, it becomes easier to comprehend that the Early Church certainly had a tendency to demand a specific date. But it is equally clear that Jesus did not set a date for his return, therefore there was no error in perspective on his part. It is, of course, possible that some of his disciples mistakenly understood him to have set a date for the Parousia, but the tendency to misinterpret the words of Jesus endures to this age.
Jesus’ rebuke to Peter (Jn 21:22) is, in reality, a rebuke to all believers who are curious about times, dates and places. Since Jesus (Lk 12:39f) and Paul (1Thess 5:1ff) both stated that thieves give no warning of their arrival, curiosity about the Second Coming can be an unhealthy preoccupation, if not a detraction from following Jesus along the missionary road he has set before us.
The time of the kingdom had and has dawned: the irruption of God into the world heralded and heralds such. Judgement was and is soon to fall. This was and is to spur believers into making good use of time before it was and is too late. This is the essence of eschatology – it keeps alive the sense of imminence in a period of grace, and induces us to holiness.