Part 1: When prophecy fails, how do the true believers keep the faith?
When it comes to rationalization (a.k.a. making excuses), all human beings are born experts. This is especially true when it comes to the things we hold most sacred – our religious beliefs. Most dearly held religious tenets, especially those concerning otherworldly things, however, cannot be easily proved or disproved. This fact, the mystery of the unknown hereafter, powers all the myriads of religions and their tens of thousands of religious sects, many of which contradict and cancel out each other’s claims. It’s easy to make claims one doesn’t need to prove or defend. Yet every so often, a religion comes into a direct conflict with reality by unwittingly exposing its falsely constructed framework for all to see. Never is this more true than when it comes to prophecies that fail to come to pass as expected.
The sacred scripture of Christianity, the New Testament, records prophecies made by Jesus predicting his “second coming”. Many of these prophecies make it clear that Jesus was predicting to return in the lifetime of at least some of those who knew him or during the time many of his generation were still alive (even including the priests that were supposedly examining him during his non-trial):
For the Son of Man is going to come in the glory of His Father with His angels, and will then repay every man according to his deeds. Truly I say to you, there are some of those who are standing here who will not taste death until they see the Son of Man coming in His kingdom. (Matthew 16: 27, 28)
Then they will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory. And then He will send forth the angels, and will gather together His elect from the four winds, from the farthest end of the earth to the farthest end of heaven. Now learn the parable from the fig tree: when its branch has already become tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near. Even so, you too, when you see these things happening, recognize that He is near, right at the door. Truly I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things take place…“ (Mark 13:26-30)
But Jesus kept silent and the high priest said to Him, “I adjure you by the living God, that you tell us whether you are the Christ, the Son of God.” Jesus said to him, “You have said it yourself; nevertheless I tell you, hereafter you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of power, and coming on the clouds of heaven.“” (Matthew 26:63-64)
We know from reading the New Testament, that the Christians writers who composed the Christian Bible very much believed that Jesus would return during their own lifetimes. They sincerely believed that they lived during “last days”. They believed the prophecies and promises. This was two thousand year ago. They were clearly wrong. Some modern Christians realized this, but couldn’t draw the relevant conclusions, namely that their faith was based on a lie. Two thousand years is very long time to be wrong. To give some perspective, from the time when Moses lead Israelites out of Egypt to the time when Jesus died and “went up to heaven” less than 1,500 years have passed. This means that the so called “last days” of Christianity have lasted longer than the whole history of Israel as a nation prior to Jesus! The power of religious rationalization is obviously quite strong, especially when backed up by threats of eternal damnation for disbelieving.
What did the early Christian believe about how close they were to his promised return? Let’s take a look:
Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son… (Hebrews 1:1-2)
Children, it is the last hour, and as you have heard that antichrist is coming, so now many antichrists have come. Therefore we know that it is the last hour. (1 John 2:18)
The end of all things is near… (1 Peter 4:7)
Apostle Paul was so strongly convinced that Jesus was about to return, he advised his converts to forsake wordly affairs, even marriage:
Do not seek a wife. This is what I mean, brothers: the appointed time has grown very short. From now on, let those who have wives live as though they had none, and those who mourn as though they were not mourning, and those who rejoice as though they were not rejoicing, and those who buy as though they had no goods, and those who deal with the world as though they had no dealings with it. For the present form of this world is passing away.” (1 Corinthians 7:27,29-31)
Paul’s apocalyptic beliefs were quite pronounced, as can be seen in this passage where he speaks of “we who are alive”, clearly addressing the audience of his letter and not just some distant Christians two thousand years from then. Paul’s message was too urgent to think that far ahead – he clearly expected things to happen very soon.
For this we declare to you by a word from the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord. (1 Thessalonians 4:15-17)
“[T]the appointed time has grown very short”. This was two thousand years ago. But the Christian rationalizations about the failure of Jesus’ prophecies already started when Christianity was beginning to move past the stage of apocalyptic expectations, when many people began to realize that the prophecies have failed. Non-Christians and probably even doubting believers familiar with the prophecies of Jesus’ quick return already have began to question and even mock the claims of Christianity. Most early believers (the “fathers”) already have died, not having seen the promised return of Jesus during their lifetimes as Jesus predicted. That “generation” that would see “all these things” that Jesus spoke of was gone, dead. No doubt for many, as still happens with various cults who fail in their prophecies in our day, this was the cause of them leaving Christianity. For others, for the truly faithful, however, the faith, the grave warnings and the promises were too strong for their minds to deal with. It was too embarrassing to acknowledge otherwise and cognitive dissonance of “true believers” had to be appeased. We can see these rationalizations in the New Testament, in the book 2 Peter, which many scholars consider pseudepigraphical (due to various linguistic and contextual clues), possibly written well into the first century, perhaps as late as 150 CE:
Above all, you must understand that in the last days scoffers will come, scoffing and following their own evil desires. They will say, “Where is this ‘coming’ he promised? Ever since our fathers died, everything goes on as it has since the beginning of creation. But they deliberately forget that long ago by God’s word the heavens came into being and the earth was formed out of water and by water….(2 Peter 3:3-5)
But do not forget this one thing, dear friends: With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day. The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. Instead he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance. (2 Peter 3:8-9)
Jesus has not come because he’s “patient”. He’s waiting for everyone to repent and doesn’t want anyone to perish. However, in the book of Revelation, an apocalyptic work which seems to imagine Nero as the antichrist (and indeed many Christians at the time thought that he was the one) and even has the various first century churches in the Asia Minor still open for business. Most of the world’s population is seen as not repenting and indeed perishing in great judgement. Certainly, in the last two thousand years, billions of new people were born, “perished”, not having come to repentance.
The author of Revelation is also very optimistic about Jesus’ soon return. Jesus directly speaks into his ear that the Judgement Day and his return is about to happen – the churches must get ready. Jesus repeats over and over that he is coming “quickly” and that “the time is near”.
And he said to me, “These words are faithful and true”; and the Lord, the God of the spirits of the prophets, sent His angel to show to His bond-servants the things which must soon take place. “And behold, I am coming quickly. Blessed is he who heeds the words of the prophecy of this book.” And he said to me, “Do not seal up the words of the prophecy of this book, for the time is near. Behold, I am coming quickly, and My reward is with Me, to render to every man according to what he has done. He who testifies to these things says, “Yes, I am coming quickly.“” (Revelation 22:6,7,10,12,20)
When one interacts with Christians today, all sort of rationalizations for Jesus’ failure to return are offered. “This generation will not pass away” is redefined as a “Jewish race” or even “whole humanity”, “soon” becomes “a thousand years”, “last days” turn into “last two millennia”. Jesus’ promise of “coming in my Kingdom with power” is either him going up to heaven in the cloud, perhaps his transformation on the mountain after talking with Moses. Even better, an invisible kingdom is already on earth with Christ already reigning triumphantly behind the scenes through the Church. Some Christian streams, e.g. Preterists, take a different route – they acknowledge the obvious, that according to the New Testament Jesus did indeed prophecy his return in the generation of his immediate followers, but that he fulfilled his promises by returning spiritually in 70 CE, one to punish the Jewish people and two to raise believers raise from their graves, spiritually if not physically! And there are many other similar rationalizations and excuses, some quite wild, from all corners of Christianity, far too numerous to publish here. Whole books can be filled with them and have indeed already been filled by the faithful who will no doubt continue to believe no matter what.
In the part II of this post, we will look into a curious modern case of failure of prophecies to materialize and how those “true believers” fought their cognitive dissonance and rationalized away the true implications of that failure in order to not only sustain the faith but promote it with even greater vigor than before.