The New Testament, taken at face value, really does seem to be talking about coming events which were not only momentous but also imminent.
Have you ever had the experience where the text of the Bible seems to create a difficulty and your pastor’s (or favorite theologian’s) explanation doesn’t really cut the mustard? C. S. Lewis, author of the Narnia chronicles and many other books, was at least honest about something which most Christians are happy to gloss over. He writes:
The apocalyptic beliefs of the first Christians have been proved to be false. It is clear from the New Testament that they all expected the Second Coming in their own lifetime. And, worse still, they had a reason, and one which you will find very embarrassing. Their Master had told them so. He shared, and indeed created, their delusion. He said in so many words, “this generation shall not pass till all these things be done.” And he was wrong. He clearly knew no more about the end of the world than anyone else. This is certainly the most embarrassing verse in the Bible. From C. S. Lewis, “The World’s Last Night” (1960), found in The Essential C.S. Lewis.
Is Lewis correct in this observation? The New Testament, taken at face value, really does seem to be talking about coming events which were not only momentous but also imminent. If Jesus and those who followed Him were wrong, then Christianity is a load of rubbish. This was the conclusion of atheist Bertrand Russell, who, although he granted that many of the teachings of Christ were excellent, pointed out that there were also some apparent defects:
For one thing, he certainly thought that His second coming would occur in clouds of glory before the death of all the people who were living at that time. There are a great many texts that prove that. He says, for instance, “Ye shall not have gone over the cities of Israel till the Son of Man be come.” Then he says, “There are some standing here which shall not taste death till the Son of Man comes into His kingdom”; and there are a lot of places where it is quite clear that He believed that His second coming would happen during the lifetime of many then living. That was the belief of His earlier followers, and it was the basis of a good deal of His moral teaching. From “Why I Am Not A Christian,” a lecture delivered in 1927 to the National Secular Society in London, found in Why I Am Not A Christian And Other Essays, 1957.
Of course, I don’t believe this to be the case, but what most Christians don’t realize is that the entire New Testament sits squarely on a structural foundation laid down in the books of Moses. If we truly understand Moses, we will understand not only the New Testament’s purpose, but also the answer to this important question. What was the imminent event? The destruction of Jerusalem and its Temple in AD70, an event which brought an end to the Old Covenant. The history from the ministry of Christ, through His ascension and Pentecost, through the ministry of the Apostles to the Jewish War follows a path well-trodden throughout previous Bible history. When you familiar with this pattern, suddenly many of the odd things Jesus says fall right into place.
You can either spend decades doing research, as I have done, or you can get a big handle on the structure of the Bible by reading my book, Bible Matrix: An Introduction to the DNA of the Scriptures. It is available from amazon, or you can register and read it in the Online Library. You can read the foreword by Dr Peter Leithart here.
Perhaps surprisingly, learning to read the New Testament in its first century context makes it more relevant and powerful, not less. And you will have a gob stopping answer for the likes of Bertrand Russell.