But when considering something large and complex -- especially one where there are differing opinions -- having acceptable steps isn't quite enough, it seems to me. Because of course each viewpoint has worked out a set of steps that works for them. However, each step might be stronger or weaker, depending on how much certainty one has about it.
Let me give an example. Say I want to know if global warming is real. (That's something I don't know, which I'd like to!) I started out that search trying to find a fatal flaw in the argument of either side, but quickly I realized I'd get nowhere. The arguments are just too complex for that. Yes, some arguments of each side were flawed. But of course one could discard the flawed arguments and find other pathways, because they are attempting to prove their point multiple ways. What I wound up trying to see, in the end, was which viewpoint seemed to hang together better. Which needed fewer leaps of logic, was more internally consistent, and required fewer "patch jobs" on its mistakes? So when one side has a very clear explanation for all the facts which tidily accounts for all the other side's evidence as well as its own, I'm willing to believe that. (With global warming, I'm still not convinced by anybody, for a variety of reasons.)
So, when considering Catholicism, I tend to alternate between zooming in on one argument or issue and then zooming out to consider the whole thing globally. And in order to consider Catholicism, I have to consider alternate viewpoints. In short, I'm asking myself, "Which theory accounts better for all of the available evidence?"
Like with global warming, I'm seeing lots of holes in both. The holes all have patches (or no reasonable person would believe either) but the patches aren't equally satisfying -- some require believing very unlikely things. Others are even worse: the same hole has half a dozen patches, and the theory's believers argue strenuously against each other's patches!
For instance, Christians believe that Jesus rose from the dead, and atheists believe he didn't. The Christian belief seems to me (on this one question) to be much simpler and clearer than the atheist one, because it requires believing one simple fact which explains all the evidence. It explains why this one particular messiah claim outlived all the others, why it spread so fast, why its believers possessed such apparent certainty. To explain these same facts without believing in the resurrection, you would have to patch together a number of theories, some of which don't seem likely. So there are those who say that the disciples hallucinated the risen Jesus, that they lied and said they had seen Jesus, that Jesus' body went missing and they assumed he had risen (and wrote stronger evidence into their account than they really saw), that perhaps no one even thought Jesus had risen until decades later, or maybe there was actually no Jesus at all. It seems to me they are still struggling to find a theory that accounts for it all, because each "patch" has its flaws.
But there is a big hole in the Christian view that's bothered me since I was maybe twelve or thirteen. It's got no end of patches, but each patch is so flawed I am not really sure how to interpret it.
It's the collection of verses in the bible saying that the second coming was going to come within the lifetimes of Jesus' hearers. Take this, from Mark 9: "And he said to them, 'Truly I tell you, some who are standing here will not taste death before they see that the kingdom of God has come with power.'" Or after talking about his second coming, he says, "Truly I tell you, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened" (Mt. 24:32). Here's a collection of the verses I mean.
Well, the first step is to put each verse in context, which I did, reading the whole chapter before and after each. He's definitely talking about the second coming. In some of them, he starts with the destruction of the Temple -- something that really did happen within one generation -- but says that immediately after, the stars are going to fall from the sky, the elect will be gathered together, and the Son of Man will come on the clouds of heaven. And then he says that this generation will not pass away until all these things have happened.
I read this as a kid, probably the first time I read through the Gospels, and my response was "what gives?" Did Jesus lie? Was he wrong? If he was God, he couldn't do either.
Certainly the apostles believed that he meant literally one generation. The epistles are full of expectation. There's hardly a single book in the New Testament that doesn't say the Lord will be returning soon. Paul seems to assume that he and his hearers will still be alive then:
"Brothers, we do not want you to be ignorant about those who fall asleep, or to grieve like the rest of men, who have no hope.
We believe that Jesus died and rose again and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him. According to the Lord's own word, we tell you that we who are still alive, who are left till the coming of the Lord, will certainly not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever." (1 Thessalonians 4:13-17)
There's lots of stuff like this. Of course maybe they were wrong, and expected the second coming much sooner than it was going to come. But we know why they expected it to come soon -- because Jesus said it would! And one would assume, if they'd misheard him or misunderstood, it would have all been cleared up after the resurrection, when Jesus opened the scriptures to them, or after Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit came upon them.
Some people (called preterists) say that these prophecies have all come true, and we just missed it somehow. I don't really understand how that would work, though I'm trying to find out. Mainly their sites are just brimful of proof that if they haven't come true, Jesus is a liar, and therefore they must have. (This is exactly the sort of thing that isn't helpful!) But I don't know what sort of reading you would have to force on the verses to make them describe something that did happen, immediately after the destruction of Jerusalem.
Matthew's version says this:
The sun will be darkened,
and the moon will not give its light; the stars will fall from the sky,
and the heavenly bodies will be shaken.’
and the moon will not give its light; the stars will fall from the sky,
and the heavenly bodies will be shaken.’
Then will appear the sign of the Son of Man in heaven. And then all the peoples of the earth>will mourn when they see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven, with power and great glory.And he will send his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of the heavens to the other."
When did this happen? How can it have happened without anyone noticing? Especially since Jesus says, "As lightning that comes from the east is visible even in the west, so will be the coming of the Son of Man." Not something you could miss.
And then of course there's the number of verses pointing out that the day has not come. Like this one: "Concerning the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our being gathered to him, we ask you, brothers and sisters,not to become easily unsettled or alarmed by the teaching allegedly from us—whether by a prophecy or by word of mouth or by letter—asserting that the day of the Lord has already come" (2 Thessalonians 2:1-2).
So saying that Jesus' gathering of the elect to himself is the Church, or that him being lifted up was the Ascension, or whatever, seems to contradict what St. Paul thought about it.
In fact the "delay" of the second coming was a big problem among the early Church, so far as I can see. 2 Peter addresses it:
"Know this first of all, that in the last days scoffers will come [to] scoff, living according to their own desires and saying, “Where is the promise of his coming? From the time when our ancestors fell asleep, everything has remained as it was from the beginning of creation.” They deliberately ignore the fact that the heavens existed of old and earth was formed out of water and through water by the word of God; through these the world that then existed was destroyed, deluged with water. The present heavens and earth have been reserved by the same word for fire, kept for the day of judgment and of destruction of the godless.
But do not ignore this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is like a thousand years; and a thousand years like one day. The Lord does not delay his promise, as some regard “delay,” but he is patient with you, not wishing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance. But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a mighty roar and the elements will be dissolved by fire, and the earth and everything done on it will be found out." (2 Peter 3:3-10)
True enough, "soon" could mean something different to God than to us. I don't have a problem with that. But "before this generation passes away" is something that should mean the same thing to God as to us.
John was the last of the apostles to die, living long past the destruction of Jerusalem. Apparently a lot of people thought the end would surely happen before he died--enough that John felt the rumor should be addressed:
"Jesus answered, 'If I want him to remain alive until I return, what is that to you? You must follow me.' Because of this, the rumor spread among the brothers that this disciple would not die. But Jesus did not say that he would not die; he only said, "If I want him to remain alive until I return, what is that to you?" (John 21:20-23)
And yet surely not long after John died, there was no one left who had heard Jesus' words still alive. The promise was officially broken -- and I don't know what people made of that. As far as I can see they just stopped talking about it.
Another "patch" -- and this is the one I was taught when I first asked the question -- is that the word translated "generation" might also mean "race." The Jews won't die out before the second coming. To which I say, fine, that works, if indeed the word (genea) could be translated that way. But it changes the meaning of all of Jesus' mentions of "this perverse and foolish generation" into a rant against all Jews. Why isn't this the word the Bible translators choose to use? And in every New Testament passage I could find in which the word "genea" is clearly one or the other, it's generation, not race. Like this, in Hebrews 3, quoting the Old Testament (which was written in Hebrew):
"Today, if you hear his voice,
do not harden your hearts
as you did in the rebellion,
during the time of testing in the wilderness,
where your ancestors tested and tried me,
though for forty years they saw what I did.
That is why I was angry with that generation;
I said, ‘Their hearts are always going astray,
and they have not known my ways.’
So I declared on oath in my anger,
‘They shall never enter my rest.’"
Who was it who never entered the promised land? All the Jews? No, just that generation of the Jews. That's why they wandered for forty years, to allow the wicked generation to die off. Likewise we get "from generation to generation," "in generations past," or "fourteen generations." The concordances don't show this word ever used to mean race.
And, of course, this patch doesn't work on some of the verses, like "some standing here will not taste death." To twist it and say "he meant spiritual death" is a bit of a stretch, I think, but that's pretty much what you have to do if you want this passage to be literally accurate.
C. S. Lewis said it must be because Jesus, in his humanity, didn't actually know when his second coming would be. After all he does say that only the Father knows, and not the Son. But if he doesn't know when it will be, why does he tell them when, broadly, it will be? The passage seems to read that he doesn't know the exact time, but he does know it will be within the lifetime of some of his hearers.
Honestly, the theory that seems likeliest to me is that the evangelists misrecorded this scene. It was years later, maybe they didn't remember every detail. But to convince yourself decades afterward that Jesus told you he was coming again with in a generation, if he didn't really say that, involves a level of error that most of us don't expect to see in the Bible. The writers of the epistles seem to consider it an essential part of the message, repeated over and over. If that's wrong (the question arises) what else could they have gotten wrong?
That's where I end; I have no further answers to this question. But I am eager to hear what you think. Pages upon pages of google results haven't given me any stronger answers than what I've given you, but if you can think of one, or answer my objections to the patches I've mentioned, I'd love to hear. All I can say is, it's a very weak point in the whole Christian worldview, almost as weak as the explanations atheists use to get around the resurrection.