Does a study of the NT itself show that that the apostles unequivocally believed that Christ’s return was imminent in their lifetime? Is it the case that as a result of this belief, the apostles and their early followers lived a radically devout life of prayer, contemplation etc. and likewise de-emphasized “worldly” (for lack of a better word) endeavors? Although this interpretation has been at times accepted and promoted by the Church, I am not convinced that NT itself sustains such a position. It seems to me that one could make a strong case for a development of the early Church’s view on eschatology within the Pauline letters themselves.
As current Pauline scholarship emphasizes, St. Paul’s eschatological orientation was rooted in his Jewish, Pharisaic past. Christians were not the only ones who looked forward to the resurrection of the dead and a final judgment—the Pharisees did as well. Their position was rooted in the OT, in God’s promise of a glorious future (e.g., 2 Sam 7, Isaiah). St. Paul, already operating within this Jewish eschatological, apocalyptic framework, reinterprets the schema in light of the Christ-event. That is, with the death and resurrection of Christ—the key Christian eschatological event and new “hermeneutical lens”—the future age is in part brought into the present. Put slightly differently, in the Christ-event and the experience of the Holy Spirit, God’s followers experience prolepticly the future age. So the eschaton of Jewish expectation had already arrived, but it is arriving in two stages: stage one is the Christ-event, the first coming, and the second coming is the second stage. Hope then becomes the fundamental virtue connected with the Christian eschatological vision. This hope is not a fleeting, sentimental hope, but a hope grounded in the reality of the Christ-event. In short, St. Paul has transformed a traditional Jewish eschatological schema Christologically—the eschaton has become partially present now, and the gift of Spirit is God’s assurance of better things to come (2 Cor 5:5).
With this brief background in mind, I can return to my claim of development or a revised eschatological view within the NT, particularly in St. Paul (the undisputed letters) and other “Pauline” texts. Most NT scholars today consider 1 Thessalonians to be the first of St. Paul’s epistles (c. 50-1 A.D.). An interesting way to read the letter—not “the” way but a way—is to focus on the triad of theological virtues mentioned twice in the letter. The triadic order in this letter, in contrast to, 1 Corinthians 13 where we have faith, hope and love, is faith, love and hope. The last item in the list becomes thematic and is related to the specific epistolary occasion of the letter. (For example, the Corinthians had all kinds of divisions within their community; they were puffed up with pride etc. and needed to be reminded about the importance of love). The situation is quite different in 1 Thessalonians. In this letter, hope is thematized and is closely related to eschatology, as eschatological themes permeate the letter. As a pastor of a newly formed (mostly) Gentile flock, St. Paul wanted to communicate to this fledgling Christian community the importance of eschatology to the Christian life.
There are many examples from the epistle that I could cite to show that eschatology is a major theme of the letter. However, let me mention two very important passages. First, 1 Thess 1:9-10, which reads:
For the people of those regions report about us what kind of welcome we had among you, and how you turned to God from idols, to serve a living and true God, and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead—Jesus, who rescues us from the wrath that is coming (NRSV).
Here we may infer that St. Paul was likely addressing a largely Gentile Christian audience, as he states that they “turned to God from idols.” This, of course, would not apply to monotheistic Jews who had “converted,” as they already worshiped the true and living God, YHWH. Then St. Paul mentions the second coming (“to wait for his Son from heaven”) and the “wrath” to come—again, eschatological themes. Scholars have postulated that verses 9-10 are perhaps a summary of what St. Paul preached when he first visited Thessalonica. So he is reminding these new Gentile converts of what he taught them previously. Since they did not have an eschatological framework (as the Jews did), they needed to be reminded of the significance of eschatology for Christian existence.
Second, we have 1 Thess 4:13-5:11, which is the eschatological “heart” of the letter. Here St. Paul is addressing concerns of the local community. Because some within their community have died, questions have arisen regarding the status of dead Christians. Was there something wrong with them? Are they second-class? Etc. These questions then naturally raise concerns about the parousia. Perhaps this early group did in fact have an imminent expectation of the parousia. If so, they were now unsure as to the status and meaning of fellow Christians who had died prior to the parousia. St. Paul has been made aware of their concerns and is responding to their questions in this letter.
The literary framing of the letter is by way of the aforementioned triadic inclusion of faith, love and hope (the first instance occurs at 1:3 and the final instance at 5:8). Then if you turn to the middle, exhortation part of the letter, you find an incomplete triad at 3:6. Here St. Paul encourages the Thessalonians regarding their faith and love, but hope is not mentioned. Why? The Thessalonians are struggling with this Christian virtue, and St. Paul as a pastor wants to encourage them. He tells them specifically grieve, but don’t “grieve as others who have no hope.” The resurrection and the coming parousia are sources of Christian hope, and St. Paul wants them to draw from these sources and to encourage one another with them.
Here I enter into highly “problematic” territory, but philosophers tend to do this, so here I go! The authorship of 2 Thessalonians, of course, is disputed. There are, in my opinion, very good arguments on both sides. Given that I am not a NT scholar etc. etc., my personal view regarding the authorship is open—perhaps it was St. Paul, or perhaps it was written by a later Pauline follower under the pseudonym, “Paul.” Either way, what interests me is the development of the eschatological views presented in 2 Thessalonians. Here, particularly in chapter two, “Paul” addresses concerns of false reports that “the Day of the Lord” has already occurred. “Paul” denies that it has come and says that certain signs must happen prior to the end (2 Thess 2:2-9). (How does one reconcile this claim with the statement in 1 Thess 5 that the day of the Lord will come like a “thief in the night?”). Likewise, in 2 Thess “Paul” exhorts rather sternly those in the community who have stopped working (3:6-15). Why have they stopped working and are now idle? Presumably, because they believe that the end is near; thus, “furthering” their career is pointless. There is, however, no clear indication in the text for that inference. Nonetheless, given the eschatological themes linking 1 and 2 Thess, it is a plausible suggestion. At any rate, it does appear that some kind of revision has taken place regarding the imminent return of Christ. The parousia could still happen at any time (now only following certain “signs”), but a space has opened for the possibility that the event may occur in the distant future, a future beyond the life-span of the early Christians.
I’d really like to hear from my NT scholar friends and readers. Please send your thoughts/comments!
 Regarding the parousia, Thessalonians seem to have many questions—questions that focus on orderings of end time events; see, for example, 4:14-15 where St. Paul’s response indicates that he was responding to some very specific questions.