Thanks for writing and thinking about these issues with me. I would like to discuss briefly one of the side issues that we just discussed, that is, what C.S. Lewis considered to be failed predictions of Jesus' return in in the 2nd or 3rd century, because it's allegedly one of the stronger bases for doubt.
The New Testament repeatedly seems to predict that Jesus' second coming was to have occurred by the 3rd century AD. But apologists reply that this interpretation of a prediction of a 2nd century Second Coming is really a mistaken reading of those predictions.
Im not sure where that comes from. Some believed it would happen within the apostles' lifetime or at the very least it was imminent. In Mark 9.1, Christ says:
And He said to them, “Assuredly, I say to you that there are some standing here who will not taste death till they see the kingdom of God present with power.”
It then immediately proceeds to the Transfiguration. It is the same identical way the gospel of Matthew presents it. Mark's gospel also says, "
Now as they came down from the mountain, He commanded them that they should tell no one the things they had seen, till the Son of Man had risen from the dead. 10 So they kept this word to themselves, questioning what the rising from the dead meant.(Mk 9.9-10)
There is also the case of the martyrdom of Stephen when the heavens were opened and he saw Christ. Luke places Stephen as the man who fullfills Jesus word, with the highly unusual exclamation by Stephen refering to Christ as 'Son of Man'. This is the only reference where a follower of Christ refers to Him as son of man as opposed to the customary Son of God:
But he, being full of the Holy Spirit, gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God,56 and said, “Look! I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!”(Lk 7.55)
I think that probably the New Testament repeatedly gives the impression that the End TImes and Jesus' Second Coming were to take place in the 1st to 2nd centuries AD. However, some apologists try to find ways to explain that the verses in question do not actually mean this.
Other apologists attempt to answer the challenge by saying that Jesus and the apostles did predict the Second Coming in the first or second centuries, but that the fulfillment of the prophecy was delayed. I think that this is a rational possible explanation, since in Jonah, for example, Jonah predicted Nineveh's destruction but then God changed the outcome due to Nineveh's repentance. On the other hand, I don't know what would be the intervening event in the 1st or 2nd century that would delay Jesus' Second Coming.
1) Mark 9:1: Reasonably fulfilled: You gave the example of Jesus saying in Mark 9 that some standing there would not taste death before seeing the kingdom with power. The reference to "not taste death" suggests to me that Jesus was thinking of a long term event, since Peter, James and John probably lived for about abother 30 years. The Transfiguration however occurred soon after this prediction, so I am not sure if this is what it's referring to. But I think that the Transfiguration is a reasonable fulfillment.
2) Mark 14:62 (Words to the Sanhedrin): Jesus told the Sanhedrin that He was the Messiah, the son of God, and that "'you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of the Power and coming with the clouds of heaven.'" (Mark 14:62, See also Matt 26:64)
One way I think to answer this is that Jesus meant that in the afterlife they would see this, since it isn't mentioned in the gospels.
It's interesting that in the noncanonical Gospel of Peter from the 2nd century AD or earlier, the elders are at the tomb when the heavens open and a hand from the heavens leads Jesus and the angels from the tomb. So in this noncanonical gospel there is a fulfillment of this verse. (http://www.earlychri...eter-brown.html)
The Russian exegete Lopukhin claims that the fulfillment of this prophecy was in Jesus' Passion, humiliation, and resurrection, which Lopukhin considered to be equal in greatness to Jesus being on the right hand of the power coming with heaven's clouds. I am doubtful that Lopukhin's answer was good though. The Bible talks about Jesus sitting on the right hand of God after the resurrection or Ascension, and this is not the same as the Passion and Resurrection.
3) 1 John 2 (on the "last hour") says: "Children, it is the last hour; and just as you heard that antichrist is coming, even now many antichrists have appeared; from this we know that it is the last hour." This "last hour" has already lasted almost 2000 years. It sounds like he is saying that they are living in the End Times. I suppose you can say that the End Times lasted almost 2000 years already, but that sounds strange.
Likewise, Paul writes in Hebrews 1:
1. God, who at sundry times and in divers manners spake in time past unto the fathers by the prophets,
2. Hath in these last days spoken unto us by his Son, whom he hath appointed heir of all things, by whom also he made the worlds;
So for reference, in Jewish thinking, the world was made in what millenium, 5000 BC? But now the "last hour" and "last days" have lasted almost 2000 years? This sounds strange.
Similarly, in 1 Peter 1, Peter writes that Jesus "was manifest in these last times for you".
So how short was the time before the end? Paul wrote: "But this I say, brethren, the time is short: it remaineth, that both they that have wives be as though they had none" (1 Corinthians 7:29). That sounds pretty short.
4) The Olivet Discourse. Jesus lists apocalyptic events and concludes: "Immediately after the tribulation of those days, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will fall from the sky, and the powers of the heavens will be shaken. And then the sign of the Son of Man will appear in heaven, and all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see the Son of Man coming upon the clouds of heaven with power and great glory. ... I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place." (Matthew 24)
One way exegetes have tried to resolve the issue is by saying that the Greek text doesn't mean "generation" but rather "race" (The Russian synodal translation sometimes confuses these words.). In Greek, race and generation have the same root word, but they are differentiated by the gender, and in this particular place, the Greek word used is that for "generation".
Personally, I am not convinced that Jesus in Matthew 24 though was really talking about all the apocalyptic events he described when he said "these things". Earlier in the Discourse, his apostles had used the phrase "these things" to refer to things that did occur in the first century AD, like the Temple's destruction, and then asked when "these things" (the Temple's destruction) would happen. So maybe by "these things" I think Jesus could have meant just the Temple's destruction. I noticed that another person proposed the same explanation that I have about the meaning of "these things".
I do think that the text at least gives the impression though that the Second Coming would occur within the time of that generation.
St. John Chrysostom gives a different explanation for the problem. He says that when it says generation (γενεὰ), it can point to a generation not in terms of a single birth cycle of people (ie people's lifetimes), but rather to a single mode or practice of worship. For this he points to Psalm 24:6, which in the Septuagint says γενεὰ as well:
Who may ascend into the hill of the LORD?
Or who may stand in His holy place?
He who has clean hands and a pure heart,
Who has not lifted up his soul to an idol,
Nor sworn deceitfully.
He shall receive blessing from the LORD,
And righteousness from the God of his salvation.
This is Jacob, the generation of those who seek Him,
Who seek Your face. Selah
That is, in Psalm 24, David says that Jacob, God's people "Israel", or in Orthodoxy the Ekklesia or gathering of the righteous, is the generation or single birth cycle of those who seek God.
Personally, I find this explanation by St. John Chrysostom mysterious and cryptic but it sounds like it could be the correct one because in Psalm 24 the word generation does seem to be given a metaphorical meaning.
In Luke 21, Jesus gives this prophecy, but in a less extreme way. He says that after Jerusalem will be destroyed (this happened about 135 AD) there will be signs in the heavens and then men will see the Son of Man in the heavens. Jesus concludes that the generation won't pass till all be fulfilled. And in fact as you mentioned Stephen did see Jesus in the heavans allegedly, and thus other people could have envisioned this after Jerusalem's fall. So Luke 21 at least could be reasonably fulfilled.
5) Paul's rapture prediction: In 1 Thessalonians 4:15-17, Paul stated: “For this we say unto you by the word of the Lord, that we which are alive and remain unto the coming of the Lord shall not precede them which are asleep. For the Lord himself shall descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trump of God: And the dead in Christ shall rise first: Then we which are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air:"
By saying "we who are alive", it sounds like he means "I and others" who are alive at the Second Coming. In this passage, Paul differentiated himself from the "dead in Christ". So Paul it sounds like was expecting the Second Coming to occur in his lifetime and was declaring that to the early Christians.
I didn't find any commentary explaining this issue except that the Protestant "Pulpit Commentary" says that Paul is here classing himself among the living at the Second Coming. So this statement by Paul sounds like a failed one.
6) Apparently disappointed expectations implied: In John 21, John explains that the disciples passed around the word that John would live until Jesus' second coming. But John 21 explains that this was not actually what Jesus said and that Jesus instead had simply asked: What is it to you (Peter) if he remains until my return? So this implies that many of Jesus' followers mistakenly thought that Jesus had predicted His second coming in the lifetime of a few of His followers. And this raises the question of whether they really were mistaken or Jesus had instead predicted this timely return and John 21 was making an excuse to explain the lack of fulfillment. This dilemma of course does not prove by itself that Jesus had actually predicted such a timely return.
(A) C.S. Lewis claimed about the prophecy in Matthew about the predicted events happening while the generation was still around that “It is certainly the most embarrassing verse in the Bible.”
One way that C.S. Lewis dealt with the problem is by asserting that it would have been even worse if Jesus said that He knew the time for the End but then was wrong about. Lewis points out that Jesus said somewhat later:
“But of that day and that hour knoweth no man, no, not the angels which are in heaven, neither the Son, but the Father.”(~Jesus in Matthew's gospel) [Lewis comments:] "The one exhibition of error and the one confession of ignorance grow side by side … the facts, then, are these: that Jesus professed himself (in some sense) ignorant, and within a moment showed that he really was so. To believe in the Incarnation, to believe that he is God, makes it hard to understand how he could be ignorant; but also makes it certain that, if he said he could be ignorant, then ignorant he could really be. For a God who can be ignorant is less baffling than a God who falsely professes ignorance” (World’s Last Night, p. 97).
(B) Were the alternative version correct and Jesus and the apostles purely mistaken in making a prediction of Jesus' second coming, it suggests to me that the early Christians would have been simply a charismatic, apocalyptic, Messianic sect whoe predictions and miraculous claims were unreliable, just as many modern charismatic, apocalyptic sects are unreliable in their supernatural claims. It's not uncommon for charismatic non-mainstream sects today to give quickly approaching dates for the second coming. Indeed, some dates have been chosen by charismatics and have already past, like one of those in the 19th century. Further, charismatics not infrequently claim miraculous experiences, including meeting Jesus, but usually other Christians are skeptical about those claims.
Let me make it clear by the way, that I am not intending to propose that a certain interpretation of these prophecies' timing is correct or incorrect (eg. Critical Remarks A. or B.). I find St. John Chrysostom's answer to the problem in the Olivet discourse's timing interesting, but it sounds to me that Paul was implying incorrectly that the Second Coming or a version of the Rapture would take place in his lifetime. I do think that this issue of the Second Coming's predicted timing is an important challenge though.