From Charismatic to Agnostic: How the International House of Prayer Influenced My Journey

“Rationalizations often appear when a religious movement suffers the falsification of its prophecies.” – Dale C. Allison

People have asked me several times since “coming out” as an agnostic what impact, if any, the International House of Prayer has had on my journey. The truth is that it has had a profound impact, but probably not in the way many people might think.

I’ve been out of the end-times charismatic world for over a decade now, and I’ve really grown to love many of the more traditional, progressive, and ecumenical expressions of the faith I’ve been exposed to in that time. My “loss of faith” is not the result of a sudden pendulum swing or naively equating the more ecstatic and apocalyptic expression of my youth with the whole of Christianity. What my experience at IHOP has done, however, is give me a first-hand framework for understanding crucial aspects of the early church (the more ecstatic and apocalyptic elements) that might otherwise be difficult for a modern Christian to understand.

Much of my theological energy over the past decade or more has been spent trying to avoid the conclusion that I now find unavoidable: that the earliest period of the church “was a time of excited and sometimes (from the typical twentieth-century standpoint) fantastic beliefs and practices to whose atmosphere we have a clue in the uninhibited enthusiasms of contemporary Pentecostalism and the unshakable certainties of marginal sects expecting the imminent end of the world. In that early apocalyptic phase of the Christian movement the canons of plausibility were very different from those operating within today’s mainline churches” (John Hick, The Metaphor of God Incarnate, 16).

Over the years I’ve become increasingly interested in the question of non-fulfillment in biblical prophecy, and particularly on non-fulfillment in the prophecies of Jesus. That is one dimension of a matrix of questions about the historical foundations of Christianity, all of which might be boiled down to a fundamental set of alternatives: Did it all happen like the New Testament writers say it did, or was there something else going on? Looking back on the various ways I’ve addressed these things in the past, I see myself trying desperately to find an honest interpretation of the evidence while still upholding an orthodox Christian faith—two goals which I now find to be in conflict with one another.

I offer no pretense of objectivity here. As a student of the New Testament who grew up in an atmosphere of unshakeable apocalyptic expectations, I can’t help but see many parallels between modern charismatic groups like IHOP and the early church, and my first-hand experience with the former makes it difficult for me to avoid skepticism toward the latter.

To cite one example, it has become increasingly fascinating to me how IHOP’s “prophetic history” has undergone so many stages of redaction and reinterpretation over the last 30+ years, despite being told by the same leader who experienced it all in the first place, and despite being told to essentially the same community. One of the best illustrations of this phenomenon is the story Mike Bickle tells about the fulfillment of Bob Jones’ drought prophecy in the summer of 1983. This is just one example, but anyone familiar with redaction criticism will immediately see its relevance to the New Testament.

“A sign in the heavens”

Here’s how Bickle told the story in 1989:

“Then Bob [Jones] stands up at the end [of the fast] and he says, ‘I got bad news.’ He says, ‘The Lord told me that there isn’t gonna be a revival being poured out at the end of this 21 days.’ He said, ‘Worse than that, we’re goin’ to have three months of total barrenness. And there’s gonna be a drought upon the city.’… [So] we watched it day by day and there was a drought those three months. He (Bob) said, ‘The Lord will break the drought in the natural over Kansas City, and it’s a sign that He will, on an appointed time, break the drought in the Spirit, but not until He appoints the time.’

And he told us on the end of May, he said, ‘This drought will last three months in the natural. It will last a number of years in the Spirit… But there is an appointed time when the drought breaks in the natural as well as in the Spirit.’ And he said, ‘And here’s the proof…It will break on an appointed day in the natural.’ On August 23, the drought will end and the rains will come to the city. Three months from, from now, the rains will come… Obviously that took place and that was glorious. And it was a supernatural sign to us. We waited all summer for that.” (Mike Bickle, “Overview of Our Prophetic History,” May 1989, emphasis mine)

Note that, according to this early telling of the story, Bob Jones prophesied that there would be a three-month drought from the end of May (“from now”) until the end of August, and on August 23 (“an appointed day”) God would end the drought (“On August 23, the drought will end and the rains will come to the city”).

This fledgling community waited all summer for the rain from heaven to come on August 23, so of course they were beside themselves when it actually happened. It’s hard to exaggerate how important this story is to IHOP’s identity and worldview.

Bickle also stated the following concerning this drought prophecy in 1986:

Quoting Bob Jones: “‘This is the sign in the heavens… For three months there will be a drought in this city.’… there will be a pattern in the heavens—a weather pattern, and you can’t manipulate weather patterns.’ So we said, ‘Okay. If it comes to pass, we know the word is true.’… But he [Bob] says, ‘On August 23, God will send a sign from heaven…’ I said, ‘Bob, I hope this is right.’ Cause it was terrible. June—no rain… August 23, 6:00 at night, it rains, what, three to four inches of rain… It was a sign in the heavens that no man could have manipulated; it was spoken publicly for all to hear.” (Mike Bickle, “Prophetic History 2,” Spring 1986, emphasis mine)

This version gives us some extra details: it didn’t rain at all in June, and it rained three to four inches on the night of August 23. It’s also interesting how Bickle emphasizes the public nature of the prophecy, much like Paul emphasizes the public nature of some of the appearances of the resurrected Jesus in 1 Corinthians 15:5-7. That should shut the mouth of every skeptic, right?

Well, maybe it would have, if Bickle’s story was the only record we had. But thanks to modern data collection and meteorology, we can actually test his recollection of the weather patterns in the summer of 1983 against hard data—and that’s exactly what one person did.

In 1990, the pastor of a large charismatic church in Shawnee, KS named Ernie Gruen wrote an open letter in which he called Bickle out on some of the details of this story:

“These are the facts concerning rainfall during the months of June, July, and August, 1983. They were obtained from the National Weather Service and the newspaper weather reports from that timeframe:

    1. July and August were below normal in rainfall, and very hot, but July and August are always hot in Kansas City.
    2. June’s record showed well above average rainfall: 5.03 inches in the northern part of the city, and 7.37 inches in the southern part, where Kansas City Fellowship is located.
    3. It rained only .32 inches on August 23, not 3 to 4 inches. Regarding this rainfall on August 23, the newspaper’s comments were, ‘Tuesday’s watered-down attempt at rain here, though half-hearted and half-heated, eased area sneezes, dropping the pollen count to only 23 particles per cubic meter of air. Gesundheit.’ (KCT, Thursday, August 25, 1983)
    4. On six separate days in June, there was more rainfall recorded than on August 23, with one day showing over 2 inches of rainfall, and two days showing over 1 inch of rainfall. There was no drought. Anyone who went outside or read the newspaper could not have considered June a month of drought. The sprinkle of rain on August 23 was not considered a drought-breaker.” (Ernie Gruen, “Documentation of the Aberrant Practices and Teachings of Kansas City Fellowship,” May 1990)

Of course, people within the IHOP community rarely bother to fact-check Mike’s stories. I mean, why would they? Those stories are practically the foundation of their worldview. I myself was heavily involved at IHOP for eight years and I simply accepted the prophetic history as 100% true, a fact which now stands as a humbling personal example of confirmation bias and the halo effect. I didn’t know anybody who actually read Gruen’s report, and the only thing I ever heard about him was that he eventually recanted his accusations against Mike (a claim which I later learned he adamantly denied).

Despite the insulated nature of the IHOP community, however, criticisms like Gruen’s seem to have made a real impression on Bickle, because he now tells the story somewhat differently. He now says “it only rained about a third of an inch” instead of “three to four inches” like he used to, and he now has Bob Jones prophesying that the rain on August 23 would come “in the midst of a drought,” not as the event that would “break the drought” like he used to (Mike Bickle, “The Early Days, Cairo Egypt, and the Solemn Assembly,” September 17, 2009). He also repeats three times in the handout to that teaching that the prophesied drought was from July 1 to October 1, not from the end of May to the end of August like he used to.

This awkward change in the timeline of the prophecy is the only way Bickle could account for the fact that there was actually higher than average rainfall in June, and on six separate days there was more rainfall than on August 23. Once confronted by these facts, Bickle was faced with a choice: either (a) admit that the prophecy did not come to pass, or (b) redact and reinterpret it to fit with the facts.

As an aside, perhaps it is worth pointing out that even if we go with Bickle’s revised timeline of July 1 through October 1, records show that it still rained on 21 of those 93 days in Kansas City, which means that Bob Jones would have had more than a 1 in 4 chance of naming a day with rain in that period, and 8 of those other days saw more rain than on August 23. So even if we granted Bickle’s tampering with the timeline, it still hardly qualifies as “a sign in the heavens that no man could have manipulated”.

How Stories Change

Ernie Gruen thought Bickle was being intentionally deceptive, much like the early critics of the New Testament Gospels thought Jesus and/or the early Christians must have been intentionally deceptive. As someone who spent almost a decade under Bickle’s leadership, however, it’s hard for me to reach that same conclusion. I think a much more plausible explanation, based on a more informed understanding of human psychology, is that this is a classic case of cognitive dissonance and wish fulfillment. It also illustrates what recent studies of memory are showing:

“Every time you remember an event from the past, your brain networks change in ways that can alter the later recall of the event. Thus, the next time you remember it, you might recall not the original event but what you remembered the previous time… Your memory of an event can grow less precise even to the point of being totally false with each retrieval” (Northwestern).

Despite all the changes Mike has made to the story of the drought over the last 30 years, it really did rain on August 23 just like Bob Jones predicted, and that must have made a powerful impression on that young charismatic community at the time, especially since they had been praying and waiting for that very outcome. Never mind that the odds were actually better than flipping tails twice in a row; in their minds, conditioned as they were, it simply must have been God, and so all the little details that didn’t fit were easily ignored or reinterpreted, and any embellishments only served to reinforce what they genuinely believed to be true. I can’t help wondering how the story would have evolved had Bickle’s early embellishments not been challenged.

A Psychological Contagion

Over a century ago Otto Pfleiderer said the following with reference to the development of early Christianity: “It is a well-known fact of experience that states of the extraordinarily excited life of the soul, and in particular religious enthusiasm and ecstasy, have a sort of infectious character, and master whole assemblies with elemental power” (Philosophy and the Development of Religion, 2:116). I know this to be true from my own experience. And the more I study the New Testament, the more I think it explains a good deal about how Christianity began.

Imagine you are a devout first-century Jew following a charismatic prophet who you believe confidently to be the deliverer of Israel. Imagine this prophet spoke often of a coming time of great tribulation, of sifting and winnowing and refining, before the dawn of the messianic age, of death before resurrection. What would you think, then, if only a short time after his death, in the midst of your grief and guilt, you hear that his tomb was found empty? Would you not, through your attachment to him and your previous apocalyptic expecations, have sufficient cause for hope? And as a devout Jew, wouldn’t the natural outworking of such hope be fasting, prayer, and fervent searching of the Scriptures? And suppose that, through this process, you and perhaps several others have visionary experiences in which you encounter your master alive from the dead, offering forgiveness and telling you to carry on his message. What would you think? What would you do? How would you express those experiences?

Point being: If the disciples carried the kind of eschatological expectations the Gospels say they did, and/or if Jesus ever said the kinds of things about resurrection that the Gospels say he did, then the mystery of the empty tomb would have presented itself to them as a highly suggestive mystery. Indeed, Luke’s account says that Peter “marveled” when he saw the tomb empty (Luke 24:12), and John says that this was all the beloved disciple needed to believe that Jesus had risen (John 20:8). It was their rain on August 23, the event that drove them into a state of hopeful expectancy for an encounter with the risen Jesus.

But like the rain on August 23, the empty tomb is much more vulnerable to a naturalistic explanation than most apologists admit. Grave robbery was not uncommon at the time. Any number of persons could have stolen Jesus’ body. Necromancers, for example, were often eager to find body parts for their magical rituals. That might seem strange to someone in the post-Enlightenment West, but as Dale Allison shows, it only takes a little bit of disciplined historical imagination to see the plausibility of such a scenario:

“Not only might the remains of a holy man have been particularly tempting—recall the power of Elisha’s bones in 2 Kings 13:20-21, of Thomas’s bones in Acts Thom. 170, and later superstition about the healing powers of relics—but the remains of the executed were also thought particularly powerful (cf. PGM 4.1885-1886). Jesus was desirable on both counts. Furthermore, necromancers, ‘who were, almost by necessity, body snatchers,’ had a special interest in those who died violent deaths” (Dale C. Allison, Resurrecting Jesus: The Earliest Christian Tradition and Its Interpreters [New York: T & T Clark, 2005], 202-203).

This is purely speculative, of course, and it’s impossible to quantify the likelihood of Jesus’ body being taken by necromancers, or by any other party, like we can quantify the likelihood of it raining on August 23, 1983. But the point is to show that, like August 23, this was hardly a “sign from heaven that no man could have manipulated,” however much it may have seemed that way to the disciples at the time.

And here’s the implication, which I plan on arguing in more depth later: Once we have the empty tomb, the early testimonies for everything that happened thereafter are more plausibly explicable in terms of known psychological patterns than they are by the claim that God raised Jesus from the dead. It simply fits the evidence better. As Christopher Knight observes,

“What is clear from psychoanalytic case study…is that, in certain unusual mental states, especially at times of great emotional stress or need, there occur visions of a dreamlike character, containing imagery which reflects that of ancient and primitive mythology, and which may be a vehicle for an experience of the numinous. Given this factor in human psychology, the historian who is able to acknowledge the presence of all these factors in the resurrection appearance accounts seems to be faced with a compelling account of the psychic mechanism through which they began their formation.

Nor is this conclusion nullified if one judges the accounts to be accurate insofar as they report corporate experiences—even by several hundred (1 Cor. 15:6). Though much rarer than individual experiences, the corporate visionary experience of archetypal content is far from unknown (as witnessed, for example, by several well-documented cases in this century whose content has been ‘the Virgin Mary’). Jung himself analyses a related type of phenomenon—which he labels the ‘visionary rumor’—in terms which seem extraordinarily applicable to Jesus’ resurrection appearances, even though he is talking about something quite different. He talks, for example, of a prerequisite to the experience of such visions being ‘an emotional tension having its cause in a situation of collective distress or danger, or in a vital psychic need’. Moreover, he recognises the affinity of the phenomenon to the explicitly religious visions of ‘the crusaders during the siege of Jerusalem, the troops at Mons in the First World War, the faithful followers of the Pope at Fatima, Portugal’. Indeed in the context of his own study on a modern manifestation of the phenomenon, he particularly notes a situation ‘calculated as never before to arouse expectations of a redeeming, supernatural event’” (Christopher Knight, “Hysteria and Myth: The Psychology of the Resurrection Appearances,” Modern Churchman 31 [1989], 39-40).

I didn’t allow myself to pursue this line of thought for years, because I thought my experience made me susceptible to prejudice, prone to read cognitive dissonance and wish fulfillment into places where the evidence doesn’t really support them. As much as I tried to avoid this line of thought, though—and as much as I tried to replace it with a coherent alternative with the help of scholars like G. B. Caird, N. T. Wright, and Richard Bauckham—the more I grappled with the relevant exegetical questions, the harder it became to avoid the conclusion that Jesus was actually a failed apocalyptic prophet and Christianity was born through the same kind of psychological contagion that I experienced first-hand at the International House of Prayer.

Five Reasons to Doubt the Resurrection

“And when they saw him they worshiped him, but some doubted.” – Matthew 28:15

Introduction

How do you know it’s not just happening in your head?

As someone who grew up in an environment where people claimed to hear from God on a regular basis, this was one of the first big questions I had to face. I knew the Mormons had the “burning in the bosom” to confirm their faith, and I had enough self-awareness to know that, given the right circumstances, I could easily fool myself into mistaking my thoughts and dreams for God’s thoughts and dreams. What distinguished my personal experience from confirmation bias and wish fulfillment? What made Christianity different from any other religion?

For many years I found my answer in the empty tomb of Jesus. The resurrection was the epistemic foundation of my faith, the rock upon which everything else could stand. Even after I started to see cracks in everything else, the resurrection was the one thing I could point to and say, “See, it’s not just happening in my head.” That is, until I began to look deeper into the evidence.

I started seriously looking into the case for the resurrection in 2009. At the time I was strongly primed to agree with the verdict of evangelical scholars like Gary Habermas, Mike Licona, William Lane Craig, and N. T. Wright. Carefully reading through Wright’s 700-page volume, The Resurrection of the Son of God, I fully expected to find his thesis confirmed, that “the only possible reason why early Christianity began and took the shape it did is that the tomb really was empty and that people really did meet Jesus, alive again, and… the best historical explanation for all these phenomena is that Jesus was indeed bodily raised from the dead.”[1] After finishing the book and following many of the citations, however, I found that I had more questions than answers; and, far from being extinguished, those questions only grew stronger as I poured over Mike Licona’s equally massive work a few years later.

Perhaps it was because of my experience with ecstatic end-time movements, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that scholars like Wright and Licona weren’t taking some of the alternatives as seriously as they should. As much as I wanted to agree with their confident conclusions, it seemed quite easy for me to imagine a completely natural explanation for the birth of Christianity that could account for all the so-called “minimal facts”. Instead of finding that “anyone who examines the evidence fairly will inevitably come to the conclusion that the resurrection happened,”[2] I found that the evidence itself gave me numerous reasons to be skeptical. The more I tried to shore up my faith with the help of history, the more brittle it became—until I no longer felt like I could call myself a Christian.

There are many reasons to doubt Christianity’s central claim, but these are the five historical problems that most disturbed me when I was trying to shore up my faith. I have yet to see a good explanation for any of these from within the ranks of believing scholarship, but I remain open.

I. The nature of Paul’s conversion experience

Even though Paul wasn’t there at the beginning, he is our most important witness to the resurrection, because he provides the only incontestable firsthand eyewitness testimony to an appearance of the risen Jesus we have. That in itself is astounding—and seldom appreciated by apologists—but an even bigger problem arises from the way Paul describes his experience.

In 1 Corinthians 15:8 Paul says Christ appeared to him after the resurrection just like he appeared to Peter, James, and the other apostles. He seems to distinguish this experience from subsequent visionary experiences by the phrase “last of all”—a phrase which, when taken together with 1 Corinthians 9:1, suggests that Paul believed he had truly seen the risen Jesus, not in a symbolic sense as in the visions of Daniel or Revelation, but in a normal, this-worldly sense just like you can see any living person.[3]

According to Acts 26:19, however, Paul’s experience on the road to Damascus was in fact a “heavenly vision”—a vision which, according to Acts 9:7, Paul’s traveling companions could not see. The usual apologetic response is to say that Paul’s word must take priority over Luke’s word here, since 1 Corinthians is earlier than Acts and Paul is the one who had the experience in the first place.[4] And yet even Paul himself, when recounting his conversion experience elsewhere, seems to use language more appropriate to a vision than to a physical appearance (Gal. 1:12, 16; cf., Gal. 2:2; 1 Cor. 14:6, 26; 2 Cor. 12:1, 7).

In Galatians 1 he describes his experience as “a revelation of Jesus Christ,” using the same language he uses throughout his letters to describe non-bodily visions. The Greek word for “revelation” there is apocalypsis. It’s the same word he uses in 2 Corinthians 12 to describe his experience of being caught up to the “third heaven,” and in that case he says he doesn’t know whether it was “in the body or out of the body”. And in Galatians 1:16 he says that this revelation took place “in him”—not “to him”, but “in him”.

In other words, we have very little reason for thinking that Paul’s experience was a physical appearance of the risen Jesus like the ones described at the end of Matthew, Luke, and John. Paul places his experience on par with the experiences of the other apostles, but the only depictions we have of his experience are completely different, and—let’s face it—much less compelling than the ones we find about the other apostles in the Gospels.[5]

As soon as we pull at this thread, however, it threatens to unravel the whole cloth. For as D. F. Strauss observed long ago, if the fundamental nature of Paul’s experience is called into question, the fundamental nature of the other “appearances” Paul mentions are called into question with it.[6] Especially given that 1 Corinthians 15 is the earliest text recounting these traditions, and that Paul’s experience is the only incontestable firsthand eyewitness testimony we have, what basis is there for thinking that the experiences of the other apostles weren’t similar in character to Paul’s?

Of course, anyone familiar with the Gospels might retort that there is a quite obvious basis for thinking that the experiences of the other apostles weren’t similar in character to Paul’s, namely that they not only saw Jesus but also touched him and ate with him (Mt 28:9; Lk 24:38-43; Jn 20:27; 21:9-13). There are, however, several reasons for doubting these traditions, as we will see below.

II. Discord between the accounts

Reading the different accounts of Jesus’ ministry, death, and burial in each Gospel side by side, we can see a significant degree of overlap between the accounts. In each account of Jesus’s final night, for example, we learn that Judas betrayed him, that Peter denied him, that the Jewish leadership condemned him, that Pilate delivered him over to be flogged and crucified, and that he died on a cross between two other men with the inscription “King of the Jews” above his head. Details differ, but the gist is the same.

Turning the page to the resurrection narratives, however, we are confronted by a staggering lack of agreement. There are no appearances in Mark, just the mysterious expectation of a meeting in Galilee (Mk 14:28; 16:7). Only Matthew tells of an appearance to the eleven disciples on a mountain in Galilee (Mt 28:16-17). Only Luke tells of an appearance to a pair of disciples on the road to Emmaus (Lk 24:13-31), and he is the only one who narrates the ascension (Lk 24:51; Acts 1:9). Only John tells of the appearances to Thomas and the seven disciples by the Lake of Galilee (Jn 20:24-29; 21:1-22). In none of the Gospels do we see an appearance to James or the “more than five hundred brothers” mentioned by Paul (1 Cor 15:6-7). And of all the things the risen Jesus is reported to have said, only one stock phrase—“Peace be with you”—is recorded by more than one Gospel writer (Lk 24:36; Jn 20:19). How could memories diverge so widely on something as unforgettable as the words of the Messiah from beyond the grave?

And the problem isn’t just the lack of corroboration between the accounts; it’s the numerous irreconcilable conflicts between them. At the end of Mark the women flee from the tomb and “said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid,” yet in Matthew they depart from the tomb “with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples” (Mk 16:8; Mt 28:8). Mark’s Jesus tells the disciples that he will meet them in Galilee, and he does so in Matthew, but Luke’s Jesus appears only in or around Jerusalem, and he actually tells the disciples not to leave the city (Mk 14:28; 16:7; Mt 28:16-17; Lk 24:6-7, 49). In Luke, moreover, all the appearances take place on Easter day, while in Acts they take place over a forty day period! What are we to make of such a mess?

John Dominic Crossan puts the problem starkly:

“Even a reader totally innocent of questions about source or genre notices a drastic change in moving from the passion and burial stories to the resurrection and apparition ones. More specifically, it is very simple to compose a single harmonized version of the former narratives up to the finding of the empty tomb but flatly impossible to compose one for the latter traditions. If all those accounts derived from composite memory and historical recall, it is quite remarkable that an almost hour-by-hour remembrance prevailed for the death and burial of Jesus but an almost total discrepancy prevailed for what was, I would presume, even more important, namely, the extraordinary return of Jesus from beyond the grave to give the disciples their missionary mandate and apostolic commission.”[7]

III. Signs of legendary development

Christian apologists often claim that the Gospels cannot contain significant legendary accretions because they were written within a generation of the events they ostensibly record, while legends generally take centuries to develop.[8] Given the nature of the evidence we have, however, there is good reason for wondering whether this claim itself is an apologetically motivated myth.

To illustrate why, consider the resurrection narrative in one of the non-canonical sources, the Gospel of Peter, which most scholars (both liberal and conservative alike) date to the early or mid second century.

According to the Gospel of Peter, at the time of Jesus’ resurrection the tomb was being watched, not just by a couple guards as in Matthew, but by a whole troop of soldiers, a centurion named Petronius, the Jewish scribes and elders, and (just for good measure) by a “multitude from Jerusalem and the region round about” (31-33). All together this crowd witnessed “three men come forth from the tomb, and two of them supporting one, and a cross following them: and of the two the head reached unto the heaven, but the head of him that was led by them overpassed the heavens. And they heard a voice from the heavens, saying, ‘Hast thou preached to them that sleep?’ And a response was heard from the cross, ‘Yea’” (39-42).

Whatever their conclusions about the canonical Gospels, most scholars wouldn’t hesitate to say that Peter’s resurrection narrative is chock-full of legendary accretions, accretions that rest on but go far beyond earlier traditions (e.g. Matthew’s guards, Luke’s two angels). So whatever generalizations might be made about how long it usually takes for legends to develop, the Gospel of Peter (and the same point could be made from other non-canonical writings from around the same time) gives us a specific example that is directly relevant to the subject at hand.

And here’s the problem: Peter was written only a few decades after John. It stands, in fact, at relatively the same distance in time from John (the latest canonical Gospel) that Mark (the earliest canonical Gospel) stands from Jesus himself. So if we are in agreement that Peter’s resurrection narrative is largely legendary, by what rationale of dating can we still insist that the canonical Gospels must be categorically different?

The plain and simple fact of the matter, established by a close reading of each Gospel side by side, is that the canonical Gospels clearly do contain numerous examples of legendary development. Even Mike Licona, a conservative Baptist scholar, tacitly admits this, citing the angel(s) at the tomb and the resurrection of the saints in Matt. 27:52-53 as possible examples of what he (euphemistically?) calls “a literary device” on the part of the Gospel writers, which they employ to drive home “their belief that a divine activity had occurred.”[9]

But what Licona and others like him fail to do, despite all their best efforts, is to show how these “literary devices” are not part of a larger trend of legendary development. If the Gospel of Peter can turn Matthew’s two guards into a hundred, then why can’t Matthew (or Matthew’s source) be just as creative? Why can’t the two guards be another example of the elasticity of ancient biographical standards, showing Matthew’s belief that a divine activity had occurred? Given the lack of independent corroboration for that detail, and the clear apologetic value it holds for Matthew’s narrative, there is good reason for thinking that it too is probably legendary.[10]

But then the floodgate is opened and it can’t be shut. If we can attribute the bodies of the saints coming out of their tombs and appearing to many in Jerusalem to Matthew’s creative license, then why can’t we do that with any of Jesus’ appearances? John’s story of Jesus’ appearance by the Lake of Galilee (Jn. 21:1-17) bears so much similarity to Luke’s story of Peter’s first encounter with Jesus (Lk. 5:1-11) that it becomes quite sensible to ask whether one of the authors moved the story to a different setting for their own literary purposes, or even if this might be the result of memory-conjunction error, the combining of two separate memories to create one hybrid memory. And what about the anachronistic content of Jesus’ final words in Matthew?[11] Or the 40 days of Acts? Or the ascension narrative? And on and on the questions come.

And aside from the suspiciousness of any one tradition, there is the more general observation that the scope of post-resurrection material grows with each Gospel: Mark is the earliest, and he contains no actual record of any appearances, but only the expectation of one in Galilee (Mk 16:7); then comes Matthew, who spends 190 words on two appearances (Mt 28:9-20) and then Luke, who spends 641 words on three appearances (Lk 24:13-53); and finally John, who spends 930 words on four appearances (Jn 20:14-21:25).[12] And just as the scope of post-resurrection material grows with each Gospel, so also do the themes of physical proof (an obviously important apologetic motif) and the displacement of Galilee with Jerusalem (which had greater prophetic significance; e.g. Isa 59:20) as the primary theater of the risen Jesus’ activity. Is it just a cruel coincidence of history that so much material is distributed in such a manner as to suggest legendary development?

IV. Unrealistic features of the traditions

One of the more puzzling features of the resurrection narratives is how the appearances of the risen Jesus are all short-lived and sporadic: Jesus appears in the middle of a room, gives a brief word of comfort or exhortation, and then disappears just as quickly as he appeared (Lk 24:31, 36-37; Jn 20:19, 26). Equally puzzling is why the appearances should be constrained to the days immediately following the crucifixion with few to none at all occurring soon afterward.

Strange features like these underscore the stark difference in both the quality and the quantity of the descriptions of Jesus prior to his death and those after his death. Indeed, such features seem unrealistic and eerie for someone who is supposed to be physically resurrected. And yet, as Dale Allison has shown at length, they perfectly fit the phenomenon of bereavement hallucinations or visions of the recently deceased.[13] “Whether or not they are persuasive, the truth of the matter, welcome or not, is that the literature on visions of the dead is full of parallels to the stories we find in the Gospels.”[14] In other words, there is ample evidence to suggest that the experiences of the other apostles were in fact similar in character to Paul’s.

Regarding the risen Jesus’ ability to appear and disappear out of nowhere, Wright has argued that such things are best explained by what he calls the “transphysicality” of Jesus’s resurrected body.[15] To Wright, this explains why the NT writers talk about the resurrection in ways that cannot be explained against the background of Jewish thought. What Wright does not consider, however, is how often those same features are reported in visions of the recently deceased. To quote Allison once more,

“Modern experiences of apparitions often involve, on the phenomenological level, what might be termed ‘transphysicality’. As indicated on the previous pages, apparitions can be perceived as solid and can even sometimes be touched. And yet they also appear and disappear just like the Jesus of the Gospels and, if I may so put it, live outside of this world. So those who regard the encounters with the risen Jesus as related to visionary experiences will be astounded neither at the ‘transphysicality’ of the resurrected Jesus nor by Paul’s use of ‘spiritual body’.”[16]

And what about the high concentration of appearances early on followed by few or none at all soon afterward? To my knowledge, neither Wright nor any other proponent for the historicity of the resurrection has tried to explain why the risen Jesus should have stopped visiting his followers. And yet the literature on bereavement hallucinations shows us that “the number of recognized apparitions decreases rapidly in the few days after death, then more slowly, and after a year or more they become far less frequent and more sporadic.”[17] Indeed, “The cases reported to us tend to occur most frequently within a week of the death, and the number falls away as the length of time since the death increases.”[18]

V. Dissonance reduction strategies

Of course, the disciples would have experienced Jesus’ death as more than just the loss of a loved one. After all, they had hoped that he was the long-awaited deliverer of Israel (Mk 8:29; Lk 24:21; Jn 1:41; Acts 1:6) and he was crucified precisely because he encouraged that association (Mk 14:61-62; 15:2, 26). As far as they were concerned, then, his death would have been experienced both as the loss of a dear friend and as a crushing blow to their eschatological expectations.

Based on what we can tell from the sources, in other words, the situation of the disciples in the days after Jesus’ death was very similar to that of other apocalyptic movements after the failure of their eschatological expectations. Which invites the question: How do such groups typically respond in those situations? What usually happens when prophecy fails?

As it turns out, social psychologists and historians have been asking precisely this question for over half a century, and they haven’t come back empty-handed. In a 1999 survey of some of the most important studies on the social and psychological dynamics of failed prophecy, Jon R. Stone observes that “disappointed believers tend to adjust their predictions and beliefs both to fit such disconfirmations and to fit changing empirical conditions.”[19] Instead of completely abandoning their expectations, apocalyptic groups tend to “reconceptualize the prophecy in such a way that the element of ‘failure,’ particularly the failure of the Divine to perform as promised, is removed.”[20] The two primary ways they do this are (a) by reinterpreting the prophecy to better fit with reality through a process of “spiritualization” and/or partial fulfillment, and (b) by projecting the still-unfulfilled elements (usually the most important parts of the prophecy) into the future.[21]

One of the best examples of this phenomenon is the response of the Millerites to William Miller’s proclamation that Christ would return to the earth on October 22, 1844—a date commonly referred to as the Great Disappointment. Like the disciples, many of the Millerites gave up everything in anticipation of the imminent arrival of the kingdom. After the expected day came and went, however, many Millerites came to believe that the prediction had in fact come to pass, but that instead of Christ coming to the earth as they previously thought, October 22, 1844 marked his entering the inner sanctuary in heaven in preparation for his return to the earth.[22] These reinterpretations were accommodated by the creative exegesis of several biblical texts and bolstered by a series of visions reported by Ellen G. White—and they are now a central pillar of Seventh-Day Adventist theology.[23]

Also instructive are the responses of the Jehovah’s Witnesses to the failure of their eschatological predictions in 1878, 1881, 1914, 1918, and 1925. Despite their initial disappointment, in all five of these instances the Witnesses discovered through a closer reading of Scripture that the predictions had, in fact, been partially fulfilled, or that significant developments related to the predictions had actually occurred on the dates in question. Unlike the original predictions, however, the “events” identified to substantiate this claim were of a heavenly (read: nonempirical) nature and therefore not open to falsification.[24] Thus, 1878 marked the time when the “nominal Christian Churches were cast off from God’s favor”; 1881 marked the point at which “death became a blessing” to the saints; 1914, the year WWI began, marked the “End of the Time of the Gentiles” (i.e. the Christian nations); 1918 marked the moment Christ “entered the temple for the purpose of judgment”; and 1925 marked the establishment of a “New Nation” with Christ as its head.[25] The unfulfilled portions of the original predictions were simply projected into the future.

What relevance do these examples of ex eventu rationalization have for the study of Christian origins? More, I think, than many apologists care to admit.[26] The parallels are striking, for instance, when we see the NT writers talk about the present experience of the kingdom in terms of Christ’s exaltation to the right hand of God in heaven, sending the Spirit, establishing the new covenant, and other largely nonempirical events, while leaving more concrete aspects of Jewish eschatological expectation (like the salvation of Israel, the general resurrection, and the restoration of creation) firmly in the future.[27] We see it again in the way they habitually reinterpret OT prophecies along these same lines, finding the most malleable parts fulfilled in the birth of the Christian movement while projecting the most substantial parts into the future.[28] We see it in the way Matthew and Luke spiritualize Jesus’ declaration that the high priest would “see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of power, and coming with the clouds of heaven” by adding the phrase “from now on.”[29] And we see it in the ascension narratives of Luke-Acts, which provide a suspiciously easy answer for why the appearances of the risen Jesus eventually ceased.[30]

In other words, as much as defenders of the resurrection resist the implications of comparative research, the evidence strongly suggests that the early Christians engaged in the same adaptive strategies as other apocalyptic movements after the failure of their expectations. Faced with the dissonance between expectation and reality, they “adjusted their predictions and beliefs both to fit such disconfirmations and to fit changing empirical conditions.”

Conclusion

One of the most common tropes of evangelical Christianity is the idea that, if a person follows the evidence wherever it leads, it will invariably lead them to faith. Even in the typically more circumspect world of biblical scholarship, one regularly encounters leaps of rhetoric that send essentially the same message. Wright speaks, for example, of the “somewhat desperate attempts of many scholars over the past two hundred years” to find “an explanation which provides a sufficient condition for the rise of early Christian faith but which, by fitting into post-Enlightenment epistemological and ontological categories, or even simply mainstream pagan ones, causes no fluttering in the critical dovecotes.”[31] And despite all their best efforts, he says, “no such explanation has been found.”[32]

What should we say to such things? I can only speak for myself, of course, but the more I study the rise of early Christianity, the more I find this kind of rhetoric to be profoundly out of touch with reality. My doubts about the resurrection did not arise through a post-Enlightenment prejudice against miracles or the supernatural.[33] They came, rather, through a critical-historical reading of the biblical data. I hoped to find something public and solid, something I could see and touch, something that could take me beyond the epistemic ghettos of personal experience, tradition, and authority. Perhaps I haven’t followed the evidence far enough. But from where I stand now, for all the reasons given above, I seriously doubt it.


 

[1] N. T. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2003), 8.

[2] Rice Broocks, Man, Myth, Messiah: Answering History’s Greatest Question (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2016), 95. See also Mike Licona, The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2010), 608: “The only legitimate reasons for rejecting the resurrection hypothesis are philosophical and theological in nature: if supernaturalism is false or a non-Christian religion is exclusively true. However, if one brackets the question of worldview, neither presupposing nor a priori excluding naturalism, and examines the data, the historical conclusion that Jesus rose from the dead follows.”

[3] Wright stresses repeatedly that “the ancient world as well as the modem knew the difference between visions and things that happen in the ‘real’ world” (The Resurrection of the Son of God [Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2003], 690).

[4] See, e.g., Ibid., 393. Note, however, Wright’s suggestion that Paul’s vision was actually induced by his meditating on the throne-chariot vision of Ezekiel 1 (Ibid., 397; Paul: A Biography [New York, NY: HarperOne, 2018], 47-53).

[5] Indeed, it’s a small step from here to the speculative suggestions of Freud, Lüdemann, and others that Paul’s experience was produced by his own subconscious. For a less speculative (but still suggestive) treatment of the psychology of Paul’s conversion experience, see J. G. Gager, “Some Notes on Paul’s Conversion,” New Test. Stud. vol. 27, pp. 697-704.

[6] David Friedrich Strauss, The Life of Jesus, Critically Examined (London: Swan Sonnenschein & Co., 1902), 740-741.

[7] John Dominic Crossan, The Historical Jesus: Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant (New York, NY: HarperOne, 1993), 395.

[8] See, e.g., Lee Strobel, The Case For Christ: A Journalist’s Personal Investigation into the Evidence for Jesus (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1998), 32-33; Justin Brierley, Unbelievable?: Why, after ten years of talking with atheists, I’m still a Christian (London: SPCK, 2017), 137.  

[9] Mike Licona, The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach (Downer’s Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2010), 597; 185-86.

[10] See, e.g., the arguments of Peter Annet, The Resurrection in Answer to the Tryal of the Witnesses (London: M. Cooper, 1744), which Dale C. Allison regards as “still mostly convincing” (Resurrecting Jesus: The Earliest Christian Tradition and its Interpreters [New York, NY: T & T Clark, 2005], 311).

[11] If Acts and Paul are any indication, the biggest controversy in the early church was over the inclusion of the Gentiles in God’s plan (e.g. Acts 10; 15; Rom 3-4). To have the risen Jesus say things like “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations” (Mt 28:19) and “You will be my witnesses… to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8) would therefore be extremely pertinent to those later controversies, building a suspiciously convenient bridge from the Judeo-centric focus of Jesus’ career to the multiethnic Sitz im Leben of the early church (cf. Mk 7:27; Mt 10:5-6).

[12] To be clear, I am not arguing for a direct literary dependence of each Gospel on the one before it, but simply for the development of legendary material across several decades, captured at various stages and in various contexts by the Gospels written throughout those decades.

[13] Resurrecting Jesus, 269-299.

[14] Ibid., 270.

[15] RSG, 608-15.

[16] Resurrecting Jesus, 293.

[17] William F. Barrett, On the Threshold of the Unseen (New York: E Dutton, 1917), 144.

[18] Celia Green and Charles McCreery, Apparitions (London: Edith Hamilton, 1975), 188.

[19] Jon R. Stone, Expecting Armageddon: Essential Readings in Failed Prophecy (New York, NY: Routledge, 2000), 13.

[20] J. Gordon Melton, “Spiritualization and Reaffirmation: What Really Happens When Prophecy Fails,” in Expecting Armageddon, 149.

[21] See the comments of Stone, Zygmunt, and Melton in Expecting Armageddon, 13-18, 71-73, 100, 149.

[22] Leroy Edwin Froom, The Prophetic Faith of Our Fathers (Washington, DC, 1954), 881.

[23] J. N. Loughborough, The Great Second Advent Movement: Its Rise and Progress (Washington, DC: Review & Herald Publishing Association, 1905), 185-97.

[24] Joseph F. Zygmunt, “Prophetic Failure and Chiliastic Identity: The Case of Jehovah’s Witnesses,” in Expecting Armageddon, 72.

[25] Ibid.

[26] Wright strongly resists comparing the early Christians to groups like the Millerites, but his rationale is puzzling. “The real problem,” he says, “is something that any first-century historian should recognize: that whatever it was that the early Christians were expecting, wanting, hoping and praying for, this was not what they said, after Easter, had happened” (RSG 699). I agree. And this is exactly what we should expect if they reconceptualized their previous expectations to better fit with reality, as the Millerites and Witnesses did.

[27] See, e.g., Allison, The End of the Ages has Come: An Early interpretation of the Passion and Resurrection of Jesus (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2013), 147-52.

[28] See, e.g., the way Jer 31 is handled in 2 Cor 3 and Heb 8, or the way Joel 2 is handled in Acts 2, or the way Amos 9 is handled in Acts 15.

[29] Compare Mk 14:61-62, Mt 26:63-64, and Lk 22:67-69. For a general discussion of Jesus’s eschatological predictions and their subsequent reinterpretation, see my debate with Andrew Perriman on the Unbelievable? radio show and podcast with Justin Brierley.

[30] Wright seems to admit the ad hoc nature of the ascension in RSG 654-55.

[31] RSG, 706.

[32] Ibid., 707. Wright continues on the same page: “Nobody was expecting this kind of thing; no kind of conversion-experience would have generated such ideas; nobody would have invented it, no matter how guilty (or how forgiven) they felt, no matter how many hours they pored over the scriptures. To suggest otherwise is to stop doing history and to enter into a fantasy world of our own, a new cognitive dissonance in which the relentless modernist, desperately worried that the post-Enlightenment worldview seems in imminent danger of collapse, devises strategies for shoring it up nevertheless.”

[33] I still think Hume’s argument against miracles is deeply flawed.

The Olivet Discourse: Was Jesus Wrong?

ImageLast summer I started a series on the Olivet Discourse (here and here) that I now have no intention of finishing, because I no longer agree with the premise. I still hold to essentially the same view of the relevant gospel texts, but I now feel that I was unfair in my representation of the alternatives (and I must thank my friend Casey Gorsuch for setting me straight). Following the brilliant but deeply flawed work of Albert Schweitzer, and the damaging responses of G.B. Caird and N.T. Wright, I framed the debate as a choice between two basic positions:

If we agree on the authenticity of Mark 13 and its parallels, then we can say either (a) that Jesus expected the actual end of history imminently over the horizon, and that he was embarrassingly wrong in that prediction [Schweitzer], or (b) that he was using vivid metaphors as a way of investing thoroughly historical events with their full theological significance, and that this prediction was in fact powerfully vindicated in the events which transpired after his death [Caird and Wright]. According to the first view, the “coming of the son of man” refers literally to the return of Jesus from heaven to earth. According to the second view, the “coming of the son of man” is an apocalyptic symbol which speaks of the exaltation of Jesus and his followers over the present ruling regime in Jerusalem, a prediction which was then fulfilled in the events of 66-70AD.

Siding with Caird and Wright, I then explained that the basic problem with Schweitzer’s view (a problem which it ironically shares with the futurist interpretations of conservative scholars) is that it fails to understand Jesus’ language in its own historical context, language which was regularly used to refer to events within continuing history. I believe Schweitzer was right to stress the timing of Jesus’ predictions in relation to his contemporary audience (on which, see this post), but he made the same modernist error as the futurist school by assuming Jesus’ language referred literally to the end of the world. I’ve dealt with the OT background of the “coming of the son of man” in this post, and with the OT background of the language of “cosmic collapse” in this post, so you can see why I’ve come to the same conclusion as Caird in his 1965 lecture Jesus and the Jewish Nation:

[W]hatever we may say about the Parousia or Advent of Christ in the epistles, there is a strong case for saying that the Day of the Son of Man in the teaching of Jesus remained firmly in the sphere of national eschatology. Here, as in the book of Daniel, from which the imagery is drawn, the coming of the Son of Man on the clouds of heaven was never conceived as a primitive form of space travel, but as a symbol for a mighty reversal of fortunes within history and at the national level… Supposing the prediction of the coming of the Son of Man on the clouds of heaven really was an answer to the disciples’ question about the date of the fall of Jerusalem! Is it indeed credible that Jesus, the heir to the linguistic and theological riches of the prophets, and himself a greater theologian and master of imagery than them all, should ever have turned their symbols into flat and literal prose?

I still think Caird makes a powerful point against the literalism of both Schweitzer and the futurists. In Daniel 7 the “coming of the son of man” is a symbol for the vindication of the saints, not a literal description of some supernatural figure’s decent to the earth; and in passages like Isaiah 13:10 and Jeremiah 4:23-26 the language of cosmic collapse is figurative for the judgment of nations, not a literal description of the destruction of the universe.

And yet, there’s a problem here. The extreme literalism of Schweitzer’s position has been set up in such a way that it makes preterism look like the only sensible alternative: Because this language isn’t literal and Jews like Jesus didn’t believe in the end of the space-time universe, it must not refer to the final end but rather to some event of judgment and vindication within continuing history. But why is this the case? Granted the premise that such language isn’t literal and Jews like Jesus didn’t believe in the end of the world, they still believed in an end (read: consummation) to history. So how do we know Jesus wasn’t speaking of the “end of the age” in the same sense as the disciples’ question in Matthew 24:3, i.e. as the climactic, worldwide moment of judgment and deliverance by which God would establish his kingdom finally and fully?

In other words, just because the language isn’t literal doesn’t prove that it refers to something within continuing history as opposed to something at the end of history. Daniel’s “son of man” is symbolic, to be sure, but it still speaks of the final establishment of God’s kingdom and the end of all tyranny and injustice. Is there any indication that Jesus was predicting anything less? Is there any indication that Jesus envisioned a substantial gap between the destruction of Jerusalem and the final establishment of God’s kingdom, and that in the Olivet Discourse he intentionally spoke to only the first of those two events? What about Luke 21:25-26? Or Matthew 25:31-46? Are preterist interpretations perhaps just as guilty of avoiding the facts as futurist interpretations?

I don’t believe so. As I said before, I still hold to essentially the same view of the relevant texts that I set out to defend in those posts last summer. But I thought it was important, for honesty’s sake, to reframe the debate; because when we put the question this way, the answer appears substantially less obvious than I previously supposed. Of course this then puts us in the uncomfortable position of entertaining the possibility that some of Jesus’ prophecy simply didn’t come to pass. But unless we deal with such possibilities openly and honestly, our belief in the authority of Scripture becomes only a lame attempt at reducing our own cognitive dissonance.

The Failure of Futurism

4930981708_497866e126

Nothing happened. May 21, 2011 came and went just like any other day, despite the highly publicized prediction of Family Radio host Harold Camping that Jesus would return at 6pm local time and begin his rapture cycle around the earth. Instead of allowing this failed prediction to challenge his “hidden meaning” method of decoding the Bible, however, Camping rationalized that his calculations must have been off by a few months and that the actual apocalypse would take place on October 21 of that year. It wasn’t until March 2012 that Camping admitted he had been mistaken. Needless to say, if Leon Festinger hadn’t already published his study on cognitive dissonance half a century ago, someone surely would have been inspired to do so by this tragic episode.

Most Christians recognize the overt absurdity of Camping’s method of pulling hidden predictions out of Scripture. Only isolated fringe groups do that. On a much more subtle level than Camping, however, there is a prevalent tendency amongst the faithful to rationalize “unfulfilled prophecies” into the future. In fact, I would argue that this is the whole foundation of the futurist system of biblical interpretation. Camping attempted to preserve faith in his failed prediction by pushing it into the future; the futurist system turns this thinly veiled coping mechanism into a controlling principle when dealing with biblical prophecy.

Before we go on, however, I should clarify exactly what I’m talking about. In theological parlance, labels like “futurism” and “preterism” speak of a systematic priority that governs the way someone approaches biblical prophecy in general, or at least predominately. It is the particular systematic priority of futurism, and the logic which regularly undergirds it, which is the object of my criticism in this post. My argument does not preclude the possibility of any future interpretations, just the underlying logic of the futurist system, which in many cases has no other reason for saying that a passage is concerned with our future except that the past event to which it seemed to be looking forward did not play out exactly like the passage said it would. My criticism here could just as easily be applied to preterism, but that’s a subject for another day.

I used to take a consistently futurist approach to biblical prophecy. Whether it was Jeremiah’s lengthy oracle against Babylon in Jeremiah 50-51, Ezekiel’s panoramic vision of a rebuilt temple in Ezekiel 40-48, Jesus’ Olivet Discourse in each of the Synoptic Gospels, or John’s vision of the “Beast” and the “Harlot” in Revelation 17-19, I would always assume a literal interpretation of the text, and, because of my faith in its inspiration, I would always assume it referred to events still to come in the future, thousands of years after it was given, since it obviously hadn’t yet been fulfilled. A futurist reading, I thought, was the only faithful approach to such passages.

It took me several years to realize that my commitment to futurism was ironically based in the same rationalizing tendency as the allegorical school which I so strongly opposed. As different as those two approaches are in their outworking interpretations, the same controlling agenda which drove Origen and Augustine to spiritualize whole books of the Old Testament drove me to project every seemingly unfulfilled prophecy into the future. That rationalizing tendency, that controlling agenda, arose from the psychological need to erase discrepancies when newly perceived data (in this case, the apparent non-fulfillment of prophecies with explicitly time-sensitive content) conflicted with my strongly held beliefs (in this case, my faith in the authority of Scripture). The challenge I faced, however, was in trying to reconcile my futurism with a consistently historical reading of Scripture. It was because I could not, on the last analysis, bring myself to change the meaning of the text into something it never intended to say that I could no longer in good conscience remain a futurist.

There are two primary questions that the student of biblical prophecy must face. First, what does this prophecy mean? Second, has this prophecy been fulfilled? Both questions are important, but the integrity of our exegesis depends largely on keeping them separate and in their proper order. The biggest problem with most interpreters is that they let the question of fulfillment drive the question of meaning, instead of first addressing the question of meaning on its own terms. This is particularly true for those interpreters who are committed to a high view of Scripture. “The Olivet Discourse has to be about the future,” so the line often goes, “because it obviously wasn’t fulfilled in the past, and we know that Jesus couldn’t have been wrong.” But if we really believe in the authority of Scripture, then we should always assume that the interpretation arrived at through the inductive process will be the one with the most Spirit-filled application for our own time, regardless of our expectations.

The point here is not that we have to give up a high view of Scripture, but that we can’t let our prior commitments about the nature of Scripture determine in advance what the text can and cannot say. Of course this then puts us in the uncomfortable position of entertaining the possibility that some biblical prophecies simply didn’t come to pass. But unless we deal with such possibilities openly and honestly, our belief in the authority of Scripture becomes only a lame attempt at reducing our own cognitive dissonance.

As self-evident as this is, however, it’s remarkable how often it is either forgotten or ignored. The besetting sin of futurist interpreters, in their approach to prophetic passages throughout Scripture, is their deeply felt need to liberate the text from the embarrassing constraints of its own time. Such interpreters are not really interested in understanding what the text would have meant in its original historical context, but only in what it can be seen to mean for our own time. Thus, where Jeremiah pronounces a retributive judgment on Babylon and its king for their treatment of Judea, or where Ezekiel foresees a rebuilt temple after the regathering of his people from exile, or where Jesus predicts the son of man’s coming within the generation of his listeners, or where John predicts the sudden destruction of the great city which reigned over the kings of the earth in his own day—in all of these cases futurists feel the need to lift the referent of the prophetic text out of the immediate future of the original audience and into our future, in order to thereby save the text from the reproach which, upon the assumption of a literalist reading, would undoubtedly come upon it. Where was the bloody, violent, and absolute destruction which Jeremiah pronounced on Babylon? Where was “the coming of the son of man” in the lifetime of Jesus’ listeners? Where, indeed, was the fulfillment of all of the cataclysmic events foreseen by John in the book of Revelation?

When confronted with such unpleasant difficulties, futurists see two basic options: either (a) we admit that the text was uninspired, unathoritative, and glaringly wrong in its predictions about the future, or (b) we project it into the future and thereby protect its inspired status. So like Peter in Gethsemane, we unsheathe our swords and cut away. But like Peter, we fail to consider that there might be other alternatives besides the two extremes of denying our Lord or plugging our ears and fighting to save face. Are we sure we understand what the prophecies are all about? As a true post-Enlightenment Westerner, I used to assume a literalist reading of all biblical prophecy, giving very little room for metaphorical, symbolic or hyperbolic modes of speech; but I have since come to realize that such a commitment rarely does justice to the intention of the biblical prophets themselves. Jesus’ intention with respect to “the coming of the son of man” is a prime example of this. If we endeavor to understand Jesus’ words historically, then the rigid literalism of the futurist school appears at once grossly anachronistic and impossibly constricting.

Before we can even contemplate the possibility of other alternatives, however, we must face the music; we must give proper recognition to the text’s fundamental rootedness in its own time, whatever the outcome. When prophecies with historical detail and context such as Jeremiah 50-51 aren’t “fulfilled” in a rigidly literal, meticulous sort of way, the futurist assumption is that we should simply lift the text from its stated context and postulate a future one-to-one fulfillment. But if our primary aim is to handle such passages with exegetical integrity, as indeed it should be, then we simply cannot ignore the specific indicators of historical context and authorial intent. Jeremiah was not speaking against a nation that did not exist at that time or a king who had not yet been born. No, he speaks against a contemporary nation and its king for the evil which they had committed against Judah in the years 599-586BC, which Jeremiah himself witnessed and documented at length. The whole point of the passage, resting on the law of retribution, is that the violence and destruction which Nebuchadnezzar dealt to Israel would come back upon his own head (cf. 50:17-18, 29; 51:34-35). Exegesis demands this conclusion.

To claim, on the other hand, that this passage must speak of a future period, because several details of the prophecy did not play out exactly as described, is a decidedly eisegetical move. Instead of reading the text inductively and asking the appropriate questions of authorial intent and public meaning, the futurist view relies entirely on a deductive process of elimination, looking outside of the prophecy and imposing its own set of criteria for what it can and can’t mean based entirely on what did and what did not in fact occur thereafter. Such an abstract a priori has absolutely nothing to do with what the text itself would have meant in the world in which it was written, but has everything to do with maintaining a particular theological construct despite all the evidence to the contrary. If it didn’t happen, just transpose it into the future. It must not have meant what it said. The original audience probably didn’t get it. The prophet himself probably didn’t get it. But we get it.

By thus lifting the passage out of its own world of meaning and supplying another we lose all anchorage with the only context in which the text itself makes sense. This is not exegesis. Genuine exegesis is committed to listening to the text on its own terms—and if history does not play out exactly like the passage said it would, then we should ask the question why. Perhaps we’ve misunderstood the content of the prophecy, or perhaps something transpired afterwards which altered the terms of the prophecies’ fulfillment. Remember, the God of the prophets regularly speaks about what will happen if humans presently respond in such and such a way; he does not speak in an abstract vacuum of time and space about what will happen regardless of the present human response. The whole point of prophecy is to produce a response, a change; and if all men responded then no prophecy of judgment would ever come to pass (cf. Jer. 18:7-11).

In other words, we are not bound to reject the truth of biblical prophecy by remaining faithful to the text. But then, even if we can’t find a solution to every text in which this problem appears, it’s a much more honest display of faith in the authority of Scripture to first take the text at its own terms, and then to say “I don’t know” in reply to the question of fulfillment, than to try to save face by suggesting the text actually refers to something else, something easier to get our hands around. That’s not true faith; that’s doubt in disguise. And that is why I am no longer a futurist.