Sunday, March 1, 2015

A gaping hole I can't patch

In philosophy, either an argument works or it doesn't.  If every step logically follows the one before, it's a valid argument; if there is even one mistake, you'd better scrap the whole thing.

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.’
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.

5 comments:

Belfry Bat said...

It's certainly puzzling; now that you mention it, though, Jesus seems to have spoken of the dead in a strange way in other places, strange both to his first audience and to us.

He insists, for instance, that when we invoke "the God of Abraham, of Isaac, of Israel", that we attest that Abraham and Isaac and Israel are yet among the living, because "God is not god of the dead". He tells Martha, he tells the local governer, that their recently-deceased relatives are "not dead, but sleeping", He endures derision, and then He produces the living deceased.

And God said to Adam and Eve "in the day you eat of the fruit of the tree of knowledge [...] you shall surely die"; but manifestly they did not die in a day. Did God lie before the Fall?

This is not to say that our Lord is equivocating on death, but at the least He and we have different relations to it.

Rebekah said...

Hi Sheila. I've wondered about these passages too and spent quite a bit of time mulling them over. You mentioned context, and I think that's important. Matthew 16:28 and Mark 9:1 ("I tell you the truth, some who are standing here will not taste death before they see the kingdom of God come with power") are both followed immediately by a record of the transfiguration, where Jesus appears in his glorified form one week after that statement. The timing of the comment and the way the gospel writer chose to record it suggests Jesus intended, Matthew and Mark understood it as referring to the transfiguration. A second interpretation (according to the handy notes in my NIV study Bible!) is that Jesus may have been referring to the events of pentecost, though that interpretation seems less likely to me given the way the gospel authors chose to record Jesus' statement followed so closely by their accounts of the transfiguration.

The other verses you mentioned (eg Mark 13:30, Mat 24:34), which refer to "this generation" appear in the context of Jesus clearly talking about the end times; describing in detail a lengthy period of tribulation and persecution before the second coming. A lot of what Jesus is recorded as saying and doing in the gospels has prophetic meaning of course, but in these chapters here it seems to me that Jesus is going into full on prophet mode, employing the multi-layered language of prophecy in a lengthy speech along the lines of what you find in the Old Testament tradition. Events prefigure later events but are described by multiple layers of the one prophecy. This is much more open to interpretation, and although he is the one prophesying here, Jesus himself admits he doesn't know the day or the hour. The more important point of what he is saying is what we should do, as shown by his conclusion "Therefore keep watch...etc" (Mat 24:42 and mark 13:35) So I think the word "race" or "generation" could refer either to the Jews, to that particular generation of the Jews, to the generation who will be alive when the end times begin, or to some overlapping combination of these things. Some people, for example, understand these verses to refer in part to the sacking of Jerusalem that took place in 70AD, when the temple was destroyed -- an event that prefigures the horror of the ultimate end times, and which Jesus refers to at the beginning of his long prophecy about the end times (eg Mark 13:1-2). It does seem to me that he moves from the more immediate (ie the destruction of the temple in 13:1-2) to a much longer range view of what will happen (suddenly we have a series of wars as "nation will rise against nation" 13:8)

It's true that the early Church thought that the end times were coming soon, and lived accordingly. In this they were being obedient to Jesus' repeated commands to keep watch. It's a good thing for all of us, I think. No matter how far off the final end times may be in the life of the earth, my life will be only a few decades, and then I'll be catapulted into the presence of the "owner of the house".

I hope this is helpful.

Rebekah

T_P_K said...

Hello Sheila,

Without providing a lot of context, I would like to try and answer at least one of your question(s).

Of all the teachings of Jesus, no one thing has been so confused as his promise to come back in person to this world. It is only natural to believe that Jesus would be interested in coming back, not only once but many times, to the world whereon he lived such a unique and important life as one of us; as a human being.

While he was here, on numerous occasions and to many individuals he declared his intention of returning to this world. But as his followers awakened to the fact that he was not going to function as a temporal deliverer, and as they listened to his predictions of the overthrow of Jerusalem and the downfall of the Jewish nation, they most naturally began to associate his promised return with these catastrophic events.

But when the Roman armies leveled the walls of Jerusalem, destroyed the temple, and dispersed the Jews, and still the Master did not reveal himself in power and glory, his followers began the formulation of a belief which eventually associated the second coming of Christ with the end of the age; even with the end of the world.

Jesus promised to do two things after he had ascended: He promised to send into the world, and in his stead, another teacher, the Spirit of Truth; and this he did on the day of Pentecost.

Second, he promised that he would sometime personally return to this world.

But he did not say how, where, or when he would revisit this planet of his bestowal experience in the flesh. (On one occasion he intimated that, whereas the eye of flesh had beheld him when he lived here in the flesh, on his return, or at least on one of his possible visits, he would be discerned only by the eye of spiritual faith.)

So those who most positively believe that he will again come in person, still have not the slightest idea as to when or in what manner he may choose to come. Will his second coming on earth be timed to occur in connection with the terminal judgment of this present age? Will he come in connection with the termination of some other subsequent age? Will he come unannounced and as an isolated event? No one knows.

Only one thing we are certain of when he does return: all the world will likely know about it, for he must come as the supreme ruler of our universe and not as the obscure babe of Bethlehem.

And as believers, we can be sure of only one thing: He has promised to come back. We have no idea as to when he will fulfill this promise or in what connection. As far as we know, he may appear on earth any day, and he may not come until age after age has passed.

The second advent of Jesus/the Son of God on earth is an event of tremendous sentimental value to humans, but otherwise it is of no more practical importance to us than the common event of natural death, which so suddenly precipitates us into the immediate grasp of a succession of events which leads directly to the presence of this same Jesus.

The children of light are all destined to see him, and it is of no serious concern whether we go to him, or whether he should chance first to come to us. Therefore we should be ever ready to welcome him on earth, as he stands ready to welcome us in heaven. Still, we can confidently look for his glorious appearing, but we are wholly ignorant as to how, when, or in what connection he is destined to appear.

If any of this is at least thought provoking, (as an ex-Catholic) I strongly recommend reading at least Part Four of The Urantia Book, The Life and Teachings Of Jesus of Nazareth.

At any rate, all the best in your search for answers and in your remaining time on this world.

WOE said...

Yeah, something had to give, didn't it? But it had to give too much.

Doris Fromage said...

Just a few things - the Jewish messiah (no capital "m") is to be a normal human male (not a virgin-born godman) who will accomplish certain tasks (with God's help). Jesus did not accomplish a single one of these; that's why he had to schedule a "second coming" to perhaps get something done. This disqualifies Jesus from being the Jewish messiah.

Second, in 1 Cor. 7, Paul advocates celibacy for all - including married couples. Why? Because Jesus is coming back in, like, the next 5 minutes - there will not be time for another generation! He was wrong. Obviously wrong.

Third, I think John 14:12-14 is at least as problematic as the passages you cite:

Verily, verily, I say unto you, He that believeth on me, the works that I do shall he do also; and greater works than these shall he do; because I go unto my Father. And whatsoever ye shall ask in my name, that will I do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If ye shall ask any thing in my name, I will do it.

Last I checked, no Christian was able to duplicate Jesus's little magic tricks, and certainly no Christian has gone above and beyond in the "miracle" department! No Christian can walk on water, and no Christian has fed the city of Detroit on a single chicken pot pie. But Jesus said REAL Christians would be able to. Are there simply no REAL Christians?

Also, in that passage, Jesus says he'll do whatever his followers ask. There is no room in this for "No" being an "answer" (even if one could somehow discern when it's "No" and when it's simply not answered at all). Jesus said "WHATEVER YOU ASK, I WILL DO IT." Full stop. No qualifications.

Yet we know that prayers go routinely unanswered, unfulfilled. Christians pray for all sorts of perfectly reasonable things, only to find *nothing* happens. They're left hanging. "Save yourself, sucker."

Finally, in 1 and 2 John we see multiple references to "antichrists" - and from the context in 1 John 2:18-19, we see that 1) the unknown author believes he's in the "last time" because there are so many "antichrists" running around, and 2) "antichrists" are nothing more than people who left the church - they may not even be true apostates, technically! So the author of 1 and 2 John was wrong. WAY wrong - on each point! It wasn't the last days - obvious. And if Christians are going to consider EVERY person who switches churches to be an "antichrist", along with every apostate, doesn't that cheapen the term "antichrist" and turn it into nothing? According to Revelation, it's supposed to be something significant, but if the world is gaining 3,500 "antichrists" per day (the number of Christians leaving the church), why should that be any concern of ours? Surely, if it were a problem of any sort, we'd have seen something happen by now.

Thanks for listening! Love your writing!

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