November 25, 2013
Was Jesus a Failed Eschatological Prophet?
Hi Dr. Craig
I have been a Christian all my life, I love Jesus and I want to believe in Him now more than ever, since as a young man I am thinking of of marriage and raising a god-fearing family.
However my faith has come under tremendous attack due to my exposure to atheistic arguments that attack my faith. For the most part I have been able to resist many of the arguments atheists have presented to me with the help of great philosophers like yourself, who defend the faith with reason. However recently I have been exposed to the argument that Jesus was a failed prophet i.e. His Matthew 24:34 prophecy. C.S. Lewis said of this passage "It is certainly the most embarrassing verse in the Bible." after going over the typical Christian responses I have to agree with him.
I am trying really hard to hang on to my faith, but this passage has provided the strongest objection to my personal faith yet. I have not been able to convince myself that Jesus was referring to a future generation as some theologians have tried to explain, because the language and the context of the verse make it clear that He was talking about the contemporary generation. This was the interpretation I favored but it doesn't look like it is shared by the vast majority of scholars.
The other explanation is that Jesus gave two prophecies, one about the temple's destruction and about the end of the world. However this interpretation seems compounded and forced into the passages. I have always viewed Matthew 24:34 as an end-time prophecy but it doesn't seem to have a lot of scholarly support and the context doesn't seem to support this view.
C.S. Lewis thought that Jesus simply made a wrong prophecy in his human weakness, but I have a moral problem with this view, namely why would Jesus make a prophecy about the future of the world knowing that he didn't know the future of the world?
I am desperate to believe in Jesus but how can I continue to trust in and have faith in Him if he got a the future wrong.
Please help me Dr. Craig I am really struggling to deal with this objection to my faith. What do most scholars say on the subject, and did Jesus make a false prophecy?
The problem with which you’ve recently become familiar, Jessie, is typically referred to as “the delay of the parousia” or of Christ’s return. The question is: did Jesus believe and predict that he would return triumphant within the lifetime of the disciples? If he did so believe and predict, what does that imply for the person of Christ? Was he just another deluded prophet of the end times, another failed Messianic pretender?
Now I hope you can see that these last questions throw us immediately into a much larger arena. When we ask if Jesus was just a failed eschatological prophet, we must ask such questions as: Did he fulfill Old Testament prophecies in a way beyond human control? Did he perform miracles and exorcisms as signs of the in-breaking of God’s Kingdom in his person? Did he rise from the dead in vindication of the allegedly blasphemous, personal claims which led to his condemnation and execution? I believe that what we think about Jesus’ resurrection will ultimately determine what we think about his person. His resurrection is God’s confirmation of his radical personal claims whereby he put himself in the place of God. The resurrection showed the people of his lifetime and us as well that he was not just another failed eschatological prophet or Messianic pretender but God’s unique Son.
So you can’t answer your question in isolation. You have to consider all the evidence, not just some isolated sayings. I find that many Christians struggling with doubts about this or that particular issue seem to have lost sight of the bigger picture and forget about all the evidence we have concerning Jesus and his resurrection. If a person thinks that Jesus was just a failed eschatological prophet, then I want to hear from that person how he accounts for the evidence for Jesus’ empty tomb, post-mortem appearances, and the origin of the disciples’ belief in his resurrection. Here we will hear a rehearsal of the usual weak explanations. I don’t know your situation, Jessie, but if you’re not familiar with the evidence for Jesus’ resurrection, I’d encourage you to study the articles and debates on this topic available on this website. This will help to put your question in proper perspective. Even if one is at a complete loss to explain how Jesus could have made the predictions you mention, one can rationally believe him to be who he claimed to be on the basis of the evidence for his resurrection. I take it that C.S. Lewis found himself in such a position.
But did Jesus, in fact, believe and predict that he would come again during the lifetime of his disciples? Let’s look at the evidence more closely.
In his so-called Olivet Discourse (Matthew 24; Mark 13:1-27; Luke 21), Jesus gives many signs that must take place prior to his return, or the coming of the Son of Man. These included things like widespread persecution and the worldwide witness of the church; the fulfillment of the Great Commission (Matthew 28:18-20); a time of religious apostasy; wars and conflicts throughout the world; and natural disturbances in the world. Paul as well said that certain things must take place before the Son of Man comes, such as the coming of the lawless one predicted in II Thessalonians 2; the ingathering of the full number of the Gentiles into the church; and then finally the repentance and salvation of all of Israel (Romans 11:25-6).
When you read these passages, you have the impression that it is going to be a very long time until Christ comes again. There’s a lot that has to transpire first! That is why it is so stunning, then, when Jesus says in Matthew 24:34 (cf. Mark 13:30) that “this generation will not pass away until all of these things take place.” One is taken aback because one has been led to expect a very long period of time before the return of Christ. But here Jesus, at face value, seems to be saying that some of the people who were his contemporaries would live to see the coming of the Son of Man in power.
Of course, that didn’t happen. True, Jerusalem was destroyed in AD 70, as Jesus predicted. But the Son of Man didn’t return. So one is faced with this problem: why was the parousia -- the coming of Christ -- delayed? Why didn’t it happen when one would have thought it would based on this saying of Jesus?
There are several ways of dealing with this problem. One is the preterist view, which holds that, in fact, all of these things did take place by AD 70. With the destruction of Jerusalem the Son of Man did come and was enthroned in heaven. Although this wasn’t a visible event here on Earth, it did take place. So from the preterist point of view there is no problem! All of these things have been fulfilled just as Jesus said.
As attractive as this solution is in being very literal (at least with regard to Matthew 24:34), nevertheless I do not find this view convincing. It seems mistaken to hold that the coming of the Son of Man was some sort of invisible event that took place in God’s throne room rather than here on Earth. This event was supposed to be linked to the general resurrection of the dead and the judgment of the righteous and unrighteous. That obviously didn’t take place in AD 70. So I’m not persuaded by the preterist interpretation.
Another possibility is to say that the prophecy was conditional and so open to alteration. In the Old Testament there are examples of prophecies that involve a time line -- for example, Jonah’s prophecy to Nineveh, “Yet forty days and Nineveh will be destroyed!” -- but then something happens so that it no longer becomes appropriate for the prophecy to be fulfilled. Nineveh wasn’t, in fact, destroyed because the people repented and turned to God, even though God had told Jonah to tell the people that in forty days Nineveh was going to be destroyed. So it has been suggested that perhaps Jesus did prophesy that all these things would happen within a generation, but something changed so that the parousia was delayed.
While that is a possibility, there doesn’t seem to be in this case anything that happened that would cause Jesus’ prophecy to be revised. Nineveh repented, so that it was no longer appropriate to judge Nineveh. But Jerusalem didn’t repent, and nothing changed. Jerusalem in fact was destroyed. So why wasn’t the rest of the prophecy fulfilled? It doesn’t seem to be a satisfactory explanation to say simply that the prophecy was revised.
So I’m inclined to a third alternative, which is that the prophecy is ambiguous. That is to say, we don’t really know the original context of these words, so that we cannot be sure that Jesus was in fact predicting that he was going to come again within the lifetime of his contemporaries. Indeed, the eminent historical Jesus scholar John Meier doesn’t think that this saying of Jesus is even authentic, that is to say, actually uttered by the historical Jesus. Meier insists that he is in no way trying to avoid the conclusion that Jesus gave a false prophecy—Meier is ruthlessly objective—rather he argues that the evidence shows that this saying is probably not authentic.
My proposal is more modest. I appeal to the well-known fact that we often do not have the original context in which Jesus’ sayings were spoken, much less their precise wording. When we remember that the Gospels do not give us a tape recording of Jesus’ words, that the Gospels are written in Greek, whereas Jesus probably spoke most of the time in Aramaic, that the Gospel writers didn’t even have the device of quotation marks to distinguish direct and indirect speech, we can already see that we don’t have a verbatim transcript of what Jesus said. Jesus’ speeches would often be paraphrased or summarized. The Evangelists sometimes arrange these sayings in different ways. So we shouldn’t think that we always have the words of Jesus exactly as they were spoken or in their original context.
A striking example of this phenomenon which has direct relevance to our question may be seen by comparing Matthew 10:23 with Mark 6:7-13. In the Markan passage, we have the mission of the Twelve described. Jesus calls the twelve disciples and sends them out two-by-two to preach in the various towns of Israel. So this is a mission during the lifetime of Jesus on which the disciples go and from which they then return and continue their apprenticeship to Jesus. But when you turn over to Matthew 10 and look at his account of the ministry of the Twelve, what you discover is that Matthew blends in with Jesus’ mission charge to the twelve disciples certain prophecies about the end times, about the coming of the Son of Man. So you get a verse like Matthew 10:23, “When they persecute you in one town, flee to the next; for truly, I say to you, you will not have gone through all the towns of Israel, before the Son of man comes.” Originally this was probably a saying about the end of the world, the coming of the Son of Man; but here Matthew has woven it into this mission discourse to the Twelve. Yet Matthew obviously knew when he wrote that the coming of the Son of Man didn’t occur before the mission of the Twelve was over! He knew that they went through the towns of Israel, that they came back, and that they continued their apprenticeship with Jesus. Jesus then went on to the cross, and you know the rest of the story. Yet, by putting this saying in this context, Matthew makes it sound as if Jesus is saying to the twelve disciples, “Before you have gone through all the towns of the Israel, the coming of the Son of Man will occur.”
This is a perfect illustration of my contention. If Matthew 10:23 did not mean that the Son of Man was going to come again before the mission of the Twelve was over, there is no reason to think that Matthew 24:34 means that the Son of Man is going to come again within the first generation. We can’t be sure how this saying was originally given or what its context was.
Now look again at Mark 13. In verse 30 Jesus says, “Truly, I say to you, this generation will not pass away before all these things take place.” What is “all these things” referring to? Look at the previous verse: “So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he is near, at the very gates.” When you see “these things,” then you know the Son of Man is near. So “these things” doesn’t include the coming of the Son of Man itself. What does it include? Look back at verse 23: “But take heed; I have told you all things beforehand.” Jesus is talking about all of those signs that will take place before the coming of the Son of Man, including the destruction of Jerusalem. So even at face value what he says is that within this generation all these things -- that is to say, these signs, the persecution, the destruction of Jerusalem -- will take place before the Son of Man comes. Then the coming of the Son of Man will take place after that. So it may be that by putting verse 30 later in the discourse, after the description of the Son of Man’s coming, Mark makes it sound as if the coming of the Son of Man itself will occur within that generation, when actually the saying is about “these things” that have to precede the coming of the Son of Man. So I am suggesting is that the saying may not be in its original context, that originally this saying did not at all mean that the coming of the Son of Man itself would take place within the first generation.
For another illustration of my point, look at Mark 8:38-9:1:
‘For whoever is ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him will the Son of man also be ashamed, when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.’ And he said to them, ‘Truly, I say to you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see that the kingdom of God has come with power.’
What Jesus says is that people who are alive will see that the Kingdom of God has come (perfect tense) with power. Jesus may have meant that they will see that it has already come with power, referring to Jesus’ own ministry of miracle working and exorcisms of demonic beings, which he said were signs of the in-breaking of the Kingdom of God. Or it could refer to his death and resurrection from the dead. One could well imagine people after Jesus’ resurrection looking back on his life and ministry and saying, “Wow, the Kingdom of God really has come with power!” The saying might even refer to the transfiguration, which Mark relates next in chapter 9. So it may well be that in the original historical context this utterance by Jesus wasn’t meant to say that there are people here who will see the Son of Man returning in power and glory before they taste death.
But now look at how Matthew handles this verse in Matthew 16:28. Here Matthew, telling of this same event, rewords it. Remember, they didn’t have quotation marks. This is paraphrased. Here is Matthew’s way of putting it: “Truly, I say to you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the Son of man coming in his kingdom.” Now that does sound as if they are going to see the return of the Son of Man in their own lifetime! But we know that Matthew is paraphrasing this passage in Mark 9:1, which doesn’t really say that. Matthew is passing it on in a somewhat different way. This case again illustrates my point. These sayings may have a very different meaning in their original context. Someone who only knew Matthew 16:28 might well think that Jesus is saying, “There are people here who will not die before they see my parousia,” but when you read Mark 9:1, that is not at all obvious.
We need to remember that we, standing at twenty centuries’ distance, don’t always have a handle on how these sayings may have been originally used and what they meant. It is quite consistent to think that Jesus thought that things like the destruction of Jerusalem would take place within his generation but didn’t necessarily think that his own coming would take place within that first generation. Remember, Jesus said he didn’t know the date of his return (Mark 13:32). He didn’t know when the coming of the Son of Man would be. So it is quite consistent for him to say that “all these things” will take place and then the Son of Man will come. How long afterward? He didn’t know. He admitted that he didn’t know.
In fact, there are quite a number of parables given by Jesus that imply that it will be a very considerable interval of time before the Son of Man comes.
“Who then is the faithful and wise servant, whom his master has set over his household, to give them their food at the proper time? Blessed is that servant whom his master when he comes will find so doing. Truly, I say to you, he will set him over all his possessions. But if that wicked servant says to himself, ‘My master is delayed,’ and begins to beat his fellow servants, and eats and drinks with the drunken, the master of that servant will come on a day when he does not expect him and at an hour he does not know, and will punish him, and put him with the hypocrites; there men will weep and gnash their teeth” (Matthew 24:45-51).
Look over at Luke’s version of this same parable in Luke 12:35-47,
“Let your loins be girded and your lamps burning, and be like men who are waiting for their master to come home from the marriage feast, so that they may open to him at once when he comes and knocks. Blessed are those servants whom the master finds awake when he comes; truly, I say to you, he will gird himself and have them sit at table, and he will come and serve them. If he comes in the second watch, or in the third, and finds them so, blessed are those servants! But know this, that if the householder had known at what hour the thief was coming, he would not have left his house to be broken into. You also must be ready; for the Son of man is coming at an unexpected hour.”
Peter said, “Lord, are you telling this parable for us or for all?” And the Lord said, “Who then is the faithful and wise steward, whom his master will set over his household, to give them their portion of food at the proper time? Blessed is that servant whom his master when he comes will find so doing. Truly, I say to you, he will set him over all his possessions. But if that servant says to himself, ‘My master is delayed in coming,’ and begins to beat the menservants and the maidservants, and to eat and drink and get drunk, the master of that servant will come on a day when he does not expect him and at an hour he does not know, and will punish him, and put him with the unfaithful. And that servant who knew his master’s will, but did not make ready or act according to his will, shall receive a severe beating” (Luke 12:35-47).
This is an example of the parables that Jesus tells to prepare his followers for a possible delay of the master’s coming. He may not come until the second or third watch, later than expected. Peter’s question is interesting: “Is this parable for us? Those of us who are here listening right now? Or is this for all?” I take Jesus to be saying that this isn’t just for the disciples. In a sense, this is an admonition to all believers at all times to be ready.
Now look at Matthew 25:1-13. One parable isn’t enough!
‘Then the kingdom of heaven shall be compared to ten maidens who took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. For when the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them; but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. As the bridegroom was delayed, they all slumbered and slept. But at midnight there was a cry, “Behold, the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.” Then all those maidens rose and trimmed their lamps. And the foolish said to the wise, “Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.” But the wise replied, “Perhaps there will not be enough for us and for you; go rather to the dealers and buy for yourselves.” And while they went to buy, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went in with him to the marriage feast; and the door was shut. Afterward the other maidens came also, saying, “Lord, Lord, open to us.” But he replied, “Truly, I say to you, I do not know you.” Watch therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.
You don’t know when Christ will return. Therefore if the master is delayed, you still need to be ready.
That is still not enough! Another parable:
‘For it will be as when a man going on a journey called his servants and entrusted to them his property; to one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away. He who had received the five talents went at once and traded with them; and he made five talents more. So also, he who had the two talents made two talents more. But he who had received the one talent went and dug in the ground and hid his master’s money. Now after a long time the master of those servants came and settled accounts with them. And he who had received the five talents came forward, bringing five talents more, saying, “Master, you delivered to me five talents; here I have made five talents more.” His master said to him, “Well done, good and faithful servant; you have been faithful over a little, I will set you over much; enter into the joy of your master.” And he also who had the two talents came forward, saying, “Master, you delivered to me two talents; here I have made two talents more.” His master said to him, “Well done, good and faithful servant; you have been faithful over a little, I will set you over much; enter into the joy of your master.” He also who had received the one talent came forward, saying, “Master, I knew you to be a hard man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not winnow; so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.” But his master answered him, “You wicked and slothful servant! You knew that I reap where I have not sowed, and gather where I have not winnowed? Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and at my coming I should have received what was my own with interest. So take the talent from him, and give it to him who has the ten talents. For to every one who has will more be given, and he will have abundance; but from him who has not, even what he has will be taken away. And cast the worthless servant into the outer darkness; there men will weep and gnash their teeth”.’ (Matthew 25:14-30).
Again, you see the idea of a long time in play here before the return of the master.
Finally, one more parable:
‘When the Son of man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate them one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will place the sheep at his right hand, but the goats at the left. Then the King will say to those at his right hand, “Come, O blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.” Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when did we see thee hungry and feed thee, or thirsty and give thee drink? And when did we see thee a stranger and welcome thee, or naked and clothe thee? And when did we see thee sick or in prison and visit thee?” And the King will answer them, “Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.” Then he will say to those at his left hand, “Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.” Then they also will answer, “Lord, when did we see thee hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to thee?” Then he will answer them, “Truly, I say to you, as you did it not to one of the least of these, you did it not to me.” And they will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life’ (Matthew 25:31-46).
Notice that people are judged on the basis of how they acted toward other Christians in the world, how they behaved toward Christ’s church, which suggests again a long period of time during which people who had never known Jesus, had never seen him, were nevertheless ministering to the needs of his people.
Taken together with all of the other parables and sayings, I think we have good reason to think that Jesus himself believed that he would, indeed, come again in glory but didn’t know when it was going to be. So he prepared his followers for the eventuality that this might be a very long time. Therefore, Mark 9:1 and Mark 13:30 (and their parallels) have to be read in this broader context of the teaching of Jesus. The fall of Jerusalem in AD 70 may have been just a foreshadowing of a final great tribulation and fall of Jerusalem that will take place again at the end of the age. Although Jesus may have thought that many of “these things” would take place within his generation, I don’t think we have any solid grounds for saying that Jesus believed that the coming of the Son of Man was going to take place within the lifetime of his contemporaries.