One of the most-oft repeated ideas about the earliest Christians is that they believed that the Kingdom of God would come (apocalyptically) within their own lifetime. In fact Schweitzer famously argued that Jesus himself thought the world would end in his own lifetime; of course the world didn’t end and Jesus died disillusioned on the cross saying, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34).
In recent years, some have suggested that this belief in early Christianity would even have affected the development of the canon. If Christians thought the world would end in their own lifetime, then, it is argued, they would not have been interested in composing new scriptural books. Thus, the idea of a canon must be a later ecclesiastical development.
But, this argument simply doesn’t hold. First, it is by no means evident that early Christians believed Jesus would necessarily return in their own lifetime. Schweitzer’s views have been largely rejected–and rightly so. But, let’s imagine, for the sake of argument, that Christians did have this apocalyptic mentality. Does that mean they would have resisted the composition of new books, focusing instead on only oral methods of delivery?
There appears to be little reason to think so. Ironically, Paul is put forth as one who believed that Jesus would return in his own lifetime (as supposedly indicated by texts like 1 Thess 4:15-17), but yet we only know about this belief because Paul wrote it down in a letter! And Paul viewed this letter, as all his letters, as authoritative (2:13) and to be read publicly to the church (5:27).
Such a scenario indicates that apocalyptic beliefs are not necessarily incompatible with the production of written, authoritative texts. Moreover, we have examples of apocalyptic communities that were prolific producers of literature, namely the Qumran group at the Dead Sea (see main photo above). On the basis of Qumran, David Meade argues that apocalypticism in the early Christian communities, far from preventing literary activity, actually “provides the ideological basis for the extension of Scripture” (“Ancient Near Eastern Apocalypticism,” 308).
Gerd Theissen sums it up well, “The thesis about the imminent expectation of the end as a factor impeding literary creation is false. Jewish apocalyptic writing is full of imminent expectations and yet attests to a flourishing literary production” (The New Testament, 10).
José Rivas says
I have always think that perspective of an esrly returning of CHRIST is nonnesense, Paul celarly taught Jesus will come until the manifestation of the antichrist, and that something to expect first… And that is complemented with the book of revelation and the whole panorama of the gospels apocalyptic portions.
Thanks for the article Dr Michael!
Ken Hicks says
Read Chilton’s Days of Vengeance for a biblical perspective on why early Christians did in fact believe in the imminent return of Christ (which did not mean the destruction of the world). It can be downloaded here http://www.garynorth.com/freebooks/docs/pdf/days_of_vengeance.pdf
It challenges the current defeatist attitude in modern Christendom.
Kiplin Jacobs says
Do you have a good online where I can read more about this statement, “Schweitzer’s views have been largely rejected–and rightly so.”?
Jerry Lindberg says
The rise of the antichrist is one indicator, but also – the Gospel being preached to all quadrants of the world. But, what about God’s desire to save as many as possible? My pet theory is he will make his omniscience known to those who seek a holy Truth – BEFORE pulling the plug on humanity. This will allow those seeking His Grace and Wisdom to receive it – and for those who reject God to be “on the record” as having done so.
Like I say – it’s a pet theory, but one I have divined through prayer and revelation. I think evidence of His imprint on history will be revealed – soon.
Frank Loomer says
From what i can see, times of imminent destruction have recurrently been put to pen both before and after the intense apocalyptic mood which beset Israel in New Testament times. It’s hard in my mind to not feel Paul’s sense of an imminent “day of the Lord” despite the fact his letters go on for over a decade! Christians fearing the end due to perceived moral corruption continues to this very day. For me, the *amazing* thing is unfulfilled apocalyptic predictions did not descredit people like Paul. On the contrary! You can find similar moods resurfacing century and century by the powerful and lowly alike. Check out Diarmaid MacCulloch’s History of Christianity. It seems to me that each generation seems to think, “it’s all about us”! My Baptist friends in my childhood were strongly expectant of the “immenent” end times, and i gather still are. One rationalization I’ve sometimes heard is that only the prayers of the faithful have been keeping the day of judgement off. Really!
It is something I struggled with as a new Christian, encountering phrases like near & soon in NT Scripture. Jesus said even He did not know the time of His return but only the Father.
In Scripture there is no trend to chuck stuff out but to defend it against those who were twisting it (even then & even as those in the OT, false prophets & the like)
Even with Revelation many try & put a an interpretive spin on it pointing specific rulers etc(which in one way is true)…What I learnt from Revelation (Hendriksen-More than conquerors) was how the same thing can happen repeatedly but change in frequency or intensity until a fulfilment.
The thing is we are meant to be living as if Jesus could return at any time says Scripture, lest we become lazy & slack. So we could say that the early Christians were not lazy or slack but busy doing what was required as they trusted in God’s grace in all things. Joel 2:28-32.
Caleb G. says
You state that “Schweitzer’s views have been largely rejected–and rightly so.” What do you mean by this statement and why evidence do you give to support it? Some of Schweitzer’s arguments have been rejected by the vast majority of Biblical scholars. But the general perspective that Jesus was an apocalyptic prophet who taught the end of the world would come within his lifetime or the lifetime of his earliest disciples is still widely accepted within the scholarly community. Dale Allison’s “Jesus Christ: Millennial Prophet” is a prime example of this perspective from a Biblical Scholar who identifies as a Christian.
G. B. Caird long ago questioned this view: *The widely accepted view that the whole early church believed in an imminent advent of Christ is based on a superficial reading of the evidence. The advent was imminent only in the sense that it might happen at any time, not because it must happen within a given period. The decisive act of God had already happened in the death and resurrection of Christ, and from then on men must live their lives under the shadow of the end. But the end would come when God’s purposes were complete, and this was something only he could decide (Mark 13:32; Acts 1:7).*