How Christian Expectation Faded
JESUS told his disciples to “keep on the watch” for his presence and the coming of his Kingdom. (Mark 13:37) There is plenty of evidence in the Christian Greek Scriptures that first-century Christians did just that. In fact, some became quite impatient. (2 Thessalonians 2:1, 2) On the other hand, to forestall any slackening in Christian expectation, Paul, James, Peter and John all wrote letters in which they exhorted their brothers to keep spiritually alert while patiently awaiting Christ’s “presence” and “Jehovah’s day.”—Hebrews 10:25, 37; James 5:7, 8; 1 Peter 4:7; 2 Peter 3:1-15; 1 John 2:18, 28.
Reference works published by Christendom’s historians and theologians recognize this fact. In its extensive Supplément, the authoritative French Catholic Dictionnaire de la Bible states: “It is futile to try at all costs to deny the state of expectation of the end that is manifest in most of the New Testament texts. . . . In early Christianity . . . expectation of the Parousia [presence] plays an essential part and continues from one end of the N[ew] T[estament] to the other.”
But why is it that some of Christendom’s theologians “try at all costs to deny the state of expectation of the end” that was manifest among the early Christians? Doubtless, to justify the state of spiritual lethargy that is manifest today among many so-called Christians and their spiritual leaders. How did this change come about?
How Expectation Faded
The slackening of Christian expectation was one of the consequences of the apostasy that had already begun to manifest itself even before the death of Christ’s apostles. The apostle Paul warned that apostasy was “already at work” within the Christian congregation in his day. (2 Thessalonians 2:3, 4, 7) A few years later, the apostle Peter put his fellow Christians on their guard against “false teachers” and “ridiculers” who would say: “Where is this promised presence of his? Why, from the day our forefathers fell asleep in death, all things are continuing exactly as from creation’s beginning.”—2 Peter 2:1; 3:3, 4.
Interestingly, proper Christian expectation was maintained for a time by those who believed the Scriptural truth that Jesus’ promised “presence” will herald the nearness of his Thousand Year Reign over the earth. Justin Martyr (died c. 165 C.E.), Irenaeus (died c. 202 C.E.) and Tertullian (died after 220 C.E.) all believed in Christ’s Millennial Reign and recommended eager expectation of the end of the present wicked system of things.
As time passed and the apostasy developed, the millennial hope of the earth’s being transformed into a global paradise under Christ’s Kingdom was gradually replaced by an imaginary expectation based on the Greek philosophical concept of inherent human immortality. The hope of Paradise was transferred from being on the earth to being in heaven, attainable at death. Christian expectation of Christ’s parousia, or presence, and the coming of his Kingdom thus slacked off. ‘Why watch eagerly for the sign of Jesus’ presence,’ they reasoned ‘when you can hope to join Christ in heaven at death?’
This fading of Christian watchfulness prompted apostate Christians to organize themselves into a well-structured church whose eyes were no longer fixed on the coming parousia, or presence, of Christ but, rather, on dominating its members and, if possible, the world. The New Encyclopædia Britannica states: “The [apparent] delay of the Parousia resulted in a weakening of the imminent expectation in the early church. In this process of ‘de-eschatologizing,’ [weakening of the teaching on the “Last Things”] the institutional church increasingly replaced the expected Kingdom of God. The formation of the Catholic Church as a hierarchical institution is directly connected with the declining of the imminent expectation.”
The Death Blow Is Struck
The church “father,” or “doctor,” that struck the death blow to Christian watchfulness was undoubtedly Augustine of Hippo (354-430 C.E.). In his famous work The City of God, Augustine stated: “The church now on earth is both the kingdom of Christ and the kingdom of heaven.”
The New Bible Dictionary explains the effect this outlook had on Catholic theology, stating: “In Roman Catholic theology a distinctive feature is the identification of the kingdom of God and the Church in the earthly dispensation, an identification which is principally due to Augustine’s influence. Through the ecclesiastical hierarchy Christ is actualized as King of the kingdom of God. The area of the kingdom is coterminous [having the same boundaries] with the frontiers of the Church’s power and authority. The kingdom of heaven is extended by the mission and advance of the Church in the world.”
This removed all necessity to “keep on the watch” for the sign that would show that God’s Kingdom was near. Writing in The New Encyclopædia Britannica, Professor E. W. Benz confirms this, saying: “He [Augustine] de-emphasized the original imminent expectation by declaring that the Kingdom of God has already begun in this world with the institution of the church; the church is the historical representative of the Kingdom of God on Earth. The first resurrection, according to Augustine, occurs constantly within the church in the form of the sacrament of Baptism, through which the faithful are introduced into the Kingdom of God.”
Augustine was also the one who finalized Christendom’s abandoning the Scriptural hope of Jesus Christ’s Thousand Year Reign during which He will restore Paradise on earth. (Revelation 20:1-3, 6; 21:1-5) The Catholic Encyclopedia admits: “St. Augustine finally held to the conviction that there will be no millennium. . . . The sabbath of one thousand years after the six thousand years of history, is the whole of eternal life; or, in other words, the number one thousand is intended to express perfection.” The Britannica Macropædia (1977) adds: “For him [Augustine] the millennium had become a spiritual state into which the church collectively had entered at Pentecost. . . . No imminent supernatural intervention in history was expected.” Thus, for Catholics, the prayer “your kingdom come” became pointless.
Augustine’s interpretation, we are told, “became standard doctrine in the middle ages.” Christian expectation, therefore, hit an all-time low. We read: “In medieval Christendom, the New Testament eschatology was given its place in a dogmatic system of which the philosophical foundations were at first Platonistic [from Greek philosopher Plato] and, later in the west, Aristotelian [from Greek philosopher Aristotle]. Traditional conceptions about the parousia, resurrection and the like were combined with Greek notions about the soul and its immortality. . . . Medieval Christianity . . . [left] little place for the eschatological passion. This passion, however, was not dead; it lived in certain heretical movements.”—Encyclopædia Britannica, 1970 edition.
The Roman Catholic Church speaks slightingly of such “heretical movements,” calling them “millennialist sects.” Its historians speak disparagingly of the “Year-1000 Scare.” But whose fault was it that many of the common people were afraid that the world would end in the year 1000? This “scare” was a direct result of Catholic “Saint” Augustine’s theology. He claimed that Satan was bound at the time of Christ’s first advent. Since Revelation 20:3, 7, 8 says that Satan would be bound for 1,000 years and then “released . . . to deceive all the nations” (The Jerusalem Bible), small wonder that some people in the tenth century were fearful of what might happen in the year 1000.
Naturally, the official Roman Catholic Church condemned this “scare,” as it did Cistercian Abbot Joachim of Flora, who foretold the end of the Christian era for the year 1260. Finally, in 1516, at the Fifth Lateran Council, Pope Leo X formally forbade any Catholic to predict when Antichrist and the Last Judgment are due to come. Violation of such a law brought the sanction of excommunication!
Theoretically, the 16th-century Reformation, with its supposed return to the Bible, should have witnessed a resurgence of Christian expectation. And it did for a time. But in this respect, as in many others, the Reformation did not fulfill its promises. It did not mark a return to true Biblical Christianity. The Protestant churches born of the Reformation quickly lost their Christian watchfulness and came to terms with the present world.
We read: “The Reformation churches, however, soon became institutional territorial [national] churches, which in turn repressed the end-time expectation, and thus doctrine of the ‘last things’ became an appendix to dogmatics.” “In the religious liberalism that emerged, especially among Protestants and Jews, toward the end of the 18th and through the 19th century, eschatology could find no place. It was regarded as part of the crude, primitive, outworn trappings of traditional religion which could no longer be accepted in an age of enlightenment. In most cases, eschatological ideas were abandoned altogether, and a simple post-mortem immortality of the soul was held forth as man’s end. Other theologians reinterpreted the Kingdom of God expectation in ethical, quasi-mystical or social terms.”—Encyclopædia Britannica.
Thus, instead of helping Christians to “keep on the watch” for Christ’s presence and the coming of God’s Kingdom, Protestant theologians have rationalized away true Christian expectation. For many of them, “the kingdom of God . . . came to be increasingly conceived in an individualistic sense; it is the sovereignty of grace and peace in the hearts of men.” For others, “the coming of the kingdom consists in the forward march of social righteousness and communal development.”—The New Bible Dictionary (Protestant).
In theory, at least, Catholics should be spiritually on the watch for Christ’s presence. In spite of Augustine’s theology that put an end to Kingdom expectation and the millennial hope for Catholics, the Roman Church’s dogma still includes the Christian duty to keep on the watch for Christ’s return. For instance, the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith sent to Catholic bishops throughout the world a letter, approved by Pope John Paul II and dated May 17, 1979, that stated: “In accordance with Scripture, the Church awaits ‘the glorious manifestation of Our Lord Jesus Christ.’”
Such is the Catholic Church’s teaching in theory. But, in practice, how often does the average Catholic hear his priest preach about the need to keep on the watch for Christ’s presence and the coming of God’s Kingdom? Interestingly, the very purpose of the above-quoted letter from the Roman Curia was to “strengthen the faith of Christians on points that have been questioned.” But why has Christ’s return been questioned by so-called Christians? Could the answer be suggested in the following quotations from The New Encyclopædia Britannica? “The church has long neglected teachings about the entire area of the last things.” “Since the Reformation, the Roman Church has been virtually immune to eschatological movements.”
Christian Watchfulness Is Not Dead
Christian expectation faded within Christendom’s churches because they abandoned the clear truths of the Bible and chose to follow Greek philosophy and “Saint” Augustine’s theology. The following articles will show that God’s true servants have always lived in expectation of Christ’s presence, and that there exists today a people who have proved their Christian watchfulness over the years and who have rediscovered a wonderful hope that can be yours. Please read on, and then ask one of Jehovah’s Witnesses to help you “keep on the watch” for the fulfillment of that Bible hope.
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“It is futile to . . . deny the state of expectation of the end that is manifest in most of the New Testament texts”
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Augustine held that the church on earth is the Kingdom of Christ
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Pope Leo X forbade any Catholic to predict when the Last Judgment would come