Was Paul a deluded apocalypticist? In other words, did he believe the apocalypse (i.e. some kind of dramatic end of world event) would happen in his lifetime? The answer to this is almost certainly yes. My friend, Mark Smith, recently wrote a nice summary of the failed second coming (available on Amazon) responding to the various theologies that try to get around it.
Of course, Jesus made some pretty bold claims on the subject, which gives Christians the opportunity to exercise the full scope of their creativity with various interpretations.
Unpopular is C. S. Lewis’s take, which is that the verse:
This generation shall not pass till all these things be done.Matt 24:34
is “the most embarrassing verse in the Bible.” (The World’s Last Night by C. S. Lewis). He goes on to argue that Jesus is fully God and fully man, and we need appreciate that the fully man bit comes with consequences. When Jesus asked “Who touched me?” (Luke 7:45) he really wanted to know. And, similarly, when he prophesied that the apocalypse was near, he just got it wrong, but hey, to err is human, even for a man-god. Forget, for a minute, that human prophets were disregarded and put to death for getting it wrong (Dt 18:22). Here’s the deal in Lewis’s own words:
And if limitation, and therefore ignorance, was thus taken up [by Jesus], we ought to expect that the ignorance should at some time be actually displayed.C.S. Lewis, The World’s Last Night
But I wanted in this post to discuss some of the reasons why we think Paul thought “The End was Nigh!” (Mark 1:15).
Firstly, I’ll use a Bayesian framework. This just makes the (usually implicit) maths explicit. It’s a way to present the data, so don’t get too stressed about it. It appeals to me with my science background, but I never thought to apply it to history until I read Richard Carrier. The basic idea is we adjust our estimate of the likelihood of an event based on new evidence. So in this case we’ll take two opposing views:
- Paul thought the world was going to end in his lifetime.
- Paul didn’t think the world was going to end in his lifetime.
The sum of the probability of these two must be 1.
We need to start somewhere. This is our prior estimate. In other words, before we have any data, what would we estimate? I’m not going to be too rigorous here (I don’t know how you could be, really), so feel free to do your own estimates and calculations as we go. I thought initially about how many people I know personally who think the world will end in their lifetime. That gave me a low probability: maybe low single digits (I might be underestimating that)?
Although, I remember as a kid being told that the world was going to end in 2000. My mother was into all that stuff. I got dragged along to listen to end-times preacher, Barry Smith, who was touring South Africa (and, I presume, other credulous societies) to hawk his books. I was genuinely alarmed at the time and started to wonder what the point of school was. Might as well end game it, amiright? Then it got worse: mum said that a real honest-to-god prophet (can’t remember who) had said the world would end before he died. And he (obviously a “he”) was already old. But then my mum casually mentioned one day that they’d been people who’d thought the world would end in their lifetime for the last two thousand years, and I figured the rest out from there.
[Pro-tip: if you’re going to get into the whole prophecy business (prophet profit?), a time frame of “before I die” is really top-notch. There’s no possibility of a false prophecy catching up with you; it has appropriate urgency (it’s a fine balance: “next few weeks” tends to cause a “take to the hills” effect; year 3000 isn’t going to get those large donations). And it subtly puts you, the prophet, right into the middle of things: imagine being so important that your death is the marker for whatever dramatic event you’re predicting?]
Anyway, I googled it to see if anyone had conducted any surveys. This is for the prior, so before we’ve looked at Paul’s actual writings. At least one study indicates that 15%(!) of us think the world will end in our lifetime. That study also shows that religious places like Turkey and the United States have a higher percentage (22%). This is in the modern world: Paul was living in a time and place where visions were better than evidence and the end had been prophesied in Daniel. On the other hand, Paul may be partly responsible for the high proportion in modern times, so that complicates the issue.
Let’s be conservative and say that our prior, before we’ve looked at his writings, is 15% (in case it’s not obvious, when I quote a percent here without context, I mean the percentage probability that someone would believe that the world will end in their lifetime).
Now we need to adjust this prior based on Paul’s writings. There are seven books that are generally considered to be authentically authored by Paul: 1 Thessalonians, Galatians, 1 & 2 Corinthians, Philippians, Philemon, and Romans. Others are disputed. Most of the writing in these books doesn’t discuss the issue and so doesn’t change our prior. A few verses do though. So let’s look at them.
For this we tell you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will in no way precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel and with God’s trumpet. 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. So we will be with the Lord forever.1 Thess 4:15-17
Mmm. How to evaluate this? Plainly, this is exactly the kind of thing you’d expect from someone who believes the world will end in his lifetime. It’s a detailed description of it. So 100% likely in scenario 1. But what of scenario 2. Could someone who did not believe that the world would end in their lifetime write such words? I can’t think of any way. Remember, that creating unusual interpretations doesn’t help, because those interpretations introduce a reduced prior likelihood.
We also need to evaluate them in their context. It turns out that there is no context in 1 Thessalonians to suppose scenario 2. No “when I’m dead and buried” or “carry on after I’m gone” or “I’m looking for someone to pick up my mantle.” Instead we have verses like this:
For they themselves report concerning us what kind of a reception we had from you, and how you turned to God from idols, to serve a living and true God, and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead: Jesus, who delivers us from the wrath to come.Thess 1:9-10
May the Lord make you to increase and abound in love toward one another, and toward all men, even as we also do toward you, to the end he may establish your hearts blameless in holiness before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints.Thess 3:12-13
But concerning the times and the seasons, brothers, you have no need that anything be written to you. For you yourselves know well that the day of the Lord comes like a thief in the night.Thess 5:1-2
So, he’s not claiming to have a specific date and time (modern prophets should take a leaf from his book, although they seem completely unabashed at their frequent failures (recent examples include the former US president being given an second unearned term)). Let’s be generous and say that there’s a 10% chance that he’d have written those words specifically, and Thessalonians generally, in scenario 2.
So, now you update your prior with the 100:10 likelihood, and you get a new estimate of at least 64% probability that Paul thought the world would end in his lifetime (the calculation isn’t hard: 15% x 100% : 85% x 10% = 64%:36%. I’m re-normalizing these odds to sum to 1 so we can keep track as we’re going).
Let’s have a look at Galatians. There’s not much here either way.
Lord Jesus Christ, who gave himself for our sins, that he might deliver us out of this present evil age, according to the will of our God and FatherGal 1:4
Let’s not be weary in doing good, for we will reap in due season, if we don’t give up.Gal 6:9
This could have been a generic salvation statement and seems to refer to Jesus’s death. Most of the book is generic advice to the Galatians. It’s not inconsistent with scenario 1, but I’d imagine that scenario 1 might have come up. More of the “time is short” stuff might be expected. So let’s say 50% for scenario 1 and 100% for scenario 2. This updates our probability to 47% (64% x 50% : 36% x 100% (I’m rounding for the post, but did the calculations in a spreadsheet, so don’t sweat it if there’s a rounding error somewhere)). This is probably too generous to scenario 2, but let’s just go with it and see where we get to.
1 Corinthians has more explicit statements. It also has some parts that make perfect sense in scenario 1 but are distinctly odd in scenario 2. “Distinctly odd,” of course, meaning lower probability. Let’s look at a few.
so that you come behind in no gift; waiting for the revelation of our Lord Jesus Christ; who will also confirm you until the end, blameless in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ.1 Cor 1:7-8
This could be a generic statement about waiting until the final judgment after you’re dead, but it more naturally fits scenario 1. Let’s look at more context.
Therefore judge nothing before the time, until the Lord comes, who will both bring to light the hidden things of darkness, and reveal the counsels of the hearts. Then each man will get his praise from God.1 Cor 4:5
But I say this, brothers: the time is short, that from now on, both those who have wives may be as though they had none; and those who weep, as though they didn’t weep; and those who rejoice, as though they didn’t rejoice; and those who buy, as though they didn’t possess; and those who use the world, as not using it to the fullest. For the mode of this world passes away.1 Cor 7:29-31
This is a pretty clear statement of urgency. The whole opposition to marriage (“Now to the unmarried and the widows I say: It is good for them to stay unmarried, as I do.” 1 Cor 7:8) makes far more sense in scenario 1 than scenario 2.
Behold, I tell you a mystery. We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound and the dead will be raised incorruptible, and we will be changed.1 Cor 15:51-52
This one is very clear. He specifically contrasts “the dead” with “we” at the last trumpet. “We will not all sleep” (ie die). I really cannot imagine how scenario 2 would result in this passage. But it’s completely natural in scenario 1. I’m going to say 10% in scenario 2 and 100% in scenario 1. So the updated probability is 90% : 10% (47% x 100% : 53% x 10%). Again, I think I’m being generous to scenario 2 here.
Not much either way. There are things that fit scenario 1:
For we write no other things to you than what you read or even acknowledge, and I hope you will acknowledge to the end, as also you acknowledged us in part, that we are your boasting, even as you also are ours, in the day of our Lord Jesus.2 Cor 1:13-14
It seems that Paul expects the Corinthians to be there at “the end” which he links to “the day of our Lord Jesus.” But I’ll leave the probabilities as they are (90%:10%).
Similar. We have verses like this:
being confident of this very thing, that he who began a good work in you will complete it until the day of Jesus Christ.Phil 1:6
Again I’ll leave the probabilities (90%:10%). Talking of books starting with Phil, I’ll ignore Philemon. It’s short and the issue doesn’t come up. Even a zealot wouldn’t necessarily bring it up in a short letter asking for assistance.
There’s more here for scenario 1. Some examples:
For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which will be revealed toward us. For the creation waits with eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed.Rom 8:18
Fits perfectly with scenario 1. Would be odd in scenario 2.
Not only so, but ourselves also, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, waiting for adoption, the redemption of our body.Rom 8:23
Here we have the notion that “we” are waiting for the redemption of our body.
Do this, knowing the time, that it is already time for you to awaken out of sleep, for salvation is now nearer to us than when we first believed. The night is far gone, and the day is near.Rom 13:11-12
Definitely on brand for “the end is nigh” crowd. I’d say 100% expected in scenario 1 and maybe 20% with scenario 2 (again generous). So that updates us to 98%:2% (90% x 100% : 10% x 20%).
So there we have the writings of Paul. You could look at some of the other writings sometimes attributed to him. For example:
For I am already being offered, and the time of my departure has come. I have fought the good fight. I have finished the course. I have kept the faith. From now on, the crown of righteousness is stored up for me, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will give to me on that day; and not to me only, but also to all those who have loved his appearing.2 Timothy 4:6-8
I excluded this because 2 Timothy is not accepted as authentic Paul. Even if it were, it wouldn’t exclude an apocalypticist belief, but it does seem to have Paul accepting his death. Presumably, by the time Paul died, he’d started to think that maybe the end wasn’t quite so nigh as he’d thought. So you might expect something like this: a sort of reverse death-bed conversion.
I would argue that I’ve been far too generous to scenario 2 throughout the analysis. So we have an estimate that Paul was at least 98% likely to have thought that the world would end in his lifetime. Obviously, we could argue about the specific numbers, but I’ve consistently taken a view that’s generous to scenario 2.
I’m not a scholar, so I’m just looking at the verses in my amateur way and trying to understand them. My understanding is that scholars have come to the same view. I guess some Christians find this view repugnant because if Paul was wrong about that, then maybe he wasn’t so inspired about other things? But I think it is reasonable to conclude that Paul, mistakenly, thought the world would end in his lifetime. If more data needs to be incorporated, let me know and I’ll adjust my estimate appropriately.