Said that He Would Return in the First Century
It seems that every generation of Christians believes that the end of the world and the return of Jesus will happen during their lifetimes. The first prediction of this sort that I can find is from Saint Paul himself, in his letters, in 1st Thessalonians Chapter 4, when he predicts the prompt return of Jesus at a time when " we also are still alive." All you have to do is ask a Christian if Jesus will return during their lifetimes. People are taught by their priests and pastors that Jesus is "coming quickly", and that they should be prepared, because he might pop up at any moment.
If Jesus said he would be returning "quickly", and he said that 2000 years ago, what exactly is going on here? Do we have any information as to when the writers of the New Testament foretold the return of Jesus? Actually, we have very good information on that. We have nearly precise information. There is scriptural evidence that those who wrote about Jesus intended for him to come back during the lifetimes of those who first followed him. That's right... in the First Century.
First, let us look at the gospel of Mark, chapter 13. (When I reference the gospels, I will refer to them as "Mark" and "Matthew", even though these labels were attached to those texts by the Early Church-- the books are actually anonymous and no one knows who the true authors are). In this chapter, Jesus speaks of a "tribulation", nation rising against nation, earthquakes, and the coming of false Christs and false prophets, the stars falling from the sky, and the coming of the Son of Man "in the clouds with great power and glory". Then, in verse 30, he tells when this will happen. "Verily I say unto you, that this generation shall not pass, till all these things be done."
Second, let us look at Matthew (copied from Mark), which contains the same story. The same earthquakes, false prophets, darkening sun, falling stars, etc., and the return of the Son of Man, "coming in the clouds with of heaven with power and great glory." And then in verse 34, he says when to look for all of this commotion: "Verily I say unto you, This generation shall not pass, till all these things be fulfilled." Pretty conclusive.
Now, there is a rebuttal to this interpretation. It can be found, among other places, in some evangelistic bibles as a footnote in Matthew and Mark.
"The word "Generation", though commonly used in scripture to those living at one time, could not mean here those who are alive at the time of Christ, as none of these things, i.e. the worldwide preaching of the kingdom, the tribulation, the return of the Lord in visible glory, and the regathering of the elect-- occurred then. The expression "this generation" here may mean the future generation which will endure the tribulation and see the signs. Or it may be used in the sense of race or family, meaning the nation of Israel or the Christians will be preserved until these things take place."
This apologist basically says: "It can't mean those living at the time of Jesus, because he would not have said that". They say that "this generation" means the generation that's alive during the tribulations. Let us take a good look at this "explanation". First, the claim that generation could mean race, family, or the nation or tribe of Israel.
What are the Greek words for Nation, Tribe, Family and Generation? Generation is "genea", the root of genealogy. "Family" is "patria". "Tribe" is "phule". "Nation" is "ethnos", as in ethnic. Next, we need to look up these words as they appear in the New Testament, and cross-reference the Greek words with the English words. I have done this. Every single occurrence for Nation that I looked up gave the word "ethnos". Every single occurrence for Generation that I looked up gave the word "genea". When the writers meant nation, they wrote ethnos. When they meant generation, they wrote genea. They were apparently very clear in this. They never used "patria" or "phule" in any of these instances. To prove his case, the evangelistic writer who wrote the "explanation" above must find one instance of the word nation translated from the Greek word genea. Furthermore, if the word genea could have been translated as nation, then why wouldn't the translators have written it as nation? It would certainly have made more sense, if that's what they intended, and they could have prevented a major theological problem. But that's not what they wrote.
So, the rationalization that the bible writers meant "the Nation of Israel" falls to the ground. But what about the other "explanation" that is sometimes offered, that Jesus was speaking about those people who would be witnessing the tribulations in future times? Did he mean that that future generation would not pass until all those things came to be?
This rationalization fails as well. In the first place, Jesus does not say "that generation", he says "this generation". But in fairness, this is could be related to translation. Some have argued, ala Thomas Paine, that this sort of situation (the inability to accurately translate one language into another), is proof that the "Word of God" could never exist in print. Then again, the translation could be perfectly accurate. This is a thing that we can never know, however, since no original version of any of the gospels exist.
But there is more positive proof than this. Jesus makes it clear that he is speaking about the current generation of people. In Matthew 24:4 when the disciples asked Jesus about the end of the world, he "answered and said unto THEM", "Take heed that no man deceive you... ye shall hear of wars and rumors of wars... Ye shall see the abomination... etc." He is clearly replying to them, telling them what they shall see. He says that THEY shall see these things. Read it for yourself. Then he concludes by saying: "THIS generation shall not pass" until he comes again. The evidence can be found in Mark chapter 13, starting from verse 5 onward. It is clear that he is speaking to his apostles, answering their inquiry. To say otherwise is to be dishonest.
And yet there is something even stronger than this. The same story is related in Matthew chapter 16. Yet this time, Jesus does not use the word "generation". He again describes how he will come in the glory of his father, with his angels, to judge men according to their works. Then he concludes by saying "Verily I say unto you, There be some standing here, which shall not taste of death, till they see the Son of man coming in his kingdom."
That is the final nail in the coffin. Matt. 16:28 says there were some men standing there next to Jesus who will see his second coming, and it is totally clear that in Matthew 24:34 and Mark 13:30, Jesus believed the end of the world would come during the lifetimes of his apostles. Jesus says so himself. He thought that he was going to be returning in the First Century. He said: "The time is fulfilled, and the Kingdom of God is at hand." (Mark 1:15) Similar statements are to be found in Mark 9:1; 13:30; Matthew 10:23; 23:29-36; and Luke 12:49-50. Jesus' title of "Messiah" literally translated means "inaugurator of the end".
It is clear. There is no reason to doubt that the author of Mark wrote what he intended to write. Christian scholars claim that the book of Mark was written around the year 60 C.E., 35 years after the alleged death of Jesus, and well within the lifetimes of any of his followers. Whoever wrote the text believed that the Messiah would return during his lifetime. And as Matthew was constructed from Mark some decades later, whoever wrote Matthew simply copied this same information.
I share Robert G. Ingersoll's opinion:
"You must remember, also, one other thing. Christ never wrote a solitary word of the New Testament -- not one word. There is an account that he once stooped and wrote something in the sand, but that has not been preserved. He never said: "Matthew, remember this. Mark, do not forget to put that down. Luke, be sure that in your gospel you have this. John, do not forget it." Not one word. And it has always seemed to me that a being coming from another world, with a message of infinite importance to mankind, should at least have verified that message by his own signature. Is it not strange that not one word was written by Christ? Is it not strange that he gave no orders to have his words preserved -- words upon which hung the salvation of a world? Why was nothing written? I will tell you.
In my judgment they expected the end of the world in a few days. That generation was not to pass away until the heavens should be rolled up as a scroll, and until the earth should melt with fervent heat. That was their belief. They believed that the world was to be destroyed, and that there was to be another coming, and that the saints were then to govern the earth. And they even went so far among the apostles, as we frequently do now before election, as to divide out the offices in advance. This Testament, as it now is, was not written for hundreds of years after the apostles were dust. Many of the pretended facts depended upon the inaccuracy of legend, and for centuries these doctrines and stories were blown about by the inconstant winds. And when reduced to writing, some gentleman would write by the side of the passage his idea of it, and the next copyist would put that in as a part of the text. And, when it was mostly written, and the church got into trouble, and wanted a passage to help it out, one was interpolated to order. So that now it is among the easiest things in the world to pick out at least one hundred interpolations in the Testament. And I will pick some of them out before I get through."
In this case, the bible itself provides ample evidence that Jesus was supposed to return in the First Century, some 1900 years ago. If he did, no one noticed. But, I don't expect that this proof will make a dent in most Christians. But I thought that I would point it out. The end of the world will not come anytime soon. Jesus will not "come quickly". No. What will happen is that you will continue to live, and work-- the world will continue to go on, past 2000, then 2010, then 2025, and so on, until you grow old and pass away. When you get to be old, at the end of your life, think of my writings. Remember that I told you so. You will never see the end of the world.
Some readers may point to the book of Revelation, and object to my conclusions. But let's honestly take a look at that book for a moment. Among much unintelligible ravings, the anonymous writer of Revelation clearly predicts the destruction of Rome (17:16-18), asserts that Nero, who was really dead, was yet alive (13:3), proclaims the immediate coming of Christ (1:7, 22:7, 12), the avenging of the persecuted prophets and apostles (18:20), the binding of Satan for a thousand years (20:2), and the establishment of God's Kingdom (21).
"We know how completely these expectations were disappointed. Jerusalem, where the temple at least was never to be violated, fell utterly, and the sanctuary was laid low never to rise again; while Rome, instead of being turned into a desert, still held her rank and fame. Nero, the Antichrist, was dead and never returned to life; but neither did the Christ come back to earth. The martyrs were not avenged, but fresh persecutions awaited the faithful. The kingdom of Satan held its own, and the Kingdom of God came not." The Bible for Learners, Vol. 3, pg. 655)