Problem: The New Testament predicts an early apocalypse
Verses: 1 John 2:18, Mark 13:24-30, others; Status: Serious

There are many passages in the Bible that indicate that the authors saw the apocalypse as coming in the very near future. One of the most blatant is the First Epistle of John, 1 John 2:18:

Children, it is the last hour, and as you have heard that antichrist is coming, so now many antichrists have come. Therefore we know that it is the last hour. (ESV)

This is... difficult to reconcile with the continuing existence of the Earth and human civilisation.

Especially given that inerrantists often see the entire world (or at any rate, the human species) as about 6,000 years old, the 1,900 years or so that have elapsed since that was written can hardly be described as a mere hour. It would be almost a third of human history.

Other verses one could point to are Hebrews 1:2, James 5:8, and 1 Peter 4:7. The last of these is particularly bad:

The end of all things is at hand; therefore be self-controlled and sober-minded for the sake of your prayers. (ESV)

It's really hard to see this as foretelling anything other than an imminent apocalypse. However, the ESV Study Bible suggests Peter is really saying that everything relevant to God's plan for salvation has already happened; so the end could come at any time. This reading is at least fairly plausible, and could perhaps apply to the other verses as well.

The gospels

Jesus himself seems to directly state that the end is near. Some such cases can be explained away; for example Mark 9:1 seems to say that the kingdom of God will come before the disciples are dead, but could instead mean they will witness the Transfiguration, which indeed follows directly afterwards, in Mark 9:2-8.

A more serious problem is Mark 13:24-30 in which Jesus unambiguously discusses the end times:

But in those days, after that tribulation, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken. And then they will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory. And then he will send out the angels and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven.

From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts out its leaves, you know that summer is near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he is near, at the very gates. Truly, I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things take place. (ESV)

This generation will not pass away until all these things take place. That seems clear enough. If there is a solution at all, it's probably some alternate meaning of "this generation" (the word in the Greek text is "genea"), perhaps something like "this evil generation", meaning an entire class of people who will persist for millenia. There are a number of such readings suggested by the ESV Study Bible, perhaps none of them too plausible.

I am grateful to Tom Schaber for bringing this point to my attention.

Updated: 2012-06-21

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