Was Jesus A False Prophet? Probably.

What if Jesus was a false prophet?  Many Christians will immediately bristle at such a question, but I would submit that taking the gospel authors at their word leaves believers with a big problem – Jesus appears to predict that the final judgement will take place within the generation of his hearers. Spoiler Alert: It didn’t happen. If this is true, what would it mean for Christians? Progressive leaning types might have the flexibility to finesse their way out of this issue, but the same can’t be said for a large number of others since Deuteronomy 18 makes it clear that a false prediction = a false prophet.  To admit something like that about Jesus would result in the entire edifice of the Christian faith collapsing…and there’s no way that’s happening without a fight!  In the interest of getting to the point, I will be making a brief argument that if we have a reliable record of what Jesus said in the Olivet Discourse, then Jesus was a false prophet [1].

Now there are two pretty easy ways to get out of this. One could either claim that Deuteronomy 18 doesn’t apply to Jesus, or that he never said some of the things he is purported to have said in the gospels. These are both fairly costly outs, so I don’t imagine that many people will want to take them if they don’t have to, but hey – I’m trying to be helpful here! All that being said, let’s dive into the text. One of the first questions that naturally arises is: What does Jesus mean by “this generation?” Unsurprisingly, many have tried to reinterpret this language to get themselves out of a theological pickle. Surely he can’t mean what it sounds like he means right? Despite the impressive acrobatics of those trying to twist the text, the plain reading has the weight of the evidence on its side [2].

This naturally leads to another question: When exactly does the Son of Man Come? The importance of this cannot be overstated, as many Christians believe that the coming of the Son of Man is the same event as the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE. But is this the correct reading? No, it isn’t. Sure, the author of Luke is pretty vague in his description, but Mark and Matthew aren’t. “But in those days, after the tribulation” the Son of Man will come (Mk 13:24). “Immediately after the tribulation of those days” the Son of Man will come in power and glory (Mt 24:29-31). The fact of the matter is that Jesus’ words as recorded in the gospels indicate that the destruction of Jerusalem and the coming of the Son of Man are not the same event [3].

But what is the nature of the Son of Man’s coming? I would submit to you that it’s clearly in the capacity of final judgement. The return of the Son of Man will be sudden, and will “come upon all who dwell on the face of the whole earth” (Lk 21:34-35). “All the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory” and “he will send out the angels and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven” (Mt 24:30; Mk 13:27). The reason that “all of the tribes of the earth will mourn” in Matthew is because “they will know that judgement has come” [4]. This is confirmed by another description of the coming of the Son of Man by the same gospel author – “For the Son of Man is going to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay each person according to what he has done” (Mt 16:27) [5]. And though it might be convenient for Christians to try and interpret the language of Jesus coming in the clouds metaphorically, the New Testament authors sure didn’t [6].

Well, how did the New Testament authors view the timeline?  They certainly speak as if they understand it in the way that I’m describing: Paul declares to those alive at the time that salvation is near and “the day is at hand”, as God will “soon crush Satan under your feet” (Rom 13:11-12; 16:20). It’s better not to marry because “the appointed time has grown very short”, and “those who have wives” are to “live as though they had none” because “the present form of this world is passing away” (1 Cor 7:27-31). “The end of the ages” has come upon the Churches Paul is writing to, and thus Christians are encouraged to let their “reasonableness be known to everyone” since “The Lord is at hand” (1 Cor 10:11; Phil 4:5). Paul speaks as though the people he is writing to will be alive for the resurrection, and encourages them to persevere because their suffering will be relieved when Jesus comes in judgement (1 Thess 4:15-17; 2 Thess 1:5-10; 2:1-12). The rich are warned that they have “laid up treasure in the last days”, and have fattened their “hearts in a day of slaughter” (Jas 5:1-9). Later authors even seem aware of the failed expectations [7].

New Testament scholar James D.G. Dunn summarizes what we have discussed so far: “Jesus had entertained hopes which were not fulfilled. There were ‘final’ elements in his expectation which were not realized. Putting it bluntly, Jesus was proved wrong by the course of events” [8]. While it’s certainly true that one could come up with some interpretive schema to account for all of this data, that shouldn’t comfort Christians. Religious people have been inventing creative ways to keep their texts from being wrong since, well, forever. What really matters is the explanation that fits best with the data, not the one that is most expedient at protecting your cherished beliefs. After all, Christians rarely have patience for the improbable harmonizations of Mormons and Muslims – so perhaps they should take a look in the mirror [9].

 

References

  1. The Olivet discourse can be found in Mark 13, Matthew 24-25, and Luke 21.  This post was heavily influenced by a chapter in: Thom Stark, The Human Faces of God: What Scripture Reveals When it Gets God Wrong (and Why Inerrancy Tries To Hide It), Location 5252 – 6878 (Kindle)  Read it if you can, as it is much more expansive than this post.  I don’t believe Stark would call Jesus a false prophet, but that will be the argument that I choose to make.
  2. Glenn Peoples, Preterism from the pulpit – See also Mt 12:41; 23:29-36; Lk 7:31-34; 17:24-25
  3. The Human Faces of God, Location 5734 – “Note that both Mark and Matthew make it clear that the coming of the Son of Man follows directly on the heels of the destruction of Jerusalem. They also, however, make it equally clear that the coming of the Son of Man occurs after the siege of Jerusalem”
  4. Craig A Evans, Matthew (New Cambridge Bible Commentary), p. 411
  5. The Human Faces of God, Location 5520; 5807 – Stark notes that “the worldwide mourning of the tribes indicates in no uncertain terms that this is a picture of the final judgment. And while the tribes are mourning, the Son of Man sends out angels in every direction to collect God’s people…” Regarding Mt 16:27: “Here the scope of the judgment is broad (‘everyone’). A more succinct, clearer description of the last judgment is difficult to imagine. The coming of the Son of Man with the angels, in the glory of his Father, is a clear reference to what the antecedent thought suggests – the final judgment.”
  6. 1 Thess 4:16-17; Acts 1:11; Rev 1:7
  7. The Apostate, Resurrection reply – He writes: “A couple of late New Testament writers (or perhaps even interpolators), aware of these failed expectations, tried to hedge in places (2 Peter 3:4, John 21:22).  It’s interesting that the canonical gospel believed to have been written the furthest from the time of Jesus records none of the sayings regarding his return in that generation, nor is its focus on an outward manifestation of ‘the kingdom of heaven’ but instead the writer focuses on inward concepts like personal belief and regeneration. It seems those earlier expectations had not been met.”  I would also like to point out that the scripture references used in this paragraph were originally compiled by The Apostate in his blog post.
  8. Quoted by John Loftus, “At Best Jesus Was A Failed Apocalyptic Prophet”, The Christian Delusion: Why Faith Fails, p. 325
  9. All Bible verses in this post have been taken from the ESV