If “soon” meant more than 2000 years, why didn’t Jesus just tell us so? Many young adults want to know the answer to that question. Some put it even more harshly: why did he deceive us by telling us it would be soon when it was centuries away? And more pointedly, specifically the Seventh-day Adventist, why did he deceive our pioneers about how soon it would be? After all, it’s now 170 years since 1844.
And this leads to a whole series of other troubling questions. Did anything really happen in 1844? And if so, what? What does this say about the foreknowledge of God?
Unless we are prepared to answer these questions in a way that convinces young adults, we can continue to watch them leave.
As to the question of why Jesus did not tell the disciples, that answer is both simple and complex. The reasons are simple, understanding why is more complex. To understand why Jesus did not simply say, “It will be more than 2000 years before I return,” we look at human nature. The biggest temptation, the one most would fall for, would be to put off spreading the gospel. After all, if nothing’s going to happen for 100 generations, why be in a hurry now?
The second problem is for those who do take it seriously. We know this from the experience of Daniel.
In Daniel, chapter 8, Daniel has a vision which portrayed the unfolding of history from his day until the end of the world. Just as we want to understand prophecies concerning the end times, so did Daniel. In fact, Daniel 8:15 tells us that Daniel “sought to understand the vision.” Part of that vision included a prophecy that stretched for 2300 years. An angel came to explain it to him, and when Daniel fully comprehended the prophecy would not be completed for more than 2000 years, verse 27 tells us he was “sick for many days.”
Clearly, Daniel suffered from shock. He had already been exiled many years. He had come to Babylon, a captive, as a teenager. Now he was elderly. Like any of us, he hoped to live to see the deliverance. What he learned from the vision told him not only that he would not live to see deliverance, but that many generations would come and go before the ending of that prophecy. It was psychologically overwhelming.
If the prophecy extending more than 2000 years in the future discouraged Daniel, one of the towering figures of the Old Testament, and then a mature man who had many decades of trusting the Lord behind him, how devastating would it have been to the apostles? They were relatively young men who had just gone through an enormous amount of stress.
Within eight weeks time they went through Gethsemane, the trial, the crucifixion, the resurrection, and multiple encounters with the risen Christ. Remember that even positive experiences can be stressful. Although I am no expert, it seems pretty clear that encountering and talking to someone you had seen executed a few days before would be a stressful experience. They were about to go through another: he was going to leave them. And after that, they would experience Pentecost, followed by persecution, martyrdom, and death. In terms of stress, their plates were overflowing. Telling them that he would not return for the 2000 years might literally have killed some of them.
Not only does our modern knowledge of stress and its effects in the body tell us how dangerous all the stress could have been, Jesus himself alludes to it. In John 16, Jesus is giving his last instructions for the disciples. They do not know it, but when they leave the upper room and go to the garden, Jesus will be arrested. In 24 hours, he will be dead. So in chapters 13 to 17, nearly 1/4 of the entire content of the gospel of John, Jesus gives his last instructions. About two thirds of the way through, he says this: “I have many more things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now.”
Whether or not physicians of his day understood the role of stress, their Creator knew it. And in John 16:12, he makes that explicit.Telling them his return would not occur for more than 2000 years would’ve overwhelmed them. Probably they would’ve lost hope. It would have been more than they could cope with.
Remember that “soon” is relative both to the type of project undertaken, and the vantage point, the perspective of the observer. One of the reasons the apostles underestimated the time it would take — it’s obvious from the New Testament the apostles expected Jesus return to take place in their lifetime— is that they had no idea of the extent of the mission. For them, “all the world,” consisted of countries surrounding or near to the Mediterranean Sea. It’s quite clear that Paul, at least, thought of that as “all the world.” It appears he had a plan to take the gospel personally to every country in the world. He had planned a trip preaching all the way around the Mediterranean.
So the disciples have only a vague idea of the world beyond Persia and India to the East, of Africa below the Sahara, and not all of the Americas or Australia. Of the sheer size in terms of physical space to be covered, the disciples have no conception. And of the number of tribes, and peoples, and tongues, and nations — they know even less. If we put ourselves back in their time and place, with our knowledge, it is not surprising that the project might take a very, very long time. If we put ourselves back in their time and place, and with their knowledge, we see how overwhelming it would have been to try and explain it to them.
But as we mentioned before, he did not leave them without clues. In Matthew 24:48, the unfaithful servant in the parable says, “my master is not coming for a long time.” He is mistaken, the master returns unexpectedly. The next parable, in chapter 25, is that of the 10 Virgins. Those who are “unwise,” do not take any extra oil. In both of those parables, the anticipated event takes longer than some expected. In the next parable, The Parable of the Talents, Matthew 25:19, says the master came and settled accounts “after a long time.”
The problem in each of those parables is that the Master’s return did not match their expectations. But in each case, there appears to be delay.
So we’ve identified two problems. The apostles did not realize the size of their task, and therefore did not realize what the word “soon” should be compared to. Secondly, they miss the point of the parables which pointed to short-term expectations causing the misunderstanding.
Any parent recognizes this problem.. Children have little idea of the size of the tasks there contemplating, and their expectations often lead to unnecessary disappointments. In the next blog, we’ll see how our pioneers repeated this pattern, and how we can therefore recognize the necessity, and the truth, in the word “soon.”