Let My People Think

2nd_coming

When referring to the predictions of Jesus concerning his 2nd coming, C.S. Lewis in his essay “The World’s Last Night” concludes that at least one of the prophecies of Jesus was a failed one:

“Say what you like,” we shall be told, “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.” [the above paragraph is what C.S. Lewis puts in the mouth of imaginary critics. In the next paragraph, he responds to the criticism]

It is certainly the most embarrassing verse in the Bible. Yet how teasing, also, that within fourteen words of it should come the statement “But of that day and that hour knoweth no man, no, not the angels which are in heaven, neither the Son, but the Father.” The one exhibition of error and the one confession of ignorance grow side by side.


Bertrand Russell, in his essay “Why I Am Not A Christian” says this:

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.

This very question gets asked of modern theologians. However, in my hours of internet searches to get an answer to this question, I haven’t been able to get a good, clear-cut, unambiguous answer to the question that bothered a great many over the centuries. That is, until I started looking myself at the grammar of the original text in Greek.

I assume you know the general context of so-called “second coming” of Christ. If not, it would be helpful to read the entire chapters of the verses I will be quoting below. Out of all the English translations that I have examined, Young’s Literal Translation (YLT), with only a few exceptions, renders the meaning of the original text the best, and in this particular case it’s a deal-maker.

Here’s one of the disputed verses in the popular NIV:

Mark 13:29-31
29 Even so, when you see these things happening, you know that it is near, right at the door. 30 Truly I tell you, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened. 31 Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away.

I don’t know about v. 30 (per Mark the Gospel writer) being the most embarrassing verse in the Bible, but I will concede that v. 30 in most English translations is a candidate for one of the most embarrassing verse translation inaccuracies in the Bible.

Before we get to the bottom of the matter, let’s introduce a simple grammar concept – that of the “mood”, which is necessary for properly understanding these passages. In Koine Greek, mood indicates the degree of certainty of the action expressed by a verb. Subjunctive mood is a mood expressive of doubt, uncertainty, or contingency. In other words, the action spoken about in this mood is being hypothesized about. In English, we use words like “should”, “were”, “might”, “would”, etc., to express that mood.

In contrast, indicative mood presents assertion, certainty, definiteness. It’s a mood of certainty.

Here’s the deal. There are several words in vv. 29 and 30 that are in subjunctive mood. Let’s see which ones these are. Let’s re-use the NIV translation, with the words in subjunctive mood underlined, and the tense of key verbs given in parentheses:

Mark 13:29-31
29 Even so, when you see (aorist subjunctive) these things happening , you know that it is near, right at the door. 30 Truly I tell you, this generation will certainly not pass away (aorist subjunctive) until all these things have happened (aorist subjunctive). 31 Heaven and earth will pass away (future indicative), but my words will never pass away (future indicative).

Do you see what’s going on here? v. 30 indicates a mere possibility and is stated in the subjunctive mood, whereas v. 31 indicates a certainty and is stated in the indicative mood! The two verses are next to each other, and the verbal grammar of the two is completely different in Greek – yet that grammar got translated identically in the NIV (and most other translations) in both vv. 30 and 31. YLT is the only English translation that I have checked that caught that very important difference:

Mark 13:29-31 Young’s Literal Translation (YLT)
29 so ye, also, when these ye may see coming to pass, ye know that it is nigh, at the doors.
30 Verily I say to you, that this generation may not pass away till all these things may come to pass;
31 the heaven and the earth shall pass away, but my words shall not pass away.

See how this reading of v. 30 changes the meaning of what is being said – especially as compares to v. 31?

Let’s test-drive this concept with the rest of the Olivet Discourse verses on the same subject, as well as a couple of other closely related ones. I will use Young’s Literal for simplicity, you can check the grammar against the original Greek on your own, if you wish – I know I have. In addition to quoting YLT, I will underline subjunctive mood every time it occurs (even YLT doesn’t translate that consistently every single time).

Here are the same verses as recorded in Matthew and Luke:

Matthew 24:33-35
33 so also ye, when ye may see (aorist subjunctive) all these, ye know that it is nigh — at the doors.
34 Verily I say to you, this generation may not pass away (aorist subjunctive) till all these may come to pass (aorist subjunctive).
35 The heaven and the earth shall pass away, but my words shall not pass away.

Luke 21:31-33
31 so also ye, when ye may see (aorist subjunctive) these things happening, ye know that near is the reign of God;
32 verily I say to you — This generation may not pass away (aorist subjunctive) till all may have come to pass (aorist subjunctive);
33 the heaven and the earth shall pass away, but my words may not pass away.

All of the quotes in question check out 100% for subjunctive mood.

Here’s another passage:

Matthew 16:27-28
27 `For, the Son of Man is about to come in the glory of his Father, with his messengers, and then he will reward each, according to his work.
28 Verily I say to you, there are certain of those standing here who shall not taste (aorist subjunctive) of death till they may see (aorist subjunctive) the Son of Man coming in his reign.’

Again, it’s talking about a possibility, not a unconditional certainty (regardless of what dispensation you relegate this verse to). Given the grammar, v. 28 should have been translated as “… there are certain of those standing here who may not taste (aorist subjunctive) of death till they may see (aorist subjunctive) the Son of Man coming in his reign.”.

Imagine, the 2nd coming of Christ was possible in the lifetimes of people present at the time! Sadly, that didn’t materialize. There was a contingency that didn’t happen. I will not elaborate on what the contingency was in this post, but suffice it to say that it was not on God’s side, it was on a human side – or else it would have been a certainty. Regardless, if you take this verse to pertain to the 2nd coming of Christ, it only corroborates the previous one I quoted – that Christ coming back to planet Earth was a possibility that could have been be realized within a generation’s lifespan at that time.

Here’s another verse:

Matthew 10:23
23 `And whenever they may persecute you in this city, flee to the other, for verily I say to you, ye may not have completed (aorist subjunctive) the cities of Israel till the Son of Man may come (aorist subjunctive).

You see, the subjunctive mood indicating a possibility bears out in every passage recording Jesus talking about the second coming prediction.

So, I reckon Jesus knew exactly what he was talking about, after all.

Let’s not limit God by our limited understanding. When something doesn’t make sense to us – let’s just admit that. It’s an impossibility that the author and engineer of DNA and of vast expanses of the universe would make errors like that in his word. If we can’t produce a simple and cogent explanation of what He meant in his recorded words – let’s simply admit that we don’t know, and persist in seeking until we do.

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Comments on: "The most embarrassing verse in the Bible?" (8)

  1. Interesting points made here on the subjective clause. I’ve heard the C.S. Lewis quote used as an objection before too. I’ve also studied eschatology and the Olivet Discourse for many years (including Preterist vs. Futurist arguments). I’ve come to understand that Jesus was mostly talking about the Temple’s destruction (70 AD), most if not all those predictions were fulfilled during the Jewish Wars (67-70 AD), but then some of it obviously telescopes out to His future second coming to earth. Prophecy in the Old Testament often did this–immediate fulfillment, Messianic fulfillment, etc. But my views on this are also subjective. 🙂

    Btw, I just found your blog after your follow on mine. Thanks. I will check out what you have to say. Blessings.

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    • Hi Mel, thank you for your comment!

      I couldn’t have said it better about the “double fulfillment”. In this post, I didn’t go into too much detail into eschatology per se, since my primary objective was to give a solid, unambiguous answer to a specific set of questions raised by believers and skeptics alike. Here’s one example:

      http://www.reasonablefaith.org/was-jesus-a-failed-eschatological-prophet

      Using the approach taken in my post, we arrive at about the same conclusions as Dr. Craig did, but in a simpler, more straightforward, and more objective fashion, by letting the original text speak for itself.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I was just looking at Matthews 24:34 in the YLT and saw it said “may” instead of “shall” I looked in the Greek and sure enough I found it was subjunctive and than I looked at every imaginable translation and they all translated it as Will, Shall, Certainty Will. I was floored! I googled explanations for the passage, and I couldn’t find anyone who acknowledged this, that is until I googled “This generation may not pass away subjunctive mood” and I found your blog post.
    But yeah, why in the world do all the translations minus the blessed YLT, translated it as indicative instead of subjunctive? I simply can’t understand this, is it something concerning their theology that doesn’t want Jesus expressing uncertainty? But how can this be so, right after this he directly says “The Son of man doesn’t even know”. So how do you make sense of what the translators are doing?
    Oh and I sure wish there was a modern Young’s Literal, that changes the Ye, Thous and Thee”

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    • Hi John – thank you for your comment! This explanation is really easy, isn’t it? Besides being entirely true to the text. I don’t know why people miss it, honestly. Here’s the same subject answered by a WL Craig (a much more theologically educated person that myself, to be certain) – notice how one of the best explanations (aside from the simple grammatical one presented in my post) is much more complicated, and still doesn’t give you near enough certainty:

      http://www.reasonablefaith.org/was-jesus-a-failed-eschatological-prophet

      BTW – again, we can see again from the original question in the link quoted that this issue is more than just an intellectual one.

      The best I could guess as to the inaccuracy of most translations is exactly what you said – there was “something concerning their theology that doesn’t want Jesus expressing uncertainty”. Despite , as you have pointed out, Jesus himself acknowledging that “The Son of man doesn’t even know”, further confirming that it was an open issue, contingent on certain human factors.

      So, that’s why I study Scriptures as close to the original texts as I can.

      This insight throws a pretty powerful twist into the interpretation of these passages. So now we don’t need to go fully preterist and allegorize lots of literal meaning of the relevant texts, and we don’t need to be fully futurist to relegate all of the things that Jesus said to the future. As Mel also pointed above – some things did happen, some things did not, and just taking a look at historical writings of that time (Josephus would be a very good source) would clear up a lot of confusion.

      If you take Luke 21, for instance, you can ascertain that vv. 8-24 had indeed happened by and at 70 AD, vv. 25-28 have not. They could have all happened, but didn’t. So perhaps it’s not so much about double-fulfillment, as it is about staged fulfillment. That stance takes away much of the necessity for “Israel-watching”, and leaves us free from trying to shoehorn earthquakes, wars, etc., into the “2nd coming pre-arrival signs” mold, and lets us simply focus on Jesus.

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  3. lifewithporpoise said:

    Hi guys,

    I’m wanting to know how to study the Greek so I can learn more about the true meaning of Bible passages. Can you please refer some good Greek books I might be able to buy and use? Thanks.

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    • As far as Koine Greek is concerned – http://biblehub.com/interlinear should get you going in the right direction. It’s the best fully online resource out there. Another good one is Interlinear Scripture Analyzer: http://www.scripture4all.org . http://www.ntgreek.net/ should get you started with Koine Greek. After you are done with this, you might want to pick up “Learn to read Biblical Greek” by David Alan Black. That’s the most accessible NT Greek textbook I’ve read.

      I don’t see the benefit of getting much more advanced than this. Anything more advanced risks getting you lost in details, making a lot of fuss about virtually nothing, while missing the elephant in the room.

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  4. Hi,

    Well, if there was a “mere possibility” of fulfilment of that things on that generation, it’s because that things were about to happen around that time.

    There would not even be any possibility of that things to happen before that generation passed away if that things where going to be fulfilled only hundreds years after that time.

    Don’t you think so?

    Like

    • Hi Paul,

      Thank you for your insightful comment! A good way to look at what I’ve presented is this. Jesus talks about the possibility of the fulfillment of ALL the things that he touches upon in the Olivet discourse and in the related texts, in a span of a single generation (most commonly, 40 years). He isn’t talking about the necessity of the fulfillment of all things within a single generatio, as most of the scholars and lay folks tend to think. Which actually goes right along with the thrust of your question.

      With the traditional view, we are faced with the uncomfortable dilemma of whether Jesus failed in some of his prophecies, as CS Lewis, Bertrand Russell, and many others thought. On the other extreme, in an attempt to extricate Jesus from this predicament, some are tempted to shoehorn all of the events in the timeframe prior to the fall of Jerusalem in 70AD, and then we have full preterism. The problem with it is its inconsistency, but in a different area. Full preterism arbitrarily switches its exegetical methodology from historical to allegorical when some of the Biblical passages can’t be explained away historically (e.g., second coming, resurrection of the dead, etc). And in the middle tier (allegedly, the most balanced one), what we have is appeal to mystery / appeal to ignorance (as in “we don’t know what Jesus meant”, which is the most honest option of all, with this view).

      My simple approach to this question, besides being 100% Scripturally faithful, completely removes this unnecessary dilemma, opens up a much wider range of options, and doesn’t artificially force you into one of these three camps. So now, the playing field allows for a greater diversity of views (not all of which are equal or Biblically consistent, of course – I am not saying that simple plurality or diversity of views is a virtue in and of itself).

      With all that said – you are quite right in saying that a futuristic approach (dispensationalists usually adopt this one) is not the most tenable one either (if I understand the thrust of your question correctly). I realize that my approach lends more credence to that view, but like I said, it does that for all views.

      We tend to want to see ourselves as the center of human history. However, many (I would venture to say, the majority) of the events in the Olivet discourse have already taken place in the 1st century Israel / Palestine. There’s a theory of double fulfillment out there that opens things up somewhat, and it does have valid points to it. But even the extent of the double fulfillment is usually so exaggerated by many theologians that it often simply defaults to pushing all of the events that were explicitly related to ancient Israel, and were clearly fulfilled in the 1st century AD (as known to any student of ancient history, really), into our immediate future, as the preferred timeframe. This is a strong irrational present-centric bias toward that in modern eschatology, for whatever reason. (Perhaps it gives a bit of the emotional high and adds some drama to a sometimes boring suburban middle class life? Divining the future of the world based on various astrophysical phenomena and political events can be an exciting pastime. 😉 )

      Like

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