I started this blog a couple months ago with the admission that, yes, I had changed. I feel like I still owe a little more explanation concerning both the extent of the change and what’s been driving it. It’s been a hard explanation to formulate for a variety of reasons, not the least of which being that the shift has been so big and complicated that it’s hard for me to express my reasons concisely yet adequately. In a way, it’s been a total reconsideration of thirty years’ worth of intensive thought, which makes it difficult to sum up.
One thing I can say from the beginning, however, is that the linchpin of my prior worldview, and the one simple change that, more than any other, made all the rest possible, involves my understanding of the bible. My presupposed commitment to its inerrancy and perfection demanded a great many perspectives that would never have come to me naturally. But if the all-wise, all-knowing God of Judeo-Christian history had chosen to write the sixty-six books of the Protestant canon and no others, then it must mean that they contain everything necessary to know for my present and eternal happiness, if I only study them well enough. So I studied them as well as I could, never letting myself entertain the slightest notion that one part may be wrong or contradict another part. It wasn’t easy, since lots of parts seemed to contradict lots of other parts, for one thing; and for another, some parts were so disturbingly against humane sentiment, like the divinely commanded rape and genocide passages I’ve mentioned before. But I never doubted that the real problem must lie with my limited perspective and finite intelligence. This passage sure seems unbelievable, I would think, which means that either God is wrong or I’m wrong. And it can’t be God.
I’ve since come to believe that the bible, for all its beauty and complexity, its always intriguing and sometimes inspiring, or disturbing, or comforting tenor, its vast sweep of earthly and heavenly perspectives, its bigness and richness – is nevertheless a very human book susceptible to human mistakes and errors. But because it is in fact such a big and varied book, it’s hard to express my recent doubts over some of its parts in anything like a comprehensive fashion, especially in a venue like this, which doesn’t really seem designed for long arcane disquisitions. But I felt like I should say something on the topic, anyway. So I decided I would start a new series highlighting the different verses or passages I always struggled with, and why I found them hard to believe or reconcile. For the first example, I decided to explain why the New Testament books of First and Second Thessalonians were so difficult for me to reconcile to each other, a problem to which I devoted a fair bit of energy during my college years.
Paul’s letters to the Thessalonians have a lot to do with the doctrine of eschatology – the study of what the bible teaches about last things and the coming end of human history. The problem with the topic is that the bible says quite a lot about it, in many different places – and what it says in some places seems contradictory to other bible passages, or else to what really happened in history.
Let me explain the problem I encountered in these two books. First Thessalonians brings up the topic of early Christians who had died before the return of Christ, which they were expecting to happen very soon, well within their lifetimes. When some of them started dying before the end had come, they weren’t sure what to think. So the apostle Paul wrote them a letter to put them at ease. In it, he says this:
But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep. For this we declare to you by a word from the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord. Therefore encourage one another with these words. Now concerning the times and the seasons, brothers, you have no need to have anything written to you. For you yourselves are fully aware that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. While people are saying, “There is peace and security,” then sudden destruction will come upon them as labor pains come upon a pregnant woman, and they will not escape. But you are not in darkness, brothers, for that day to surprise you like a thief. (1 Thessalonians 4:13–5:4, ESV)
Notice what Paul is pretty plainly saying here: yes, a few believers have started to die, but not to worry. Very soon, the Lord will return for them; and those who died as well as “we who are alive” will all be caught up together with Christ. Paul was apparently so sure that Christ’s coming would be soon that he thought he himself would still be alive at the time. Notice how he’s sure of this because of a “word from the Lord”. Whether or not Paul is referring to a private message here, it’s certainly true that the recorded words of Jesus in the gospels fit his expectation quite well. Jesus himself was certain that the present generation would not pass away before the end had come, with a dramatic fulfillment of all its prophecies (e.g. Matthew 24, especially verse 34). Finally, notice that Paul is emphatic about how well he had taught these believers about the imminent return of Christ that he was expecting – they didn’t need him to write anything on the topic because they already knew that the Day of the Lord would come suddenly and unexpectedly, like “a thief in the night”. They were to be watchful for it, because it was coming very soon, at any time; and because they knew that, they wouldn’t be surprised, like the rest of the world, when it happened.
Now, with that apostolic teaching in your mind, read this passage from Second Thessalonians:
Now concerning the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our being gathered together to him, we ask you, brothers, not to be quickly shaken in mind or alarmed, either by a spirit or a spoken word, or a letter seeming to be from us, to the effect that the day of the Lord has come. Let no one deceive you in any way. For that day will not come, unless the rebellion comes first, and the man of lawlessness is revealed, the son of destruction, who opposes and exalts himself against every so-called god or object of worship, so that he takes his seat in the temple of God, proclaiming himself to be God. Do you not remember that when I was still with you I told you these things? (2 Thessalonians 2:1-5, ESV)
What seems to be happening in this passage is that these Thessalonian believers are now starting to question what they had believed about the soon and imminent return of Christ. Years had probably passed in the interim, still no glorious return, and they started thinking, maybe we missed it. Maybe it happened and it just wasn’t as final and glorious as we expected. Maybe we need to rethink our expectations. So how does the author of this letter deal with that new perspective? First, he tells them to ignore a previous letter falsely claiming to be written by him; and then, he tells them something that seems the opposite of what was said in First Thessalonians. The second coming is not imminent. It couldn’t be at any time, like a thief in the night. Instead, some pretty major things had to happen first, before that day could come – don’t you remember I told you these things? he asks.
Of course he hadn’t told them those things in First Thessalonians. There, he had told them it would be soon and unexpected. He thought he would see it in his own lifetime. He thought it would come quickly and surprise the unbelieving world. But now, not only does he not say that, he says something different and tells the Thessalonians not to believe any prior writing claiming to be from Paul that doesn’t agree. This would seem to include First Thessalonians itself!
The author of Second Thessalonians warns against being deceived by a written forgery in Paul’s name. Ironically, many scholars believe that First Thessalonians was one of Paul’s genuine letters, but Second Thessalonians is the real forgery. Bart Ehrman helpfully discusses the idea in pages 105-108 of his book, Forged. But whoever’s right or wrong about the authorship of these letters, one thing seems clear: they have a fundamentally different expectation of the end times. This was one apparent discrepancy in the bible that afforded me a lot of befuddlement when I was younger. Throughout this series, I’ll plan on bringing up other problematic passages that I always had a hard time with and that seem much easier now that I’ve admitted to myself that the bible is a human book susceptible to human error.