Christopher M. Hays and C. A. Strine have proposed a solution to the problem that Jesus seemingly promised to come back within a generation and didn’t. In a first post on Pete Enns’ The Bible for Normal People site they accept the fact that “Jesus told his disciples that he would come back soon but then didn’t.” In a second post they maintain that Old Testament prophecy is normally conditional: its purpose is not to predict a certain future but to change the present, and if the present changes, then the predicted future is likely to be rescinded.
In the third post they argue from three texts that this is equally true for prophecies in the New Testament about the imminent return of Christ: if the parousia is delayed, it is so that, in the words of Peter, “all should reach repentance” (2 Pet. 3:9). The thesis is set out in detail in When the Son of Man Didn’t Come: A Constructive Proposal on the Delay of the Parousia (2016), edited by Hays.
In this post I will look at the passage in 2 Peter in some detail because it directly addresses the problem of a delay. I’ll append some brief comments on the other two passages at the end.
A first observation, however, is that even in the terms of Hays’ and Strine’s argument in the three posts there is a difference in what we might call the “prophetic logic” at work in the texts. They give the paradigmatic Old Testament example of Jeremiah 18:9:
If at any time I declare concerning a nation or a kingdom, that I will pluck up and break down and destroy it, and if that nation, concerning which I have spoken, turns from its evil, I will relent of the disaster that I intended to do to it. (Jer. 18:7–8)
YHWH is planning a catastrophe for Israel, but if they repent and change their behaviour, the catastrophe will not happen.
The logic of the New Testament problem is different, however. Jesus said he would return soon. That hasn’t happened—not because of what people have done but because of what they haven’t done. So instead of a disastrous outcome averted by repentance we have what is presumably understood to be a good outcome deferred by a failure to repent.
Does that matter? Possibly not. The predicted future is still dependent on what happens in the present. But we shouldn’t overstate the weight of the Old Testament precedent.
Now to probe the apostle Peter’s particular proposition about the postponement of the promised parousia….
Out of what context?
Peter responds to the “scoffers” who say, “Where is the promise of his parousia? For ever since the fathers fell asleep, all things are continuing as they were from the beginning of creation” (2 Pet. 3:4). He admits that things are taking longer than expected, but with the Lord one day is a thousand years, etc. (3:8), so relax…. Hays and Strine agree that taken “out of context” it appears that Peter has moved the goalposts. But they insist that we should read the next verse, which says that God is giving us time to repent (3:9).
That’s not much context. I think we gain a rather different perspective if we take into account not only the letter as a whole but also the context that the letter appears to presuppose.
Second Peter purports to have been written by the apostle shortly before his death (2 Pet. 1:14). His readers are waiting for the “rule of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ in the age to come” (1:11), as prophesied in the scriptures (1:19-20). The allusion at this point to the transfiguration (2 Pet. 1:17-18) brings the motif of the Son of Man coming “with his angels in the glory of his Father” into view (Matt. 16:27; 17:12).
We then get a lengthy and rather acerbic tirade against false prophets and the unrighteous, which I will come back to. For now, Peter’s readers are assured that God will rescue the godly from the “testing” of persecution and will “keep the unrighteous”—that is, their persecutors—“under punishment until the day of judgment” (2:9).
This has given us some initial reason to synchronise Peter’s narrative with the story that Jesus outlines in the Synoptic Gospels. I suspect that the prophesied rule of Christ corresponds to Daniel’s vision of a figure like a son of man coming with the clouds of heaven to receive “dominion and glory and a kingdom, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him” (Dan. 7:14). But then, of course, we are firmly reminded of Jesus’ unqualified assurance to his disciples at just this moment that “there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom” (Matt. 16:28). That sort of statement is not easily shifted.
There are other respects in which we may connect the letter with the distinctly Jewish perspective of the apostle, even if we think this is all part of the pseudepigraphal fiction.
I assume that the letter was written, perhaps from Rome, to Gentile believers in churches established and overseen by Paul and his associates (cf. 3:15-16). So when Peter—the apostle to the Jews (Gal. 2:7-8)—says that his readers have been allotted a faith “with the same privileges as our own” (isotimon hēmin), he is making the point that these Gentile believers have become fully included in the story of redeemed Israel. They are no longer, in Paul’s words, “strangers and aliens, but… fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God” (Eph. 2:19).
That gets us looking at the situation from a Jewish point of view.
The promise of his parousia
The scoffers’ question about the delay of the parousia is, arguably, an allusion to the parousia sayings in Matthew:
- “what will be the sign of your parousia and of the end of the age?” (Matt. 24:3);
- “as the lightning comes from the east and shines as far as the west, so will be the parousia of the Son of Man” (Matt. 24:27);
- “as were the days of Noah, so will be the parousia of the Son of Man. For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day when Noah entered the ark, and they were unaware until the flood came and swept them all away, so will be the parousia of the Son of Man.” (Matt. 24:37–39)
Jesus is speaking about a “day and hour” that will take the Jews by surprise (Matt. 24:36), just as the flood took Noah’s generation by surprise.
Peter distinguishes between the ancient catastrophic judgment by water, long after the earth was formed out of water, and a coming judgment by fire, in which the “ungodly” will be destroyed (2 Pet. 3:5-6).
Jesus frequently characterises the coming judgment against Israel as a destruction by fire: “the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire” (Matt 3:12); the unrighteous will be “liable to the gehenna of fire” (Matt. 5:22; cf. 18:8-9); every tree that does not bear good fruit is “cut down and thrown into the fire” (Matt. 7:19; cf. 3:10); Gentiles who persecute the disciples will depart “into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels” (Matt. 25:41).
It may also be a mistake to translate parousia as “coming” in the sense that it is usually understood, as a coming from heaven to earth. Jesus says that the “sign of the Son of Man” will appear in heaven and all the tribes of the land or of the earth “will see the Son of Man coming (erchomenon) on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory” (Matt. 24:30). But the point here, it seems to me, is that those who opposed Jesus and had him killed—the leadership in Jerusalem, on the one hand, Rome, on the other—would see what the prophet Daniel saw: the vindication of the persecuted “son of man” figure and the transfer of kingdom to him. They would see the fulfilment of this symbolic vision. Jesus is not describing a literal coming from heaven to earth, anymore than Daniel imagined that thrones would literally be set up on earth for the judgment of Antiochus Epiphanes, from which a stream of fire would go out and consume the beast of Hellenic empire (Dan. 7:9-11).
What the word parousia refers to ultimately, in historical terms, is the day when Israel’s crucified messiah was acclaimed as Lord by the pagan nations that had formerly opposed, sometimes quite violently, YHWH, his Christ, and his people.
That all should reach repentance
We then arrive at the statement about repentance. According to Hays and Strine, “Peter explicitly affirms that the delay of the parousia is God’s response to human behavior: God defers his final judgment in order to allow more people to come to repentance.” So if we are still waiting for Jesus to come back, it is because God is giving people time to repent, even though many generations have come and gone since Peter wrote these words. The logic is screwy, but it is also a careless reading of the text.
Peter does not say that God is patient towards all humanity. He says that God is patient “towards you” (eis hymas), towards his readers, or “because of you” (dia hymas) as some manuscripts have it. The argument has in view specifically the communities of believers to which he is writing. Why? Because some people in those communities have been, or will be, in these last days before the fulfilment of the promise, led astray by false teachers (2 Pet. 2).
There is a very narrow contingency at work here.
If the day of Jesus’ parousia is delayed, it is in order that the purity and integrity of these churches may be re-established. His readers have been called to share in a new future, but it is a calling to right belief and right behaviour, and if they fall short in these respects, they will be denied “entrance into the kingdom of our Lord and Saviour Jesus and Christ in the age to come” (2 Pet. 1:10-11). So rather than fretting about the delay, they should seize the opportunity to put their house in order.
New heavens and new earth
The dependence on Jesus’ teaching is further indicated by the reference to the statement that “the day of the Lord will come like a thief” (2 Pet. 3:10; cf. Matt. 24:43). What follows certainly looks like an apocalyptic intensification of Jesus’ saying about the heavens being darkened and shaken (Matt. 24:29):
the heavens will pass away with a great noise, and the stoicheia will be burned up and dissolved, and the earth and the works that are done on it will be exposed. Since all these things are thus to be dissolved, what sort of people must you be in holy ways of life and pieties, waiting for and hastening the parousia of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be set on fire and dissolved, and the stoicheia will be burned up and melt? But we are waiting for new heavens and a new earth according to his promise in which righteousness dwells. (2 Pet. 3:10–13, my translation)
There are, admittedly, all sorts of difficulties entailed in the interpretation of this passage, but is he really saying anything very different?
Jesus believed that the political-religious catastrophe of the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple would be mirrored in disturbances in the heavens: “the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will fall from heaven, and the powers of the heavens will be shaken” (Matt. 24:29). This is a darkening of the heavens, as the thick smoke rises from the fires of the burning city. Peter imagines a conflagration in the heavens and on the earth, a wholesale destruction and remaking of the political-religious order.
The stoicheia are not merely heavenly bodies or powers; they have a bearing on the behaviour of peoples and civilisations—even of the Jews under the Law (cf. Gal. 4:3, 9; Col. 2:20). When the prevailing pagan civilisation passes away, along with the corrupt and ineffectual Jewish world contained within it, the works that characterised it (cf. Rom. 1:18-32) will be exposed.
In Isaiah the coming of “new heavens and a new earth” is a metaphor for a decisive renewal of Israel and the reorganisation of the nations around Jerusalem as a righteous imperial centre (Is. 65:17; 66:22). Given the perspective, fictional or otherwise, of the author of the letter, it seems quite reasonable to suppose that when he says, “we are waiting for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells” (2 Pet. 3:13), he has much the same sort of epochal transformation in mind.
So in conclusion
If the letter was written by or with the approval of the apostle Peter in the 60s, then it may share something of the urgent eschatological timeframe of the Synoptic Gospels. If it is pseudepigraphal and dates from towards the end of the first century, the more remote prospect of the confession of Jesus as Lord by the nations, which is the day of his parousia, is in view. Either way, I don’t think the author is trying to describe the literal destruction of the heavens and the earth.
The period of waiting provides an opportunity for the churches to get their act together so that they will be fit to perform their priestly function in the age to come. Peter has not introduced the frankly nonsensical idea that the parousia is being delayed indefinitely so that more people can become Christians. The argument does not override the pervasive sense of imminence and urgency—from Jesus’ promise that some of his disciples would live to see their vindication to the angel’s assurance to John that “the time is near” (Rev. 22:10). The only satisfactory solution to the problem is to recognise that such prophecies had to do with real historical outcomes.
And the two other texts…
As I said, Hays and Strine briefly mention two other New Testament texts in support of their argument that the prophecy of Jesus’ coming is contingent upon repentance: Peter’s appeal to the “Men of Israel” to repent so that God may “send the Christ appointed for you, Jesus, whom heaven must receive until the time for restoring all the things” (Acts 3:20–21); and, less obviously, the petition “May your kingdom come and may your will be done” in the Lord’s prayer.
Even more clearly than the 2 Peter passage, these are confined to a particular historical outlook.
The “restoring of all things” is the restoration of Israel (cf. Acts 1:6). Moses warned that every person who did not listen to the prophet like him whom God would raise up for the Jews would be “destroyed from the people” (3:22-23). Jesus was sent to turn this “crooked generation” from its wickedness (2:40; 3:26). In fact, neither Jesus nor Peter was able to convince the people of Jerusalem to repent, and in the end, I suggest, the promise of sending “the Christ appointed for you, Jesus” was not fulfilled. All Israel was not saved, either before or after the catastrophe of AD 70 (cf. Rom. 11:25-27). Jesus was not Israel’s saviour but Israel’s judge.
Finally, Jesus’ prayer that God’s kingdom would come, that his will would be done, presupposes the same eschatological outlook. The inspiration for the prayer comes from Ezekiel 36:23 LXX: “I will sanctify my great name, which was profaned among the nations, which you profaned in their midst, and the nations shall know that I am the Lord, when I am hallowed among you before their eyes” (Ezek. 36:23). Perhaps prayer for the coming kingdom would hasten the day, but the chronology is not “flexible” to the extent that the prayer would be fulfilled beyond the timeframe of such visions for the future of first century Israel.