Is Jesus Recorded as a Failed Apocalypticist?

“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.”

  1.  Concerning Matthew 10:23 above, I agree with a great many commentators who have seen that verse as referring to the judgment of the Son of Man meted out to the Jewish nation through the agency of the Roman empire in A.D. 70, when the temple was destroyed at the climax of the suppression of the Jewish revolt.
  1.  Concerning Matthew 16:28 above, I agree with the many commentators who have seen that verse as being explained by the Transfiguration of Jesus that immediately follows in the very next verses.  Having told his disciples that the Son of Man would come in his Father’s glory (16:27), he now gives them a foretaste of that coming in his glorious kingdom through his shining like the sun and his clothes becoming as white as the light (17:2).
  1.  Concerning Matthew 23:36 above, the stress on judgment points in the same direction as in Matthew 10:23–this reference is to the defeat of the Jewish rebellion by the Romans and the destruction of the temple in August, A.D. 70.  One generation is often seen in Scripture as 40 years, particularly since the faithless generation that came out of Egypt in the Exodus died out over a 40-year period while God punished them for their unbelief and disobedience and prepared their children to enter the Promised Land (see Numbers 14:30-35).  If, as many scholars believe, Jesus uttered these words in A.D. 30 just before his death, then A.D. 70 fits the picture of a “generation” perfectly.
  1.  Concerning Matthew 24:34 above, the reader will now predict correctly that the generation that will not pass away “until all these things have happened” is the generation to which Jesus was speaking.  Within 40 years they would have seen the distress of Matthew 24:4-28.  As D. A. Carson writes, “all that v. 34 demands is that the distress of vv. 4-28, including Jerusalem’s fall, happen within it.  Therefore, v. 34 sets a terminus a quo for the Parousia: it cannot happen till the events in vv. 4-28 take place, all within a generation of A.D. 30.  But there is no terminus ad quem to this distress other than the Parousia itself, and ‘only the Father’ knows when it will happen” (Commentary on Matthew).
  1.  Concerning Matthew 26:64 above, there is no difficulty with this verse referring to an indefinite time in the future if one has not predetermined that Jesus believes he will be immediately vindicated and sent back to earth to restore all things.  The Old Testament prophets also frequently said “the day of the Lord is near” without specifying exactly when it would come (Isaiah 13:6; Ezekiel 30:3; Joel 1:15; 3:14; Obadiah 15; and Zephaniah 1:7, 14).  Their point was that the certainty of God’s judgment in justice is always hanging over the heads of those who ignore his calls to repentance.  Every generation of Christ’s disciples thinks it will be the last before his return.  One generation will be correct!

The kingdom of God is near according to Jesus (Matthew 3:2; 4:17; 10:7; 24:32-33; Mark 1:15; 13:28-29; Luke 10:9, 11; 21:8, 20, 28, 30-31).  The Lord is near according to Paul (Philippians 4:5) and James (James 5:8).  The end of all things is near according to Peter (I Peter 4:7). John records that Jesus is coming soon (Revelation 1:1, 3; 2:16; 3:11; 22:6, 7, 12, 20).  These apostles join Jesus in declaring the consummation of human history as imminent.  Like the prophets before them and Tim McGraw after them, the apostles and Jesus want to exhort the disciples to “live like they were dying.”  Just as a diagnosis of cancer can helpfully focus the mind to make the most of the breaths one has left, so the announcement that the end of all things is at hand can move a person and a whole society to make their remaining moments count for eternity.

So the three most important verses in Matthew’s gospel for explaining Jesus’ view of the end of human history and the great judgment of God are not among the five we have looked at but rather are 24:14, 36, and 25:40.

First, “This gospel of the kingdom will be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come” (Matthew 24:14).  Jesus’ followers need to be about spreading the good news of his in-breaking kingdom to all the peoples of the earth, since our patient God does not desire the death of anyone but rather that people might repent and live (II Peter 3:9; Ezekiel 18:23; Lamentations 3:33).

Second , “No one knows about that day or hour, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father” (Matthew 24:36).  Jesus’ followers need to be “keeping watch” (24:42) and “ready” (24:44) precisely because they do NOT know the day or the hour of their Lord’s return.  His Father and theirs did not want them to know exactly when he would come again, so that they would stay on alert and live their lives in the light of eternity.

Third , “The King will reply, ‘I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me” (Matthew 25:40).  Rather than speculating about the exact time of the end, Christ’s followers should be showing kindness to their absent Lord through their treatment of their present brothers and sisters.  It is that love that will give evidence of their true faith in Him on that last day.

Jesus was not wrong about when he would return.  He predicted a taste of judgment for the people of God within a generation of his death, a judgment that took place through the Romans in the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the temple.  He also predicted his visible return in glory to judge all cultures and individuals, but far from insisting that his return could be tied to one generation later, he intimated that people would be thinking, “my master is staying away a long time” (Matthew 24:48).  He told a story about his return in which “the bridegroom was a long time in coming” (25:5), and another in which, the master of three servants only returned “after a long time” (25:19).  He said his words would never pass away (Matthew 24:35), and they are as relevant and true today, two millennia after his death (and resurrection), as they were when he spoke them.

David Bowen, PhD
Vanderbilt University