There are plenty of persuasive reasons to follow the way of Jesus of Nazareth. Absent from the list is the reason most often cited in the New Testament.
Throughout the various books of the New Testament, a central theme — perhaps the central theme — was that very soon the risen Christ would be coming again in glory to judge the living and the dead. It didn’t happen, of course. [UPDATE: Further down in this posting, I've catalogued some of the NT passages in question. I've also revised some of the arguments here in response to some good points made by commenter BobW.]
Nearly 2,000 years have passed. So far as we know, Jesus has yet to return. An article in today’s New York Times reminds us that even so, some Christians keep insisting that yes, Jesus is coming again — in fact, he might be here Any Day Now. Here’s an excerpt:
WORD spread quickly in some conservative Christian circles when Israeli troops captured the Old City of Jerusalem from Arab forces in June 1967. This was it: Jesus was coming.
But Jesus did not return that day, and the world did not end with the culmination of that Arab-Israeli war.
Neither did it end in 1260, when Joachim of Fiore, an influential 12th-century Italian monk calculated it would, nor in February 1420, as predicted by the Taborites of Bohemia, nor in 1988, 40 years after the formation of Israel, nor after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
But after last week's devastating earthquake in Pakistan, coming as it did after a succession of recent disasters, the apocalyptic speculation, bubbled up again with impressive fervor on many Christian blogs, in some pews and among some evangelical Christian leaders.
Combined with fears of a global pandemic of avian flu, the calamitous flooding that followed Hurricane Katrina and last year's tsunami in Asia, the predictions of the end of the world are to be expected, religious historians said.
After all, Christians have been predicting the end of history since the beginning of theirs.
Michael Luo, Doomsday: The Latest Word if Not the Last, New York Times, Oct. 16, 2005 (paragraphing slightly edited for readability).
We can't categorically rule out that Jesus might return someday. But we have no reason to affirmatively think he's going to do so, apart from the predictions in the New Testament — and the track record of those predictions does not exactly inspire confidence.
Here are some of the New Testament passages that refer to Jesus's allegedly-imminent return; all emphasis is mine. First, from Matthew 24:3-6, 30-35 comes a saying attributed to Jesus that, perhaps more than any other, calls into question the credibility of the Gospel accounts:
As Jesus was sitting on the Mount of Olives, the disciples came to him privately. "Tell us," they said, "when will this happen, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?" Jesus answered: "Watch out that no one deceives you. For many will come in my name, claiming, 'I am the Christ,' and will deceive many. . . .
"At that time the sign of the Son of Man will appear in the sky, and all the nations of the earth will mourn. They will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of the sky, with power and great glory. And he will send his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of the heavens to the other.
"Now learn this lesson from the fig tree: As soon as its twigs get tender and its leaves come out, you know that summer is near. Even so, when you see all these things, you know that it is near, right at the door. I tell you the truth, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened. . . . "
See also the corresponding passages in Luke 12 and Luke 21. From Mark 14:61-63 comes another statement, attributed to Jesus, clearly implying that he would return in triumph within the lifetime of his priestly prosecutors:
Again the high priest asked him, "Are you the Christ, the Son of the Blessed One?" "I am," said Jesus. "And you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One and coming on the clouds of heaven." The high priest tore his clothes. "Why do we need any more witnesses?" he asked.
In 1 Thess. 4:15-17, Paul joins in, claiming that he and his readers would be alive when the Lord returned:
According to the Lord's own word, we tell you that we who are still alive, who are left till the coming of the Lord, will certainly not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever.
The author of 1 Peter 1:13, 20 says much the same thing:
Therefore, prepare your minds for action; be self-controlled; set your hope fully on the grace to be given you when Jesus Christ is revealed. . . . He was chosen before the creation of the world, but was revealed in these last times for your sake.
As does the author of 1 John 2:8 —
And now, dear children, continue in him, so that when he appears we may be confident and unashamed before him at his coming.
And in Rev. 3:11, Jesus is made to say:
I am coming soon. Hold on to what you have, so that no one will take your crown.
As time went on, and Jesus failed to appear as promised, later Christian writers tried to reassure their readers. But their reassurances come across as just a bit defensive. Thus 2 Peter 3:3-10 —
First of all, you must understand that in the last days scoffers will come, scoffing and following their own evil desires. They will say, "Where is this 'coming' he promised? Ever since our fathers died, everything goes on as it has since the beginning of creation." . . .
But do not forget this one thing, dear friends: With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day. The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.
But the day of the Lord will come like a thief. The heavens will disappear with a roar; the elements will be destroyed by fire, and the earth and everything in it will be laid bare.
And James 5:7-9 —
Be patient, then, brothers, until the Lord's coming. See how the farmer waits for the land to yield its valuable crop and how patient he is for the autumn and spring rains. You too, be patient and stand firm, because the Lord's coming is near. Don't grumble against each other, brothers, or you will be judged. The Judge is standing at the door!
Some traditionalists try to rationalize their way out of this dilemma. They suggest that perhaps we moderns don't really know what the New Testament writers actually meant in their choice of (Greek) words. If that were true, however, how would we ever know whether we were getting it right? I prefer to assume that (for the most part) our New Testament scholars have given us reasonably accurate translations.
Two passages from Scripture come to mind here. The first, from the Hebrew Bible, warns us to test prophecies against real-world evidence:
You may say to yourselves, "How can we know when a message has not been spoken by the LORD?" If what a prophet proclaims in the name of the LORD does not take place or come true, that is a message the LORD has not spoken. That prophet has spoken presumptuously. Do not be afraid of him." [Deut. 18:20–21, emphasis added]
The other passage, from Paul, encourages us to honor prophecy as a fruit of the Spirit, but also reminds us that not all prophecies will hit the mark:
Do not put out the Spirit's fire; do not treat prophecies with contempt. Test everything. Hold on to the good. [1 Thess. 5:19–21, emphasis added]
Let's face it: Human predictions often fail to come to pass. It happens. It's time for Christians to put behind us the predictions of Jesus's return, and move on.