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When did the early Church (before 70 AD) expect Jesus' Second Coming?

  The apocalypse in 1 Thessalonians 4:13-5:11 is the traditional pointer to the beliefs of Paul about the details, especially the time, of the Second Coming of Christ. Statements such as "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" (4:15), or "After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together" (4:17) are cited as clear indicators that Paul expected the parousia some time in his lifetime, or at least in the lifetime of his congregation.

But problems abound this conclusion. For one, it can seriously be wondered whether this "soon" motif in Paul and other writings literally denotes a time within this or the next generation. If we look at Daniel 10:20, we have this same idea: "Do you know why I have come to you? Soon I will return to fight against the prince of Persia, and when I go, the prince of Greece will come", yet Alexander the Great didn't come until about 200 years (Gaugamela - 330 BC) from the time-frame of Daniel in Persia (c.530 BC). Even if one answers that Daniel was written in 167 BC and didn't know the exact time of the Persian emperor Cyrus, there can be no doubt that the author knew Alexander didn't defeat Darius until generations after the end of the Babylonian empire (especially an author who was knowledgeable enough about Belshazzar). Thus we can see that the motif of "soon" has some ground as having the meaning of an important even that had been long awaited and will now come sooner rather than later.

In Paul we can also see some of these Jewish expressions, specifically the apocalypse sections of his letters. Although 1 Thess. 5:2 says "the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night", in 1 Cor 15:22-25 there are steps that lead up to the "lightning end" so clearly some things that occur "immediately" and "soon" in Judean apocalypticism are clearly not to be taken literally. In any case, both the sudden end and events that lead up to it are in traditional Jewish apocalypticism, so this is further support for the "soon" motif.

Those who accept 2 Thessalonians as Pauline but maintain that Paul believed the parousia would happen in his lifetime see 2 Thessalonians 2:1-12 as steps that lead up to the end, but an end that would happen within a few decades nevertheless. He writes, "in view of the overheated eschatological expectation on the part of some Christians in Thessalonica, Paul had occasion to point out that the parousia would be delayed, in spite of the fact that he still held fast to the expectation of the parousia." But can one really see this from 2 Thessalonians? There is nothing that indicates anything other than the clearing up of a misunderstanding among the predominantly Gentile, non-Jewish, Christians at Thessalonica of Jewish expressions of the end. It would be speculation to say otherwise, especially with what has been already said, and it certainly seems to imply that Paul didn't expect the end within his lifetime from the way the text does not reiterate the coming of the Lord being soon, but instead explains that things must come before that happens, assuming 2 Thessalonians is Pauline. Despite 2 Thessalonians 2:7a: "For the secret power of lawlessness is already at work", this does not imply that the man of lawlessness is going to break out soon, because the entire verse says: "For the secret power of lawlessness is already at work; but the one who now holds it back will continue to do so till he is taken out of the way" with the following verses implying a longer time until the parousia.

With this, I don't think the immediate Second Coming can so easily be said to have been expected by Paul within his lifetime as per his letters.


  1. Kümmel, Introduction to the New Testament, 14th ed., pp.188-189