On One of the Main Reasons Why I Think Christianity is False (Reposted)

An Inference to the Best Explanation: Jesus as a Failed Eschatological Prophet (Re-posted)

I agree with mainstream scholarship on the historical Jesus (e.g., E.P. Sanders, Geza Vermes, Bart Ehrman, Dale Allison, Paula Fredriksen, et al.) that Jesus was a failed apocalyptic prophet. Such a hypothesis, if true, would be a simple one that would make sense of a wide range of data, including the following twenty-one (or so):

D1. John the Baptist preached a message of repentance to escape the imminent judgment of the eschaton. Jesus was his baptized disciple, and thus accepted his message -- and in fact preached basically the same message.

D2. Many (most?) of Jesus’ “Son of Man” passages are most naturally interpreted as allusions to the Son of Man figure in Daniel. This figure was an end of the world arbiter of God’s justice, and Jesus kept preaching that he was on his way (e.g., “From now on, you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of Power, and coming on the clouds of heaven.” Matt. 26:64). Jesus seems to identify himself with this apocalyptic figure in Daniel, but I'm not confident whether this identification is a later redaction. Either way, it doesn't bode well for orthodox Christianity.

D3. The earliest canonical writing (I Thess): Paul taught of an imminent eschaton, and it mirrors in wording the end-time passages in the synoptics (especially the so-called "Little Apocalypse" in Mark, and the subsequently-written parallels in Matthew and Luke).

D4. Many passages attributed to Jesus have him predicting the end within his generation (“the time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of heaven is at hand. Repent and believe the good news” (Mark 1:15); “this generation will not pass away until all these things take place” (Mark 13:30); “truly I say to you, you will not finish going through the cities of Israel until the Son of Man comes” (Matthew 10:23); “Truly I say to you, there are some of those who are standing here who will not taste death until they see the kingdom of God after it has come with power.” (Mark 9:1); "From now on, you shall see the Son of Man coming in the clouds..." (Matthew 26:64)).

D5. A sense of urgency permeates the gospels and the other NT writings. E.g., the disciples must hurry to send the message to the cities of Israel before Daniel’s “Son of Man” comes; Jesus' statement that even burying one’s parents has a lower priority; Paul telling the Corinthians not to change their current state, since it’s all about to end (e.g., don’t seek marriage, or to leave one's slave condition, etc., since the end of all things is at hand; and on and on, all the way through the NT corpus).

D6. Relatedly, Jesus and Paul taught a radical "interim ethic" (e.g., don’t divorce, radical forgiveness, don’t judge others, love one’s enemies, etc.). This makes sense if they believed that the eschaton would occur within their generation, and that all needed to repent and prepare for its arrival.

D7. Jesus had his disciples leave everything and follow him around. This makes sense if Jesus believed that he and they were to be God’s final messengers before the eschaton.

D8. Jesus gathered twelve disciples, which is the number of the twelve tribes of Israel. He also said they were to sit on twelve thrones and serve as judges of the twelve tribes of Israel. This reflects the common expectation that at the end of days, all twelve tribes would return to the land. The twelve are a symbolic representation of restored Israel.

D9. There is a clear pattern of a successive watering down of Jesus’ prediction of the eschaton within the generation of his disciples, starting with Mark (widely believed among NT scholars to be the first gospel written), and continuing through the rest of the synoptic gospels. By the time we get to John, the last gospel written, the eschatological "kingdom of God" talk is dropped (except for one passage, and it no longer has clear eschatological connotations), along with the end-time predictions, and is replaced with "eternal life" talk. Further, the epistles presuppose that the early church thought Jesus really predicted the end within their lifetimes. Finally, this successive backpedaling continues beyond the NT writings and into those of the apocrypha and the early church leaders, even to the point where some writings attribute an anti-apocalyptic message to Jesus. All of these things make perfect sense if Jesus really did make such a prediction, and the church needed to reinterpret his message in light of the fact that his generation passed away, yet the eschaton never came.

D10. Jesus’ base followers were all considered to represent the “bottom” of society in his day: the poor, sinners, prostitutes, outcasts, tax collectors, lepers, and the demon-possessed. This is perfectly in line with the standard apocalyptic doctrine of the reversal of fortunes when the kingdom of God comes: “the first shall be last, and the last shall be first”.

D11. Jesus performed many exorcisms, which he claimed marked the inbreaking of the kingdom of God on Earth. They were thus signs of the imminent apocalypse. Satan and his minions were being cast out of power, and God’s power was taking its place.

D12. Jesus’ trip to Jerusalem for the Passover Celebration, and his subsequent activities there, are best explained in terms of his apocalyptic message and his perceived role in proclaiming it. Jesus went to the temple during the Passover Festival, and spent many days teaching about his apocalyptic message of the imminent coming kingdom of God. The apocalyptic message included the idea that the temple in Jerusalem would also be destroyed.

D13. Jesus caused a disturbance in the temple itself, which appears to have been a symbolic enactment of his apocalyptic teaching about the temple’s destruction.

D14. Jesus’ betrayal by Judas Iscariot, and Jesus’ subsequent arrest, is best explained in terms of Judas’ betraying to the religious authorities (the Sadducees and the chief priests) Jesus’ teaching (to his inner circle of disciples) that he would be the King of the Jews in the coming Kingdom of God.

D15. Jesus was executed on the charge of political sedition, due to his claim that he was the King of the Jews. His execution was therefore directly related to his apocalyptic message of the imminent coming of the kingdom of God.

D16. The fact that not just Paul, but also all the other NT authors believed the end would occur in their generation makes perfect sense if Jesus really did make such claims

D17. The fact that the early church believed the end would occur in their lifetime makes perfect sense if Jesus really did make such claims

D18. Consider also E.P. Sanders’ argument: the passages that attribute these predictions to Jesus and Paul satisfy the historical criteria of multiple attestation (and forms), embarrassment, earliest strata (Mark, Q, M, L, Paul’s earliest letters, the ancient “Maranatha” creed/hymn) etc., thus strongly indicating that these words go back to the lips of Jesus.

D19. Jesus’ parables: virtually all explicitly or implicitly teach a message about an imminent eschaton.

D20. Jesus’ “inversion” teachings (e.g., "The first shall be last, and the last shall be first"): a common theme among Jewish apocalypticists generally. The general message of apocalypticists is that those who are evil and defy God will not get away with it forever. The just are trampled, and the unjust prosper; thus, this situation needs to be inverted – as it will be when the “Son of Man” from the book of Daniel comes to exact God’s judgment at any moment.

D21. The fact that the first generation church didn’t write biographies about Jesus, but instead the second generation church wrote the gospels composed of bits of sayings attributed to him, would make sense if his followers believed that the End would occur so quickly (based on Jesus’ teachings) that such a task would be pointless.

D22. The earliest Christians believed that Jesus' putative resurrection was (to use Paul's terminology) the "first fruits" of the general resurrection of the dead at the end of time. This is an agricultural metaphor. When farmers reaped and ate the first fruits of the harvest, they would then reap the full harvest the very next day -- the "general" harvest was "imminent", as it was "inaugurated" with the reaping of the first-fruits. Similarly, the earliest Christians believed that the final judgement and the general resurrection were imminent, given their belief that Jesus' resurrection was itself the inaugurating event of the general resurrection and the end of all things. Thus, there is a continuity between the beliefs of the early Christians and the beliefs of many Jews of his time: Jesus' resurrection was fundamentally construed in these eschatological terms

But suppose all of this is wrong -- or at least wrong in the one respect that Jesus didn’t mean “this generation” in the way it seems. Still, Jesus did say that the end would come soon, and his apostles said that these were “the last days” etc.

Furthermore, consider:

D23. Certain relevant data in the book of Revelation:

-The author is talking about events within his day

-He attributes a quick return to Jesus -- one that would occur in his day.

-Using the cipher language of gematria, he names Nero as “the Beast” (in ancient languages such as Hebrew and Greek, letters served double-duty as numbers. Thus, it was common to refer to someone without actually saying their name by stating the number that the letters in their name adds up to). Well, Ceasar Nero’s name adds up to 666, and he was ruling and persecuting the church during the time that the book of Revelation was written. In fact, some manuscripts of the Book of Revelation have the number read ‘616’, which turns out to add up to a slightly less formal version of Nero’s name!), thus clearly indicating that the end was supposed to be imminent.

-But it’s been about 2,000 years since then, in which case the author of the Book of Revelation was flatly wrong.

And so, no matter which way you slice it, the “statute of limitations” has run out on Jesus and his apostle’s claim for an imminent end. But if so, then by OT standards, Jesus was quite simply a false prophet, in which case he’s not a person that a reasonable and ethical person should follow. In fact, the Bible itself tells us that God doesn't want us to listen to or follow false prophets. So, for example, here's a statement attributed to God in the Old Testament (Deuteronomy 18:21-22):

"You may say to yourselves, "How can we know when a message has not been spoken by the LORD ?" If what a prophet proclaims in the name of the LORD does not take place or come true, that is a message the LORD has not spoken. That prophet has spoken presumptuously. Do not be afraid of him."

And here's another:

"The prophets prophesy lies in my name: I sent them not, neither have I commanded them, neither spake unto them: they prophesy unto you a false vision and divination, and a thing of nought, and the deceit of their heart." (Jeremiah 14:14-15)

It needs to be emphasized that this line of reasoning isn't controversial among mainstream, middle-of-the-road NT critics. I'm not talking about a view held by the Jesus Seminar, or earlier "radical" form and redaction critics like Norman Perrin. Rather, I'm talking about the kinds of considerations that are largely accepted by moderates who are also committed Christians, such as Dale Allison and John P. Meier. Indeed, conservative scholars of the likes of none other than Ben Witherington and N.T. Wright largely admit this line of reasoning. Why are they still Christians, you ask? I'll tell you: by giving unnatural, ad hoc explanations of the data. For example, Meier gets around the problem by arguing that the false prediction passages are inauthentic (i.e., Jesus never said those things; the early church just put those words on the lips of Jesus, and they ended up in the gospels); Witherington gets around the problem by saying that what Jesus really meant was that the imminent arrival of the eschatological kingdom might be at hand(!); Wright gets around the problem by adopting the partial preterist line that the imminent end that Jesus predicted really did occur -- it's just that it was all fulfilled with the destruction of Jerusalem (Oh, really? So are we also to think that since he's already come again, he's not coming back? Or perhaps there will be a *third* coming? But even putting these worries aside: why does Paul tell various communities very far *outside* of Israel about the same sorts of predictions of an imminent end that would affect *them* -- one that, like the one Jesus talked about, involved judgement, destruction, and the gathering of all the elect? And again, what about the author of Revelation's detailing the end-time judgment, which includes the Roman Empire *outside* of Israel, during the reign of Nero?). Are you convinced by these responses? Me neither. And now you know why nobody outside of orthodox circles buys them, either.

To all of this, I say what should be obvious: you know, deep in your gut (don't you?) that such responses are unnatural, ad hoc dodges of what we know to be the truth here: Jesus really did predict the end within the lifetime of his disciples, but he was simply wrong.
Notice that the claim here is different from one often confused with it, viz., that Jesus happened to say some things that could be interpreted as asserting that the end would occur in his lifetime. This isn't the claim I'm making. Rather, it's the much stronger one that Jesus was an eschatological prophet -- the end time message was what he was all about. It wasn't tangential to his central message; it was his central message: "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!"

Putting it all together, we get the following argument for Jesus as a failed apocalyptic prophet:

H1= the hypothesis that Jesus was a failed apocalyptic prophet of an imminent eschaton.

H2= the hypothesis that Jesus is the Son of God of orthodox Christianity.

And let D1-D23 be the data sketched above. Then the argument can be expressed as follows:
1. H1 is a better explanation of D1-D23 than H2.
2. If H1 is a better explanation of D1-D23 than H2, then H1 is more probable than H2.
3. Therefore, H1 is more probable than H2.

I'd like to mention a related point. If the mainstream scholars of the historical Jesus are right and the points above are correct, then it looks as though this line of reasoning undercuts Craig’s abductive argument for the resurrection of Jesus. For it seems extremely unlikely that a god would resurrect a false prophet (recall, for example, the passage from Deuteronomy above). In any case, it would have been interesting to see how William Lane Craig would have responded if Bart Ehrman brought up this point in their debate on the resurrection of Jesus (Ehrman himself is a proponent of the "eschatological prophet" account of Jesus. See his book, Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millenium (OUP, 1999)). See also Dale Allison's Jesus of Nazareth: Millenarian Prophet, E.P. Sanders' The Historical Figure of Jesus, Paula Fredriksen's From Jesus to Christ, Fredriksen's Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews, Geza Vermes' The Changing Faces of Jesus, and of course Albert Schweitzer's classic The Quest of the Historical Jesus. Shorter defenses by Allison can be found here and here.


Anonymous said...

Hey EA!
Thanks for posting this on here. I am about 2/3 of the way though Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium and this is a great summary of that sort of argument. It is so nice to have it laid out like you did here. Also it was good to see you the other day, even just for a little bit!


exapologist said...

Hey Marie!

It was good to see you, too! I wish we all could've hung out longer, but we had our hands full with yard work. I hope you had fun hanging out with A and K!

Talk to you soon,


Ardegas said...

Hi exapologist.

Can I translate this for my blog "Sangre de Cristo"?

exapologist said...

Hi Ardegas,


exapologist said...

Hi Tim,

I'm happy to grant the Christian the earliest dates for the NT documents they like. For it seems to me that this makes things worse for the Christian, not better. For now they have to admit that errors and alterations crept in very early (e.g., the redactions that take place from Mark to Matthew to Luke and finally to John. Here is a tiny sampling: a comparison of Mark with Matthew and Luke
show that the latter two progressively edited the
portrait of Jesus in Mark with respect to, e.g., Jesus' anger, his sighs and groans of impatience and frustration, the bit about Jesus' relatives saying that he's out of his mind, his ingorance, his imperfect healing performances, his references to Gentiles as "pigs" and "dogs", his commisioning the disciples to preach only to the "lost sheep of Israel", and to stay away from Gentile cities, passages that imply the imminence of the eschaton, etc., etc.), in which case the integrity of the tradition is called into question.

Also, even if the Christian were to argue that the tradition is largely unaltered, it seems to me that this again makes things worse and not better. For now they're stuck with saying that Jesus, Paul, and the author of the book of Revelation all made the false prediction of the end within the generation of Jesus' disciples. But based on the words attributed to Yahwheh in the OT, he doesn't take kindly to false prophets, in which case the probability of him raising Jesus from the dead is effectively nil.

Furthermore, the observable fact that the end hasn't occurred (after all, here we are!), trumps the unobservable assertion (at least for us, since it's in the distant past) of Jesus resurrection. The observable fact that the end hasn't occurred strongly argues against the unobservable hypothesis of the resurrection (again at least for us, due to its distance in the past -- I have no in principle objection to miracles).

In any case, those are some of my initial thoughts.



Tim said...


This blade cuts both ways. If the argument for the resurrection is strong, that's excellent evidence that we, or some early Christians, have misunderstood the utterances of Jesus. So considerations that favor the resurrection can indirectly weigh on the plausibility of inaugurated eschatology.

Tim said...


You write:

For now they have to admit that errors and alterations crept in very early (e.g., the redactions that take place from Mark to Matthew to Luke and finally to John. Here is a tiny sampling: a comparison of Mark with Matthew and Luke
show that the latter two progressively edited the
portrait of Jesus in Mark with respect to, e.g., Jesus' anger, his sighs and groans of impatience and frustration, the bit about Jesus' relatives saying that he's out of his mind, his ingorance, his imperfect healing performances, his references to Gentiles as "pigs" and "dogs", his commisioning the disciples to preach only to the "lost sheep of Israel", and to stay away from Gentile cities, passages that imply the imminence of the eschaton, etc., etc.), in which case the integrity of the tradition is called into question.

I think you're mistaken here. The claim that there have been significant directional redactions is part of what is contested. Johannine comma and a few other small things aside, there isn't a strong case. And yes, I've read Ehrman and discussed his work with Metzger.

exapologist said...

You're certainly right that if the evidence for the resurrection is stronger than the evidence for the false prediction, then the former can sufficiently undercut the latter in principle. However, I've already argued that this isn't so. First, if you read the middle of the road literature on the historical Jesus and their case for Jesus as fundamentally a failed apocalyptic prophet (Sanders, Fredriksen, Allison, Vermes, Ehrman, etc.), and weight it against the explanations of same data by both the conservatives (Blomberg, Witherington, Wright, etc.), moderate Christians (e.g., Meyer), and the Jesus Seminar (Crossan, Mack, etc.), you'll see, I think, that the failed prophet picture and its supporting data can't be , or at least hasn't been, effectively undercut -- it's a stubborn, non-negotiable datum we're stuck with, and so it must be taken into account of any reasonable assessment of who Jesus was.



Tim said...


I've read some of that literature, though not as much as you have. My impression is that there is a tension here for orthodox versions of Christianity, one that explains the confusion in the middle of the first century and the rise of some of the Christian heresies. But the cryptic nature of a number of Jesus' own utterances on other subjects, taken as pretty conservative evangelicals must take them, makes it not wildly implausible that the "sit on the rooftops and wait for the rapture" crowd was simply (and perhaps understandably) misinterpreting them, or that some of them were intended to be fulfilled in A.D. 70, etc. I agree that this isn't the most natural reading of the text. But I am not persuaded that taking Christianity in its supernatural form seriously requires that one subscribe everywhere to a Karaite hermeneutic, however much one might prefer this when it can be applied.

This consideration limits the amount of leverage one can get out of the "failed apocalyptic prophet" argument. It will overcome a fairly weak case for the resurrection; but if that case is strong in its own right, it can be bundled together with the somewhat (but not overwhelmingly) improbable hypothesis that the prima facie reading of Jesus' utterances was mistaken. If, then, Paul or someone else in the first century was initially confused about these things, that can be taken in stride -- unless one is the sort of fundamentalist who cannot consider the possibility that Paul might ever have been wrong when writing about a theological matter.

Perhaps further reading will change my view on this, but I'm not holding my breath.

super jock said...

You said,
that errors and alterations crept in very early (e.g., the redactions that take place from Mark to Matthew to Luke and finally to John. Here is a tiny sampling: a comparison of Mark with Matthew and Luke
show that the latter two progressively edited the
portrait of Jesus in Mark with respect to, e.g., Jesus' anger, his sighs and groans of impatience and frustration, the bit about Jesus' relatives saying that he's out of his mind, his ingorance, his imperfect healing performances, his references to Gentiles as "pigs" and "dogs", his commisioning the disciples to preach only to the "lost sheep of Israel", and to stay away from Gentile cities, passages that imply the imminence of the eschaton, etc., etc.), in which case the integrity of the tradition is called into question.

Just some corrections here.
"relatives saying that he's out of his mind" not in Mark nor does he call gentiles pigs. The commisioning for the lost sheep of Isreal isn't in mark also and there are no passage that imply the eschaton is immenent. Nor is there anyplace where it says he groaned.

exapologist said...

On the contrary:

i) Mark has Jesus groan in Mark 8:12. A number of translations say he sighed deeply in his spirit, but the word is the same as that for a groan. Mark also has Jesus express anger (e.g., Mark 3:5); Luke omits the bit about anger in the parallel (Luke 6:10), while Matthew omits the passage altogether. In Mark 10:14, Mark has jesus express indignation at his disciples; Matt. and Lk. omit this attribution in their parallels (Matt. 19:14; Luke 18:16). Etc.

ii) Relatives say he is out of his mind in Mark 3:21. Both Matthew and Luke omit it.

iii) Your point about the commissioning to the lost sheep of Israel not being found in Mark is based on a misunderstanding of what I said. By saying that there was progressive editing of the portrait of Jesus from Mark to Matthew to Luke does not mean that all the details left out of either Matthew or Luke are to be found in Mark. The commissioning of the disciples on their first missionary journey occurs in Matthew, but not in Luke. This follows a theme in Luke of portraying Jesus of the savior of both the Jews and the Gentiles, and of having Jesus favorably disposed to the Gentiles. Thus, Luke leaves out Jesus' references to non-Jews as pigs and dogs that are found in Mark and Matthew (Mark 7:27; Matt. 15:26; and arguably Matt. 7:6).

iv) about the imminence of the eschaton: are you serious? It begins right at the beginning of Mark when we first hear Jesus' message to repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand; of telling the religious officials that from now on they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds in power; his message was all about the coming of the kingdom of God. To 1st century jews, that was an eschatological notion. Luke and John start to de-eschatologize the notion (John replaces kingdom of God talk with eternal life talk, except for the Nicodemus passage, but it no longer has eschatological connotations there), but that's because they were writing at a time when the statute of limitations was all but run out, and so they had to change the message. Or so I argue (along with the consensus of scholarship).

Andrew said...

Hi EA,

I think that most of the evidence that you cite can be explained by orthodox Christianity without any ad hoc stretching; wouldn't this mean that your abductive argument fails? A strong response can be made even without too much use of 2 Peter, if you think that the arguments for its pseudepigraphal, late status are compelling.

I would like to make good this claim by addressing all or most of your points, so bear with me for a while; I may make more than one post. In the process, I'd also like to call your attention to some evidence that the failed eschatological prophet hypothesis does not accommodate, as well as some other weird features of the New Testament that seem substantially to mitigate the problems that you have raised for orthodox Christianity.

Let's start with your first point; but if my argument here is boring, please stay tuned for my thoughts on the second at least:

1) You say that John Baptist preached an imminent eschaton (Matthew 3:2), and that Jesus preached what was in effect the same message. It is true that after Jesus leaves John, he begins by preaching, “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is near!” (Mark 1:14-15).

But “the Kingdom of Heaven/God” is not always eschatological. Even in Mark, “the kingdom of heaven is like” several things that do not sound to me like the end of the world; it is like a plant, derived from a seed by a long process of growth (see chapter 4). Neither does Matthew make the Kingdom of God sound like the end of the world. Sometimes, it is something which people are already taking by force. Sometimes, it is something that people are trying to enter, but are being prevented from entering by wily Pharisees. Sometimes, Jesus has to explain to Pilate why his servants do not fight to protect his kingdom; not because it’s not here yet, but because it is otherworldly.

Matthew 11:11-13a—“…[T]he one least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than [John the Baptist]. From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence (or, has been coming violently), and the violent take it by force. For all the Prophets and the Law prophesied until John…”

Matthew 23:13-14—“But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you shut the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. For you neither enter yourselves nor allow those who would enter to go in.”

The Kingdom of Heaven is something that one could “enter” right now.

Sometimes, apparently, the Kingdom of Heaven is so near, so imminent, that it’s already here. Jesus’s teaching ministry seems to be the inauguration of the Kingdom of Heaven. We could also cite Luke 17:21.

In one of your later points, number 8, you clearly imply that in the Synoptics, the “kingdom of God” talk is eschatological in significance, only losing this significance in the gospel of John. But don’t the above passages show that this is an oversimplification?

2) In your second point, you correctly show how Jesus identifies himself with the Son of Man in Daniel 7:13-14. You go on to say that the Son of Man is an end-of-the-world arbiter of righteousness. But Daniel 7:13-14 doesn’t say anything about the end of the world; it talks about a worldwide kingdom that will never pass away. Okay, the Son of Man can probably be properly described as an eschatological figure; cf. the book of Enoch (which I still need to read, actually). But my point is that Jesus’s identification of himself with this figure doesn’t do anything to show that he thought the end of the world was about to happen back then. What it does show most naturally is that Jesus thought of himself as a king with subjects from many nations, and someone who would eventually usher in the end.

Under this same heading, you quote Jesus’s words to the high priest at his pre-crucifixion trial: “From now on, you (plural) will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power and coming on the clouds of heaven.” (Matthew 26:64). This is obviously a reference to Daniel 7, and is most naturally interpreted to mean that the religious leaders who were there at the trial would see Jesus seated at the right hand of God, on the clouds, coming. Luke, I grant you, “softens” the imminence in the scene by omitting the coming: “But from now on the Son of Man shall be seated at the right hand of the power of God” (22:69). But it is interesting that Matthew uses the phrase “from now on;” it seems to suggest an ongoing condition rather than a once-for-all event.

But the religious leaders who condemned him, obviously didn’t see him on the clouds, right? Because he hasn’t come back yet; we’re still here. This answer overlooks certain weird features of the New Testament; I’m thinking of one scene in particular where someone says that he sees heaven opened, and Jesus seated at the right hand of the Father (Acts 7:54-56). Stephen says that he saw Jesus reigning over his new kingdom, and he actually says it in the presence of the religious leaders. But Stephen was a Christian, not a Jewish religious leader; we can’t say for sure that those present actually saw what he was seeing. Well, what about the story of Saul/Paul, who saw a blinding bright light that indelibly stamped the presence of Christ on his consciousness? (Acts 9:3-5, 22:6-11). He can’t get over this theophanic event; he keeps mentioning it in his letters. At the very least, the event that Jesus describes at his trial matches up with Stephen’s event with respect to important Daniel-derived details; the clouds/heaven opened, the sitting at the right hand of Power. I grant you, Stephen doesn’t use the word “coming.” But this is a single detail, which seems balanced by the others.

A similar event happens during the conversion of a new Christian, when he catches what the Puritans called a “vision of Christ.” At the very least, you can see that the apostles thought of Jesus as reigning over a kingdom at that time and coming into people’s lives for judgment and mercy.

3) You say that 1 Thessalonians, as well as the Little Apocalypse in Mark and the other Synoptics, clearly teach an imminent end. Mark 13:30, with its almost exact parallels in the other two synoptics, seems to me the strongest evidence you can muster: “This generation will not pass away until all these things have happened.” Then, he makes the difficulty ten times worse: “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away.”

Yet even in Mark, the earliest witness, there are other data to be dealt with which the failed eschatological prophet can’t. Mark 13:10—he says that “first,” the gospel must be preached to all nations; it is repeated in the other two Synoptics. This is clearly something that has to happen before the end. Imminence is balanced by world-wide evangelization imperative. A project like this would obviously last longer than a few generations. But, you say, wasn’t the gospel preached to all nations at Pentecost? No, it was not; the whole book of Acts after Pentecost is a continuing realization of how big the project really is. So has it been preached to all nations now, in the twenty first century? Well, I don’t know what God counts as a nation.

Imminence is also tempered by Jesus’s frank acknowledgment of his own ignorance of the day and time in Mark 13:32. Immediately after the “this generation shall not pass away” passage, Jesus gives us to understand that the important thing is that we should be ready, and endure, because it will happen at a time that no-one expects.

Imminence is also tempered by Jesus’s listing of several cataclysmic things that must happen first.

4) Here, you make casual reference to several passages in the gospels that suggest an imminent parousia, without placing them in context. I am especially frustrated by your use of Matthew 10:23, “You won’t finish going through the cities of Israel before the Son of Man comes.” The context makes it very clear that Jesus is speaking here of meeting up with the disciples after he sends them out to evangelize the Jews. In 10:5, he sends them out, “instructing them.” In the course of instructing them, he makes the 10:23 comment. Then, in 11:1, he “finishes instructing his twelve disciples” and apparently goes off to teach on his own. I think your use of this passage is rather dishonest, frankly.

Some of the other Scriptures you cite under this heading I have already dealt with in arguments above; however, “some of those standing here will not taste death until…” is interesting and requires separate handling. Matthew 16:28 says that those standing here will see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom; immediately afterwards, it describes the Transfiguration. The same is true of the parallels in Mark 9 and Luke 9. The Transfiguration passage, interestingly, uses Daniel-esque imagery just like the Stephen passage does. Remember, the Daniel 7 passage describes the Son of Man, on the clouds of heaven, being given a dominion by the Ancient of Days. The Transfiguration describes a bright cloud, and Christ being affirmed as Chosen one by the Father. So why would it be at all implausible for Matthew 16:28 and the parallels in the other Synoptics to be referring to the Transfiguration? Especially given what we have already seen about the Kingdom of God under our first point.

5) and 6) and 7) Some of your citations under these three headings are recycled again, which makes your accumulation of data seem stronger than it really is; you use the Matthew 10 passage about going through the towns of Israel, which I have already argued is dishonest of you.

The “sense of urgency” that you talk about, and the “interim ethic,” are both interesting facets of your case, but not at all conclusive. They can easily be explained by Christianity’s otherworldliness, and by the need to get the message out as soon as possible. I think that it is true that many early Christians expected Christ to come back within their lifetime; I think Christ’s words were meant to create an attitude of quivering expectation tinged with uncertainty. This is, after all, the only way in which the Christian life can be lived.

You say, “Jesus had his disciples leave everything and follow him around. This makes sense if Jesus believed that he and they were to be God’s final messengers before the eschaton.” Well, it would also make sense otherwise. “Leaving all to follow him” is, after all, a very appropriate response to the arrival of the kingdom of God in the person of Christ. Something that can be explained quite easily on my account does not count as evidence for your contrary account.

I would like to talk about more of the Pauline and Johannine material in a later post, if possible.

8) You say, “There is a clear pattern of a successive watering down of Jesus’ prediction of the eschaton within the generation of his disciples, starting with Mark, and continuing through the rest of the synoptic gospels.”

I do not see this clear pattern, so maybe you’ll have to help me with more specific citations. The one verse that I can think of that would support your case here is the one in Luke 22:69, which, when compared with parallels in Mark and Matthew, as we have seen, does omit the word “coming.” But Luke 21:32 doesn’t seem “watered down” at all; it poses the same kind of problem for my case that Mark 13:30 does, in very similar language. Also, Mark 13, as I have already pointed out, contains the worldwide evangelization imperative, and other data I have mentioned, which present a problem for your case. The gospel of John does not omit eschatological predictions at all. In the Upper Room discourse, Jesus talks about going away and coming back, to take the disciples to be where he is. In John 20, he says, “If I want him [John] to remain alive until I come, what is that to you?” And good old John, who must have taken a course in critical thinking, says, “Jesus did not say that this apostle would not die; he only said, ‘If I want him to remain alive until I come, what is that to you?’”

For now, I’ll skip some of your points and move directly to number 12; I hope to write more about them later.

12) You say that virtually all of Jesus’ parables teach a message about an imminent eschaton. This is really not true at all, for anyone who cares to read the parables. There are many parables about the nature of the Kingdom of heaven, but they do not mention its imminence. There are parables about forgiveness, parables about justice, parables about mercy, parables about how to handle money. The parables that are actually about the second coming, e.g. in Matthew 25, all emphasize the unexpected nature of Christ’s return rather than its imminence.

Please, tell me if any of the arguments that I have made here are ad hoc. I would really like to talk more about this with you.

Andrew said...

Hi EA,

I think that I was a little bit hasty earlier in saying that your use of Matthew 10:23 was dishonest; I apologize. You took this passage to be refering to the parousia; and the phrasing does indeed seem most naturally to refer to the parousia, although the context calls this into question.

AIGBusted said...

Hi EA,

The church I attended as a youth always taught that by "coming in his kingdom" Jesus meant entering into heaven and serving as the head of the church.

Is there anything you know of which refutes this view?


exapologist said...

Whoops -- haven't visited the comment thread for this post in a while. Apologies to AigBusted and Andrew for not getting back to you. I hope to find time to reply some time down the road.


Truth Seeker said...

I think this guy probably has the best and most unique response to this challenge:


Truth Seeker said...

This is the response to this challenge to Christianity I have ever read:


exapologist said...

Thanks for the pointer, Truth Seeker. I'll give it a look.

Jeffery Jay Lowder said...

Very impressive and original argument, EA.

exapologist said...

Thanks for the kind words, Jeff!

DL said...

Ed Babinski has a fine article on
The Secular Web on Jesus as a
failed eschatological prophet:

He refutes many standard Evangelical rebuttals.

But, in my judgement, Dale
Allison's book, "Constructing
Jesus" (Ch. 2) combined with
Edward Adams's book, "The Stars
Will Fall from Heaven" provide an
airtight case for seeing Jesus as
a failed eschatological prophet
(Adams, for example, demolishes
Preterism and Wright's eschatology).

DL said...

Sorry, the last "k" in "Kiosk" is missing from my link above. Here it is again:

Apologies for the formatting too >.<

Ben said...

BTW, strong evidence of the resurrection + failed apocalyptic prophet doesn't necessarily = bogus apocalypse verses. It may mean that Jesus was a false prophet for Satan since even the gospels admit false prophets could perform miracles.

Jeffery Jay Lowder said...

Have there been any replies to this argument?

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