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:
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:
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:
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.
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:
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:
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.