“The Coming of the Lord”: Paul’s Failed Prophecies on the Parousia of Jesus

بِسْمِ اللهِ الرَّحْمٰنِ الرَّحِيْم

“The Coming of the Lord”: Paul’s Failed Prophecies on the Parousia of Jesus

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“But the prophet who presumes to speak a word in my name that I have not commanded him to speak, or who speaks in the name of other gods, that same prophet shall die.’” (Deuteronomy 18:20)

Despite all of its internal contradictions, the New Testament is ironically very consistent on one issue: the imminent end of the world and the return of Jesus (peace be upon him). From the gospels to the Pauline epistles, all the way to the Book of Revelation, the New Testament consistently prophesies the violent destruction of the world and the ushering in of the reign of Jesus on earth. This was the view of Paul, who is arguably the most influential person in early Christianity. In this article, we will examine three passages from Paul’s letters that demonstrate his expectation of an imminent and chaotic end to the world order. These passages are 1 Corinthians 7:25–31, 1 Thessalonians 4:13–18, and 1 Thessalonians 5:1–10.[1]

The Imminent Parousia in 1 Corinthians 7:25–31

            Paul’s warning of the end of the world in the first epistle to the Corinthians is crystal-clear and leaves no room for reinterpretations (though Christian apologists still try). Here is the passage (emphasis ours):

“Now concerning the betrothed, I have no command from the Lord, but I give my judgment as one who by the Lord’s mercy is trustworthy. I think that in view of the present distress it is good for a person to remain as he is. Are you bound to a wife? Do not seek to be free. Are you free from a wife? Do not seek a wife. But if you do marry, you have not sinned, and if a betrothed woman marries, she has not sinned. Yet those who marry will have worldly troubles, and I would spare you that. This is what I mean, brothers: the appointed time has grown very short. From now on, let those who have wives live as though they had none, and those who mourn as though they were not mourning, and those who rejoice as though they were not rejoicing, and those who buy as though they had no goods, and those who deal with the world as though they had no dealings with it. For the present form of this world is passing away.”

The warning could not be clearer. Paul was answering a question about marriage,[2] and he responded that it was better not to get married (while admitting that this was his own “judgement” and not “from the Lord”), but that if someone did, it was not a sin. Why would he say it was better not to get married? The reason is given in verses 29 and 31: “the appointed time has grown very short” and “this world is passing away”.

If Paul had meant that Christians in general, no matter what time-period they were living in, should not get married because it would distract them with “worldly troubles” (verse 28), his advice would be impossible to follow, especially when thousands of years would still be left until the “passing away” of the world (since we are now talking about his advice nearly 2000 years later). His advice only makes sense if he believed the “present world” was “passing away” in a very short amount of time and not thousands of years later. The fact that he said “from now on” (verse 29) also emphasizes the imminent end of the world.

Paul was giving this advice because of the “present distress” (verse 26), referring to the difficulties the Christians were facing. To him, frivolous matters like marriage were not that important given that the “present distress” was evidence that the world will soon pass away. The time had indeed “grown very short”. While we may scoff at him now, Paul’s logic was flawless. If the end of the world was imminent, then what would be the point of worrying about world matters like marriage? In fact, he urged his followers to remain as they were, whether married or single. Earlier, he had even urged people who were uncircumcised to remain that way and those who were slaves to remain as slaves (though they could seek freedom if the opportunity arose).[3] In other words, his advice was to forget about worldly issues because the present world was not going to be around much longer. As Mark Smith explains in his book Broken Promises: Jesus and the Second Coming (emphasis in the original):

“Paul, ‘inspired ambassador for BibleGod, advises that because of what was expected in their near future—the dramatic end of ‘the present scheme of things’, Christian weddings should come to a complete halt, and those who already have wives should live as if they had none. This applied from the day Paul wrote it- to how far into the future? The answer is ‘from now on’ as Paul says, until whenever Jesus may be returning.”[4]

The Imminent Parousia in 1 Thessalonians 4:13–18

            The next passage is 1 Thessalonians 4:13–18. Here, Paul declared that Christians who had died and those were still alive will see Jesus and be with him when he returns. The context is extremely important here since apologists will claim that Paul is talking about some time in the future, and not necessarily in his own time:

“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.”

The context shows that Paul is directly speaking to the Christians of his time, his “brothers” (verse 13). He also refers to “we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord” (verse 15). These are references to his own time. This is explained in The New Testament in Modern Speech:

“The pronouns ‘we’ and ‘you’ cannot, as a rule, be used to the total exclusion of the persons speaking or immediately addressed. Therefore here (v. 15) and in verse 17 Paul implies that the return of the Lord Jesus would take place in the lifetime of some of the first readers of this letter.”[5]

What makes it worse is that Paul does not say that this is his opinion. Rather, he claims that it is “by a word from the Lord”. So, it was under “inspiration” that he made this prophecy, which ultimately failed. That Paul was talking to the people of his own time and not in some unknown and distant future is further demonstrated in 1 Thessalonians 5:1–10.

The Imminent Parousia in 1 Thessalonians 5:1–10

            Since Paul is still speaking to the same people in Thessaly as in chapter 4, we can get some insight from the historical context of the passage in chapter 5:

“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. For you are all children of light, children of the day. We are not of the night or of the darkness. So then let us not sleep, as others do, but let us keep awake and be sober. For those who sleep, sleep at night, and those who get drunk, are drunk at night. But since we belong to the day, let us be sober, having put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation. For God has not destined us for wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us so that whether we are awake or asleep we might live with him.”

The target audience of this passage is again the people of the time. This is the historical context and is shown by his use of the phrase “peace and security” (verse 3). While the non-Christians were blissfully enjoying their “peace and security”, Paul warned that Jesus would return all of a sudden and bring that “peace and security” to a violent end. This is a direct reference to the Roman concept of “Pax Romana” or “Roman peace”. “Pax” was also the name of the Roman goddess of peace.[6] As James R. Harrison explains in his book Paul and the Imperial Authorities at Thessalonia and Rome: A Study in the Conflict of Ideology, Paul was warning those who “trusted in the false security of the Roman Empire”,[7] and was prophesying “the destruction of the proponents of the imperial pax et securitas”.[8]

Like the Book of Revelation’s subtle reference to the Roman myth of Dea Roma, the goddess of Rome, as the “great prostitute” who sits on the seven-headed “beast” (the seven hills of Rome), Paul was referencing the Roman concept of “peace and security”. Both the Dea Roma myth and the Roman celebration of the “Pax Romana” are depicted in coins from the era.[9] One example from the reign of the emperor Claudius, who reigned from 41–54 CE,[10] is shown below:

Roman coin - Paci Augustae
Figure 1: A denarius from 44 CE showing the head of Claudius (obverse) and Pax/Nemesis with the inscription “PACI AVGVSTAE” (reverse) (Source: http://numismatics.org/ocre/results?q=deity_facet:%22Pax%22).

It is probably not a coincidence that Paul wrote the epistle to the Thessalonians around the year 50 CE,[11] during the reign of Claudius. In fact, there were both gold (aurei) and silver (denarii) coins issued during the reign of Claudius with the same inscription (PACI AVGUSTAE).[12]

This further proves that Paul expected Jesus to return at the exact time that most people in the Roman Empire would have considered a golden age of “peace and security”, and it also proves that Paul was spectacularly wrong, since the “Pax Romana” lasted for some 200 years,[13] and even then, the empire didn’t simply collapse, nor did Jesus (peace be upon him) return.

Conclusion

            We have examined three passages from the epistles of Paul that prove beyond a doubt that Paul, like many early Christians, was expecting the imminent return of Jesus and the overthrow of the world order in his own time. Like John of Patmos would do later in the Book of Revelation, Paul prophesied the violent destruction of the pagan Roman Empire. Both were wrong. The Roman Empire’s much-touted “pax Romana” lasted well into the 2nd-century CE, and the empire itself survived well into the 5th-century CE.

And Allah (Glorified and Exalted be He) knows best!


[1] All translations are from the English Standard Version (ESV).

[2] The ESV explains in a footnote that the phrase “now concerning” (verse 25):

“…introduces a reply to a question in the Corinthians’ letter…” (https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=1+Corinthians+7%3A25-31&version=ESV#fen-ESV-28496a).

[3] 1 Corinthians 7:17–24.

[4] Mark Smith, Broken Promises: Jesus and the Second Coming (Middletown, Delaware: Amazon Kindle Direct Press, 2020). P. 81.

[5] The New Testament in Modern Speech, ed. Ernest H. Cook (Boston, Massachusetts: Pilgrim Press, 1909), p. 533, quoted in Mark Smith, op. cit., p. 87.

[6] Pax was “[t]he personification of peace at Rome. She was given an altar by Augustus to sanctify the re-establishment of order after the Civil Wars. Later Vespasian, then Domitian, devoted a temple to her in the Forum, which was named the Forum of Peace” (Pierre Grimal, A Concise Dictionary of Classical Mythology, ed. Stephen Kershaw [Oxford, UK: Basil Blackwell, 1990], p. 332).

[7] James R. Harrison, Paul and the Imperial Authorities at Thessalonica and Rome: A Study in the Conflict of Ideology (Tübingen, Germany: Mohr Siebeck, 2011), p. 62.

[8] Ibid., p. 61.

[9] For a discussion of the depiction of Dea Roma, see my article on the Book of Revelation: https://quranandbibleblog.com/2015/05/31/the-book-of-revelation/.

[10] Nigel Rodgers, The Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Roman Empire: Chronicling the Rise and Fall of the Most Important and Influential Civilization the World Has Ever Known (Anness Publishing Ltd., 2017), p. 64.

[11] Burton L. Mack, Who Wrote the New Testament: The Making of the Christian Myth (New York, New York: HarperCollins Publishers Inc., 1995), p. 107.

[12] See here for other examples: http://numismatics.org/ocre/results?q=deity_facet:%22Pax%22

[13] According to the Encyclopedia Brittanica, the “Pax Romana” was “a state of comparative tranquility throughout the Mediterranean world form the reign of Augustus (27 BCE–14 BCE) to the reign of Marcus Aurelius (161–180 CE) (https://www.britannica.com/event/Pax-Romana).

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