Many of the moral instructions of the New Testament are based on a mistake; the mistaken belief that the world was about to end. Due to that clearly false belief Christians have had to, or gotten to reinterpret many of the more obvious commands of the New Testament, particularly those of Jesus and Paul, into whatever has suited them best.
Jesus preached of the imminent arrival of the kingdom of God. He said the sun would be darkened and stars would fall from heavens at the coming of the Son of Man, “Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place.” (Mark 13:30) Paul’s letters and instructions are a constant reminder to those listening to him that there isn’t much time before the end. The author of Revelations introduces his book saying that it is, “The revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show his servants what must soon take place.” These men all agreed; the end of the world was at hand.
This is a constant theme found throughout the New Testament; life as we know it is almost over, so stop planning for the future and get ready for what’s about to happen because God’s coming. Read in this light many of the commands of the New Testament make a great deal of sense and are, actually, fairly practical. Give (money) to all who ask of you; go and preach the kingdom taking nothing with you; rely solely on the generosity of those who you preach to; share everything in common; obey whatever government is over you; slaves obey your masters; wives obey your husbands and so on. These commands are quite clear and yet most of them are no longer followed, at least literally, because at the end of the day they are no longer realistic since the earth did not come to an end and isn’t going to anytime soon. Most Christians still say they believe the world could end soon yet they no longer act like they believe that. Instead they find ways to side step the commands of the New Testament through reinterpretation or various excuses. I don’t blame them and in fact did it myself. Looking back it would be easier to give away all your money when you thought God was about to show up and give you a big fat reward for doing it. It would make sense not to get involved in politics or upset established social structures when they where about to be destroyed anyway. And there would be no reason to get married or be overly concerned about your family relationships since they were not going to matter for much longer anyway.
Looking back I am quite amused by the different (often clever) ways I got around the obvious meanings of numerous New Testament passages or how many I just ignored. One of my favorites is in 1 Corinthians 7 where Paul is discussing marriage. In directions to the unmarried he says it is best to stay unmarried because of the impending/present crisis (the end of the world) and then to the those who are married he tells them that they should act like they are not married, which means they should stop having sex. (1 Cor. 7:25-29) This was an important chapter to me in my youth and made me very resolute in not wanting to be married but once that phase passed and I got married I never even thought about listening to Paul and not having sex. I conveniently disregarded that part of the passage. What a funny world it would be if Christians followed Paul’s words here and stopped having sex with their spouses. But they don’t and they shouldn’t because Paul was wrong plus it would really hurt the church’s membership numbers if they stopped having kids.
A lot of the bible simply doesn’t work due to the fact that the world has continued on well past when it was supposed to according to the writers of the New Testament. I recently read an account by Delos McKown, the former chairman of the philosophy department at Auburn University that I believe illustrates this point well. Jesus. McKown writes,
On January 27, 1987, I was led as a lamb to the slaughter, having been set up to debate the Rev. Dr. Norman Geisler of Dallas Theological Seminary on the subject, "Humanism vs. Christianity." Dubbed by its promoters as "The Main Event," the debate was held in the ballroom at Auburn University, a room overflowing with perhaps 2,000 people, some of whom had been bused in, courtesy of local churches.
Geisler had trouble staying on the general topic, focusing rather on abortion, in the most grisly terms. Humanists, he tells, are right in there with the Nazis in disregard of human life. Their despicable deeds are made likely, if not inevitable, by their moral relativism. How much firmer is the ground under Christians, who stand on moral absolutes!
During rebuttal, I said that my favorite moral absolute in scripture was in Luke 6:30 where Jesus is reported to have said, "Give to every man that asketh of thee; and of him that taketh away thy goods ask them not again." I then turned to the Rev. Dr. Geisler and asked him for his money. Since it was not forthcoming, I knelt on one knee and begged for it, trying to cover all spiritual bases.
With a pale look about his gills, he finally pulled out a dollar bill and waved it wanly at me to which I said, "No, not a dollar; I want all of your money. But I'm not mean; I won't keep your wallet or credit cards." Geisler did not, in fact, comply with the moral absolute in Luke 6:30 (also see Matthew 5:42 and Luke 6:35). If he had given me his money, I would have taken it and kept it. Thus, we would both have been blessed, I with extra cash and he with a clear conscience for having met the challenge of obeying a moral absolute of his lord. I fear his conscience still troubles him over this episode, something I would gladly have spared him by keeping his money.
McKown later noted that Geisler had yet to return to Auburn for another discussion. Maybe Geisler realized just how expensive that trip could be. Again, this displays that even those who claim to believe in a more literal interpretation of the bible only follow it selectively. Few things make a biblical literalist turn more quickly to the use of metaphor then the issue of money. Christians, just like everyone else, want to keep their money (most of it) because as is obvious the world didn’t end so they no longer act like it is going to. Jesus was wrong, Paul was wrong, and Revelations was wrong. It’s not complicated.
Of course the favorite response to why God is taking so long is 2 Peter 3:8, “that with the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day.” There are times I think that it is this one verse that got 2nd Peter into the bible. It was one of the last books admitted into the cannon and it was obviously not written by Peter but I think the Church knew it need something somewhere to explain what the hell was taking so long. When I ponder this verse I can’t help but wonder why God is so bad at communicating his meaning clearly? It is obvious that Jesus, Paul and most of the writers of the New Testament expected the end of the world in the lifetime of their audience and if these men were supposedly inspired by the Holy Spirit why the heck wouldn’t God explain to them that the end of the world wasn’t coming quite as soon as they thought? One thing the history of biblical interpretation clearly demonstrates is that God is horrible at making his meaning clear. Now I used this verse in various contexts when I was a Christian and I can openly admit I always quoted it by itself and ignored the verses around it. I never even gave them much of a thought. In verses 5 through 7 the author says, “that by the word of God heavens existed long ago and an earth was formed out of water and by means of water, through which the world of that time was deluged with water and perished. But by the same word the present heavens and earth have been reserved for fire, being kept until the day of judgment and destruction of the godless.” (2 Pet. 3:5-7) This author’s cosmology is quite interesting but also quite odd as he states that God created one earth out of water and that that earth was destroyed by water (Noah’s flood) but then God created a new heaven and new earth after the old heaven and old earth had perished (during the flood). So now this new earth and us are on it are just awaiting God’s judgment with fire, and yes that is going to happen soon. Now I don’t know any Christian who believes God created two earths and yet that is what the author of 2nd Peter tells us. So why believe one thing he says but not the other? The answer is because convenience allows us to. It would also be fun to see how creation scientists deal with these verses.
But even if one accepts 2nd Peter and believes that God is not slow in his coming but rather time is just different to him, one must still ask why Christians (especially of those who are oh so sure of the inerrancy and moral superiority of the bible) do not follow the literal interpretation of so many of the commands in the New Testament, particularly the ones that are the most explicit and easy to understand?
I don't think the answer's hard Christians just won’t admit it.