Is Jesus recorded as a failed apocalypticist?
by Dr. David Bowen
“Dr. Ehrman strongly advocates that the New Testament portrays Jesus and most of his followers as apocalyptic prophets. It seems they were sure of the end coming very soon – at least during their lifetime. So…either the New Testament writers wrongly recorded these things or Jesus was wrong, right?”
In Professor Ehrman’s book, Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium, he adopts the view of Albert Schweitzer that Jesus is best understood as a Jewish apocalypticist who mistakenly thought that God was getting ready to end the world immediately. “Jesus thought that the history of the world would come to a screeching halt, that God would intervene in the affairs of this planet, overthrow the forces of evil in a cosmic act of judgment, and establish his utopian kingdom here on earth. And this was to happen within Jesus’ own generation” (p.3).
The basis for this view of Jesus is found in the gospel writers. Five particularly important verses are all found in Matthew. “When you are persecuted in one place, flee to another. I tell you the truth, you will not finish going through the cities of Israel before the Son of Man comes” (Matthew 10:23). “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 16:28). “I tell you the truth, all this will come upon this generation” (Matthew 23:36). “I tell you the truth, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away” (Matthew 24:34-35). “But I say to all of you: In the future you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One and coming on the clouds of heaven” (Matthew 26:64).
Famous twentieth-century philosopher and atheist Bertrand Russell speaks for many critics then and now when he writes, “He [Jesus] certainly thought that His second coming would occur in clouds of glory before the death of all the people who were living at that time. There are a great many texts that prove that. … In that respect, clearly he was not so wise as some other people have been, and he was certainly not superlatively wise” ( Why I Am Not a Christian). Before one accepts Russell’s and Ehrman’s conclusion, however, one should make sure that he or she is understanding these texts in their contexts and in the context of the time in which they were written. Jesus was not the first prophet to have pointed powerfully to the end of all things, and his apostles would do likewise in their writings after he was dead (and, according to their belief, raised from the dead and ascended to God the Father’s right hand). Jesus definitely taught that “God would intervene in the affairs of this planet” as Professor Ehrman observes. But that “this was to happen within Jesus’ own generation” is less clear, especially depending on what one understands by the “this.”
Let’s take each of the five Matthew passages in turn and then we should be in a position better to understand the corroborative testimony of both Old Testament prophets and New Testament apostles that “the end is near.”
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