The question came up (not for the first time) last week as I was preparing to preach on 1 & 2 Thessalonians. It's common to hear that Paul, at the outset of his ministry, thought Jesus would be returning within his lifetime. So, did he? Could Paul have been wrong?
Paul might have thought the earth was the center of the universe. He might have thought Spain represented the western edge of the world. He might have thought baseball was boring. If so, he would have been wrong.
Paul could have been wrong about a lot of stuff because Paul wasn't inspired, inerrant or even necessarily authoritative in all areas.
Not even all his theological opinions were necessarily correct. For example, I have conversations with my Grandma and occasionally, the topic will turn to Christ's return. Grandma usually says something like, 'I really think I'm still going to be around when Christ returns.' Is it possible Paul had similar conversations? Sure. 'Hey Timothy, did you hear Nero set the fire in Rome. Dude's crazy. The world's going nuts. I think maybe Christ could be coming soon.'
It's even possible that Paul articulated some of those theological thoughts in sermons in churches.
Pushing it a little further, not even all of Paul's writings were necessarily inspired. There's probably some letters we don't have - a lost letter to Corinth, one to Laodicea. Maybe one to mom and dad. Could there have been errors in those letters. Sure.
It's the letters of Paul that are included in the canon of Scripture that are inspired and free from doctrinal error. It's the teachings of Paul (and James and Peter and whoever wrote Hebrews, etc.) included in the pages of the New Testament that are authoritative.
I think we as evangelicals sometimes get caught fighting battles we don't need to fight because we assert too much. I have no interest in defending Paul, James, etc against error. I do have a stake in the fight when it comes to the Bible and to the apostles inspired and authoritative writing.
So, the much more important question: Are Paul's NT writings on the timing of Christ's return in error. Did Paul teach in the pages of the NT that Jesus would be coming during his lifetime?
No, he didn't. But, I can understand why people might think he did.
Here's a few of the places where Paul may appear to be saying Christ's coming was going to be soon (since some attribute Hebrews to Paul, erroneously I believe, I'll handle two verses from Hebrews as well):
1. Phil 4:5 - "The Lord is at hand."
Sam Storms, of whom I a huge fan, points out that this could mean one of two things. He writes, "This phrase 'at hand' could be taken temporally or personally. That is
to say, he may be referring to the nearness of Christ in terms of time
If it's personal, then its saying Christ is with you and there to give you the strength you need. This phrase does come, signicantly, in a prayer.
However, I think it's likely a temporal reference. But, this doesn't mean Paul was teaching that Christ would come back soon (as we think of soon). He spoke at the end of Philippians chapter three of our citizenship in heaven from which 'we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ'. I think Paul is speaking of Christ's return which is 'at hand'. And it has been 'at hand' for a long time and simply means 'impending'/'imminent'. It could happen at any time (though in 2 Thes., written well before Philippians, Paul teaches that it won't come until the 'Man of Lawlessness' is revealed) .
2. 1 Thess 4:16-17 - "For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. 17 Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord."
Since Paul says "we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up..." some have used this verse to argue that Paul mistakenly thought Christ would return while he was still alive. This, I think, fails the common sense test. Paul was alive when he wrote it, so naturally he would have put himself in the category of those who are alive vs. those who are dead. He could have said, "then we, if we're still alive at the time, will be caught up...," but that's just needlessly cumbersome and a little pedantic. Paul put himself in that category because, at the time, it was true - he was among those still alive who'd be caught up with Christ in the clouds, not one of those who'd be resurrected.
Paul writes similarly in Romans13:11, "For salvation is nearer to us now than when we first believed. The night is far gone; the day is at hand." Obviously, if Christ's return is an event in history it's nearer now than it was earlier. Time/History move forward - future events get nearer. But what about the night being done and the day being at hand? Read below on the Hebrews 1:2 passage.
3. Hebrews 1:2 - "Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, 2 but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son"
Again, I don't think Hebrews was written by Paul (it doesn't claim to be), but many do. This text clarifies a lot I think. In these last days God has spoken to us through his Son. So the last days are connected to the revelation of the Son, which means the last days began when he was revealed.
The Bible speaks of two stages of history - this present (evil) age and the age to come. Sometimes the language is used to convey this same idea is 'former days' vs. 'later days' or 'last days'. With Christ the age to come broke into the present evil age and the two ages now, for a time, overlap. But, the entire period from Christ's first advent till his return is rightly called 'the last days'. See also Acts 2:17 where Peter reminds the people witnessing the outpouring of the Spirit that this is what the prophet Joel said would happen 'in the last days'.
4. Hebrews 10:37-38 - "Yet a little while, and the coming one will come and will not delay; but my righteous one shall live by faith, and if he shrinks back, my soul has no pleasure in him.”
The author here is contrasting the relative shortness of waiting (and enduring suffering) with the length of eternity. The greatness of the believers reward, which is eternal, is worth waiting for. In fact, the wait, though it seems exceedingly long to the one suffering, is but 'a little while' when compared to the span of eternity in which they'll enjoy their reward.
Also, the second half of this verse is a quote from Hab. 2:3-4. The full quote is helpful, "If it seems slow, wait for it; it will surely come; it will not delay." There is a recognition that the response could seem slow, but wait for it...it won't delay.
The quote fits our call to wait for Christ's return very well. It may seem slow by our standards. But God isn't delaying - it will come in the fullness of time. Wait for it. Be awake, vigilant, prepared and eager.
No problems here. No real challenges to the truthfulness of Scripture. Paul wasn't wrong in what he wrote. To see this you just need to look at the fullness of what Scripture teaches, not simply isolated texts and phrases. And you can't define terms as you wish, you need to understand how Paul (or anyone else who writes) used a phrase. Hermeneutics 101.