I have been working my way through dozens of Bible and theology questions which people have submitted through that “ask a question” area in the sidebar. Here is one about why God delayed to send Jesus.
Why did God wait so long to send Jesus?
I have answered similar questions before regarding the apparent “delays” in God’s timetable. For example, we have previously considered the question, “Why did Jesus wait three days to rise from the dead?” and “Why is Jesus waiting so long before He comes again?” Obviously, those questions are different than this particular question, but the answers are similar, which is why I reference them here.
So why did God wait to send Jesus?
As with many of the Bible and Theology questions I answer, I find it helpful to step back a little bit and get the big picture for this question.
The question is not just about why God waited so long to send Jesus, but about all the seeming delays in the redemptive plan of God. That is, why does God “wait” to do anything?
Why Does God delay in anything?
I mean, if we pray for something, and God knows He is going to give us what we prayed for, why does He sometimes make us wait weeks, months, or even years before granting the request?
There are, of course, a thousand possible answers to this question. Maybe God’s apparent delay had something to do with God’s perfect timing. Maybe God did immediately answer our prayer request, but Satan temporarily stopped us from receiving God’s answer (cf. Daniel 10:12-13). Maybe God was waiting for us to be an answer to our own prayer, and we were the ones who slowed Him down.
There are other possibilities as well, but these go to show that when it comes to delays in God’s timetable, there is really almost no way to know why God does what He does when He does it.
God’s Strange Order of Events
Here is a basic timetable of God’s major redemptive works in history, counting from the fall of Adam and Eve in the Garden. Note that in between each major event, there are larger periods of relatively uneventful history. (The number of years listed below is based on the the most conservative estimates. Obviously, there are more liberal estimates which extend these periods of time out to tens of thousands of years.)
- The Fall of Adam and Eve
- Wait 2000 years
- The Call of Abraham
- Wait 500 years
- Giving the Law to Moses at Mt. Sinai
- Wait 1500 Years
- Ministry of Jesus
- Wait 2000+ Years
- (in the Future) The Second Coming of Jesus
- The New Heavens and New Earth
Obviously, God is not silent and is not inactive during these waiting periods, but this outline of events is simply to show that God’s plan of redemption does seem to occur in small steps spread out over long lengths of time.
Rather than that order of events, we often think it would have been nice for the order of events to follow this outline:
- The Fall of Adam and Eve
- Wait 20 minutes
- The Death and Resurrection of Jesus
- Eternal Bliss
Honestly, from a human perspective, this second order of evens would have saved a lot of horrible grief, bloodshed, death, sorrow, and sadness. Nobody would have ended up in hell. There never would have been wars, or famines, or diseases. Adam and Eve would have sinned, Jesus would have immediately shown up to fix it, and that would have been that.
No Flood. No Hitler. No Atomic bombs. No raping of little girls.
That sounds like a much better plan, does it not?
So why indeed was there a delay in God’s redemptive plan? Why did He wait so long to choose Abraham? Why did He wait so long to give His law? Why did God wait so long to send Jesus? Why is He waiting so long to send Jesus back?
Some Traditional Answers to Why God Waited Thousands of Years to Send Jesus
People have often wondered why God waited so long before sending Jesus. Here are three of the more common answers:
1. It only seems long to us
The first answer some provide is really a non-answer. It is one of those pat answers to difficult theological questions which really does nothing to answer the question. It is a Christian cliche: “God’s timing is not our timing.”
Those who use this first answer quote 2 Peter 3:8 which says that with God, a day is like a thousand years, and a thousands years is like a day. So in other words, though it seems like God took thousands of years to send Jesus, from His perspective, it only seemed like a couple days.
Peter’s point is valid in the context, but I don’t think we can say that just because God is not restricted by time, this means that God doesn’t comprehend time, or that God doesn’t care that we struggle with how long His plan takes. I know that this is not what people mean when they say this, but to many, that is how it comes across.
To me, here is how this answer sounds:
“Oh, life is hard and you are wondering why God is taking so long to answer your prayers and set things right? Well, God’s timing is not our timing.”
This is a Christian way of saying, “Life sucks; then you die. Deal with it.” In other words, “Shut up. Nobody cares. Not even God.”
God does care. He knows that although our lives are less than mere breaths before His infinite existence, the years of our life are often full of pain, hardship, trials, burdens, sickness, fear, and sorrow.
2. To teach humanity about the depth of our sin.
If Jesus had shown up 20 minutes after Adam and Eve sinned, we never would have understood the depth and breadth of our sinfulness. Nor would we have understood how desperately we need God. It could be argued that one reason Adam and Eve sinned is because they didn’t fully comprehend how horrible it would be to live life disconnected from God.
Due to the long period of time in which we have wallowed in our sin, we now know — do we ever! — how wicked, evil, and brutal people can be.
One great benefit to this way of viewing God’s delay is that it seems to be supported by Scripture. Over and over again in Scripture we see this cycle:
- Human development (e.g., the Law, the Land, Judges, Kings, Prophets, etc.)
- Great expectations for human utopia
- Greater evil than ever before
I like this explanation, except that it seems like a bit of overkill. Pun intended. Do we really need thousands of years of bloodshed, rape, murder, torture, war, famine, pestilence, and disease to tell us that sin is bad? I don’t know… maybe we do. After all, human history reveals that every so often, people think that humanity has progressed to the point that worldwide peace and prosperity is just around the corner, that human utopia is almost assured. Usually, not long after these rosy predictions of our future are made, humanity enters into one of the most violent and bloody eras of its history.
In fact, you can almost predict future events based on how rosy of a picture is being painted about that future. The rosier the picture, the bloodier the future. (This is one reason I am not a postmillennialist.)
3. To teach the angels about God’s redemptive purpose
This idea comes from 1 Peter 1:12 and a few other verses which seem to indicate that one reason God created humanity and is carrying out His redemptive plan is to teach something to the angels. Nobody really knows what God might be trying to teach the angels that they don’t already know, but apparently, the angels are learning from watching how God deals with rebellious humanity.
Some have even suggested that God’s plan of redemption may eventually include the angels as well! If so, the Bible says absolutely nothing about this …
Anyway, if God is teaching the angels something, then apparently, it takes a long time to teach them.
4. To wait until the time when the Gospel could spread the quickest
Sometimes, and specifically in connection to why Jesus came when He did, some people say it had something to do with the Roman empire. The Roman empire built roads and had a common tongue which allowed the message of the Gospel to spread more quickly and with greater ease than it could have at other times.
I suppose in theory, this is somewhat true, but if God was waiting until there was a common language and good lines of communication before sending Jesus, He could have picked no better time than right before humans decided to build the Tower of Babel. There was only one language at the time, and it seems their communication was so good, there was nothing they could not accomplish. That is partly why the text says that God scrambled human communication (Genesis 11:6).
Furthermore, if God was really waiting for the quickest and most worldwide method of communication, He should have waited for Twitter.
Ha! I’m kidding.
Kind of …
Look, when we say that God waited to send Jesus until there was a common tongue and a good road system, what we are also saying is that the only part of the world that God really cared about was the part under Roman rule (Most of Europe, Northern Africa, and Western Asia). The rest of the world did not have access to the Roman road system, nor did they speak the common language of the Roman empire. So are we saying then that God didn’t care about most of Africa, most of Asia, and all of North and South America?
That was why I was kind-of only half-joking when I mentioned Twitter. If God was waiting until the quickest form of communication was available to all the world, then He could have waited until a worldwide system of instantaneous communication was in place … a system much like Twitter.
So anyway, while I do think the Roman road system and common language helped the spread of the Gospel, I don’t think we can say that this was why Jesus came at the time and place that He did.
5. To fulfill prophecy
Then there is the explanation that Jesus came when He did because He had to fulfill prophecy.
There is some truth to this, especially depending on how you understand the prophecy of Daniel’s 70 Weeks (Daniel 9:24-27). It may be that Jesus had to come when He did to complete the prophecy given 490 years earlier.
Also, in relation to this, Paul writes that Jesus came “at the appointed time” (Galatians 4:4). Other New Testament authors say similar things.
While there is truth with this answer, it really doesn’t answer the question. All it does it move the question back. If Jesus came at that time to fulfill prophesy, then why did God prophecy that Jesus would come at that time? Why didn’t God move prophets to predict that Jesus would come a two thousand years earlier … or later? Why then? Why there?
(My! This post is getting long … Let’s see if I can wrap it up.)
6. To wait until human theological development had evolved to the point where we could understand Jesus
One final view is that God waited for so long because mankind had to develop socially and spiritually enough in order to understand and receive the revelation of Jesus Christ.
This idea is based on the concept of progressive revelation, that God has slowly explained Himself and unfolded His plan and purposes for the world over time. The reason is that we could not understand and grasp it all at once, and so He has had to teach us bit by bit, one step at a time.
I am teaching my daughters math, and while I know Calculus, I cannot attempt to teach them everything I know about math on day one, from basic arithmetic all the way to calculus. Not only is there not enough time to do this, they would not comprehend most of it, but would instead get overwhelmed and as a result, would not even understand the most basic concepts in math.
So also, this theory goes, God had to slowly teach humanity about Himself and His ways, so that over time, we would grow and develop into the people He wanted us to become.
Progressive revelation is a definite fact of Scripture, but I am a bit wary of this idea, for it seems to fall prey to what C. S. Lewis called “chronological snobbery.” Lewis often criticized other scholars for thinking that just because they lived in 1960, they knew more about how the world worked and what God was like than people who lived in say, 60 AD. Just because we are further along in years, C. S. Lewis argued, does not mean we necessarily know more. We may, in fact, know less.
But, for the most part, I think this view has some merit, and does help explain what Jesus might have meant in John 16:12 where He said He had much more to teach, but could not do so because they were not ready to hear it. Verses like this are everywhere in Scripture (cf. Matt 13:10-13), which seems to indicate that God only provides further revelation after we have incorporated His previous revelation into our thinking and practice (for the most part).
What is my view about why God waited thousands of years to send Jesus?
What is my view on all of this? I hold some strange mixture of all of the above.
Essentially, I believe that whatever we say about God’s timing in sending Jesus is similar to what we should say about God’s timing in doing anything. There are a variety of answers at any given time, and any action of God can have a variety of explanations.
I know, I know. Such an answer is not neat, pretty, and tidy. But then, life is not neat, pretty, and tidy, and neither is theology. Theology, like life, is a big mess of guesswork and scrambled answers.
While I believe that faith in God includes faith in God’s timing, I am not always sure we can understand God’s timing …
How about you? Which of the answers above is most helpful to you? Which is least helpful? What did I leave out? Why do you think God waited so long to send Jesus for the redemption of mankind?
PS., This post turned out be so LONG (2500 words!!!), I will post something nice and short tomorrow (for my and yours).