Friday, July 22, 2011

C.S. Lewis and the Delay of Parousia

C.S. Lewis
I ran across this surprising quote in a blog post recently, and honestly, I did not believe it was really C.S. Lewis - the famous evangelical apologist - when I first read it.  Indeed, it comes from an old essay of his entitled "The World's Last Night."  Without a doubt, this view that Lewis took on the delay of parousia is not something that his more conservative admirers would be fond of noting:

“…'the apocalyptic beliefs of the first Christians have been proven to be false. It is clear from the New Testament that they all expected the Second Coming in their own lifetime…[Jesus] shared, and indeed created, their delusion. He said in so many words, ‘this generation shall not pass till all these things be done.’ And he was wrong. He clearly knew no more about the end of the world than anyone else.' It is certainly the most embarrassing verse in the Bible...The facts, then, are these: that Jesus professed himself (in some sense) ignorant, and within a moment showed that he really was so.”

Albert Schweitzer
You can read the essay here in full context.  Lewis goes on immediately to explain how to understand this theologically without giving up belief in the incarnation or eschaton.  He also firmly (and rightly, in my own view) rejects the well-known 'thoroughgoing apocalypticism' perspective of Albert Schweitzer, which reduces everything Jesus did and taught to being rooted in a failed apocalyptic view - and thus virtually irrelevant.  Even so, I find it to be quite incredible that he held to the more general view of the delay of parousia that some contemporary biblical scholars like N.T. Wright (who has essentially been branded as the new C.S. Lewis) work hard to reinterpret in order to get Jesus off the hook.  I think Lewis is right here, actually.  Some of the most important biblical scholars of recent years have continued to affirm in their own ways this general view on the delay of parousia that Lewis admits here: James D.G. Dunn, E.P. Sanders, Dale Allison, and Plus, a large number of major Christian theologians have also had no trouble affirming that Jesus was wrong about the timing of the eschaton and then integrating this perspective into their overall theological vision - Wolfhart Pannenberg, Reinhold Niebuhr, and John Cobb come to mind.  But then again, these are not exactly popular evangelical apologists like C.S. Lewis is known as today.

This is yet another challenge it seems to me for the already tense evangelical relationship with Lewis.  First, they realized that he affirmed theistic evolution.  Then it's become more widely known that he is not too far from Rob Bell's currently popular, controversial, and inclusivist - or perhaps hopeful universalist - view on salvation: that even after death, one is still able to choose heaven and leave hell behind. Now he says Jesus was wrong about the timing of the eschaton.  Ouch.

On a related note, a friend at CGU recently told me that there was a major survey taken amongst a large number biblical scholars on the historical Jesus within the last few years and a strong majority affirms that Jesus was an apocalypticist, while the non-apocalyptic view of the Jesus Seminar is apparently in the minority these days.  So when Bart Ehrman argues in his popular books that the general information about the apocalyptic Jesus he is providing is rooted in the dominant views of the academy, he's not lying.