I know this because a whole load of cranks pastors are telling the world that, once again, the end is nigh. 56% of U.S. pastors polled believe it’ll be real soon with 97% convinced that if not now, then in the near future.
In reality, Jesus is never coming back. He might appear to predict his return in the gospels but he said it would be soon relative to those who were listening to him. True, he didn’t appear to know exactly when it would be because his Father hadn’t deigned to tell him (weren’t he and the Father one?) but he did know it was soon:
Truly I tell you, some who are standing here will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom (Matthew 16:28).
Truly, I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things take place (Matthew 24:34).
I don’t believe Jesus said this at all. His mission while he was alive was to kick-start God’s kingdom on Earth and to right the wrongs done to his own people, the Jews. He didn’t expect to die when he did (he didn’t predict his death either) but right up the last minute thought God would intervene, rescue him and set him up as King of the world (Matthew 19.28). All of this is preserved in the synoptic gospels.
Once everything had gone disastrously wrong, his followers had to make sense of his premature death. So followed the stories of a resurrection, based on grief-induced visions and fuzzy feelings. Once these faded, his early followers became convinced this wasn’t – couldn’t be – the end of the story. Jesus had to come back to complete his mission. The newly converted Paul thought so too: Jesus’ death wasn’t the end; his resurrection wasn’t the end – it was the beginning; when Jesus came back down from Heaven he would resurrect his followers and the Kingdom of God would arrive. Paul believed this would happen in his own lifetime (1 Thess 4:15-17)
When the gospels came to be written decades later, Jesus himself was made to say much the same thing. Like a 1st century Arnold Schwarzenegger, he promised he’d be back. But Jesus wouldn’t have said this. He had no intention of going away until his mission – to bring about the Kingdom of God on Earth – had been completed. Subsequent believers, including the gospel writers, knew with the benefit of hindsight that this mission hadn’t gone to plan. Consequently, they rewrote the plan. Jesus, having risen from the dead (or so they believed) would be returning to complete his mission. They then retrospectively supplied him with foreknowledge not only of his supposed return but of his execution and resurrection too. The predictions of a second coming were put into Jesus’ mouth by later believers; the gospel writers specifically.
They were wrong. Jesus did not return when they hoped, which is hardly surprising for any number of reasons: the dead don’t come back to life; Jesus himself didn’t promise he’d return (neither the first time nor the second); beliefs, however resolutely held, do not create reality.
The Jesus story would now be over and done with if it were not for Paul re-interpreting into something it wasn’t; substitutionary atonement designed for Gentiles as well as Jews. Jesus failed to inaugurate the Kingdom of God on Earth (no surprise there); he didn’t rise from the grave; he’s not coming back. Believing won’t make it so.
Happy Easter y’all.