Was Jesus a Failed Apocalyptic Prophet?

By Cris D. Putnam

A popular view amongst skeptics is that Jesus was failed apocalyptic prophet.  Their argument centers on the Olivet discourse in Mark 13:30 where Jesus says, “Truly, I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things take place.” They contend that this means Jesus predicted his return in power prior to the death of the disciples and that since this failed to happen, Jesus is proven a false prophet.  Atheist websites galore use this as a proof text. Even a few serious scholars do as well.  For instance, Bart Ehrman argues:

Jesus appears to have anticipated that the coming judgment of God, to be brought by the Son of Man in a cosmic act of destruction and salvation, was imminent. It could happen at any time. But it would certainly happen within his generation.[1]

Albert Schweitzer held a similar position:

At the end of His career Jesus establishes a connection between the Messianic conception, in its final transformation, and the Kingdom, which had retained its eschatological character; He goes to His death for the Messiahship in its new significance, but He goes on believing in His speedy return as the Son of Man.[2]

These are established scholars and we must take them seriously. However, are they really being honest with the data? More so, are they accounting for all of the data or merely pulling a verse from its context because it seems to infer an error on Jesus’ part.

I was listening to Gary Habermas’ lecture on the historical Jesus and an interesting question surfaced concerning Mark 13:32,

But concerning that day or that hour, no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father (Mk 13:32).

Habermas uses this verse to demonstrate that Jesus’ messianic title “Son of Man” (cf. Dan 7:13) was not added later (no one would claim Jesus was God and then add a verse claiming he did not know something).  Theologically, this verse is an embarrassing detail so it has an air of authenticity.[3] But more importantly, this verse appears directly after Jesus’ alleged prediction that he would return in his own generation. Doesn’t it seem odd that Jesus would predict his return within a very narrow time frame (his own generation) and then immediately say that he did not know when it would be? Actually, it seems incoherent for a reason. The skeptics have it wrong.

Jesus did not really teach that his return would be imminent. In fact, he provided hints it would not be. In Jesus’ parable about the ten talents, which is clearly about him leaving and then returning, he includes a pertinent detail, “Now after a long time the master of those servants came and settled accounts with them” (Mt 25:19). The parable of the Ten Virgins is another one which is centered on Jesus’ return and it provides a similar clue, “As the bridegroom was delayed, they all became drowsy and slept” (Mt 25:5). Craig Blomberg asks why Jesus would bother addressing so many worldly matters if he really believed as the critics suggest:

the majority of Jesus’ teaching presupposes a significant interval before the end of the world, because Christ spends much time instructing his disciples on such mundane matters as paying taxes, marriage and divorce, dealing with one’s enemies, stewardship of wealth, and so on.[4]

Jesus also implied an extended period of world evangelization, “And this gospel of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come”( Mt 24:14). It seems absurd to argue that Jesus and the apostles would have expected world evangelization in their lifetime. This begs the question what did Jesus mean by this generation.

From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts out its leaves, you know that summer is near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he is near, at the very gates. Truly, I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things take place (Mk 13:28-30).

The “these things” of v. 30 must be the same as the “these things” of v. 29, which clearly refer to signs preceding Christ’s second coming. Jesus was teaching that the generation who witnessed the signs he had previously outlined in chapter 13 would see his return. There has been no other generation in history prior to our own that has seen these signs in such abundance.

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[1] Bart D. Ehrman, Jesus, Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium (Oxford: Oxford University Press, USA, 1999),160.

[2] Albert Schweitzer, The Quest of the Historical Jesus (Joseph Kreifels).

[3] If you are interested in how Jesus can be God and not know something, the solution lies in his two natures human and divine. Look into the two minds view here.

[4] Craig Blomberg, in Michael J. Wilkins, Jesus Under Fire: Modern Scholarship Reinvents the Historical Jesus (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 1996), 31.

Why Eschatology Matters Part IV: Amillennialism

continued from Why Eschatology Matters Part IV

I. Amillennial View: The Amillennial view can be traced back as far as the Alexandrian school when early church father Origen (AD 185-254) was the first to allegorize “reigning with Christ” to mean the spiritual growth of the soul. Origen’s penchant for allegory led him to views that today are considered heretical.[1] This influenced Augustine who once held the premillennial view but was disgusted by speculations about celebratory feasting during the millennium that he viewed as carnal. Augustine wrote,

“for I myself, too, once held this opinion [premillennialism].  But, as they assert that those who then rise again shall enjoy the leisure of immoderate carnal banquets, furnished with an amount of meat and drink such as not only to shock the feeling of the temperate, but even to surpass the measure of credulity itself, such assertions can be believed only by the carnal.” [2]

Also a North African Donatist, Tyconius, who favored Origen’s allegorical hermeneutic, influenced Augustine to change his view to a spiritualized one. Soon Augustine’s view was widely adopted by the Roman Catholic Church and was subsequently retained by reformers Martin Luther and John Calvin.[3] Today it is still the majority view of the mainline denominations.[4]

A. Basic Premises:

i. Millennium: The prefix a- indicates a straightforward negation. However, they actually do believe a millennium exists, just that it is now. The millennium is symbolic of the church age and is said to be fulfilled spiritually not literally.[5] Augustine popularized the idea that the millennium began with the incarnation and is fully realized by the church. Proponents disagree amongst themselves as to where this Millennium is located. Some believe it is now on earth in the church while others believe it is now in heaven.[6]

ii. Resurrection: The majority contend that there is only one physical resurrection of the righteous and the wicked. The “first resurrection” of Revelation 20 is understood as a spiritual in the sense that believer’s souls will go to heaven to reign with Christ spiritually.[7] The second is understood as physical and all are then judged.

iii. The Binding of Satan: They understand this as being in effect during the period between the first and second comings of Christ.[8]Accordingly, Satan is currently chained and cannot deceive the nations. Most believe that there will be a rebellion as Satan is released just prior to Christ’s return[9] Thus, the world will get worse not better. In this way they agree more with premillennialists than postmillennialists.

iv. The Reign of Christ: Christ is reigning now in the hearts of believers, they influence the culture by living out their faith.[10] He will return and judge the world and then start over with a new heavens and earth.

v. The Kingdom of God: The kingdom of God is present now in the world as Christ is ruling believers through the Spirit and his word. They also look forward to a future, the new heaven and new earth.[11]

vi. Israel: The Abrahamic and Davidic covenants were conditional and demand no future fulfillment. The church has replaced Israel as spiritual Israel. Thus there is no prophetic future for national Israel.[12]

vii. Hermeneutic: The necessary theory of interpretation is reminiscent of the Alexandrian tradition that prophecy is symbolic and need not be taken literally. A passage’s basic sense can be taken spiritually or even mystically. However, the lines are not so clearly defined as Dr. Norman Geisler explains,

Again, it complicates matters that even those who allegorize certain prophetic passages claim adherence to the historical-grammatical method of interpretation. (Some do admit to enhancing and expanding it to include an allegorical, symbolical, or typological understanding of certain texts.) The issue, then, boils down to the understanding and/or application (rather than the name) of the method of interpreting (hermeneutics).[13]

B. Points of Strength:

i. The millennium is only found in Revelation 20, which being a book of apocalyptic imagery, can justifiably be interpreted symbolically.[14]

ii. It is a long standing tradition in many denominations.

iii. The view tacitly acknowledges that the world is not getting better and better.[15] This agrees with historical reality.

iv. In the Bible, the word “thousand” is occasionally used symbolically (cf. 1 Chron. 16:15; Ps. 50:10).[16] This provides a rationale for their interpretation of “thousand” as an indefinite period.

v. Because the sheep and goat judgment in Matt 25:3 is interpreted as the same event as the great white throne judgment (Rev. 20:11-15). They avoid the perceived conflict when Jesus teaches that judgment takes place at his return.

vi. They avoid explaining how people enter the kingdom in natural bodies.

vii. According to Riddlebarger, “Its understanding that imminent return of Christ is the consummation of all things and marks the fullness of both the kingdom of God and the age to come.”[17]

C. Points of Weakness:

i. It is hard to imagine how one could come to this conclusion by reading the book of Revelation alone. This view appears imposed upon the plain meaning of the text.

ii. The New Testament overwhelmingly teaches that Satan is actively opposing the church (1 Cor. 7:5, 2 Cor. 4:4, 2 Cor. 2:11, 2 Cor. 11:14, Eph. 2:2, Jms. 4:7, 1 Tim 1:20, 1 Pt. 5:8) and in fact “the whole world lies in the power of the evil one.” (1 Jn. 5:19b, ESV)

iii. It interprets the two resurrections of Revelation 20 differently, one spiritual (Rev.20:4) and one physical (Rev.20:5). However the same Greek word, zao, for “came to life” is used for both. Additionally, the passage itself does not indicate that the writer intended a difference of meaning.[18] Verses five and six directly contradict the notion that the first resurrection is anything but bodily physical resurrection of believers.

iv. There were no chapter divisions in the original manuscript and chapter 20 begins with the Greek preposition kai having causal and copulative relation to Christ’s parousia in chapter 19.[19] For instance, the binding of Satan is inextricably chronologically connected to Christ’s return.

v. Even though the word “thousand” is used occasionally as a long period (e.g. 1 Chron 16:15), it appears over one hundred times and only a few are non-literal, and those are hyperbole not allegory.[20]

vi. The church does not have 12 tribes and in Luke 22:30 Jesus makes clear that National Israel will not only be present in the future kingdom but that they will also retain tribal identity. If the church is now “spiritual Israel” and God was finished with National Israel this simply would not follow. Also note that the 144,000 in Revelation are chosen from the 12 tribes, again ruling out the church.

Next up Postmillennialism

[1]David Noel Freedman, The Anchor Bible Dictionary (New York: Doubleday, 1996, c1992), 4:834.

[2]Augustine. City of God, Book 20, chapter 7.

[3]Norman L. Geisler, Systematic Theology, Volume Four: Church, Last Things (Minneapolis, MN: Bethany House Publishers, 2005), 548.

[4]John F. Walvoord, The Prophecy Knowledge Handbook, Includes Indexes. (Wheaton, Ill.: Victor Books, 1990), 624.

[5] Edward Hindson. Revelation: Unlocking the Future, (Chattanooga, TN: AMG Publishers, 2002), 86.

[6]Arnold G. Fruchtenbaum, Israelology : The Missing Link in Systematic Theology, Previous Ed.: 1993., Rev. ed. (Tustin, Calif.: Ariel Ministries, 1994), 123.

[7]Geisler, Systematic Theology, 549.

[8]R.C. Sproul, The Last Days According to Jesus, electronic ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2000, c1998) ch. 9.

[9]Fruchtenbaum, Israelology, 128.

[10]Sproul, The Last Days, 9.

[11]Sproul, The Last Days, 9.

[12]Hindson, Revelation, 86.

[13] Geisler, Systematic Theology, 413.

[14]Fruchtenbaum, Israelology, 135.

[15]Fruchtenbaum, Israelology, 126.

[16]Geisler, Systematic Theology, 550.

[17] Kim Riddlebarger, (http://pjcockrell.wordpress.com/2008/01/15/eschatology-q-a-what-are-the-strengths-and-weaknesses-of-the-different-millennial-views/) accessed 07/04/2010.

[18]Walter A. Elwell and Philip Wesley Comfort, Tyndale Bible Dictionary, Tyndale reference library (Wheaton, Ill.: Tyndale House Publishers, 2001), 896.

[19]James Strong, The Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible : Showing Every Word of the Text of the Common English Version of the Canonical Books, and Every Occurrence of Each Word in Regular Order., electronic ed. (Ontario: Woodside Bible Fellowship., 1996), G2532.

[20]Geisler, Systematic Theology, 558.