Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Awkward Bible Passages Part IV

"For the Son of Man is going to come in his Father's glory with his angels, and then he will reward each person according to what he has done. I tell you the truth, some who are standing here will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom."
- Matthew 16:27-28 (NIV)

"Even so, when you see these things happening, you know that it is near, right at the door. I tell you the truth, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened."
- Mark 13:29-30 (NIV)

"I tell you the truth, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened."
- Luke 21:32 (NIV)

"Behold, I am coming soon! Blessed is he who keeps the words of the prophecy in this book."
- Revelation 22:7 (NIV)

For our fourth installation of Awkward Bible Passages, we will celebrate with four related verses from four books of the New Testament (Thanks to Doug for suggesting the first of these). Thus far, we have stayed in the Old Testament, but there is plenty of material to be found in the last 27 books of the Bible as well.

These verses focus on Jesus' repeated promise to return quickly for his second coming. You may recognize the two middle passages from the "Little Apocalypse", also known as the Olivet Discourse, which Jesus delivers in the Synoptic ("seen together") Gospels. These are found in Matthew 24, Mark 13, and Luke 21, and they warn of the typical fair - false Christs, the sun and moon darkening, stars falling from the sky, and the Son of Man returning in the clouds. Obviously, none of this has happened yet, and so it is very awkward when Jesus promises that "this generation will not pass away until all these things have happened," or that he is "coming soon" (a phrase used five times in the book of Revelation). C.S. Lewis even called the former, "the most embarrassing verse in the Bible." Christians have busily tried to make the word "generation" be seen as a metaphorical term describing the age of the church, but that ignores the clear meaning in Matthew's assertion that "some who are standing here will not taste death."

About 100 generations have passed (and passed away) since these predictions were made, and clearly we live in a world that, as Jonathan Kirsch says in A History of the End of the World, just refuses to end. The predictions in the Little Apocalypse and in the big Apocalypse (Revelation), are merely failed reinterpretations of Daniel's failed prophecies (read Randel Helms's The Bible Against Itself for more on that and the role of II Esdras). And yet, Christianity and the theological interest in eschatology have continued unabated.

The worst thing you can do to a prophecy is to attach a date or timetable to it. It is much smarter to say things like, "No one knows about that day or hour," because such open-ended predications are completely unfalsifiable. If Jesus still doesn't show up after 2,000 years, the unflagging believer can proudly state, "he may come back tomorrow!" Another tactic is to state generalities or use poetic language that applies to any time, such as "there will be earthquakes," or "there will be wars and rumors of wars." Nostradamus was expert at this. You can also use weird numerologies or ambiguous language like, "seven periods shall pass," or say something like, "If anyone has insight, let him calculate the number of the beast." That way, a bunch of theologians will busily crunch their own numbers and come up with dates or figures to match with current events. When their predictions prove false, they can say they miscalculated.

In each generation since the writing of these prophecies there have been many who are completely and utterly convinced that theirs is the end-time, and they will see the return of Christ. This has produced constant embarrassment over the years, and many churches (Jehovah's Witness, Seventh Day Adventist, Branch Davidian) were founded by the progenitors of failed end time prophecies. Hal Lindsey published "The Late, Great Planet Earth" in 1970, predicting the world world end in 1988, and it sold some two million copies. He was unperturbed (they never are) when 1989 came, pushing back the date (another prophecy which also failed). For a list of failed end-time prophecies over the years, and a good laugh, visit religioustolerance.org.


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J. K. Jones said...

Have you ever explored the patrial-preterist view of these passages? R. C. Sproul argues well for it in "The Last Days According to Jesus."

Ross said...

Hi J.K. Jones, thanks for the comment. I haven't read R.C. Sproul's book, but I am familiar with the partial-preterist standpoint. It is the view that my own pastor seems to prefer, in which Jesus' predictions are true to an extent: we are in the last days, and the kingdom of God has already begun, but there will be a final judgment later as well. The notion that the fall of the temple in 70 AD was the metaphorical "end of the world" doesn't hold water, partly because it doesn't match the events described, and mainly because the books were almost certainly written after that date. It's a nice way to have your cake and eat it too, but it's still just a rationalization for the fact that Jesus' prediction (as ascribed to him in the gospels and Revelation) was flat out wrong.

J. K. Jones said...

If the gospels were written after 70AD, then why do none of them mention the destruction of the temple in that year?

Ross said...

The gospels mention the destruction of the temple, but only in Jesus' words as a prediction of future events. By having him predict something that had already happened, it made him sound more credible. (The gospel authors weren't partial-preterists, they imagined Jesus would be physically returning within their lifetimes, so the destruction of the temple was a separate "prediction.") The author of Daniel used a similar tactic, pretending to write in an earlier era, he made "predictions" of events that had already happened, and then tacked on additional prognostications that never came true.

J. K. Jones said...

Since you provide an explaination without giving supporting evidence, I will choose to ignore your comment.

The best explaination for the failure to mention the destruction fo the temple is that the temple had not been destroiyed yet and the gospels were writtne before AD70. It would have been helpful to the apostles case to mention a prediction by Jesus that had come true.

The knowledge and / or understanding of the apostles is not the issue. The issue is what Jesus said. There are many instances in the gospels of sayings of Christ that were misunderstood by the apostles.

Ross said...

Hi J.K. Jones - sorry, I figured it was commonly understood that Jesus mentions the destruction of the temple/Jerusalem. The best example comes a little before the end-time prophecy I quoted from Luke.

Luke 21:20-28 (NIV) says, "When you see Jerusalem being surrounded by armies, you will know that its desolation is near. Then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains, let those in the city get out, and let those in the country not enter the city. For this is the time of punishment in fulfillment of all that has been written. How dreadful it will be in those days for pregnant women and nursing mothers! There will be great distress in the land and wrath against this people. They will fall by the sword and will be taken as prisoners to all the nations. Jerusalem will be trampled on by the Gentiles until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled. There will be signs in the sun, moon and stars. On the earth, nations will be in anguish and perplexity at the roaring and tossing of the sea. Men will faint from terror, apprehensive of what is coming on the world, for the heavenly bodies will be shaken. At that time they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory. When these things begin to take place, stand up and lift up your heads, because your redemption is drawing near."

Jesus also says in Luke 19:43-44, "The days will come upon you when your enemies will build an embankment against you and encircle you and hem you in on every side. They will dash you to the ground, you and the children within your walls. They will not leave one stone on another, because you did not recognize the time of God's coming to you."

The reason I suppose (and yes, I cannot be certain of this, but I find it consistent) that Luke's author composed this after 70 AD is that the first part of the prediction ("When you see Jerusalem being surrounded by armies") is quite accurate, yet the second part of the prediction never came true. Again, I would say this suggests that the writer of Luke anticipated Christ's physical return in a cloud to be imminent, during his lifetime, and not some event in the distant future.

The dating is common scholarship, but I will refer you to an article from the Journal of Biblical Studies(http://www.journalofbiblicalstudies.org/Issue4/Articles/dating_early_christian_gospels.htm). Of particular relevance is the section beginning with "Terminus post quem." Earlychristianwritings.com estimates the authorship dates of the gospels as follows: Mark (65-80), Matthew (80-100), Luke (80-130), and John (90-120). You can check the respective Wikipedia entries as well. Mark seems to be the earliest gospel, as both Matthew and Luke borrow from and embellish it, and it does not include any mention of Jerusalem's destruction. Thus, Mark would be the best candidate for a Gospel written before 70 AD.

For a broader discussion of failed prophecy and typological fiction in the Bible, as well as evidence for Daniel's use of the prediction-of-past-events method, read Randel Helms' "The Bible Against Itself" (2006).

J. K. Jones said...

The liberal dating of the gospels you give have been discredited by conservative scholars.

I'd recommend Lee Strobel’s latest book as an introduction to what more up to date scholarship reveals about the dating of the gospels:

An alternative would be Can We Trust the Gospels by Mark D. Roberts:

I'd also recommend that you read Sproul’s book before you disregard his theory. It can be found here: