A recent article in the UK’s Telegraph notes that forty one percent — yes, 41% — of Americans believe that Jesus will return by the year 2050. With wry understatement, the Brits observe that American “optimism” is irrepressible.
What most of these eager and apocalyptic Americans do not know is that beginning almost immediately after the death of Jesus, his disciples confidently expected a return within their lifetimes. The early Christian churches also expected it. The early Roman Church expected it. Early and late medieval Christians were infamous for fervently believing the end was near. The Reformation was driven in large part by the same expectation. For the last two centuries, evangelicals of all stripes have been predicting Jesus’ return within their lifetimes. Contemporary evangelicals interpret nearly every political event or natural disaster as a sign of Jesus’ imminent return.
For more than two thousand years, Christians have expected an imminent return and for more than two thousand years they have been disappointed. Given this long and continuous record of failed or foiled expectations, one might think the optimism would subside. Think again.