The disciples and early Christians believed that Jesus would return in their lifetime. The failure of the materialization of parousia proves Jesus was a liar or his disciples inaccurately quoted his words and completely misunderstood his message.
During the Church’s infancy, immediately following Jesus’ crucifixion, the disciples expected that Jesus would imminently return and bring about the end of times. This idea of Jesus’ triumphant return to fulfill his divine prophecy is known as parousia. First millennium Christian apologists understood the devastating consequences of such a massive misunderstanding of Jesus by the Apostles, and they attempted to deflect this blemish. However, that the disciples firmly believed parousia would occur in the first-century is no longer debated even by Church authorities, of who most of the references defer to.
First-century Christians believed “they stood ‘at the end of time’ with their eyes turned heavenward for the coming of their savior” [Hoffman, 135]. There was a strong correlation between the destruction of the temple and the end of times signified by Jesus’ return, and it was “Mark’s believing that the one would immediately succeed the other” [Matthew 24:3 fn]. Beyond Mark’s account of the temple destruction and end of days, in Mark 13, he makes other references to the immediacy of parousia, quoting Jesus as saying “there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see that the kingdom of God has come in power” [Mark 9:1]. While some try to obscure the meaning of this passage, the Vatican affirms it is “more likely, as understood by others, a reference to the imminent parousia” [Mark 9:1 fn].
Paul also taught of the immediacy of parousia, writing to the Thessalonians, “indeed, we tell you this, on the word of the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will surely not precede those who have fallen asleep” [1 Thessalonians 4:15]. Lest the verse be misunderstood, “Paul here assumes that the second coming, or parousia, will occur within his own lifetime” [1 Thessalonians 4:15 fn]. Paul reaffirms his hope in 1 Corinthians 16:22 which includes “a prayer for the early return of Christ” [1 Corinthians 16:22 fn].
Peter preached of the coming parousia after the Pentecost. When the crowd of Jews in Jerusalem heard the Apostles speak, they reportedly all heard the Apostles’ speech in their native language. Some of the crowd scoffed and declared the Apostles drunk [Acts 2:13]. Peter defended the legitimacy of the ecstatic prayers by appealing to the prophesies of “the last days,” which implies the second-coming, to justify the Apostles’ behavior:
These people are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning. No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel: ‘It will come to pass in the last days,’ God says, ‘that I will pour out a portion of my spirit upon all flesh. Your sons and your daughters shall prophesy.’ [Acts 2:15-17]
As time passed, and Jesus was nowhere to be seen, hope began to fade. In James, a call to patience is made: “You too must be patient. Make your hearts firm, because the coming of the Lord is at hand” [James 5:8]. Here is a third testimony to the belief that parousia is “at hand,” though James is implicitly acknowledging concerns over what many thought should have already occurred.
The question may naturally arise as to why the disciples viewed parousia as forthcoming. It is my secular speculation that Jesus’ disciples had to contend with Jesus’ failure to fulfill any of the Jewish Messianic prophecy, and therefore assigned the actions to a future time. It is also important to contextualize Jesus’ life in first-century Judaism where the “Jewish expectation was that Satan would be chained up in the last days (Rev 20:2)” and “Jesus’ exorcisms indicate that those days have begun” [Matthew 12:29 fn].
More so than anything, the notion of imminent parousia originated from Jesus’ own words. The Book of Daniel, “seems to represent the view of some Jews that the end of history and the judgement of God would follow the desecration of the temple cult” [Hoffman, 108]. Jesus echoes the predictions of the temple destruction in Mark 13:1-2 and Matthew 24:1-2 and specifically references Daniel’s prophecy when he claims the end of time will come “when you see the desolating abomination spoken of through Daniel the prophet standing in the holy place” [Matthew 24:15]; “Matthew sees that ‘prophecy’ fulfilled in the desecration of the temple by the Romans” [Matthew 24:15 fn].
Jesus says that after the Roman destruction of the temple,
The sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from the sky, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken. And then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in the clouds’ with great power and glory, and then he will send out the angels and gather [his] elect from the four winds, from the end of the earth to the end of the sky. [Mark 13:24-27]
Critically, Jesus goes on to say, “Amen, I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place” [Mark 13:30; Matthew 24:34]. The Church acknowledges that “the difficulty raised by this verse cannot be satisfactorily removed by the supposition that this generation means the Jewish people throughout the course of their history, much less the entire human race” [Matthew 24:34 fn]. It is clear that Jesus informs his disciples parousia will come within their lifetimes, which from the perspective of orthodoxy, is why the disciples came to believe and preach it.
The Catholic Church summarizes the prophecy of parousia in an astonishingly damaging way to Christian history:
The sign is the presence of the desolating abomination (Mk 13:14; see Dn 9:27), i.e., of the Roman power profaning the temple. Flight from Jerusalem is urged rather than defense of the city through misguided messianic hope (Mk 13:14–23). Intervention will occur only after destruction (Mk 13:24–27), which will happen before the end of the first Christian generation. [Mark 13:3-37 fn]
Once the temple was destroyed, it is believed many Christians fled Jerusalem as instructed, supporting the interpretation of Jesus’ message to mean that the end was near [Matthew 24:16 fn]. Clearly, after the destruction of the temple cult in 70 A.D., no one rose with Christ, as Matthew, Mark, Paul, and Peter thought would occur, and the parousia has not happened since.
That the quick parousia did not occur caused many doubts in the early church [John 21:23 fn; Hoffman, 135]. The Church could not avoid this reality and was forced to accept the non-materialization of the prophecy. Peter addresses the disappointment of the unfulfilled expectation, paraphrasing doubters as questioning: “Where is the promise of his coming? From the time when our ancestors fell asleep, everything has remained as it was from the beginning of creation” [2 Peter 3:4]. All, including the Catholic Church, acknowledge that, “early Christians expected it [parousia] in their day,” and Peter, being unable to explain the lack of Jesus’ return, offered his best retort, which was to deflect the issue and claim God will destroy the world and those spreading doubt [2 Peter 3:4-7 fn].
Opponents of Christianity, such as Jews and pagans, adopted this failure as an attack, and the Church invented new strategies to explain the delay, such as claiming “the power of pagan Rome and of the emperor would decline before God’s son could be revealed in glory (Rom. 16.20; 2 Thess. 2.2-10)” [Hoffman, 136]. The benefit of history shows these defenses to have incontrovertibly failed.
Ultimately, if Christ did send his disciples to preach his truth [Matthew 28:19], the fact that the gospels are verifiably incorrect, in such a clear manner that Vatican approved biblical interpretations attest to the Apostles’ errors, then their falsehoods prove Jesus a liar. If Jesus was not a liar, then one must admit that the Apostles erred in direct quotation and interpretation of Jesus’ message, making them and the gospels unreliable sources. The accompanying flowchart visually represents this deductive argument: