Theologian and pastor John Piper was asked by a Christian from Switzerland “why Jesus has not yet returned despite promises made some 2,000 years ago in the Bible.” Here’s how the questioner framed his argument:
As I was studying with our children the need to evaluate prophets by biblical criteria the following thought hit me: The Bible says in Deuteronomy 18 that a prophet whose predictions don’t come true is not sent by God and that he should not be feared. However, in the New Testament we find repeated evidence of people whom we would call inspired who evidently believed — and sometimes claimed — that Jesus would come back soon, even during the writer’s own lifetime. Examples would be 1 Peter 4:7; Matthew 24:34; 26:64; 1 Corinthians 10:11; 1 Thessalonians 4:15-17; and 1 Corinthians 15:51. How can we still consider them authoritative while discarding modern-day messengers whose prophecies don’t materialize? I am a bit uneasy that at some stage our kids will tell us that Paul was wrong about 1 Corinthians 15:51 and so he’s not to be taken seriously. Do you have any suggestions as to how to deal with this tension?”
This inquiry is easy to answer if (1) you take Jesus at His word and (2) you let Scripture interpret itself. This questioner is not the first to raise this objection. Bart Ehrman mentioned it in his book Misquoting Jesus,1 and Christopher Hitchens tried to use it against the reliability of the Bible in his debate with Douglas Wilson in the film Collision. You can read the exchange between Hitchens and Wilson in Collision: The Official Study Guide.
The well-known atheist Bertrand Russell argued similarly in his Why I Am Not a Christian:
[Jesus] 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 and there are a lot of places where it is quite clear that He believed that His coming would happen during the lifetime of many then living. That was the belief of His earlier followers, and it was the basis of a good deal of His moral teaching.2
Writing for the Skeptical Inquirer, Gerald A. Larue takes the same position and concludes that the Bible cannot be trusted because Jesus was wrong about the timing of His coming. “Jesus was wrong. Indeed, during the second century CE, some Christians asked, ‘Where is the promise of His coming? For ever since the fathers fell asleep, all things have continued as they were from the beginning of creation.’ (2 Peter 3:4). All we can say is that from that time on, every prophetic pronouncement of the ending of time has been wrong.”3
Contrary to Larue, 2 Peter was written a few years before the destruction of Jerusalem, not in the second century. The scoffers are questioning Jesus’ prediction that He would come in judgment against Jerusalem resulting in the destruction of the temple before their generation passed away. As Jesus predicted, it took place a few years after Peter wrote his letter when the Romans destroyed the temple and city in AD 70. For a detailed study of this and other related prophetic topics, see my book Identifying the Real Last Days Scoffers…