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.

11 thoughts on “The Olivet Discourse: Was Jesus Wrong?

  1. Casey

    Wait, that isn’t the way to start an argument—you took all my weapons away! This is like some sort of gun-control for debate weaponry. Next thing you know, I’ll be ineffectively spouting out things about how if Jesus is, as a prophet, acting out the symbol of Daniel 7, then you’d expect people who knew what Daniel 7 was about would know that the symbol meant something. I’d probably even argue that we should look for evidence that they thought Jesus ascending on a cloud meant, like in Daniel 7, that the true people of Israel would themselves ascend and would be (in some metaphorical or even, who cares if they thought it, literal sense) caught up in the air, there with the symbol in the clouds, then they would reign over all the earth. And I’m totally not ripping on NT Wright (who I love) when I say if Wright had seen Ezekiel laying on alternating sides as if he himself were Israel and Judah’s fall, Wright would proclaim: “The Prophet has redefined Israel and Judah around himself!” And then I’d be having a totally different argument with you, one that I’d have bullets for. (I already feel guilty about saying that, NT Wright would do no such thing, I apologize for my heresy. But it is kinda funny still, right?)

    1. Mama Hartke

      1st of all, Jesus is never wrong! 2nd of all,
      We needn’t EVER be in the “uncomfortable position of entertaining the possibility that some of Jesus’ prophecy simply didn’t come to pass”! Where is ‘Faith’ in this discourse? If we see it all and always understand it all, where is the need for faith??

      I know, that in the intellectual’s world, there is much room for debate over many things. But I prefer not to stray too far from the simplicity of the gospel. To do justly. To love mercy. To walk humbly. These activities alone take a lifetime to perfect, with much prayer and fasting.

      Often times, when I read these posts, I confess I feel inadequate to respond, because I don’t even understand many of the big words used, let alone the premise of all the questions. But then I recall the text in 1 Timothy 6:4 “…doting about questions and strifes of words…” And I think… Sometimes we “think” too much!

      I have no doubt that some of the prophecies in the bible have yet to come to pass. I’m not worried they haven’t all been fulfilled yet. I have faith that they will, because I trust the One who said they would. But then again, I’m not an intellect, but a simple person of faith. I have no ‘need’ to get it all.

      But you are not me. You ARE an intellect. Keep asking the hard questions son. And keep asking the Holy Spirit for wisdom and revelation! Throw a little fasting in with it. You keep doing that and you’ll impact many for Christ!! 🙂

      1. Casey

        Whoops, I think I may be getting Matt in trouble… I think this article is just a setup so he can prove Jesus wasn’t wrong, so I wouldn’t worry 😉

      2. Mama Hartke

        Thanks Casey. I’m not worried. I figured as much, as I know Matt has a solid relationship with Jesus!! I just like to let him know I’m following his posts on occasion. 🙂

  2. Matthew Lawren Hartke

    Thanks for the encouragement mom! Yeah, you definitely don’t have to worry, because I don’t think Jesus was wrong. But even if I did, I don’t think that would be a big cause for concern. C.S. Lewis was a man of undeniably robust and orthodox faith, and yet he thought Jesus was wrong about the timing of this prophecy; and he pointed out that Jesus himself confessed a certain ignorance on that point, since right after saying that “this generation will by no means pass away till all these things take place,” he qualified that “of that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the son, but my father only” (Matt 24:36). I think Lewis was off, of course, but I admire his honesty all the same.

    On the other hand, I think it’s hugely important for us, as faithful readers of Scripture, to allow Jesus’ words to stand on their own merits, and thus to remain open to the possibility that he could have been wrong. Because if we don’t, if we close ourselves off from the arguments of the critics for fear of having no answer, then our faith will devolve into mere wish fulfillment, on the same level as faith in Joseph Smith’s imaginary golden tablets, or (perhaps more appropriately) Harold Camping’s incredulous claim that Jesus returned “spiritually” on March 21 2011, after his end-time prediction failed dismally. That sort of “faith” is nothing more than a house of cards.

    Part of the problem here, I think, is that our culture tends to treat faith and reason as if they were mutually exclusive opposites. But this simply isn’t the case. As Alister McGrath has said, “Faith is not belief without proof but trust without reservations–trust in a God who has shown himself worthy of that trust.” The faith of the earliest Christians wasn’t based on a private “spiritual” experience like Joseph Smith’s, but on the fulfillment of God’s promises in time and space, on the evidence of the empty tomb and the public appearances of Jesus alive after death to multiple, independent eyewitnesses.

    “For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty.” – 2 Peter 1:16

    “That which… we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we looked upon and have touched with our hands… that which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you…” – 1 John 1:1-3

    Whenever I read that second verse I’m reminded of the story of “doubting Thomas” in John’s resurrection narrative. Church history has often vilified Thomas and read that story in mostly negative terms, but I’m encouraged to know that the risen Jesus wasn’t shocked, intimidated, or angered by Thomas’ need to see him and touch him, and he didn’t rebuke him for his scrutiny. Quite the opposite: Jesus met Thomas where he was, according to the questions he was asking, with open arms: “Reach your finger here, and look at my hands; and reach your hand here, and put it into my side. Do not be unbelieving, but believing” (John 20:27). The moral of that story, for me, is that God honors our honest questions.

    The way to move forward is not by avoiding our questions or stuffing them down, but by bringing them out into the open. For if faith is to be fully grown, then it must open itself up to the probing questions of doubt, with all the risk that this involves. The moment it ceases to do this, the moment it closes itself off from the critics and the skeptics of the world, is not only the moment it loses all relevance to the world, but also the moment it ceases to be faith at all, for faith without risk is just doubt in disguise.

  3. Michael

    It’s a misinterpretation of what Jesus actually meant to say. When he said ”this generation”he wasn’t talking about the generation he was living in, but rather the generation in which these things happen.

  4. Stephen Holmes

    I enjoy your blog. Can you comment on the “Son of Man descending on the clouds of heaven” being symbolic, when Jesus Himself quotes it at the most intense moment of His life before His accusers as a reality He seems quite convinced is very literal? This is the Son of Man’s own commentary on the subject of His appearing, so should we not take the infallible words of the Faithful Witness to be true?
    Mt. 26:64
    Mk. 14:62

  5. Matthew Lawren Hartke

    Stephen, thanks for the compliment and the sharp question. I wrote an in-depth post on this subject, so I will just refer you to that. I will add, though, that I think making this a matter of “literal” or “symbolic” is an oversimplification, and taking “literal” to mean “true” and “symbolic” to mean “false” is a misunderstanding of those words. To say that any kind of speech is literal or non-literal has nothing to do with the reality or concreteness of the thing to which that speech refers, but speaks simply of the way that that speech speaks of that reality. Also, if we are going to read Jesus’ words literally, then why should we think “coming” means “descent”? Jesus is quoting Daniel 7. The portrayal of the coming of the son of man in Daniel 7 is an ascent on the clouds into the courtroom of the ancient of days to be vindicated over the oppressive beasts, not a descent to the earth. So why should we assume Jesus’ meaning is different?

  6. Matt, I find your writing to be some of the most encouraging and edifying reflections on Biblical faith. You put into words so many of my hopes, fears and struggles and yet frame them within a robust, living, thinking faith. There are so few books/studies/sermons that I find I can relate to after all the different world views I’ve studied and “streams” of Christianity I’ve tasted truth in. I so appreciate your honesty and courage in examining your faith as part of your passion for Jesus and truth.

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